Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents: Sword of Sorcery #3


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents: Sword of Sorcery #3

Sword of Sorcery #3
By Matthew Sunrich

"I'm considered an expert at silencing braggarts who 
mock my compactness." –The Gray Mouser

Sword & sorcery and pirates have had a long association ("The Pool of the Black One," one of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories, comes to mind). After all, the swashbuckling action, carousing, treasure-hunting, and roguish behavior endemic to corsair tales are also the trappings of sword & sorcery. Because of their similarities, the two genres mix extremely well, and, as we have seen again and again, the briny deep (with its own species of monsters, brigands, and inclement weather) can prove just as perilous as dry land, if not more so.

It's no surprise, then, that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would mix up with some pirates sooner or later.

Passengers aboard Smantha, the towering barbarian and his diminutive companion are in the process of relieving the crew of their coin via the former's feats of strength when a ship bearing the flag of Overlord Glipkerio approaches. Expecting good tidings, the crew is caught off guard when the sailors from the other vessel, under the command of one Captain Dugim, begin slaughtering them. His objective: to kidnap Princess Shada, whose presence had been unknown to Fafhrd and the Mouser until the attack.

Having murdered everyone onboard (save Fafhrd and the Mouser, who were knocked out during the battle by a falling yardarm), Dugim instructs his men to sink Smantha. His head reeling as the vessel disappears beneath the waves, Fafhrd grabs his unconscious companion and leaps into the sea. Miles from anywhere and lacking food or potable water, the adventurers drift on the open sea, clinging for dear life to Smantha's debris. Days later, they are picked up by a slave ship, on which they are forced to perform menial tasks. When the vessel arrives in Lankhmar, their home port, Fafhrd returns the slavemaster's hospitality by tying him up and forcing a length of rope down his gullet.

They decide to pay Overlord Glipkerio a visit to find out why he had the sailors killed and the princess abducted. After a brief fracas with the overlord's guards, the companions find that Glipkerio had nothing to do with the attack and that Dugim had acted on his own, having rebelled against his boss. He seeks ransom for the princess from her father, but King Strumbol is a notorious cheapskate who values his riches more than his daughter. Glipkerio offers to hire them to rescue her, and they agree.

The overlord takes them to see his wizard, Kohn, who gives them an airship and a deck of mysterious playing cards, which, he promises, will prove useful if they find themselves besieged by overwhelming odds. As a guide, he provides Lissa, a mute woman cursed with avian attributes. (He has been trying to cure her for decades.) She leads them over open water (much to their chagrin) to an island lousy with buccaneers, who fire burning pitch at the airship and manage to knock it out of the sky. Escaping unscathed, Fafhrd and the Mouser find the pirates inebriated (and, therefore, easily dispatched) and make their way to a tent. There they find Dugim seated on a throne with the princess in his lap.

Fafhrd and the Mouser set upon Dugim's men, but they fall into a trap. They wind up tied to poles where they are simply going to be murdered by Crassus, a big man with an axe. (No frills here.) Lissa vanishes into the sky, and the pair believes she has abandoned them. In truth, she flies into a cloud to collect the rainwater required to "activate" the magical playing cards and, having done so, dumps the liquid onto the deck.

Immediately, the fearsome figures pictured on the cards spring to life and attack the pirates.

With Dugim's men occupied, the Mouser confronts the pirate captain and drives his sword through the man's torso. Shada, incensed by this, bashes the cloaked hero in the head with a drinking vessel, proclaiming that she and Dugim had just married and that they had interrupted the after-party. She raises a sword to slay him, but Lissa, intervening, is the unfortunate recipient of the killing blow. Shada flees into the jungle as the Mouser, grief-stricken, collapses beside Lissa's body.

This otherwise lighthearted story ends with the Mouser carrying her away for burial. Despite their all-too-brief association, he had apparently developed feelings for her (or, at the very least, appreciated how she had helped them and admired her courage in the face of hardship). Fafhrd plops down on a precipice and tells his friend to take as long as he needs.

Although we aren't told a lot about Lissa, other than the fact that she was transformed by her jealous necromancer husband, her plight is striking, to an even greater degree when we discover late in the story that Shada is not the damsel in distress we took her for. The real victim here is Lissa, and she acts valiantly even though she is profoundly unhappy. She puts her own troubles aside to help Fafhrd and the Mouser and ultimately sacrifices herself to save the Mouser. Her death proves to be the only escape from her condition, and to some degree she probably welcomes it. In this way, she becomes a tragic heroine and is deserving of our admiration.

Another worthy issue in the Sword of Sorcery series, "Betrayal," by Denny O'Neil and Howard Chaykin, is bursting with beautifully rendered high-seas adventure, captivating swordplay, and breathtaking vistas. It's unclear whether or not this story was adapted from one of Fritz Leiber's; in fact, strangely enough, I couldn't find any credits in the book and had to rely on a secondary source. Three issues in, Chaykin had developed a strong grasp on the characters, and his remarkable figure-work imbued Fafhrd, the Mouser, and the various bit players with grandeur.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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