Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"The Unholy Grail" by Fritz Leiber

We now come to our second tale of Leiber's Lankhmar series, and I must say that this one came as a bit of a surprise. As I mentioned in my analysis of "The Snow Women", there is a distinctly hardboiled quality to the introduction of Fafhrd, and a central theme of that genre is cynicism and moral ambiguity. In "The Unholy Grail", Leiber departs from this thesis dramatically, positing that there are moral absolutes, but our heroes (in this case the Gray Mouser and his lady, Ivrian) stand somewhere in-between.

This is established through the Gray Mouser's mentor, Glavas Rho, an Obi-Wan-like figure who is cut down in the beginning of our tale, a "White Wizard" who predicts the Mouser will be seduced by the powers of the dark side... err, the "left-handed path". The parallels between this story and the arc of Star Wars continue, with our hero torn between his attempt to maintain the hippy ideals of Rho and his desire for vengeance, whose sorcerous vehicle has some distinctly Lovecraftian implications, with descriptions like "creeping down from the black places between the stars."

Considering my attraction to the hardboiled style of play, I was not particularly pleased by this cosmological implication, although it was a fine enough tale. Adventure stories of the sort that I'm attracted to maintain a precarious balance between immoral, freewheeling ne'er-do-wells and tragic, fallen heroes. Howard's Conan strikes the right balance, as does John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. Implying that there is an absolute right and wrong will, I suspect, create all the problems of the alignment system - a subtle coercion through guilt, enforced by a game system and a very universe that frowns on our PCs.

My initial impression was to reject this outright, at least as far as incorporating these elements into my own game. Like Gary Gygax, I reserve the right to pick and choose those elements of pulp fantasy that suit my own tastes. That does not mean "The Unholy Grail" had no lessons from which to draw, however. Glavas Rho and Ivrian, being kind and gentle souls, are exploited for their decency and sensitivity. The world, as depicted, is a hard, brutish place, and those who display sentimentality open themselves for abuse. This is perfectly in keeping with the "hardboiled" D&D that I've been striving for, and the harsh dictator Duke Janarrl, the villain of the piece, is pitch-perfect. Janarrl is all too human, motivated by the cruelties inflicted on him to perpetuate suffering on those around him. Like the Tharks in A Princess of Mars, or nearly every characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series, villains are thus because evil acts have been inflicted upon them, and their attempts to protect themselves create villains in turn.
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