Saturday, October 06, 2007

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser

Publishing often is a game of reinventing the very same wheel every five years or so. I discovered Fritz Leiber's great "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" stories in Ace paperback during the early '80s, and then helped sell them in omnibuses fifteen years later at the book clubs. Along the way, White Wolf put out their stylish hardcovers for another, slightly different audience. And now, Dark Horse is reprinting the series for this decade -- getting them into comics shops and gaming stores, where so many nascent Leiber fans lurk, unknown even to themselves.

The two I have on hand today are the second and third in the series, Swords Against Death and Swords in the Mist. (The first, Swords and Deviltry, is already available from Dark Horse in a matching edition and the fourth, Swords Against Wizardry, will be published in late November. After that are the only full-length novel in the series, The Swords of Lankhmar, and two more great collections of stories. As I said above, you can start anywhere; this is the old-fashioned kind of series where each book actually stands on its own as a full, enjoyable experience.)

These days, a lot of even voracious fantasy readers think there only ever has been epic fantasy. (Call it "high" fantasy, or heroic fantasy, or what have you: big quests with large casts across multiple volumes to bring the Plot Coupons to bear against the Dark Lord.) But some of us geezers remember when the dominant kind of fantasy was swords & sorcery: usually short stories, about various roguish types whose only concern was themselves. Robert E. Howard's "Conan" stories were the great originator of the type, and my own youth is caught up with memories of the first half-dozen or so "Thieves' World" anthologies edited by Robert Lynn Asprin. There was plenty more -- the Flashing Swords anthologies, the Eternal Champion books by Michael Moorcock -- and most of it, I think, got sucked into the D&D orbit as the '80s went on. Maybe that was its downfall.

But for me, the best writer and most exciting storyteller of S&S was Fritz Leiber. Leiber is one of the greatest, and most underappreciated SF/Fantasy writers of the 20th century to begin with, and his stories about those two great swordsmen, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, were among his very best works. He started writing about the pair in the late '30s, when he was a very young man, and continued adding stories to the series up until his death in 1992. He never had a period when he was pumping out the Fafhrd stories to meet a deadline; they always came when they came, maybe a new one in a year, maybe not. And so, consequently, they're all very good.

Each book -- except, of course, The Swords of Lankhmar, which hasn't yet had a new Dark Horse edition -- contains a mixture of stories, with some long tales like Mist's "Adept's Gambit" (one of the first-written stories) and Deviltry's Hugo- and Nebula- winning "Ill Met in Lankhmar" along with shorter pieces like Death's amusing "Bazaar of the Bizarre," Mist's laconic "Lean Times in Lankhmar," and the sardonic "The Sadness of the Executioner" (one of my very favorite stories in the series, for which you''ll have to wait for book six, Swords and Ice Magic). Some of the stories are heroic; some anti-heroic. In some our heroes success; in others they only survive. Leiber never wrote to formula, and every tale of these two rogues is as fresh and charming as the next.

Do you care who Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are? One is a tall, red-headed barbarian (or so-called) from a frozen land in the north; the other a small, sneaky ex-wizard's apprentice well-versed in the seamier side of cities. They're two halves of the same whole; two men who are very good at what they do but never perfect, never infallible, never less than human. (Unlike that old wish-fulfillment Conan, whose stories are rousing adventures but who himself is utterly unbelievable.) They're not quite heroes, but they are real people. And their adventures are endlessly entertaining to follow.

So pick up any one of these books, if you've never read Leiber. If you have a choice, Deviltry is probably the best bet, but any would be a good introduction. And then you'll see what fantasy once was, and what it can be in the hands of a master storyteller.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting about Leiber. Not enough fantasy readers are familiar with him, being too caught up in the latest "doorstop of the month" by more modern, inferior writers. Leiber really had the stuff, and when I get a hankering for good fantasy, I know I won't be disappointed when I pick up a "Swords" book.

Jeff P.

Anonymous said...

I second the comment from Mr Anonymous. I love all of Leiber's work, but the "Swords" books are my very, very favourite. It's so nice to see that they are coming back into print.

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