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  • TITLE: Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, or The *********Lankhmar Series
  • AUTHOR: Fritz Leiber
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1939-1988
  • AWARDS: All of 'em

    "The master storyteller of us all."

    — Harlan Ellison, backcover blurb from The Knight & Knave of Swords

    "a writer who is... still the greatest of us all."

    — Michael Moorcock, intro from Ill Met in Lankhmar (White Wolf, c.1995, p.xi)

    "two of the most delightful creations in the history of fantastic literature."

    — Neil Gaiman, Return to Lankhmar (White Wolf, c.1997, p.15)


    Read this editorial disclaimer before continuing here.


    cover for Lankhmar: City of Adventure, D&D gaming


    Throw a bunch of diamonds onto black velvet and you're bound to pick some over others, although they're all very precious and beautiful stones. Everybody has their favorites from these thirtysomething stories that set the bar in the genre of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy. What separates Leiber's lads from others of his era is the unabashed working-class humanity of Fafhrd from the Cold Waste—a seven-foot, bearded Viking type—and the sly, slight and slippery city-bred Grey Mouser, who is all about coming around from behind with a plan and stealing you stupid. They share a lot of disreputable pastimes like drinking, wenching, gambling, brawling, and thieving others' treasures, but ultimately hold to the codes of honor, duty and love. Together, they are “two long-sundered, matching fragments of a greater hero” (“Induction”, p.6)*.

    The stories were written over a fifty-year period roughly inhabiting the later half of the 20th century. Around the late-60s, Leiber began gathering these tidbits from their original pulp magazine publications and organizing them into a chronological order. He filled in the cracks with more tales until there were six story collections and a full-length novel. Now, they've been compiled into even tighter groupings with Book Club editions, Gollancz's Masterworks series, or White Wolf's Lankhmar in 4-volumes, so you can read these adventures in two or so bindings. But, true to the spirit of the work, the first six volumes were distributed as paperback originals before they saw hardcover—and some respectability.

    So, be obliged to start at the start with Swords and Deviltry. “The Snow Women” introduces Fafhrd the Barbarian as he breaks away from the icy roots of tribe and family. His mother is any adolescent's nightmare crone, but be generous and shrug away the abandonment of his pregnant girlfriend for an older, carnival courtesan. At this point, he's just a big, dumb, star-struck teenager hearing the “whole world call[ing]” (p.28), after all.

    cover for Two Sought Adventure, Gnome Press, c.1957

    In “The Unholy Grail”, meet an apprentice to a hedge-wizard named Mouse, who is “still midway in his allegiance between white magic and black” (p.71). But bale events force his choice to “the cat's path” (p.89), therefore becoming Mouser not mouse. He is rapidly educated in the foulness of murder, lust, and torture, reciprocating with “hate fulfilled and revenge accomplished” (p.94). Escaping to Lankhmar—that wondrous, imaginary city which is more Ali Baba's Baghdad than Arthur's Camelot—the two unlikely heroes make acquaintance in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, the award-winning, concluding story of this volume. Written 31 years after the series started in 1939 with “Two Sought Adventure", aka “The Jewels in the Forest”, it sets the tone and placement for future events.

    Now, a crossroads, as the way gets muddy in spots, solid in others. The next three collections—Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist , and Swords Against Wizardry —are a minefield of gems and cut glass, jewels and baubles. Mind you, there aren't any out-and-out dirtclods here, but private inclinations will determine personal favorites. And please, proceed gleefully, as there are plenty of shameful obsessions, lusty perversions, mass hackings, and proper insanities to temper any honorable adventures ahead. Leiber allows lots of time spent in his fascinating world of Nehwon, so expect puddles of roguish humor to sustain any long stretches, and plenty of wordsmithy, grappling gooberments like: “the concourse of trodden snow winding amongst the traders' tents was rackety with noise and crowdedly a-bustle” (“The Snow Women”, p.54), to keep the signposts appropriately anomalous and interesting. Personal favorites from these younger days are “The Howling Tower”, “The Sunken Land”, “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, “Adept's Gambit”, “Stardock” and “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”.

