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Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber

It’s generally accepted that, though there were precursors, the sword and sorcery genre was created in the 1920s and 1930s by Robert E. Howard, with his stories of Conan and Kull. The phrase, however, was never used by Howard; it was coined many years after his death, in 1961, by arguably one of the best writers ever to contribute to the genre: Fritz Leiber

Fritz LeiberLeiber produced a large output of novels and stories, ranging between science fiction, horror and fantasy, which won numerous awards. For many people, though, he’s pre-eminently the creator of swordsmen, rogues and adventurers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Fritz Leiber Junior (as he was usually credited early in his career) was born in 1910, the son of Shakespearean actors. His father and namesake, besides being a theatrical actor, appeared in a number of films, often in character roles in adaptations of classic books such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Tale of Two Cities.

Fritz Junior also acted, as well as being a lay preacher and an expert chess-player and fencer, but eventually focused on writing. Early on, he was deeply influenced both by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Graves, but during the 1940s, Leiber appeared regularly in John W. Campbell’s seminal science fiction magazine, Astounding, and a good deal of his writing has been in that genre.

During the 30s, Leiber and a friend, Harry Otto Fischer, created both the characters of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the city of Lankhmar, with its surrounding lands. The character and setting, though, weren’t immediately linked. While Fischer began, and abandoned, a story set in the world of Lankhmar, Leiber began, and also abandoned, a story that placed Fafhrd and the Mouser in the Rome of Claudius (under the spell of Graves, who’d recently published I, Claudius). He subsequently completed a story called Adept’s Gambit, where he placed the two heroes in the Middle East around the year 200 BC. Almost exactly, in fact – there are enough historical references in the story to narrow it down to somewhere between 201 and 199.

Eventually, however, Leiber came to what now seems the obvious conclusion and created a union of characters and world that led to a series that only ended with Leiber’s death in 1992. The first story, originally called Two Sought Adventure but later retitled The Jewels in the Forest, was published in 1939 in Unknown, Campbell’s fantasy sister to Astounding.

Leiber wrote six more stories in the series before Unknown closed down in 1943, the last two being left orphaned by the closure. He eventually found homes for them, as well as polishing and publishing Adept’s Gambit, but otherwise the series was at an end. In the days of the pulp magazines, it was rare for a series to outlive the magazine it was identified with, and Leiber moved on to other projects, such as his first novels, Conjure Wife and Gather, Darkness.

Fantastic MagazineAnd so it remained until 1959, when Cele Goldsmith, editor of Fantastic, persuaded Leiber out of semi-retirement after severe writer’s block by devoting an entire issue to him. She got him to write one more tale of Fafhrd and the Mouser for old time’s sake; the result, Lean Times in Lankhmar, delighted both author and readers so much that the series was reborn in earnest. Through the 1960s, Leiber produced numerous stories, most of which were published in Fantastic. One was a completed version of Fischer’s fragment, The Lords of Quarmall, and was credited to them both. Leiber recorded that Fisher commented, “that he was glad to discover at last how his story ended.”

In the late 60s, Ace Books contracted Leiber to publish the series in book form, and he arranged the stories in chronological order, initially filling five volumes; he wrote several stories and vignettes specifically to fill in the gaps. Most notably, having written a tale of the Mouser’s early history, he now wrote a similar one about Fafhrd, together with Ill met in Lankhmar, telling of their first meeting, a story that won both Hugo and a Nebula. These formed the first volume, Swords and Deviltry, while the original Unknown series made up the bulk of the second, Swords Against Death, with the rest of the 1960s pieces, together with Adept’s Gambit, spread over the rest of the series.

Leiber continued to write about the pair through the 70s and 80s, notably a long novella called Rime Isle, and these stories were collected into two further volumes. There’s no sign that he was done with his two characters, but his death in 1992 put an end to the series. Officially, that is – Robin Wayne Bailey published a new novel about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in 1998.

