Thursday, April 3, 2008

Conan, Cugel, and others

At Grognardia, James Maliszewski's begun a project tracing the roots of Dungeons & Dragons, and has started it off writing about the game's roots in pulp fantasy -- Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, Vance and others whose influence Gary Gygax made clear in a reading list in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide.

One of Mr Maliszewski's posts quotes Robert E Howard's introduction of Conan, a single sentence that captures the whole epic and bloody swath of the Barbarian's life and doings:
Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
In reply one of the commenters quotes Leiber's introduction of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser:
"I see we're expected," the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, high, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier."

"At over a bowshot distance how can you-" the big man began. "I get it. Bashabeck's orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up."

"It's not so much the dues," the small man said. "It slipped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God's temple."

The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. "I sometimes wonder why I associate with a faithless rogue like you."

The small man shrugged. "I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me..."

It's interesting to compare the two passages. Howard's is deliberately grand and mythic, an epigraph taken from a chronicle of mighty deeds. In his first story Conan is already King of Aquilonia; his long road to the throne comes later, tale by tale. By contrast Leiber is more matter of fact, giving us Fafhrd and the Mouser in media res and at street level, two rogues run afoul of the Thieves' Guild wittingly walking into an ambush.

Here's the introduction of yet another rogue from Gary's reading list, Cugel the Clever, from Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld.
Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down on his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candor, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth. Coming into the possesion of an ancient lead coffin--after discarding the contents--he had formed a number of lead lozenges. These, stamped with appropriate seals and runes, he offered for sale at the Azenomei Fair.
It's a far cry from Howard's heroic tone, and while Leiber's heroes have vicissitudes of their own, Cugel's tale is downright picaresque. Accordingly Vance introduces him in a way that is both inflating and mocking--Cugel is deft and clever, but also rat-like with his furry widow's peak and twitching nose, and we meet him fresh from a grave-robbing, selling fake magic tokens. His expression is of "vivacity, candor, and affability," but he proves instead to be brisk, guileful, and pugnacious.

How he fits into the character archetypes of early D&D is less obvious than Conan, Fafhrd and the Mouser. Cugel more often ekes by on his wits than by sorcery or sword. However I do think there's something of him in many of Gygax's adventure modules -- with his many mishaps and missed chances, narrow escapes and reversals of fate, and with his implacable overconfidence despite all setbacks, Cugel is the very model of the hapless PC set loose amidst the traps and tricks of a Gygaxian dungeon.

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