    These early collections, besides being filled with froths of earthy intent, beguilements and puzzles, are also stage settings for the fantastic yet recognizable land- and cityscapes. There is no Boschian vegetation or reptile-inspired monsters roaming over blue dirt. The most familiar becomes the city of Lankhmar itself, with its ominous backstreets and distinctive sections like Murder Alley, Atheist's Avenue, and Street of the Gods. It is rich in quirky cosmology, political intrigue, and time-tested social institutions like prostitution, thievery, and dead bodies. Beyond Nehwon's greatest city, there are plenty of despoiled and treacherous landscapes as in many Heroic Fantasy sagas. Follow the Duo down a well-sized tube to the bottom of the ocean after treasure and “the sea- king's girls” (“When the Sea-King's Away”, p.404), only to find worthless “ghost-gaud[s]” (p.405) and near drowning. Or, climb the K2 of this world in “Stardock” in search of “a pouch of stars” (p.14) and discover an invisible race in need of regeneration by—gee, let me guess!—procreation with its' two transparent princesses. Leiber even goes an extra inning in “Adept's Gambit” and time-travels to 5th Century BC Earth to pitch his own sly spitball of Haggard-esque, Lost City fantasy.

    Throughout these scenarios, adversaries naturally abound. They are not so much the Demons and Dragons of traditional Fantasy, but the diabolical, perverse, and monstrously-savage twistings of the human animal. Sure, Death as a character plays out through some of the episodes, and there are creatures like the Devourers from “Bazaar of the Bizarre”, but these are minor refrains. Sunken-eyed Krovas, suzerain of the city's Thieves Guild, is memorable for his cynical insight of “what is life but greed in action?” (“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, p.134), and the poetic diatribe that follows on how illusion is the autocrat's most useful tool for covert domination. Then there's the “The Lords of Quarmall”, with its brother-princes: closed-eyed, sphincterlike Hasjarl, and the serpentine, Lector-confident Gwaay. They are the Yin and Yang of Evil personified, feuding over that fungus-fouled, stygian anthill kingdom fed stale air underground from “the perpetual soft thudding of the naked feet of the slaves on the heavy leather tread-belts that drove those great wooden fans” (p.84). Add the sadistic Duke Janarrl of “The Unholy Grail” and Lavas Laerk, the ghostly psychopath from “The Sunken Land”. These fictional villains hark to the all-too-human evils of Torquemada, Pol Pot, Gilles de Rais, and H. H. Holmes. Leiber understands that the truly frightening and destructive monsters walk among us. Even now. Especially now.
    cover of Knight & Knave of Swords, c.1988
    Just as important as the villains are the numerous females and the frolicks that pepper the pages like strewn undergarments in a courtesan's bedroom. These couplings range from deeply heart-felt relationships, to rescuing—or not—dollies in distress, through ribald dalliances with tavern trollops, lusty fellow thieves, and wide-eyed milkmaids, to slippery and amorous dealings with conniving, imperious bitches. Each Hero's affairs mirror his partner's; that is, each pal gets a paramour of appropriate nature throughout the episodes. Vlana and Ivrian, the significant pair of 1st loves to these adventures, set the band of attraction—as one needs to be protected and the other to be satisfied—but, more importantly, they wed Fafhrd and Mouser's comradeship through common ground and goals with the life-changing tragedy that makes “Ill Met in Lankhmar” such a popular setpiece of the series.
    cover for Knight & Knave of Swords, c.1988
    The novel entry—The Swords of Lankhmar—acts like a mid-life crisis to separate the youthful exploits from the more mature ones to come. Indeed, it is a psychological calamity for the Mouser, as one who is sensitive about his diminutive size (especially next to the giant Fafhrd) is shrunk to rodent dimensions to forestall a rat rebellion threatening the corrupt but at least human governance of Lankhmar. It contains all the hearty savorings that makes the series endearing—a sea voyage, wizard dabblings, robust battlings and intrigues—but it is especially beguiling concerning the contradictory attractions of amore. Hisvet is the Mouser's rat dipped in catnip. She is nothing but completely hypnotizing, confusing him between love with lust as easily as shedding her human appearance for that of the Rat Queen. Does it even dawn on Mouser when he's stripping off his moleskin jerkins or ratskin moccasins that he's dropping the dead relatives of his current object of desire? Leiber is so fixated with this allure crossed with revulsion for the hunter's traditional prey that he writes her into a second voyeuristic viewing in the final story of the series. Meanwhile, Fafhrd, fighting his way back to Lankhmar, strikes up a bizarre yet fascinating love affair with a girl Ghoul named Kreeshkra, whose main amorous attraction is transparent skin. Leiber's twinkling genius again plays his heroic pair off oneanother by adding to their dual natures through their choice of female fixations.
    As the Twain (Leiber's pet term for them as one) settle into retirement and the notion that they are truly “sundered halves of some past being” (“The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars”, p.64), their female counterparts, Cif and Afreyt, describe themselves as “spirit-halves of the great Rimish witch-queen Skeldir” (p.71). This final cycle begins half-way through the 6th volume called Swords and Ice Magic with the story “The Frost Monstreme”. It starts as the quest to defend Rime Isle from the ravishments of Wizards, Mingols, and foreign Gods, then continues through the 7th and final volume, The Knight and Knave of Swords, themed to the replacement of youthful bauble-hunting for the more mature responsibilities of community, friendship, and family. In the end, the edges of these personalities have turned to the center, rewarded with quiet harmony and cemented into the whole with female companionship. It was truly a grand life.
    Throughout the series, changes in style, tone, and structure keep popping up like the Heroes' two cantankerous, guileful and mischievous mentor-wizards, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Beyond the tailings of Greek theater, contes des fees, and the oral tradition of Bedtime stories, there are stories within stories narrated by introductory characters ranging from a demon-possessed twin, a child prostitute, and hobo gods. Satire and Farce are common; most noteworthy in “the Bazaar of the Bizarre” and “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, respectively. Leiber rarely tells his tale from a traditional point of view; he has too much of a wily sense of humor for that. He is constantly razoring the edge for new perspectives and insights.
    cover for Three of Swords
    Ultimately, of course, there's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser themselves. The un-romantizing of Leiber's heroes is a pretty common diatribe, but consider it as an Americanization also. Without lengthy historics, the Twain exhibit the anti-heroic qualities of fellow-American Robert E. Howard's Conan of the mid 1930s rather than Britisher Tolkien's hero, Frodo. The Hobbits and humans of The Lord of the Rings measure their adversaries solely among Warlocks and Orcs—as if anyone outside of the Empire is not civilized enough to be human—while Conan the Cimmerian fights other manly warriors, similar to the English, the Asians, and now—once again—the Muslims. Conan is a thief, mercenary, and a pirate just like Leiber's boys. By comparasion, look at the punishment Bilbo goes through for thieving the Ring in the first place.
    cover for Swords’ Masters
    Witness—as the great Rod Serling used to say—that The Godfather is considered by many the consummate American film these days instead of last century's king, Citizen Kane . The Declaration of Independence was based on breaking the law of the ruling society. Our heritage is telling us to get the job done regardless of the restrictions of the rulers, and that the only code of conduct is your own, because others'—especially institutions and empires—are corrupt and self-serving and don't care about individual's rights and needs. These are considered admirable qualities in our society, even though they encompass the criminal likes of outlaw bikers, rap-singing ghetto gangsters, Soprano-angst Mafiosos, Dr. Kevorkians, and Delta Force snipers. The American Dream may still be about settlement, but Leiber understands that the contemporary American Fantasy lies in the negotiation by any means possible.