Many elements of the series have led to the devotion of fans over the decades – some of whom, like Goldsmith, have been able to help its development – but the most obvious lies with the two wonderful characters at its centre. Fafhrd and the Mouser are like nothing that had been seen in fantasy before – although they show hints of Cabell’s classic anti-hero Jurgen, and Leiber himself later compared them to Eddison’s warrior Corund and subtle counsellor Gro. And, though they’ve been extensively imitated, they remain fresh and unique.

The Gray Mouser is, perhaps, the more obviously intriguing of the two. A diminutive man beside his gigantic companion, he’s a quick-witted thief and occasional dabbler in sorcery who’s thoroughly at home in the back-alleys of Lankhmar. As Leiber describes him in the Induction to the series:

“The Mouser’s antecedents were more cryptic [than Fafhrd’s] and hardly to be deduced from his childlike stature, gray garb, mouse-skin hood shadowing flat swart face, and deceptively dainty rapier; but somewhere about him was the suggestion of cities and the south, the dark streets and also the sun-drenched spaces.”

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by eggwhipFafhrd (pronounced “Faf-erd”, as he tells the Mouser at their meeting) is a blond, giant barbarian from the icy wastes of the north, and is described in the same passage:

“Fafhrd’s origins were easy to perceive in his near seven-foot height and limber-looking ranginess, his hammered ornaments and huge longsword: he was clearly a barbarian from the Cold Waste north even of the Eight Cities and the Trollstep Mountains.”

Here, however, ends all similarity to any other S&S barbarian hero you may know. Fafhrd takes to decadent city life with as much enthusiasm as his companion, and, although more laconic and deliberate in manner, he has a keen mind and wit to match the Mouser’s.

The pair, though, like all the best “buddy” pairings, are far more than two interesting individuals. They spark off each other, and it could be said that the real central character of the series is neither one nor the other, but the interaction between them.

Besides these two, the tales are packed full of wonderful supporting characters: lords and peasants, sorcerers and thieves, and an endless succession of girlfriends for the two adventurers, whose relationships rarely survive to the start of the next story.

The two most consistent supporting characters are the two wizards, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, to whom Fafhrd and the Mouser are respectively bound in occasional service. Neither appears to be entirely human (their epithets aren’t idly given) but it’s never satisfactorily established about either whether, as Adept’s Gambit says of Ningauble, “he had the gift of foresight, or whether he merely set the stage for future events with such a bewildering cunning that only an efreet or an adapt could evade acting the part given him.”

Sheelba is curt and laconic, and lives in a hut that wanders around the marshes on stilts (possibly a nod at the Russian legend of Baba Yaga), whereas Ningauble, who lives in a cave with links to many worlds, is verbose in the extreme. Even he, though, can be brief when his charge actually needs any help or advice. When Fafhrd asks him how he can achieve a seemingly impossible task, Ningauble simply tells him, “You’re a hero. You should know.”

One more character dominates the series: the world it’s set in, and particularly Lankhmar, the City of the Black Toga. Resembling one of the dirty, bustling, corrupt cities of the ancient Mediterranean, Lankhmar is nominally ruled by an Overlord, but actually run by merchants and other self-interest groups, notably the powerful Thieves’ Guild, and has an entire kingdom of rats beneath the city. Its mess of evocatively named streets, plazas and taverns foreshadows many later fantasy cities, notably Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork.

Swords Against Death (cover)The world as a whole is referred to by the name Nehwon (“nowhen” backwards, like Samuel Butler’s Erehwon) and is speculated to lie on the inside surface of a sphere so that, theoretically, one could see the furthest lands by looking far enough into the sky. Although Leiber claims to have done little planning for Nehwon – he commented once that he hardly knew more about it than anyone who’d read every story – it’s a vivid place, full of strange and beguiling lands, cities, mountains and deserts, not to mention an entire little-known western continent which Fafhrd and the Mouser explore in the course of Swords Against Death.

