Swords and Sorcery of an Old School Nature

leiber.jpgFighting 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.

4 replies »

  1. i’ve only read fafhrd and the gray mouser in comics form–a collection by mike mignola. but i agree with you about old school fantasy. whatever else they were, pulps were a nice length.


  2. I recently re-read all of Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories and I have to disagree with you on one point: I don’t think the stories are best read in order of internal chronology. I think Fafhrd’s and Mouser’s origins are much more interesting after you get to know the adult characters a bit. “Ill Met in Lankhmar” certainly stands on its own, but I think even that story is more interesting to read as a prequel, after “Thieves House” rather than the other way around. As with Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan, I think the original short stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are best read in the wild and rollicking order they were created, rather than trying to put them into some kind of consistent chronology.
    (Lieber certainly went along with chronologically organizing the material, even writing new small vignettes to help connect his short stories together in the published collections, but I think it was largely to facilitate re-publishing and marketing this material at a time when Tolkien was the model for fantasy and people expected chronological story arcs. The connective vignettes seem to be of lower quality writing and in some cases rather forced or even superfluous. Perhaps some biographer will confirm my theory, but it seems like these pieces were produced at an editor’s insistence rather than by Lieber’s own initiative.)
    I enjoyed the novel, Swords of Lankhmar as much as many of the stories. The opening of the novel, the pair’s return to Lankhmar after an extended absence, is as good as anything else Fritz Leiber had written. But (female readers be warned) the latter part of the novel unfortunately devolves into a lot of S&M type humiliation of naked slave girls, a trope which seems to have first appeared in Leiber’s novella “The Lords of Quarmall” and continues to reappear in various guises in Fritz Lieber’s later writings. It is too bad, because I don’t share Leiber’s fetish for female submissiveness (and shaving/nakedness) and it tends to distract from what are otherwise entertaining adventure stories.
    Lieber actually did start to write his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories in pretty much chronological order after 1970 and I do like how he deals with aging his heroes and having them settle down on Rime Isle in their later years. Not to spoil anything about those later stories, but I think his introduction of Loki and Odin into the Nehwon cosmology is a high point of the series, despite the recurring sexual fetishism in Lieber’s writings.


  3. Hey Mr. Dave,
    Thanks for the insight! I’m curious to see if I move over to your camp, re: internal chronology, once I’m a little further into the series. It was my first time through (and I definitely haven’t read as far as you), and I appreciated the balance between disconnected episodes and a line that flows through the various stories.
    Although my idea of keeping on reading took a blow with the news about the female submissiveness angle. I suppose I should be panting and drooling in anticipation of the naked slave girls, but I’ve found that, as much fun as pulp adventures were, they were never very good at producing anything even mildly erotic. Maybe it played a little better back in the day? (I may as well as say: those wacky people back in the past… they didn’t know any better… etc) Maybe that’s why it’s hard to recreate the effect of the pulps? Not sure if I’ve added anything intelligent here… But thanks again for your comments! Neat to hear the perspective of someone who has dug deeply into the series.


  4. Based on the timeline of when he wrote these stories, it seems that in the mid 1960’s Fritz Leiber either a) simply decided to have more explicit sexual fetishism in these stories(perhaps he thought it was playful and fun? or an homage to older magazine pulps?) or b) responded to his audience or editors asking him to give the characters more sexual partners (maybe responding to a concerns about possible interpretations of homoeroticism?) or c) decided it was finally OK to express or explore those sexual fetishes that he had refrained from revealing to readers as a younger, less established writer.
    My impression is that he was exhibiting personal interests through the characters (he gives the Mouser recurring interests in invisible girls, shaved girls, and very young girls; Fafhrd is often paired with older or more buxom women; the women are often figuratively if not literally in bondage) because these elements are so particular I can’t imagine for what external audience he would be writing them. If it was meant to be parodic or burlesque, it didn’t come off that way to me. Rather more satyrical than satirical.
    I have to admit, part of my fondness for the earier stories is probably tied to the fact that they don’t feature so many sexual or sexualized exploits. My favorite Conan stories also tend run along the same lines (e.g., “Phoenix on the Sword” and “Tower of the Elephant” which really have no overtly sexual elements to speak of.) I understand that Robert E. Howard started to deliberately add those elements to help get his stories illustrated on the covers of Weird Tales but I don’t know of any similar rationale for Fritz Leiber’s decision to go this route.


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