Terra Incognita

As I was reading a review of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” on Howard Andrew Jones' blog, I came across a comment from another author, Robert Zoltan, about how Leiber understood the meaning of myth and also about the lack of mystery in modern fantasy.

First, his point about myths. Zoltan suggests that we should, “notice how the term myth has been changed to mean 'a lie.' But a myth is actually closer to the opposite. A myth is a metaphor that points to something other than itself, and that other thing is usually some primal truth about reality and the human condition in relationship to that reality.”1) His observation is spot-on. Think of it in the context of the show, Mythbusters, or the term urban myths. These are untruths. Yes, it is healthy to understand and avoid untruths perpetuated in our daily lives, but with storytelling, it is different. Story myths are not a negation of truth, instead, they are interpreted truths, in veiled layers. This leads to his next point.

There is a lack of mystery in modern fantasy, or in other words, contemporary storytelling is too literal. Zoltan goes on to say, “In most modern fantasy stories (and art), everything is explained. Everything is a fact. Magic systems are explained. Monsters are explained and described in minutest detail. The lack of mystery goes even beyond the content of the stories to the writing itself, which often reads like a Hollywood action film, not literature.” This applies to RPGs as well.

Mystery is a vital aspect of storytelling, whether it is a written story or an RPG campaign. Where do you think that sense of wonder comes from? Where do you think the tension, fear, and dread build up from? It is the Terra Incognita or what lies at the rim of the known; it endures in the shadows or lies in the interstices of space; it is the dark matter. I cannot explain why it thrills us, but it thrills us, and if you want that thrill to touch your players, you will put it to use.

Mystery has been a common thread in my posts here. In my advice on using magic in Nehwon campaigns, I have talked about it in articles such as “Keeping Magic, Magical” and “Explicit vs. Implicit Spell Effects.” It is why I love the art of Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Zoltan points out how contemporary authors explain their magic and monsters. These two are on the top of my list to not disclose to players in an RPG campaign. If you want to instill that thrill in your players, keep your magic and monsters mysterious. Hold on as long as you can to that Terra Incognita.

Discussion

David HowarthGUEST: David Howarth, 2019/01/30 17:58

I think Leiber himself straddles the countervailing threads of modern fantasy, on the one hand toward demystification and the other which deliberately cultivates age-old cultural myths for their richness of allusion. In classic Leiber “widdershins” fashion, he simultaneously utilizes them to their fullest and subverts them completely. Notice for instance how dragons, unicorns, and other “typical” mythical creatures are mentioned in the Nehwon stories, but are NEVER “actually real”. Our “myths” are also Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's myths. They never slay a dragon or rescue a damsel in distress in typical fashion. Nehwon “ghouls” are just people, too. On the other hand, he creates new myths which draw on the vestigial resonances and juxtaposition of attitudes to telling effect–I think it's in “Trapped in the Sea of Stars” among other stories where Fafhrd and the Mouser debate issues of basic metaphysics, Fafhrd clearly being a scientific physicalist of some kind while the GM evinces a more mystical outlook)–Leiber is the original virtuoso at playing with longstanding fantasy tropes, and I would argue paved the way for others such as Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) and Goldman (Princess Bride) to do more obviously what he did so subtly. I haven't read much recent fantasy (say anything published in the genre this century), so I cannot really speak to the literalness of the current crop.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2019/01/30 21:44

Too true. He was never one to repeat what had come before but strived to treat the tropes in a different manner. In “The Wrong Branch”, they careen on the Dragon Rocks to repair their boat. On the beach, they had to take turns fending off “inquisitive” dragons. They became sore when they found out later that the smell of the pitch they made kept the dragons away.

David HowarthGUEST: David Howarth, 2019/01/31 06:38

It's been a while since I read “Witches of the Mind”, but Leiber's basic outlook on life seems to have been mystical (or at least leaned in that direction). I gather we owe Leiber's meticulous care about maintaining a tension between mystery and “realism” comes out of his early exposure to and guidance from Lovecraft (who IIRC was dismayed by the young FRL's propensity to “buy in” to the fuzzy “Ancient Aliens”-style thinking of Charles Forte and his ilk). So at the beginning of his career, we have a Leiber who wants to write ghost stories and flights of fancy, but is tethered to the ground by the clear-eyed rationality of HPL's (and Shakespeare's!) influence. This is gross oversimplification, of course, but I think at least Leiber recognized he needed to keep a balance.

His later Jungian (ugh) and Gravesian (eek) periods would sorely try this basic approach at times, and reveal Leiber's underlying mystical yearnings, but he never quite forgot to steer a middle course.

In short, I would argue that these two tendencies in his work manifest in the F&GM stories especially in a delightful fifty-year-long conversation about such matters.

David HowarthGUEST: David Howarth, 2019/01/31 06:40

I would edit some of the above for grammar/clarity, but cannot ;-).

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2019/02/03 11:07

Interesting points. I never thought about Leiber's philosophical leanings too much. From my reading of “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex,” I got the impression that he was leaning toward's the materialism of Lovecraft, or at the very least, very much a skeptic. But then again, this was a Leiber who was in his seventies when he wrote his autobiography. You could very well be correct about the origins of this tension between mysticism and rationality that shows up in his works.

Do you dislike the Jungian and Gravesian influences? That is to say, disregarding the two's ideas, did they not provide excellent fodder for Leiber's storytelling? For instance, I regard Our Lady of Darkness as a masterpiece, and it is brimming with Graves and Jung with allusions to the Triple Goddess and the Anima. Now “Cry Witch!” is very clunky with its treatment of the Anima, but I can see it as the compost that nourishes the later novel.

Indeed, I think you are on to something regarding that internal conversation playing out at its best in the tales of F&tGM.

All the Best, Srith of the Scrolls.

David HowarthGUEST: David Howarth, 2019/02/03 13:13

I think he probably always leaned toward the materialist worldview, but he did flirt throughout his life with the mystical and occult, or at least people who moved in those circles. Might be more of a California woo-woo sixties/seventies thing than anything else. I'd have to dredge my collection of fanzines and such to substantiate my characterization of Leiber's attitudes, just going on recollection.

Re: Graves/Jung – Not at all, these influences are great storytelling fuel, and put both men's theories exactly where they belong…. fiction ;-).

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