Fritz Leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar” is a neatly self-contained short story in his book Swords of the Mist. As the one who actually coined the term “Sword and Sorcery” to describe the subgenre of fantasy that he helped create, it seems perfectly apt that the absolute intersection of that subgenre–action, plucky daring do, and the queerest of religious revelations–should be thematically perfect for this blog.
In “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, our heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have had quite the falling out and have decided upon separate paths within the City of the Black Toga–Lankhmar–conveniently located in the world of Nehwon (plus ten points to anyone who has read and already been reminded of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon). The Gray Mouser has taken up the life of an extortioner of the various gods in Lankhmar (it cannot be stressed enough that the gods in Lankhmar are different than the gods of Lankhmar) and Fafhrd, a once-robust and ferocious barbarian of the most stereotypical D&D sort, has taken up the life of…an acolyte.
Leiber makes it clear that being an acolyte isn’t exactly difficult. Lankhmar is filled with gods. In fact, there is an entire street of them, all of them competing for devotees and worshipers. They begin at one end at the Marsh Gate and slowly work their way up into the more fashionable district near the temples of the more established gods. What most commonly happens, however, is that a particular god (or rather, its chief priest and their altar and other religious ephemera) make it about halfway up the street before they begin working their way back down, making room for yet more popular up and coming divinities until they themselves are pushed back out the Marsh Gate and into oblivion or other more hospitable cities. Leiber paints a beautiful picture of a religious marketplace swarming with gods and their priests experiencing a labor shortage of acolytes and apostles.
The market analogies cannot be accidental. Leiber, like many in the fantasy and sci-fi genre, makes subtle jabs at the way religion can distort and mythologize historic persons and events in a bid to gain renown, not unlike a particularly well-known carpenter who was probably just a well-meaning member of his community trying to get them all to lead slightly holier lives, who was thereafter reinterpreted by another well-meaning member of his community trying to convince everyone that this itinerant holy man was not just some carpenter, but the carpenter son of a god!
[T]he gods in Lankhmar sometimes seem as if they must be as numberless as the grains of sand in the Great Eastern Desert. The vast majority of them began as men, or more strictly the memories of men who led ascetic, vision-haunted lives and died painful, messy deaths. One gets the impression that since the beginning of time an unending horde of their priests and apostles (or even the gods themselves, it makes little difference) have been crippling across that same desert, the Sinking Land, and the Great Salt Marsh, to converge on Lankhmar’s low, heavy-arched Marsh Gate–meanwhile suffering by the way various inevitable tortures, castrations, blindings and stonings, impalements, crucifixions, quarterings and so forth at the hands of eastern brigands and Mingol unbelievers who, one is tempted to think, were created solely for the purpose of seeing to the running of that cruel gauntlet.
One simultaneously gets the impression of a grand parody of traditional religion and the call to a more tumultuous religious experience, where the very gods themselves come among the people and compete for celebrity and attention.
This theme has been explored in various other stories, most notably and recently under the title American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I have not, actually, read this yet; nor have I watched the television adaptation. But the position of the gods in the marketplace is not new to humanity, and it certainly is not restricted to fiction. While Christianity has made much of the scene of the “Cleansing of the Temple” (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16) as a way to position itself theologically away from money-lending in the house of god, the wealth of the church, and its historic grip on commerce in post-Imperial European life up to and including the beginning of the modern era and the Enlightenment, both Catholic and Protestant, paints a far more familiar picture to the relationship between humanity, our gods, and the marketplace.
Modern Paganism is just another example of this. Gods and Radicals, one of only a few outlets of modern Paganism that eschews typical Liberalism in favor of radical politics, put together a beautiful piece on the Sephora “Witch Kit” controversy of several months ago, exploring this complicated relationship of our religion with the marketplace–a marketplace that ostensible Socialists and Anarchists seek to undermine and replace. What happens to a religion that successfully co-opts the market, instead?
In Leiber’s story, Fafhrd helps the priest of the god Issek, Bwadres, build his insignificant cult into a minor cult of enough renown that the Gray Mouse must now start extorting them. The complicated relationship between our two protagonists leads Mouse to do typical roguish things to get around his boss’ wants regarding Bwadres’ congregation while still looking like he’s invested in extorting his old friend’s friend. Eventually, through a series of riotous coincidences, Issek is “reborn”, Gray Mouse’s employer, Pulg, proclaims his undying devotion to Issek, and goes on to…
I guess now is as good a time as any to say that to say any more would spoil the entire thing. The short of it all is that it is good to remember that Issek is a god in Lankhmar and the gods of Lankhmar don’t particularly like competition. Similarly, our gods are simply gods in the market, not gods of the market, and the particularly radical among us should do well not to anger the market until we can reasonably expect success in tearing it all down and building our own temple in its ruins to ensure the smooth exchange of money from hand to hand.
To speak much more broadly, Lankhmar demonstrates something of the ideal of what religion (theological or otherwise) should be. The Monolith of the Omnigods (I’m going to write a book eventually, and I swear that’ll be the title) under whose shadow we currently labor in all things demands subservience to orthodoxy even as we think to subvert it. There is no competition for our attention or our votes. There is a monopoly of gods rather than a panoply of gods. In social sciences, in politics, in economics, and even in theology, we are asked daily to assume positions across all categories that aligns with a single monolithic worldview, and are dared to imagine literally anything else. (Remember the election of 2016 when one side envisioned a bleak return to the past and the other side demanded we never leave the damnable present, even to look toward the future.)
While the Issekians received the miracle that they wanted, of a drunk Fafhrd breaking his way out of captivity to the rapturous applause of those beholding the Second Coming in all its hairless glory, we, the reader, are intimately aware of the reality of the situation. And in a way, I think this is one of the most sublime pieces of metairony present in the tale. Our protagonists may be named, but it is the people who have been sold the promise of Issek of the Jug, and it is the people that forever shift the fortunes of Bwadres and Pulg, and ultimately of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouse. These people who dwell daily in the marketplace of the gods exchanging coin and creed, in all their insignificant glory, live vastly more radical lives than anything we could hope to imagine. Because they are, in a sense, aware of their insignificance in the presence of a significant moment, no matter how brief or how ultimately bleak. Similarly, we find ourselves in a time when the Monolith is consuming itself. We are utterly insignificant witnessing a truly significant moment. They are we who attend religious ritual in a shop after hours on a Sunday night because the hours of day are reserved for the transaction of business. Let the Son of God lord about by day in all his pompous arrogance. We, and the Issekians, will revel in our miracles by night for as long as we keep the crumbling Monolith at bay.
If you decide you want to purchase Swords in the Mist through Amazon because you don’t think Jeff Bezos has enough money, consider turning on your Amazon Smile account. And if you decide to purchase Swords in the Mist because you like what I have to say about it, consider turning your purchase through Amazon Smile into a charitable donation for a local non-profit on whose board I happen to serve called Sprouting Spoons. Sprouting Spoons is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to growing the community through the catalyst of food. By managing a large community garden owned by another non-profit, Community Development For All People, we provide fresh produce to Columbus Ohio’s south side neighborhoods and augment this with free-at-the-point-of-delivery cooking classes to help members of our community learn to prepare fresh, healthy meals that also help stretch the budget.
I guess I should also say that neither Fritz Leiber or Sprouting Spoons solicited or endorsed this review or plug, nor have I been compensated in any way by either. Jeff Bezos (may his soul toil in the furnaces of whatever hell may exist) definitely did not ask me to tell you that he has more than enough money, thank you very much, but Sprouting Spoons certainly and graciously accepts the donations his company makes through your purchases. Thank you!