Seven is a lucky number for fans of adventure stories. The seven Harry Potter novels have sold more than 400 million copies and built a $24 billion brand. The seven Narnia novels by C.S. Lewis, have sold some 100 million copies, and are more popular now than at any time in their author’s life. But many connoisseurs of fantasy literature retain a special fondness for a less commercially grandiose series, yet one that can match any other for sheer vivacity and inventiveness: namely, the seven Fafhrd and Gray Mouse books by author Fritz Leiber.
These works are not stand-alone novels, but rather compilations of Leiber stories and novellas, written over a fifty year period. The first published Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, “Two Sought Adventure”—now included in Swords Against Death, the second volume in the series, as “The Jewels in the Forest” —appeared in Unknown in 1939. Some 49 years later, Leiber bowed out with “"Slack Lankhmar Afternoon Featuring Hisvet"—later incorporated into the novella “The Mouse Goes Below” featured in the final book in the series The Knight and Knave of Swords. Along the way, Leiber showcased his daring duo in 37 separate tales.
Leiber took no credit for the invention of the two characters, who were described in a September 1934 letter from Harry Otto Fischer to the author—Fafhrd, the barbarian swordsman from the frozen northlands was based on Leiber himself, while the sly wizard’s apprentice, the Gray Mouser, represented Fischer. Although Fischer, an enthusiastic science fiction fan, wrote part of "The Lords of Quarmall," Leiber had sole responsibility for the rest of the series, which came out in piecemeal form in more than a half-dozen different magazines, but gaining a fervent cult following along the way.
Swords and Deviltry, the first volume in the series actually consists of later material written as a prequel for the epic saga of the two adventurers. In “The Snow Women,” Leiber describes the youth of Fafhrd in the Cold Waste, and the incidents leading up to the swordsman’s departure for the warmer climes of the South and his eventual meeting with Gray Mouser. In “The Unholy Grail,” Gray Mouser is intro- duced as an apprentice to the wizard Glavas Rho, both master and disciple running afoul of the local Duke Janarrl, who has vowed to eradicate sorcerers from his realm. In the final story in the book, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”—winner of both the Hugo and Nebula as best novella of the year—the two heroes encounter each other for the first time, as both, unbeknownst to the other, plot to rob the same gems from a gang of thieves, and thus incur the vengeance of a dark wizard.
In these stories, readers will encounter many of the trade- mark qualities of Leiber’s oeuvre. Many later authors have attempted to combine elements of myth and magic with everyday realism—in time a whole genre, known as magical realism, would emerge from this provocative combination— but no writer of Leiber’s generation handled the recipe with more aplomb. Although he constructed Fafhrd and Gray Mouser during an era of virtuously vanilla superheroes, Leiber made his protagonists more vulnerable and down-to- earth than the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordons of his day. And bawdier too! Those who come to the Leiber tales after reading The Lord of the Rings and Narnia series will be struck by the boozing and lascivious behavior—indeed, by a general tone of naughty playfulness and irreverence not found in those other works.
But these are adventure stories, first and foremost, and Leiber a masterful storyteller in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard, Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like Robert Heinlein, Leiber could draw on his first-hand experience as a fencer in writing his sword fighting scenes —which play a central role in so many Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales. But his heroes also rely on bow and arrows, slingshot, and various other primitive weapons, including fists, elbows and feet. If the fight sequence is the action writer's equivalent of ballet, 20th century literature boasted no better prose choreographer of conflict and confrontation. Leiber's heroes didn't need a Rambo-like arsenal to extract themselves from a tight spot, and what they lacked in fire- power they made up for in ingenuity and sheer gamesmanship.
Sometimes Leiber is held back by the baroque overflow of his sentences. He greatly admired the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft—an overwrought author whose motto was never settle for one adjective when three or four might be squeezed into the word count. But this was perhaps an irresistible temptation for impecunious authors working for pulp magazines that paid by the word. Here is the opening sentence of Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar”: “Silent as spec- ters, the tall and the fat thief edged past the dead, noose- strangled watch-leopard, out the thick, lock-picked door of Jengao the Gem Merchant, and strolled east on Cash Street through the thin black night-smog of Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.” A bit much, no? But when I remember that Leiber came of age writing for youngsters who had no television, no video games, no 3D films packed with special effects, I forgive him for his extravagance. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but only a few decades back, the written word could paint pictures that could not be matched, let alone surpassed, by the studios in Hollywood. In Leiber’s day, the most stupendous spectacles were reserved for the blazing inner eye of the imagination, and our author aimed to provide heady literary CGI effects to fuel those fires.
But if Leiber is sometimes working from the same gothic playbook as Lovecraft and Poe, at other times he is surprisingly forward-looking in his storytelling. Leiber was fascinated by Carl Jung and modern psychology (he earned a degree in the subject in 1932, at a time when few colleges offered one), and he pays close attention to inner conflicts, compromised motivations and peculiar interpersonal dynamics in his stories. In “The Snow Women,” Fafhrd not only needs to battle bad guys with his sword, but faces an even bigger challenge in getting out from under the thumb of his domineering (and perhaps death-inflicting) mother—not to mention his pregnant girlfriend and her angry brothers. No, Gandalf never had those kinds of problems. Gray Mouser offers an even more complicated psyche for our inspection, one in which wounded pride and a sadistic undercurrent counter an appealing if naïve innocence and sense of fair play—this complexity plays out in the story of his youth from Swords and Deviltry, “The Unholy Grail,” where we learn that even our hero’s name is the result of his paradoxical nature, in which the elements of black and white cancel each other out, leaving behind an enigmatic gray, which the Mouser lives up to both in attire and behavior.
Despite the prevalence of so many imitators, direct and indirect, the Leiber stories themselves find too few readers nowadays, and any curious soul who wants to gauge the range of this author’s talents will need to hunt out used copies of his typically out-of-print works. Yet the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories seem long over-due for rediscovery— if not by the book world, than by some Hollywood director, theme park designer or video game programmer. If Narnia and The Lord of the Rings can become key cultural memes in the new millennium, this bawdier, more comic and ir- reverent take on the adventure genre would seem to present an even better match with the flippant tastes of our times. In the meantime, the stories are out there, rewarding those who hunt them down with some of the finest flights of fancy to be found on the written page.