Pulp Fiction Redux: Swords, Sorcery and Fritz Leiber

“This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the end and black comedians for all eternity…”
—Fritz Leiber, preface to the 1973 printing of Swords and Deviltry

The towering barbarian Fafhrd and the nimble Gray Mouser are as iconic a duo as Batman and Robin. They ought to be more iconic, even, since neither exists alone. (Never mind that the small one hasn’t died any more often than the tall one.) The pair are the most enduring creation of Fritz Leiber (1910-1992). Leiber contributed short stories to Weird Tales and other pulp publications before the Second World War. He was influenced by Lovecraft’s mythos, and later by Jung and Campbell. He introduced Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in 1939, in a story called “Two Sought Adventure,” but his first books were collections of horror and science fiction shorts. He won a Hugo for his sci-fi novel The Wanderer, and went on to collect other Hugos, Nebulas, and a host of lifetime achievement awards. He’s also one of the progenitors of urban horror. Influential dude.

Fafhrd and the Mouser were conceived as pulp heroes along the lines of a Conan or an Elric (though they predate the latter). Leiber co-created them with his friend Harry Fischer, though Leiber ended up doing the lion’s share of the work after. Fafhrd and the Mouser were, like so many other pulp fantasy heroes, creatures of short stories. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when Leiber was sorting out early stories for book publication, that they had a proper timeline and the chance to operate in longer forms. The books started coming out in 1969, and kept coming at irregular intervals until 1989, a few years before Leiber’s death.

Aside from being a duo, what made Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser different? For one, they were funny. Leiber’s writing is tremendously clever. A publisher’s blurb calls it “dry wit,” which is apt enough. The stories are the kind of funny that leads consistently to grins and seldom to laughter. Compared to anything by Howard and most of Moorcock’s work, the F&GM stories might as well be stand-up comedy specials. The titular heroes drink too much, fall down, trick their enemies, trick each other…the swordplay and thefts and games with capital-D Death might be the story, but it’s hard to separate them from the fun the author—and often the characters—are having.

The stories are also profoundly strange. Moorcock sent his heroes traipsing across worlds, fighting extradimensional wizards they’d mistaken for towers, and wandering fantastic landscapes with a dose of psychedelia. Leiber keeps his locations mundane, if somewhat baroque. Even though Lankhmar, F&GM’s home city is an exceedingly odd place, its internal rules are straightforward. The strangeness in Leiber’s stories is typically internal. Rather than tripping through worlds, he sends his heroes tripping through their own heads. The two are repeatedly afflicted by spells that mess with their minds. They spend time underground and in the air. There’s a whole species of person with visible bones but invisible flesh. Lots of rats and magic potions, too.

I could go on for a while longer about the cool things in the Lankhmar stories, but I want to spend some time on the big one. Accept this list as a set of interesting curiosities: Lankhmar (the city) is important in that it’s one of the first urban fantasy settings, never mind that it’s a hive of scum and villainy to put Mos Eisely to shame. Leiber and Fischer helped develop a Lankhmar game that was published in 1976 by a fledgling company called TSR. There’s the usual squicky racial othering (Mingols?!), but it isn’t nearly as bad as the works of the earlier generation. Leiber also did more than just solidify the concept of “sword and sorcery” fantasy fiction—he probably coined the term himself.

Here’s the big thing, though…and it’s big enough to merit another quote:

“I confess I find it strange and somewhat distasteful to be forever sending other men on adventures, rather than setting forth on them myself.”
—Fafhrd, The Knight and Knave of Swords

That’s where Fritz Leiber has taken us by the late 1980s: his iconic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have grown up, become middle-aged. In their last (published) adventure, they discover their young adult children, make a kind of peace with their wives, and become, of all things, businessmen. This is, I think, one of the more extraordinary developments in fantasy fiction: Leiber lets his heroes grow up. Their adventures have consequences. Their dalliances have quite literal consequences that show up with identifying birthmarks.

This was a huge deal for pulp heroes, even though by the late 80s other authors were writing fantasy novels with developing heroes. For the heroes of sword and sorcery, time just didn’t happen. It might have passed, but seldom in a definite way. Stories could be logically sequenced. They existed, though, in something pretty closely resembling Bakhtin’s epic chronotope. Places and events were interchangeable. Characters did not interact with each other or their environment in ways that changed their being. Elric was always Hamlet with a demon sword. Conan was always a noble thug. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though…they changed. We get origin stories. Origin stories that make sense, even. Those happened back in the 70s. The Gray Mouser and Fafhrd grow and develop, even though they’re tangled up in perfectly pulp-y schemes. Even in the sequence of short stories, we get something like a novelistic chronotope.

The bemused distaste with which they end their adventures is as cool and worth celebrating as the fact that they began them as “the greatest swordsmen ever to be.”

The works of Fritz Leiber are widely available. White Wolf published a four-volume set of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were published in the mid-90s. That’s out of print, but there are many used copies of Leiber’s seven-volume set (the published order), as well as e-books (though I’ve heard that the e-books diverge from the published copies in places).