In honor of the Realms 50th Anniversary, we’ll be releasing 50 columns penned by Ed Greenwood, the Archmage himself.
Take Shakespeare’s aging, overweight ne’er-do-well rogue of an old swindler, Falstaff, add a dash of Guy Gilpatrick’s hard-drinking seagoing engineer Glencannon and the merest whiff of Poul Anderson’s wily spacefaring trader Nicholas van Rijn, and you have . . . Mirt the Moneylender.
My original Realms character. I first saw the Realms over his shoulder. Mainly as a nigh-endless series of dimly lit, seedy rooms down cobbled alleys in the rain, in one cramped stone city somewhere nigh the sea after another.
Mirt. A man who was once a Conan-esque young freebooter and swordswinging adventurer, and later an infamously successful mercenary company leader (in the Heartlands, Sword Coast North, Amn, and Tethyr) known as Mirt the Merciless, who as he became older, grayer, and more battered, started to get called “the Old Wolf.”
All of which happened in the past (though I’ve since written a tale or two of those younger days), before I first met him.
The Mirt I first imagined was a wheezing, rotund, food-stained and floppy seabooted old rogue now too weak and slow to outfight most people or outrun almost anyone, so he’s forced to outwit them—or die. He makes his living by his wits—that is, by means of a little moneylending and investing and a lot of shady trading. And the escapades I write about concern mainly swindling fellow merchants in a particular place, in a caper or inter-tangled capers that make up a humorous action short story, then hastily departing that place at the end of the tale—a bare step ahead of rivals, creditors, newly-made enemies, and the authorities.
As the places Mirt ah, flourished in these tales are crossroads trading cities, almost all of them ports along the same seacoast, I was creating a medieval-cum-Renaissance swords & sorcery fantasy setting port by port, as I wrote story after story. I’d been writing them for a year by the time I decided this shoreline was called the Sword Coast, and during that time Mirt had worked his way south from Luskan into Amn, through such places as Neverwinter, Leilon, Port Llast, Waterdeep, Elturel, Baldur’s Gate, Scornubel, and Athkatla.
I knew there was a wider world that caravans and ships brought the wonders and wares of to the damp ports Mirt was sparring with opponents in, and gradually (in the manner of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian Dreamlands fantasies, in which the narrator mentions that merchants from far Wherever keep themselves cowled or masked and have curiously-shaped heads, and always sell these particular spices or tusks of unusual size) accumulated a working knowledge of what folks from this particular nebulous faraway place looked and dressed like, what they brought to sell, and what they were usually looking to buy. (Just as I devoured Tolkien’s appendices at the end of The Lord Of The Rings, I wanted to know all of this stuff about my imaginary world, to imagine it richer and more deeply over time, to add little details here and there, to build up my own private dreamland. Not for publication, not to spice up an epic or plot point, but just for me.)
So Mirt became my sarcastic, wheezing, hard-drinking, naughty guide to the Realms, which is one of the reasons they were bawdy from the outset. What would he be interested in? Filling his belly with food and drink, the ladies, getting coin by any means other than honest toil, and besting others with his own cleverness. In a world where magic worked.
And by understanding Mirt’s wants, one can see all the ready roads into the Realms, to explore its lore and grasp what makes this sprawling imaginary setting feel alive. And I still have plans for him, which is why I brought him forward a century when the published Realms did its time jump, so he can wheeze and blunder around “the new Realms” in which all the people he knew are dead and gone, places have changed, and he has to find new trouble to get up to. His poking around getting into trouble shows me new corners and details of the Realms, and I need him around. For one thing, he’s about to stumble on some deep-rooted secrets I wrote into the world long ago; he’s just the man to do it.
His needs and wants and attitudes force me to go on seeing the Realms in new ways, and sharing what I find.
So to me, the Realms isn’t the world of Elminster—it’s the world of Mirt. Elminster just brings us the nightly news. Or the latest teasers.
(So of course, next time, I’ll talk about Elminster.)