By most reckonings, the three biggest names in the sword and sorcery sub-genre are Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. (There is some debate whether Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock coined the term “sword and sorcery” to describe the stories that they were writing.)
As I explained in another post, Robert E. Howard’s Conan was my first exposure to the subgenre. Not long after, I encountered Moorcock’s darker tales of Elric of Melniboné and his soul stealing sword Stormbringer. I certainly knew of Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but somehow never read any of them—until now.
Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer created Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser when they were in college. It is said that they loosely based the towering barbarian and short-statured thief on themselves (Leiber was the tall one). Through unpublished stories and letters, they developed the two characters and the world where they lived, Nehwon, and Lankhmar, its greatest city. They even created a board game based on their noodling. While Leiber credits Fischer with the original concept of the chummy adventurers, Leiber wrote nearly all the stories featuring the pair.
Leiber’s first published story, in 1939, was a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, “Two Sought Adventure.” Eventually, he wrote enough of them to fill seven volumes collecting the tales chronologically. The first is Swords and Deviltry, which is where I started. Its stories introduce the two heroes—Fafhrd in “The Snow Women” and the Gray Mouser in “The Unholy Grail”—then tells of their first caper together, “Ill Met in Lankhmar.”
Leiber’s work won six Hugo Awards (and earned six more nominations) and three Nebula Awards (with seven more nominations), and the stories in Swords and Deviltry were among those so honored. “The Snow Women” was nominated for the Nebula, “The Unholy Grail” won the Hugo Award, and “Ill Met in Lankhmar” won both.
Fafhrd is a barbarian from the northern reaches of Nehwon. That sounds a bit like Conan, the barbarian from the northern land of Cimmeria. But there are significant differences in both their cultures and their personalities. Even physically, Fafhrd is taller, nearing seven feet in height, with long reddish-blonde hair to Conan’s black cropped mane. Also, Fafhrd likes to sing. In “The Snow Women,” the 18-year-old resists his mother’s attempts to wield both magic and social conventions to bend her son to her will. He eventually flees the frigid north to go to Lankhmar.
In “The Unholy Grail,” we meet a young wizard’s apprentice. His swarthy appearance and diminutive stature—certainly not over five feet tall—could hardly be more in contrast with Fafhrd. He goes by the nickname Mouse. His master realizes this apprentice prefers swords over magic, and that he also feels the pull of black magic. He tells the apprentice, “I fear me you will never be mouse in the end, but mouser. And never white but gray—oh well, that’s better than black.” After avenging his master’s murder, the Gray Mouser also leaves his home to seek his fortune in Lankhmar.
“Ill Met in Lankhmar” brings the two heroes together at last. In the short “Induction” that introduces this volume, Leiber describes the portent of their first meeting: “they were already dimly aware that they were two long-sundered fragments of a greater hero and that each had found a comrade who would outlast a thousand quests and a lifetime—or a hundred lifetimes—of adventuring.”
By chance they both target the same jewel thieves on the same night. Alone, neither would have succeeded, but together, they relieve the thieves of their ill-gotten goods and safely escape. Ultimately, this first adventure ends tragically. But together, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser leave Lankhmar, now “a city of beloved, unfaceable ghosts,” to seek other adventures.
And many more adventures they found, too—even after Leiber’s death, the pair’s adventures were adapted for comics. Conan and Elric are basically loners. But Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a team. All the subsequent stories in the series feature both heroes. One of Leiber’s goals with these stories was to portray heroes who were closer to true human nature. Conan was larger than life. And Elric, well, he was an albino sorcerer and emperor, dependent first on drugs, then on a soul stealing sword just to stay alive.
In Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Leiber created characters whose frustrations and desires are more universal. They rebel against their parents, love and lose love, and go on to love again. They are rogues, but with the proverbial heart of gold. But most of all, they are true friends. Someone needs to make a movie about them. It’d be a buddy fantasy for the ages.
Have you met Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser?