Friday, February 10, 2017

The Sunken Land

“Sh! Do you care so little for life? Remember, you are Lavas Laerk’s henchman. But I will tell you what you would know.” He sat down on the wet bench beside Fafhrd, looking like a bundle of black rags someone had dropped there. “Lavas Laerk has sworn to raid far Simorgya, and he has put a vow of silence upon himself and his men until they sight the coast. Sh! Sh! I know they say Simorgya is under the waves, or that there never was such a place. But Lavas Laerk swore a great oath before his mother, whom he hates worse than he hates his friends, and he killed a man who thought to question his decision. So it’s Simorgya we seek, if only to steal pearls from the oysters and ravish the fishes.
"The Sunken Land" starts with Fafhrd's joyous shout as he rips a strange ring from the belly of a fish as he cleans it. The discovery lays heavily on the Gray Mouser's mind. Our adventurers are on the sea once again, and the effect of ring and wave has charmed Fafhrd. The ring brings first a storm and then Lavas Laerk's ship, gone a-viking to loot the sunken land of Simorgya. Now impressed into Lavas Laerk's crew, the barbarian chief recognizes Fafhrd's ring. As the lookout cries "Land, ho!", Lavas Laerk declared Fafhrd to be a Simorgyan spy...

This is Fafhrd's tale, as he spends much of it isolated from the Gray Mouser, whether through physical separation or charm-induced navel gazing. The easy banter between the two is not present, filled instead by the barbarian's growing gloom.  The Gray Mouser is not absent, however, as his off-screen adventures save Fafhrd's life, making the pair the sole survivors of what would have otherwise been a total party kill.

Of particular interest is just how much of the story in general takes place off screen. Starting with Fafhrd's discovery of his ring, any part of the story that was not Lavas Laerk's mad rush on the phosphorescent sunken city was relegated to dialogue. The effect is an exercise in indirect horror, for while the gloom is set up by the storm and the trudge through the city's phosphorescent skate murals, it is Lavas Laerk's rash vow and the Hitchcockian discovery of his fate that adds the chills to this  story.  As Sophocles said, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud. And Fafhrd eventually recognizes that everything since the discovery of his ring had been "intended by something or someone." And by leaving the terror of that discovery to the theater of the mind, Leiber creates an impact far more chilling than explicitly showing each blow.

It is not hard as all to see the significant debt Pratchett's Discworld owes to Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In addition to Lankhmar and the Thieves' Guild, Pratchett also borrowed the sunken city, putting a humorous spin on it in line with the changes that John Campbell wanted to make to fantasy with his Unknown magazine. But Simorgya stands vivid in the imagination where Leshp does not because humor defuses tension, robbing Leshp of the dark glamour of its forebear, Simorgya.

The cloaks of Simorgya...

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