    More importantly, though, is that the Twain, by their physical contrasts and dialectical personalities, represent the polarity running throughout the universe. Everything in Nehwon is about the push and pull of antipodal forces, actions and counter-actions, and that these opposites cannot exist independent of oneanother. Only when the value of each is accepted can balance be achieved. Certain magical objects hold this balance of power in check, as do beings, ghosts, wizards, and gods. Assignments such as in “Adept's Gambit” are given to Fafhrd and Mouser by prognosticating wizards to restore certain harmonies, just as rendered objects like the Gold Cube of Square-Dealing from “Rime Isle” are placed to inhibit others, and, when removed as in “The Mouser Goes Below”, cause dissonance. As Heraclitus stated in the 5th century BC, "that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre."

    The brillance of Fritz Leiber's acheivement is that he fashioned such a complex and comprehensive, fun and fascinating, and wonderously imaginative vehicle for this universal concept. He is credited with naming—and to a large extent fathering—this sub-genre of Fantasy known as Sword and Socercy. In my estimation, “Wits and Weapons” (“The Lords of Quarmall”, p.143) would be a more appropriate choice.


    ill courtesy of Amra magazine


    Know it or not, man treads between two abysses a tightrope that has neither beginning nor end.

    —Sheelba of the Eyeless Face (“When the Sea-King's Away, p.407).


    *Stories' names cited only. All page numbers are from the Book Club Editions, The Three of Swords ( Nelson Doubleday ) & Swords' Masters (Berkley), plus The Knight and Knave of Swords (Morrow, ISBN 068808530x, 1st edition, c.1988).

    © copyright 04/14/2007 by Larry Crawford

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