Tuesday, December 23, 2008
My Most Read Book
When people ask me what my favorite book is, I usually hem and haw and deflect the question, because truly I've read too many books and loved too many to ever really pick a favorite. But if you ask me what book I've read more times than any other, now that one I can answer. It's Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber. That's pronounced Lie-bur, by the way. For years I pronounced it as lee-bur, but Michael Moorcock tells me that it's Lie-bur and that Fritz could be rather sensitive about that, so I try to get it right.
Swords Against Wizardry was, as near as I can recall, the first prose sword & sorcery I ever read. Not a bad place to start. I've explained in previous posts about how I discovered Conan through the pages of Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian back in Christmas of 1973. And how upon learning that there were books about Conan, I had sought them only to find that they were out of print. And so I had begun searching for anything LIKE Conan, basically going through all the SF/Fantasy books at the mall bookstores, looking for covers that featured guys with swords. (It's not as labor intensive as it sounds, because the SF section of B. Dalton or Waldenbooks was pretty darn small back in 1974.)
I can still remember the day, not the exact date, but the day when I first encountered Leiber. I was in B. Dalton, which was upstairs in Cumberland Mall, just south of Atlanta, and I spotted several brightly colored books, all of which had the word 'swords' in the title. I figured this was something that might be of interest to me. I can't tell you why I picked Swords Against Wizardry from the five available titles. I may not have noticed that it was the fourth book in the series, or if I noticed, I might have assumed that like many numbered series, it didn't actually matter what order you read them in. Maybe I liked the Jeff Jones cover, or perhaps, being color blind, I just thought it the brightest and therefore the most exotic of the five. (I think the cover is some form or dark pink, but I don't actually know. You tell me.)
I suspect though, that what really happened was that I read the opening few paragraphs, where Leiber's heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were crouching within the tent of some ancient crone of a witch, and was so immediately caught up in that story that I had to take that book home. Re-reading the first segment last night, I was once again whisked away to the world of Nehwon (no-when backwards) and plunked down right in the middle of that ill smelling tent while ghosts howled around the outside and things best left unseen skittered about the door flap.
So what is it that kept ( and keeps) bringing me back to that particular book? Ultimately it's Leiber's skill with words. I consider him to be the best writer of fantasy ever, and yes that includes better than Robert E. Howard of J.R.R Tolkien or anyone else you care to mention. Leiber could write. Oh could he write. He was the child of two Shakespearean actors (he appeared in many plays and a couple of movies himself) and his early life was full of books and plays and he brought a level of art and to his writings of the fantastic that's hard to match. Writers such as Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, and Pulitzer price winner Michael Chabon all list Leiber as an influence. Chabon's novel Gentlemen of the Road is very much in the spirit of Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser tales.
But there's more than that, obviously, because while I've read all of Leiber's S&S stories multiple times, none have held the attraction of SaW. Re-reading it last night I tried to nail it down. A lot of it, I think stems from Leiber's descriptions of Fafhrd's and the Mouser's climb up the mountain Stardock. The cold and the snow and the ice. The sheer exertion of the climb and the perils faced. The dizzying height and the rarified atmosphere. I can remember that one of my rituals for several years after finding the book was to read it whenever we had snow in Northern Georgia. I would go outside and play in the snow until my fingers and toes were numb and then I would come home and get under the blankets and read about Fafhrd and the Mouser and feel that I was really there with them on the white slopes of Stardock.
Then there's the level of imaginative imagery in the story. The strange invisible flying creatures, viewed only as distortions in the air or outlined by a swiftly falling snow. The cold worms and the ice gnomes. The jewels that can only be seen at night.
And there was quite a bit of sex. Certainly not graphic by any means, but definitely erotic and I'm sure fascinating as all get out to a twelve year old boy. Add plenty of sword fighting, battles with monsters and beast men, and you have a heady mixture indeed. All told in the lyrical, exotic, and Byzantine language that was the unique style of Fritz Leiber.
Finally you have the characters of Fafhrd and the Mouser themselves. You can tell if you've read earlier posts here how much I love those two rogues. They are not quite the supermen that mighty Conan and his brethren are, but they always manage to survive their run ins with foes both human and supernatural. They make mistakes. They lose fights. They are bested by clever men and cleverer women. But they keep coming back for a brawling, drinking, roaring good time. Leiber brought humor and humanity to heroic fantasy. Not an easy thing to make work.
Last night I sat down to read the first part of Swords Against Wizardry before writing this rambling essay, and before I knew it I'd read most of the way to the end, showing that the book has lost none of its power to charm me. Wizardry indeed.