In this series, Leiber established many of the familiar tropes of later sword & sorcery, such as the presence of a Thieves’ Guild and the placing of his heroes as rogues, neither entirely good or evil, but it’s clear from the very first story that he brought a unique and exuberant style to his tales. The Jewels in the Forest, published in 1939, opens in a way utterly different from Howard’s more functional storytelling:

“It was the Year of the Behemoth, the Month of the Hedgehog, the Day of the Toad. A hot, late summer sun was sinking down toward evening over the somber, fertile land of Lankhmar…Sweaty merchants and shopkeepers decided to wait a little longer before enjoying the pleasures of the bath. Thieves and astrologers moved restlessly in their sleep, sensing that the hours of night and work were drawing near.”

Bazaar of the Bizarre (cover)The tale goes on to tell of how Fafhrd and the Mouser seek treasure rumoured to be hidden in an enchanted tower. We expect from such a story magical ambushes and traps, ancient demons and fiendish sorcerers. We don’t tend to expect the tower to defend itself like an overzealous whomping willow.

Those early stories are playful and fun, if occasionally a shade awkward, but the series from the high days of the 60s is a complete joy. Tales like Bazaar of the Bizarre, The Lords of Quarmall and Ill Met in Lankhmar have all attractions of their predecessors, but more sophistication, more complex and well-handled plots, and deeper characterisation. I have to admit, I find the post-60s stories vaguely disappointing, though only in comparison with what came before. Rime Isle, for instance, is a complex and fascinating story, but I felt sometimes that Leiber was falling back on a tried and tested formula, in place of the sunburst of ideas found in the earlier stories. It’s still very worth reading, but perhaps not up to his best.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are one of the greatest creations (and I think it’s legitimate to regard them as a single creation) of sword & sorcery, and this is one of the series, along with Howard’s Conan and Moorcock’s Elric, that anyone who wants to truly know the genre must have read, at least in part.

The series (first published slightly out of sequence) consists of:

Swords and Deviltry (1970)
Swords Against Death (1970)
Swords in the Mist (1968)
Swords Against Wizardry (1968)
The Swords of Lankhmar (1968)
Swords and Ice Magic (1977)
The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988)

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Rating: 9.4/10 (9 votes cast)
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, 9.4 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
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7 Comments

  1. Mithrandir says:

    Great article Nyki. I read the complete Lankhmar series last summer and absolutely loved it, particularly the stories based within the city of Lankhmar. I thought the 2 characters of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face were brilliantly written; the reader is left so intrigued about them as we are drip fed such little information about their background. I wonder if Sheelba’s hut influenced Dianne Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle?! It is plain to see the influence that the idea of a Theives Guild has had on modern fantasy; almost every other book you pick up has a guild of some sort that controls the machinations of a city.

  2. Tegan Beechey says:

    Excellent article! Thank you for introducing such a fascinating author!

  3. Loved Fritz Leiber and Fafner and the Grey Mouser. I wasn’t sure what to make of them when I read my first tale at the age of 12. I had just finished the Howard Conan series completed by DeCamp and Carter, and at first didn’t take to a S&S hero that wasn’t massively muscled, but it didn’t take long to get caught up in the genius of Leiber. One thing, though. Conan also possessed a quick wit and a love for civilization which was really salient when he visited his homeland and was bored to tears.

  4. Mike Chomko says:

    I read Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series way back in the seventies and simply adored it. Of course, some of the stories are stronger than others, but the interplay of the characters is absolutely wonderful. The comment in your article, “the real central character of the series is neither one nor the other, but the interaction between them,” is spot on. Thanks very much for an interesting and excellent piece.

    If you have not read any of Leiber’s S&S, give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.

  5. […] Dashiell Hammett Tour, the longest-running literary tour in the USA, takes a look at Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Fritz Leiber’s classic characters that made their first appearance in the August 1939 […]

  6. […] has already provided a thorough description of what Fritz Leiber has meant to the fantasy genre here, so I’d prefer to write about the first of seven collections, Swords and Deviltry, in which we […]

  7. […] has already provided a thorough description of what Fritz Leiber has meant to the fantasy genre here, so I’d prefer to write about the first of seven collections, Swords and Deviltry, in which we […]

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