Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses Fritz Leiber’s fantasy-classic Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories:

“I have a treasure… [a] diamond as big as a man’s skull. Twelve rubies each as
big as the skull of a cat. Seventeen emeralds… [a]nd certain rods of crystal and
bars of orichalcum… Let fools seek it. They shall win it not. For although
my treasure house be empty as air… yet I have set a guardian
there. Let the wise read this riddle and forebear.”

— “The Jewels in the Forest”

Sword and sorcery may not be the most critically acclaimed mode within the fantasy genre, but it’s one of the most enduring and has proven perennially popular. The first sword and sorcery story was probably Dunsany’s novella “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1907), which brought together all the basic elements: an evil wizard, a brave young hero, a magic sword, and a host of obstacles preventing the hero from getting at the wizard with the sword. Sword and sorcery was a mainstay of the fantasy pulp magazines, best exemplified in the work of Robert E. Howard, whose Conan series (1932-36) pretty much set the standard for decades to follow. Howard may have been a hack, but he was an honest hack, able to vividly convey his own wild-eyed enthusiasm for violence as a solution to virtually any problem. Conan himself is a paean to the virtues of the Noble Savage who grows in character throughout the series, culminating in the novel Hour of the Dragon (also known as Conan the Conqueror) where a middle-aged Conan has acquired a sense of responsibility and fights to defend the subjects of his usurped kingdom.

Howard had many imitators, most of whom aped his style and lacked both his imagination and his sincerity, like modern-day musicians engineering pops and crackles into their songs to make them sound more like bygone artists they admire. One follower who avoided this trap was Michael Moorcock, who in the early 1960s attempted to re-invent the genre by inverting its conventions with Stormbringer (1963), the first (and best) of the Elric of Melniboné series. Instead of an uncivilized barbarian, Moorcock gives us an overcivilized decadent; instead of rising from adventurer to king, Elric declines from emperor to peopleless wanderer; instead of the straightforward Conan’s loyalty and occasional gallantry, the subtle Elric betrays and brings about the death of every friend, subject, relative, or subordinate who puts their trust in him. In fact, Elric is just the sort of treacherous wizard whom Conan specializes in lopping the heads off of. Unfortunately, instead of stopping after the impressive feat of writing the epic tale of Elric’s death, Moorcock proceeded to churn out a flood of prequels, all essentially retellings of the same story, diluting the impact of the original with every regurgitation.

“I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear.
Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall
bid him, and there meet his doom… He might look at two such as you
and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore.
And when he said it three times you would have to go…. “

— “The Bleak Shore”

Long before Moorcock, however, another author had found a way to combine Howard’s gusto with a more literate sensibility: Fritz Leiber. Even before Howard’s death, Leiber and his friend Harry Fischer had in 1934 created the characters of Fafhrd, a clever barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, a consummate thief — both expert swordsmen, both adventurers extraordinaire, and both relying in more or less equal parts on their skill at swordplay, their brains, and their luck, but above all, on their partner. The two young authors even in 1936 submitted a story apiece (Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit” and Fischer’s “Quarmall”) to H. P. Lovecraft, famous as an encourager of young artists, who thought Fischer had more imagination but judged Leiber the better writer. Fischer soon abandoned writing to become a salesman of corrugated cardboard boxes (any job being precious in the Depression),[1] but despite rejection notices from Weird Tales Leiber pressed on, honing his style and developing a whole world (Newhon, an anagram from “No when”) as a backdrop for the pair’s adventures. With the advent of John W. Campbell’s Unknown,[2] Leiber finally found the perfect venue for his tales: an audience that craved adventure but demanded witty dialogue and plot twists, above all insisting that the stories obey their own internal logic. The five stories that appeared there are still among the best in the entire series (and, by extension, the entire sword and sorcery genre): “Two Sought Adventure” (later renamed “The Jewels in the Forest”), “The Bleak Shores”, “The Howling Tower”, “The Sunken Land” (which contains the inspiration for D&D‘s cloakers), and “Thieves’ House” (from whence all subsequent Thieves Guilds derive).

“That was unwise, as I have many times warned you. Advertise often enough
your connection with the Elder Gods and you may be sure that some
greedy searcher from the pit… ”
“But what is our connection with the Elder Gods?” asked the Mouser,
eagerly, though not hopefully. . .
“Those are matters best not spoken of,” Ningauble ordained. “. . . However,
I can tell you this much: the one who has placed the ignoble spell upon
you is, insofar as he partakes of humanity, a man. . . and an adept.”
The Mouser started. Fafhrd groaned, “Again?”

