A Classic Tolkien Alternative … SWORDS AND DEVILTRY by Fritz Leiber

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard the name of Fritz Leiber and his two most famous creations, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Within the subgenre of swords and sorcery (a term Leiber is credited with creating), Leiber and Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, loom large, and the impact of their characters and world continue to play a role throughout fantasy literature even today. From Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria, Leiber’s characters and the city of Lankhmar inspire today’s bestsellers more than 75 years after the first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story appeared in print.

Nyki Blatchley has already provided a thorough description of what Fritz Leiber has meant to the fantasy genre here, so I’d prefer to write about the first of seven collections, Swords and Deviltry, in which we meet both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser separately, beginning with Fafhrd’s story in “The Snow Women” (1970), the Gray Mouser’s solo adventure in “The Unholy Grail” (1962) and the story of how the two came to join forces in the ominously-titled “Ill Met in Lankhmar” (1970), which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella.

I wasn’t terribly impressed early in the book, which opens with “Induction,” an approximately 300-word introduction to the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar that could easily have been cut without costing the reader anything. “The Snow Women” introduces us to Fafhrd and his desire to leave his native Northmen and discover civilization in the southern cities, and how he falls in love with Vlana, a southern dancer/prostitute who seeks someone to take her back to Lankhmar to wage war against the Thieves Guild. For the most part, this chapter seems to have been written more to offer a glimpse of Fafhrd’s life before he met the Gray Mouser than to provide an exciting tale in its own right.

“The Unholy Grail” was an improvement, as the Gray Mouser seeks to avenge the death of his master, the wizard Glavas Rho. Rho’s early description of the Gray Mouser prepares us for a protagonist who’s willing to fight the bad guys with even blacker magic:

“You are a middling dutiful scholar, but secretly you prefer swords over wands. You are more tempted by the hot lips of black magic than the chaste slim fingers of white, no matter to how pretty a misling the latter belong – no, do not deny it! You are more drawn to the beguiling sinuosities of the left-hand path than the straight steep road of the right. I fear you will never be the mouse in the end but mouser. And never white but gray.”

It’s a cunningly-crafted description that sets Leiber apart from so many of his swords and sorcery brethren, and sets us up to follow a character who, like Fafhrd in “The Snow Wives,” finds himself at a crossroads.

It’s in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” where the story really picks up, as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser each ambush the same set of thieves at the same time. Together, they defeat their foes, then return to the Gray Mouser’s home. Recognizing kindred spirits in one another, they celebrate alongside their respective women, Ivrian and Vlana. In their drunken revelry, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser decide to infiltrate the Thieves Guild, a decision that ultimately ends in tragedy.

It’s in this final chapter that the book is at its most exciting and the characters of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser most come to life. While both are solid characters, it’s clear that they’re at their best when they are together – it’s the relationship between the two that makes these stories so memorable, and gives Leiber an opportunity to showcase his humor and wordplay in a way he simply can’t when they are separated.

In some ways, with its morally-gray protagonists and straightforward references to sex, it feels like a very modern book, but its use of women is clearly very much outdated. From the beginning, when Fafhrd strives to escape the control of his ice-witch mother and the fiancé he has impregnated, it’s clear that the women are often obstacles to be overcome in our characters’ quest for happiness, and even when Fafhrd meets Vlana, it’s heavily hinted that she is merely using him as a means to an end.

Admittedly, there’s a certain strength in Vlana’s actions as she attempts to make her way in a world dominated by men, and even Ivrian displays a certain nobility in her early attempts to help the Gray Mouser overcome her father. But ultimately, if you’re looking for a book in which the women play an equal role to the men, these won’t be the stories for you. As Leiber spent decades writing the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, it’s possible that this changes, but at least in these three stories, an old-fashioned dynamic is quite strongly on display.

Despite that, I think men and women alike can enjoy the adventure that consumes the close of the book and appreciate Leiber’s wordsmithing, which takes simple scenes such as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser debating which should pay for their drinks, and makes it magical:

The Mouser dug into his pouch to pay, but Fafhrd protested vehemently. In the end they tossed coin for it, and Fafhrd won and with great satisfaction clinked out his silver smerduks on the stained and dented counter, also marked with an infinitude of mug circles, as if it had once been the desk of a mad geometer.

Nehwoh is a grim, gritty world, but Leiber’s description oftentimes lifts it to unparalleled heights as an alternative to Tolkien’s high fantasy. If you enjoy today’s fantasy bestsellers, it’s worthwhile to look back at the world and characters who laid the foundation.

This review first appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com here: http://fantasy-faction.com/2014/swords-and-deviltry-by-fritz-leiber

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2 thoughts on “A Classic Tolkien Alternative … SWORDS AND DEVILTRY by Fritz Leiber

  1. I read these as a teen and really enjoyed them, in a way that I didn’t enjoy Tolkien’s rather dry style. (I didn’t finish the LotR series until some time in college.) Just the character interplay really made them shine. I agree though about the role of women, and I can’t remember it altering too much throughout the series. A lot of the books put out in that era were like that — I recall the Elric novels being much the same — and so while I don’t regret reading them, I kind of wish I’d read more modern material during my formative years.

  2. I would agree these are masculine fantasies, though in many stories, the twain’s hubris is often punctured by far clever women (such as ‘The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar), however, female characters in the series are far more interesting than many in ‘herioc fiction’, and become stronger I feel.

    I did my own review of Snow Women, which I think says much the same as yours, though I think I enjoyed it more than Ill met.
    http://www.lankhmar.co.uk/minireview-snow-women/

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