Wednesday, June 4, 2014

ADEPT'S GAMBIT (Leiber & Lovecraft)

So, I've now had time to read ADEPT'S GAMBIT, and Lovecraft's comments thereon, and find myself with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it must have been a tremendous boost to the young Leiber to have an established writer like Lovecraft put so much time and effort into a critique of his work. On the other hand, the substance of Lovecraft's comments are so picayune and pedantic that I can't help but feel sorry for Leiber being on the receiving end of it.

First off, Lovecraft liked the story. But he had objections to specific points, both grammatical and historical. Some are fair enough, such as his skepticism whether Hittites and Philistines were still present (at least by those names) in the post-Alexander Hellenic world in which Leiber's story is set. Some, particularly the points of grammar, are nit-picky in the extreme, such as disapproval of words like "react" ("a somewhat needless modernism") or "unbeknownst" ("there is no such word") or "contact" ("ought never to be used as a verb") or "intrigue" (whose use as a verb "really ought to be discouraged"), much less split infinitives ("in spite of all the modern libertarian ballyhoo in their favor").  Lovecraft mentions (p. 171) having just finished editing and ghost writing 'a manual on "Well-Bred English" for a private school in Washington, DC', and the hypercorrectness shows.

More worrisome. though, are Lovecraft's recommendations. Leiber apparently mentioned having in mind next writing a story about Fafhrd and the Mouser set in early Imperial Rome (the time of Julius and Augustus Caesar). Lovecraft then goes off on books Leiber must read, or have immediately accessible for reference, before he can do justice to the era. Eventually the list runs to no less than thirty-seven books, which he then cuts down to a short list of eleven essentials. No wonder Leiber's response was to abandon the historical setting altogether.

In short, I think a good case can be made out for Lovecraft's being indirectly responsible for Leiber's creation of the world of Lankhmar, Nehwon. I can easily see Leiber thinking that if he was going to have to go through this kind of scrutiny (if not by Lovecraft, then by someone like him) everytime he wrote a historically-based sword and sorcery story, maybe it'd be better to just avoid all the grief and set his stories in a fantasy world, as Howard had done.  Which, of course, is what he did with all the subsequent F&GM stories, to great effect, thus creating the greatest of all Sword and Sorcery series.

Just a thought.  In any case, it's good to have this earlier version of Leiber's tale, and to see Lovecraft's critique (which, to be fair, is generally positive -- e.g., "The novelette is really very much all right just as it is" [p.166], "The farther I read into 'Adept's Gambit' the more I enjoyed it" [p. 164]). And he's spot-on with his wish "Let us hope that your mental collaboration [with Fischer] will give rise to a long sequence of tales about Fafhrd & the Mouser" [p. 172].

And now, having read this, it's made me want to go back and read the whole series -- not in the internal chronological sequence Leiber established in the late '60s* and thereafter, writing a number of fairly weak bridge stories to get the characters from point A to point B, but in the order in which they were originally written, which I shd be able to find out with a little digging. Sounds like a good off-and-on project over the rest of the year.


*probably on the model of the Lancer paperbacks of Howard's CONAN series, padded out to great length (was it twelve volumes?) by Howard pastiche written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. I remember de Camp saying in one of their Forewords that no one could tell which stories were genuine Howard, which were other Howard stories re-written to feature Conan, and which were brand new stories by himself and Carter, when it was painfully obvious to the reader which were which.

N.B: By the way, I did spot one error, but it was (a) relatively minor and (b) among the editorial apparatus, not in Lovecraft's piece: Eddison's THE WORM OUROBOROS was published in 1922, not 1926, as incorrectly stated on page 195 (the latter is the date of the American edition).


Paul W said...

have you read his last Lankhmar book, The Knight & Knave of Swords? I'm rereading it now as the conclusion after rereading the entire series. I'm disappointed. There is almost no 'swords' in it, and a fixation on erotic matters that is fairly extreme (and often distatseful). There is almost no plot, the entire thing is very odd, it reminds me far more of Lovecraft's Dreamlands tales then it does any sort of traditional sword & sorcery style.

David Bratman said...

I guess it's a good thing that Lovecraft never saw "Xena, Warrior Princess."

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul:
RIME ISLAND is great for its ground-breaking depiction of sword-and-sorcery heroes hitting middle age and thinking about settling down. But I agree that the final stories about The Curse of Smalls and Stars, or The Mouser Goes Below, are indeed a mite on the peculiar side. Think of it as Leiber's 'Heinlein period' (though that's not really fair to Leiber).

Dear David,
I agree, esp. given that Lovecraft gets all worked up over Leiber's having created a Mythos tome called the Doudecahedron* of Artemisorus; HPL goes on for quite a while about how Leiber can't call a character 'Artemisorus': it's got to be Artemidorus, that being the historical spelling. Me, I think use of nonstandard spellings is a good way to suggest corruption of transmission and/or vernaculars over retrograde classical usages.

*familiar to every D&D player, though we just call it a d12. sorry I don't have a copy of ADEPT'S GAMIT with me (I'm typing this on the road) and so can't reproduce Leiber's exact deliberate mis-spelling of doudecahedron


Paul W said...

Ugh... yes, it reminds me of Heinlein as well. Robin Bailey was chosen to continue the series but I think he just did one novel. Perhaps because this reread was in audiobook form (yes, I consider unabridged audiobooks to be 'reading' :)) I was just very struck by the lack of swordplay and rational plot. Though to be fair, I think you can always detect the influence of Lovecraft on Leiber. I loved the importance he attached in Adept's Gambit to the Twain's ability to laugh in the face of horror. Humor is definitely lacking in Lovecraft's work.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul

I'd put the Robin Wayne Bailey book out of my mind, and had almost forgotten what a crushing disappointment it was -- first the long wait for the book and then it's using some of the weakest stories in the series as its starting point. It mainly proved just how hard it is for lesser writers to imitate those with distinctive style and vision.


Paul W said...

I actually enjoyed Bailey's take, I felt he did a good job of writing a Lankhmar tale without trying to make a Leiber pastiche. But he didn't quite capture the essence of the Twain, I agree. And I am a bit biased in his favor, since I've interacted with him quite a bit personally on the Thieves World yahoogroup. (love to see your take on those books) I see on his page a second volume was planned, no idea what happened to it.

I guess I am just getting older, rereading the series I was rather annoyed with the Twain by the last few books. I wish Leiber had written more swashbuckling tales and fewer Lovecraftesque mood pieces.