— “Adept’s Gambit”

In its early days, the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series had ties to the Cthulhu mythos — Leiber’s first book, Night’s Black Agents (1947), was actually published by Arkham House, the small press publisher created to put the ephemeral tales that made up the Lovecraft Tradition in more permanent form (e.g., hardcovers). Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, Fafhrd’s sorcerous patron, is probably a minor Elder God (among his titles is “Gossiper of the Gods”), and Fafhrd himself hails from the Cold Wastes (Kadath?). Over time, however, Leiber developed his own mythology; the Mouser’s patron, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, is like nothing in Lovecraft, owing more perhaps to tales of Baba Yaga, but with Leiber’s own distinctive twists:

“Close by the southern side of the road a rather large, rounded hut stood
on five narrow posts… [L]ightning glared, revealing with great clarity
a hooded figure crouched inside the low doorway. Each fold
and twist of the figure’s draperies stood out… precisely.
… If the hood had been empty, the draperies at its back
would have been shown clearly. But no, there was only
that oval of ebon darkness, which even the levinbolt
could not illumine.”

— “The Circle Curse”

Leiber’s major contribution to sword and sorcery, however, may well be Lankhmar itself: the great city that is the adoptive home of his two heroes and to which they return time and time again. Lankhmar is the direct ancestor of all the great crowded, sprawling, wicked cities that have formed backdrops in fantasy ever since, from the City State of the Invincible Overlord and Waterdeep to Thieves’ World‘s Sanctuary and Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork (in fact, the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd guest-star in the very first Discworld story, “The Colour of Magic”, under the pseudonyms of The Weasel and Bravd). It is fitting, therefore, that the only novel in the series, The Swords of Lankhmar, is set almost entirely within and beneath the city, from the palace of its decadent (and crazed) Overlord to the rat-tunnels underneath the city (home to the wererats, a new type of lycanthrope Leiber created that has proved extremely popular) to the temple of the Gods of Lankhmar themselves (sinister evil skeletons who emerge only on rare occasions to destroy some threat to the city or some rival faith that has dared to challenge their supremacy).

“Too much good luck was always dangerous.”

— “The Sunken Land”

Between their greed for treasure, their lust for adventure, their weakness for a pretty face, and the troublesome quests their sorcerous patrons send them on, neither the Mouser nor Fafhrd ever lack for things to do. Through one novel, four novellas (“Adept’s Gambit”, “The Lords of Quarmall”, “Stardock”, and “Rime Island”), and some thirty short stories,[3] his heroes win and lose treasures, girls, and occasionally their dignity (“Lean Times in Lankhmar”, “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”), but their friendship always carries through. Eventually they even meet the right girls, acquire henchmen, and settle down, embracing middle age and responsibility with the enthusiasm they once devoted to battling monsters and foiling the plots of evil wizards; Leiber’s work is unusual in that his characters are well-rounded enough to change over time, the more than fifty years he spent writing the series being matched by several decades passing within the internal chronology of the stories.

By the time he had finished it, Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series had transcended its pulp roots to become the epitome of “sword and sorcery” — a genre he not only defined but which Leiber is actually credited with naming. By the simple expedient of shifting from a single hero to a duo of equal partners, he opened up a world of possibilities: with two main characters, he had vastly expanded opportunities for dialogue (something at which Leiber, with his background in theatre, excelled) — something of a problem with the strong, silent, brutish types of Howard’s direct imitators. He can also play with perspective: some tales are told primarily from Fafhrd’s point of view (“The Sunken Land”), others from the Mouser’s (“The Howling Tower”), while most switch back and forth between the two, often with interesting and sometimes humorous effect (e.g., “Bazaar of the Bizarre”). Leiber’s attractive mix of humor, horror, and action have kept his stories from aging as badly as most pulp tales have done: even the pair’s many girlfriends (different in every story, until about the middle of the sixth book) tend to be extremely capable, less damsels in distress than interesting companions encountered along the way. And, finally, to the appeal of his intelligent and essentially good-hearted if larcenous heroes must be added the range of great supporting characters (particularly Sheelba and Ningauble), the many surprises his imagination provides as foils for the heroes (a living building, a malign cloud that possesses the susceptible, body-swapping master sorcerers, sword-armed monsters that hatch out of giant eggs, and Death himself), and of course the sheer quality of the writing: no one has ever done sword and sorcery better.[4]

Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and Your Game

Leiber was a major influence on the creation of D&D (he even contributed some pieces to The Dragon), and it’s no surprise to find many elements of the series found their way into the game. The D&D magic system may derive from Vance, the player character races and whole concept of an adventuring party (characters with vastly different skills working together as a team) from Tolkien, but what heroes actually DO in a typical D&D game is pure Leiber: fighting, sneaking, purloining, exploring, and trying to get out alive when a plan goes bad. In fact, the closest thing Leiber has to an heir for his literary legacy are the D&D novel lines, who have thoroughly assimilated his influence and carry on the sword and sorcery tradition more closely than anyone else writing today.

