Fighting the Thieves’ Guild. Beautiful wenches, dazzling swordplay, heaps of treasure, dark spells. Where do all these cliches come from? A lot of them are from people who ripped off Fritz Lieber, who could write circles around just about anybody. And show us a good time doing it too.
His famous duo, Fafhrd (pronounced Faf-erd) and the Gray Mouser, got their start in a story in a pulp magazine in 1939. Leiber wrote Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories his whole life (he lived from 1910 to 1986) but they all fit together surprisingly well. When you read the stories in the order of internal chronology, as they are usually collected now, the flow is smooth, but he wrote them in a huge jumble.
For example, the first story, “The Jewels in the Forest” (originally published as “Two Sought Adventure”), ends up halfway through the second collection. The most famous Fafhred and the Gray Mouser story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, was written in 1970 (and won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella), the same year as Fafhrd’s origin story. The Gray Mouser’s origin story was written in 1962. Again, it’s a surprise that it all fits together.
Fafhrd is a barbarian who leaves his tribe in the snowy north, while the Gray Mouser was apprenticed to a magician who, tragically, lived too close to an evil aristocrat. Their most famous adventure, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, picks up just as the two of them have left their homes, along with their respective girlfriends (wenches?). The two men meet in the decrepit, foggy city of Lankhmar, have some adventures, get in over their heads, and as seems to happen in this sort of thing, the women pay the price with their lives. The men, meanwhile, have now gotten that most important thing for heroes: a tragic past. That’s about par for the course in these stories, vis-a-vis the role of women. Not a huge surprise, but there it is.
When I picked up the first Fafhrd/Gray Mouser omnibus, I was not expecting it would all be short material (apparently there is a novel, but I haven’t gotten to that yet). As far as I can tell, there are two reasons why it’s all short stuff. One is historical, since short stories used to be a more lucrative business than it is now. Leiber was never rolling in the money, by all accounts, but at least he got by.
other is that it simply works. The stories are made up of intense bursts of language and action;
Lieber gets in and gets out, job complete. Looking at this material – sword and sorcery,
swashbuckling, and so on – I don’t know if it can sustain a full-length narrative.
People have certainly tried, and I’m curious to read the one Fafhrd/Gray Mouser novel, since the short versions have been so satisfying. I can’t really find anything to say
against Lieber’s short work.
Part of that feeling for me is due to an overload of epic fantasy. Leiber always kept the focus small; as opposed to a massive series-long battle against the ultimate dark lord, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are fighting small conflicts. In their initial adventure, they have a treasure map that indicates an abandoned house as the spot. What is the nature of this house and how is the treasure protected? We find out within a few pages.
Leiber originated the term “sword and sorcery” to describe this exact approach. See this surprisingly ok definition of sword and sorcery on Wikipedia. I would contrast these stories with King’s The Dark Tower (see my piece here on the Gutter), with King’s series as an example
of too much build-up, too wide of a scope. That series eventually
encompassed every universe, all of the fictional universes of Stephen
King, along with a bunch of fictional versions of King himself! That’s
how big the threat was. In comparison, Lieber seems either timid or
very canny. I vote for the latter, since he’s not likely to paint
himself into a corner. King had to deal with out-of-control expectations, while each Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story is like a perfectly cut gem in its own right.
I hadn’t read any of these stories before I picked up the omnibus. The only other works by Leiber I had read were a few items in his Changewar series – The Big Time, his 1957 novel, won the Hugo Award. These are oddball items in his career, since he hardly ever wrote science fiction. I quite like it: it’s a time travel story about a war through time. I’m finding his fantasy to be stronger, now that I’m encountering it. The writing is sharp where it needs to be, flowery as a method of humour, and very convincing.