Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thieve's House and the picaresque archetype.

Thieve's House is a story that happens after what most people would consider a more proper venture for a sword & sorcery adventure. We are told about how the Gray Mouser managed to pick an apparently unpickable triple lock, and we are also told of how Fafhrd killed the dreadful monster that guarded a treasure. But we are told of all that after the fact, and in a passing manner, with not a single description or narration. 

Thieve's House, as the title says, is not about the dungeon raid but about the following problems concerning loot allocation and why you should be suspicious of sneaky NPCs that offer you information about treasures only you can recover (Protip: he plans to double-cross you.)

As with Jewels in the Forest, our duo's motivation is simple and straightforward: money. Some may prefer more noble and epic goals, but "the rent is due" (or the bar tab, probably) is a good motivation as any. I think I'm growing on these more mundane objectives as they make the characters more down-to-earth and relatable. Besides, I'd be lying if I said there is no nobility or courage in this story. 

Some readers may have missed it because Leiber doesn't explicitly state it and there are no grandiloquent proclamations of loyalty, friendship, and goodness, or inner struggle either, but here the Gray Mouser behaves in a really selfless manner, made more pronounced by the fact that Leiber doesn't bring our attention to it and it develops in a natural and almost reflex manner, as true emotions always do.

Not only does the rogue go back to a thieve's den to rescue his friend, Fafhrd, he does it after he managed to get his hands on the treasure, the skull Ohmphal. He could have fled with the treasure, but he did not. Sure, we know he would never have done that, after all, they are called Fafhrd AND the Gray Mouser for a reason, but still, it is a notable behavior, especially when it comes from characters like these.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few connections between that Jewels in the Forest and D&D. There are also a few here, but probably more of tone and style. Although Fritz Leiber was not the first to create the concept of a Thieve's Guild (I'll go back to that point later,) he probably was one of the firsts to create a Thieve's Guild as we understand them, in a Fantasy context. In fact, it's hard to read this story and not recognize many other thieve's guilds from scores of games and novels. 

It may be just a coincidence, but as I was reading this story, my mind kept telling me "I'm sure I have played this one before." Yes, played. A Thieve's Guild, with labyrinthic sublevels and, finally, a dark, forgotten, and ruined underground where the undead roam and dark gods are worshiped? Uhh...

Baldur's Gate (1) Thieve's Guild, (2) Thieve's Maze (3) Undercity

In any event, there was a sentence that made me think of a curious and old rule (I don't know how many people use or used it) which has mostly disappeared from later editions and RPGs. When most people think about traps they think about a yes/no event. Perhaps this is an influence from video games (as in Baldur's Gate) where most traps occupy the whole width of a corridor and the only option to avoid them is to disarm them (no 10-foot pole allowed!) Whatever the reason, this what not always the case:

"Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them. Pits will open in the same manner."

             OD&D, Book III: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, page 9.

Sure, that was when the thief class didn't exist, but the same rule still appeared years later:

"If any character does something which could trigger a trap (such as walking over a certain point), the trap will be sprung on a roll of 1-2 (on 1d6)."

                                                                  D&D Basic Set (1981,) page 22.

So, yeah, you could miss a trap just by sheer luck, just like Fafhrd:

"Had he originally entered this blind alley by way of the corridor, missing the deadly stone by pure luck?"

There's also the whole jargon used to describe and talk about the thieves, which is pure D&D. As I mentioned in my previous post, classes had Titles assigned to levels, and for thieves, they went from Apprentice to Master Thief. And in this story, the low thief novices are described as apprentices, and the title of the leader of the guild is, yes, a master thief. Also, one of the thieves, Fissif, is described as a "cut-purse of the first rank," and cut-purse was the Title for a level 5 thief. And then there's Leiber affection for the word "pilfer," which is the root word for another Title (Pilferer.) 

However, here I should mention that it was not Leiber who invented those labels. Gygax et al. may or may not have gotten the inspiration from him, but he was not the original creator of these conventions and titles. That honor should go to the XVI-XVII Spanish writers who created the genre of picaresque novels and, through them,  their followers and imitators in the English-speaking world, which adapted it to their own criminal underworld. But even these writers were merely drawing inspiration from the reality they saw around them, which -oddly enough- would make the Thief the most historically "accurate" class of them all.

Puzzling as it may seem to modern readers, the idea of a "guild" of thieves (without a maze or underground lair, though,) with a hierarchy and titles which went from apprentice to master, was nothing more than applying medieval guild's customs to the organizations of the criminal underworld. As with any other guild, you started as an Apprentice, and you finally became a Master. But unlike a Master Smith or Cobbler or whatever, you are now a Master Thief. Which sounds cooler, to be fair.

That medieval version of the Mafia was what those Spanish novels described with a style that, although they are centuries-old books, seems curiously modern for their naturalism. Con-artists, beggars, thief apprentices, and all sorts of rogues and scoundrels that survived thanks to their wits were the protagonists of those stories which tried to portray the dark side of cosmopolite and newly-rich cities like Seville, with all their contradictions, hypocrisies, moral degeneration, and peculiarities.

It is notable that while most fantasy archetypes are, well, exactly that, almost eternal archetypes like the Warrior or the Mage and various variations of those themes, the Rogue/Thief is unique in itself, the one with a more concrete sociological context and raison d'ĂȘtre

I'm not talking about his quasi-magical skills as defined in D&D, like hiding in shadows, as those would be added later to give him an almost mystical halo, as with Thief's protagonist, Garrett (a clearly D&D-inspired video game, by the way,) but its social and historical justification as a class. I mean, why (and how) would anyone specialize in picking locks, climbing buildings, or disarming traps? While, generally speaking, the idea of "adventurers" work better in an almost post-apocalyptical landscape, and the only thing a warrior needs is the will to fight and a weapon, the rogue is an urban creature that profits, in fact, requires, advanced civilizations and that sudden wealth that begets vice, misery, and organized crime. 

Even Lankhmar is a cosmopolitan port, like all the great cities and organizations that have inspired the Thief archetype, from Seville to Shangai, from our European criminal guilds to the more exotic and mysterious master criminals of the East which years later would become many of our Super Villains (e.g. Dr. Fu-Manchu.) 

As a source for villains or anti-heroes, the dark underbelly of our civilizations has created some our most memorable cultural icons. And to the question "Where can one find adventure?" the Thief is the urban answer to a genre used to the wilderness.

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