Not surprisingly, given the close relationship between TSR and Leiber, a great many game products have been published based directly on his work: the Lankhmar boardgame (1976; a simplified version of the wargame created in 1937 by Leiber and Fischer), Dragonsword of Lankhmar (1986, a one-on-one pick-a-path book in which one player plays Fafhrd and the Mouser and the other the two poor sods from the Thieves’ Guild who are going up against them), the “Newhon” entry in the original Deities & Demigods (1980, offering game stats for Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Sheelba, Ningauble, and various gods and monsters). Lankhmar was even an official AD&D setting; the line (1985-86, 1990-96) went through three editions and eleven modules (adventures or sourcebooks, the best of which was probably Slade Henson’s Slayers of Lankhmar) but failed to really find an audience, probably because it tried to twist the setting to work with standard AD&D character classes rather than reinventing a variant of AD&D that would work well with very small groups (a DM and one or two player characters), which would have been truer to Leiber’s world.

That missed opportunity aside, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series is chock-full of great ideas for player characters and DMs alike. Many a PC has been based on a child of one or the other of the two heroes, the result of one of their many casual encounters throughout the series (Leiber himself introduced just such a character in the seventh and final book). Sheelba and Ningauble are ideal motivators for adventures, and settings such as Stardock, Quarmall, The Castle Called Mist (from “Adept’s Gambit”), Thieves’ House, and the Treasure House of Urgaan (“The Jewels in the Forest”) would make fine dungeons. Leiber’s work is also rich with villains, from the Old Man Without a Beard to the Seven Black Priests, from Atya priestess of Tyaa to Hisvet the seductive wererat. In short, anyone who can read a volume of F&GM stories without coming up with a dozen ideas to work into their existing game simply isn’t trying.

[1] Fischer returned to authorship late in life, contributing a short piece on the Mouser’s childhood and another story about a modern-day family of sorcerers to early issues of The Dragon.

[2] Unknown (1939-1943) ceased publication after only four years due to paper shortages during World War II, but its influence on mid-century American fantasy can hardly be overstated. The quality of its contents were such that it has been estimated that over half the stories appearing in this magazine were later reprinted in short story collections and anthologies — a record no other pulp magazine ever came close to matching. Among the authors who appeared here were Heinlein, de Camp, Sturgeon, Kuttner, Pratt, Arthur, Hubbard, del Rey, van Vogt, Bester, Bloch, Boucher, Wellman, Williamson, Wollheim, and many, many others; both Bradbury and Asimov had stories accepted that would have appeared had the periodical run a few more issues.

[3] The first F&GM collection, Two Sought Adventure (1957), collected eight of the best tales. In 1970 Donald Wollheim of Ace Books, who was also responsible for the first paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, persuaded Leiber to assemble a five-book collection of all the pair’s adventures, put in chronological order from their adolescence to their peak: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death (a reissue of Two Sought Adventure with a few new stories added), Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, and The Swords of Lankhmar. To this was added a sixth volume (Swords and Ice Magic, 1977), carrying the heroes into middle age, and finally a seventh (The Knight and Knave of Swords, 1988), which shows them coping with the approach of old age.

The seven books have since been repackaged in a three-volume (trade paperback) and four-volume (mass-market paperback) set from White Wolf, the titles in the latter being Ill Met in Lankhmar, Lean Times in Lankhmar, Return to Lankhmar, and Farewell to Lankhmar, with introductions by the likes of Neil Gaiman (“one of my very favourite books”), Moorcock, and Raymond Feist. Most recently the entire series has been made available in a two-volume omnibus, part of the Fantasy Masterworks series.

Those interested in sampling the series would be well advised to skip over the stories in Swords and Deviltry (late additions to bring the two characters together and provide them with “origin stories”) as well as the frame story for Swords Against Death and plunge right into the heart of the series with “The Jewels in the Forest” and the stories that follow in the second volume (Swords Against Death). Other outstanding stories include “The Cloud of Hate” (Swords in the Mist), “The Frost Monstreme”/”Rime Isle” (Swords and Ice Magic), and most of The Swords of Lankhmar. Like the first volume, the final (The Knight and Knave of Swords) is best avoided by all but completists.

[4] Leiber’s work is not limited to sword and sorcery, of course; he also wrote a number of important horror stories (“Smoke Ghost”, Conjure Wife) and at least one major science fiction series, the Change War stories — one of the most interesting takes on time-travel, and the probable inspiration for the old Pacesetter roleplaying game, TimeMaster. He also wrote one of the single finest Lovecraft pastiches, “To Arkham and the Stars.”

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