The Unholy Grail

Published: 1962

Synopsis

There was a time when the Gray Mouser was once known as Mouse and apprenticed to a hedge wizard named Glavas Rho. He studied White Magic, tended plants, and undertook peaceful quests to advance his lessons. Then coming back from one such quest he discovers his master murdered.

Trembling, Mouse drew from the leather pouch at his belt a flat green stone, engraved on the one side with deep-cut alien hieroglyphs, on the other with an armored, many-jointed monster, like a giant ant, that trod among tiny fleeing human figures. That stone had been the object of the quest on which Glavas Rho had sent him. For sake of it, he had rafted across the Lakes of Pleea, tramped the foot-hills of the Mountains of Hunger, hidden from a raiding party of red-bearded pirates, tricked lumpish peasant-fishermen, flattered and flirted with an elderly odorous witch, robbed a tribal shrine, and eluded hounds set on his trail. His winning the green stone without shedding blood meant that he had advanced another grade in his apprenticeship. Now he gazed dully at its ancient surface and then, his trembling controlled, laid it carefully on his master’s blackened palm. As he stooped he realized that the soles of his feet were painfully hot, his boots smoking a little at the edges, yet he did not hurry his steps as he moved away.

In this origin story of the Mouser, events are pushed along by the cruel acts of men onto others, cruelty fed by hate and born of fear. We discover that fear may be transferred to another for a time, but this transference does not remove the fear. It is fear that gives a person power over another, however, that same fear can make a powerful man powerless.

We learn a great deal about the natures of White Magic and of Black Magic through the teachings of Glavas Rho. Glavas Rho warns against the dangers of Black Magic. However, the Mouser, here as Mouse, turns to Black Magic to avenge his murdered teacher.

Nehwon Gazetteer

Characters

Duke Janarrl, Giscorl, Glavas Rho, Ivrian.

Cities

City of Ghouls, Earth’s End, Quarmall.

Geography

Cold Waste, Lakes of Pleea, Land of Lankhmar, Land of the Eight Cities, Mountains of Hunger, Sea of Monsters, Trollstep Mountains.

Rate The Unholy Grail

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Discussion

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2007/01/24 14:08

The first time I read this story, as well as Fafhrd's origin story “The Snow Women”, I found both of them to be tough going. I don't know why that was the case. Perhaps, subconsciously I wanted to read about the duo experiencing another grand adventure, but instead, these are two 'coming of age' stories.

“The Unholy Grail” was published in 1962 whereas “The Snow Women” was published in 1970, the same year as “Ill Met in Lankhmar”. So certainly Fritz Leiber was on the top of his game. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one that has found the first two stories a little difficult to get into initially. Anyone else has any experiences or theories on this?

I typically recommend to those who are just starting to read the stories to start with “Ill Met in Lankhmar” or perhaps “The Jewels in the Forest”.

At any rate, I did not have that difficulty tonight. I also did not encounter the problem of being too familiar with the story and reading too quickly and missing a lot of detail in the process. You know, reading a paragraph but finding that you did not absorb it – retaining only the essence of the story and plot instead.

I actually enjoyed the story tonight! Perhaps I was more relaxed or perhaps it was because I did not bring with me any expectations. I was picking up on a lot more of Leiber's nuances. Spotting little techniques that I hadn't noticed before. I was also re-familiarizing myself on his descriptions and usage of magic in the story.

There is a great description of the burnt hut of Glavas Rho leading up to the discovery of the dead wizard. Instead of being a static description, the remains of the fire are personified:

But even without the dawn light he would have seen the fire-shrunken beams and fire-gnawed posts a-creep with red ember-worms and the wraithlike green flame where some stubborn sorcerous ointment still burned. He would have smelled the confusion of precious odors of burned drugs and balms and the horribly appetizing kitchen-odor of burned flesh.

1)

On page 142 the duke is now under attack by the Mouser's black sorceries and has taken ill. His men automatically assume Ivrian's guilt. Check out how Leiber writes this scene as if he was staging it for the theater:

A flurry of whispering went up and down the table. As the great door to his private apartments was opened for the Duke, a heavy gust of chill air made the torches flicker and turn blue, so that shadows crowded into the hall. Then one torch flared white-bright as a star, showing the face of a girl. Ivrian felt the others draw away from her with suspicious glances and mutterings, as if they were certain there had been truth in the Duke's jest.

On page 156 the Mouser is being tortured on the rack. However, he is about to channel his hate back to the Duke using the Duke's daughter and the Duke's fear of his late wife as a conduit. Leiber is racking up the tension and shows the fear building up in the Duke.

Early in a paragraph, we have this sentence: “By turning his head and eyes to the side he could see the big figure of the Duke–not wide as his doll of him, but wide…” A little later with have another comparison: “Only his eyes showed any uneasiness or vulnerability. They kept shifting from side to side–rapidly, regularly, like the pivoted ones of a doll.”

Damn, that's awesome! First, the direct comparison to the Mouser's 'voodoo' doll of the Duke earlier in the story, then the simile of his eyes like a doll. Just when the Mouser is about to step up his black magic, the duke is essentially likened to a real-life, full-sized voodoo doll!

I think a little of Leiber's Lovecraft influence sneaks in – more likely done on purpose, but hey! – when he writes about the Mouser turning to black magic. There are two references to the spaces between the stars. I'm reminded of Nyarlathotep.

“The magic Mouse had learned of only by hints and warnings…which trickled down from the black spaces between the stars…” 2) “…as if his spirit were out beyond the stars, grappling the blackness there.” 3)

There is a lot of great information about White and Black Magic in this story. I've taken notes for when I get around to writing about Nehwon magic. For anyone who plans on running an RPG based in Nehwon, I would recommend reading this story to familiarize yourself on the nature of Nehwonian magic.

1)
p. 125 of the Ace paperback edition of Swords and Deviltry
2)
p. 136
3)
p. 147
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