Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #4


Hasslein Blog

Friday, May 24, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #4

Sword of Sorcery #4
By Matthew Sunrich

"This city has become unliveable. A man can't even 
be cold and miserable in peace." –Fafhrd

Sometimes we forget just how much influence the work of H. P. Lovecraft has had on fantasy literature.

Usually associated with the horror genre, his Cthulhu Mythos introduced readers to the notion that there are things out there that are beyond the ken of mere mortals, things with indescribable forms, things with grotesque anatomies that defy any kind of logic with which we are familiar.

Why does that creature have tentacles on its face? What purpose could those sorts of appendages possibly serve?

It has been suggested that the legendary kraken, the origins of which go all the way back to the thirteenth century, was an inspiration for Cthulhu, which is reasonable enough. Throughout history, humankind has devised explanations for both observable phenomena and for things that cannot otherwise be explained.

Why, for example, do ships disappear during ocean voyages? Sea monsters. Yeah, let's go with that.

Lovecraft took that idea and applied it to things that humankind didn't even realize needed explaining. In fact, in his work, too much knowledge can be a bad thing. Ancient civilizations (prior to the emergence of philosophy as a respectable discipline) were primarily interested in figuring out the underlying mechanics of why things happen, and they probably never entertained the idea that finding out the truth could rob a person of his or her sanity.

Many of the gods described in the various mythologies of the world are either anthropomorphic or, at the very least, have human body parts and generally possess humanoid forms. This is likely attributable to the fact that we tend to imagine things in relatable forms. The ancient Greeks are well known for having regarded the human body as the most perfect thing in the whole of creation, which is why their gods look just like regular (albeit beautiful) people. It's just as likely, though, that they envisioned their deities that way because it was impossible for them to think of them in any other fashion.

In Lovecraft's fiction, we find that ageless beings such as Cthulhu are frequently worshipped. In "The Call of Cthulhu," the narrator discovers that the eponymous creature's cults exist all over the globe. Why anyone would worship a monster is indeed a perplexing question, but it's probably ultimately related to the acceptance of its overarching power and the hope that revering it might somehow mollify one's fate. They are, in essence, motivated entirely by fear.

The Cthulhu Mythos is frequently referred to as "cosmic horror," due to the fact that his godlike monsters originate from deep space, so we might be inclined to associate his work with science fiction, but it's actually much closer to fantasy, as there is little in the way of actual science involved.

Lovecraft and Conan creator Robert E. Howard maintained a friendly correspondence, and, in various ways, many of the tropes introduced in the former's work found their way into the latter's. This "marriage" provides the foundation for sword & sorcery's relationship with the trappings of Lovecraft's fiction. Lovecraft, whose writing was virtually unknown outside the pages of Weird Tales and its ilk, passed away in 1937 (one year after Howard), but thanks to the efforts of August Derleth, et al., his work became a major force in speculative fiction.

Unlike the first three issues in the series, Sword of Sorcery #4 contains two stories. The above exposition relates to the first.

As "The Cloud of Hate" opens, Fafhrd and the Mouser are attempting to warm themselves by a small brazier in the streets of their native Lankhmar. The Mouser remarks that he hears swords being drawn, and they are soon set upon by two thieves who mistakenly believe that Fafhrd and his companion have any money. This "fool's errand," as Fafhrd calls it, ends with their attackers' deaths.

Things take a strange turn when fog descends on one of the thieves and snatches his dagger with a tendril. Curiosity getting the better of them, they follow the dagger over the rooftops and out of the city, where it makes a beeline for a small merchant camp. It picks up a young woman and then casts her to the ground, killing her instantly. Incensed by this, the pair continues to follow as it makes its way into the surrounding woods.

They encounter a man who warns them that a fire-breathing dragon dwells in the forest. Finding his behavior unnerving, Fafhrd punches him in the face. Noticing the fog's entering a nearby cave, the adventurers sneak inside.

There they find something that almost defies description.

An enormous "cloud of hate" fills the chamber, surrounded by worshippers, imploring it to spread violence, pain, and war and to destroy everything good in the world. As the pair observes the shocking scene, a guard attacks them, followed by the host of mad devotees. To make things worse, many of the cloud's tendrils hold weapons. Fafhrd and the Mouser fight valiantly, but the odds are clearly overwhelming, and they begin to wonder if they will, for the first time, not emerge victorious.

They realize that their only chance is to stab the cloud in its giant eye, which is too high up for either of them to reach. Fafhrd hands his dagger to his companion and, praying to his Northern gods, gives him a boost. The Mouser's strike hits home, and the fog instantly disperses. Once again, they lament going away empty handed, but know that they can find solace in good wine and fair maidens.

The idea of a god (or whatever it is) composed of fog, with none of the things we associate with sentience other than a huge eyeball, is very Lovecraft-esque. No attempt whatsoever is made to give the thing humanoid features. While it appears insubstantial, Fafhrd's blade does manage to sever some of its tendrils, although doing so doesn't help the situation much. The sheer weirdness of it is an excellent example of how sword & sorcery has borrowed from Lovecraft's ideas.

(The Illithids, or Mind Flayers, from Dungeons & Dragsons, while certainly more humanoid, also come to mind, but we'll save that for a future article.)

The second story, "The Prophecy," takes place during young Fafhrd's fifteenth year.

Out for a walk on a snowy mountain trail with his beloved Aynsa, Fafhrd discounts the words of an old man who warns them that a "snow serpent" lurks nearby. He advises them to at least take heed of a prophecy: "Where fails a blade, however true—that work an ordinary song may do." To Fafhrd's ears, it's pure "gibberish."

As they continue on their way, the young barbarian pulls out a lute and begins singing her praises, unaware that the serpent is poised to strike. It seizes Aynsa, and Fafhrd unsheathes his sword.

Despite his best efforts, the blade cannot penetrate the monster's scales, and when he attempts to stab it in the head, it bites his weapon in half and knocks him into the mountainside with its tail. The great beast spreads its wings and flies off toward its cave, leaving a dejected Fafhrd in its wake. Unable to rescue his beau, he decides to honor her with a song of mourning.

As the music emanates from his throat and instrument, loose icicles on the roof of the cave break loose. They plummet downward and embed themselves in the serpent's head. The lovers reunite and pick things up where they left off.

Overall, Sword of Sorcery #4 is a decent issue, if a fairly unremarkable one. Howard Chaykin's art is, once again, quite good, and the surprise addition of Walt Simonson in the second story is a nice treat (his work here prefigures his groundbreaking run on Thor in the early '80s). I don't mind that two-story format, but it does make the stories feel a bit rushed (the second one, in particular, seems to end as soon as it gets going).

This is the sort of title that appeals greatly to hardcore sword & sorcery fans but leaves other readers cold, which is probably why it was canceled so soon. This being said, it's a must-have in my book. 

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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