It’s sometimes funny what sticks with a reader. I first encountered Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Fritz Leiber’s famed sword and sorcery duo and the protagonists of Swords and Deviltry, on the order of 40 years ago, and I remember very clearly that I started with the second volume: Swords Against Death. If I were recommending the series to someone who hadn’t read them before, I think I would have them start there too, and come back to the origin stories that make up Swords and Deviltry some time later.
Leiber himself did much the same; the three stories that comprise this volume (“The Snow Women” 1962, “The Unholy Grail” 1970, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” 1970) were published more than two decades after the first print appearance of the duo. It’s better to come back and have these stories fill in the details of the pair’s beginnings, to enjoy Leiber’s stylish tics, and see how Leiber conceives of his heroes as youths after having chronicled many of their later adventures.
I have always enjoyed the mock archaic summaries that Leiber places in the table of contents. Here, for example, is what he says about “The Snow Women”:
Of the ice magic of women and of a cold war between the sexes, setting forth the predicament of a resourceful youth ringed by three masterful women, together with pertinent information on father-son love, the bravery of actors, and the courage of fools. (p. 3)
Much of the story is there, and yet it isn’t — a splendid teaser.
Fafhrd and the Mouser will probably read like clichés to a contemporary reader encountering them for the first time. That’s unavoidable first because the stories are more than half a century old now, but second because they and their creator did so much to establish the form and content of sword and sorcery adventure tales. Fafhrd is a tall, bearded, red-headed swordsman from the far north of Nehwon, a frigid region widely regarded as barbaric. The Mouser is small, fast, wielding a rapier to Fafhrd’s broadsword, and with some knowledge of magic. Fafhrd, for his part, is unusually resistant to enchantment.
The first two stories tell their separate origins. The third tells of their second meeting, their first having been a brief encounter when Fafhrd was on a raid down in the south. In “The Snow Women” Fafhrd is a youth lightly seasoned by some Viking-style raids in the south. He’s keen to get out into the world, but he has also gotten a local girl pregnant (the story is racier than I remembered/expected, considering it was published the year before sex was invented), and she is keen to make him stay. His father died under peculiar circumstances, and his mother is the strongest magic user among his clan’s women. Then a theater group cum trading expedition stops for a visit, and things get interesting.
“The Unholy Grail” sees the Mouser, initially known as Mouse, for he is as mild at the outset of this story as he is heartless later, an apprentice to a magician out in the sticks. The local duke has forbidden magic in his realm, and as the story opens his men have ruthlessly enforced this edict on the hedge wizard. The duke’s daughter has been dabbling as the other apprentice, and she and Mouse are quite taken with each other. This all ends rather badly for the duke, and by the end Mouse has turned from prey to predator.
“Ill Met in Lankhmar” won the 1970 Nebula and 1971 Hugo for best novella; it tells of the second and lasting meeting between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. At least as importantly for people who begin reading the series with this book, it introduces the city of Lankhmar, the scene of many of the pair’s adventures. It is a rough, decadent place; the largest and richest city in the world, and yet full of back alleys, cutthroats, nearly ruined buildings, and masses of poor people. The only city institution described in much detail in the story is the Thieves’ Guild, which is portrayed as more powerful than the city government itself.
Fafhrd and the Mouser meet because they have independently decided to divert a Thieves’ Guild mission and separate the organized criminals from their loot. Though they did not know each other previously, they fight to defend each others’ lives, and soon discover their complementary strengths. The Mouser, it turns out, has become a legendary burglar, an even greater distinction when one considers that thieving unsanctioned by the Guild is met with a summary punishment of death. If the Guild can get their hands on the freelancer, that is. Fafhrd, too, has reasons to oppose the Guild, reasons that are spelled out in “The Snow Women.” Thieves’ Guilds have become common in fantasy, not least through their incorporation into Dungeons & Dragons, but I think that Leiber may have been the first to make the Guild a significant element of his setting.
“Ill Met in Lankhmar” has three sequences between Fafhrd and the Mouser, and the Guild: the initial hijacking of a robbery, the pair’s infiltration of the Guild’s headquarters prompted by boasting to their first loves, and a return to wreak havoc after the Guild’s sorcerer visits a horrible fate on the women. A modern reader will see their fate coming a mile away, and it’s the aspect of the story that most shows its age. Ivrian and Vlana are interesting and lively characters in their own right in the first two stories and the early part of the third — they would even pass some parts of the Bechdel test — but their death is staged solely to motivate the male characters in the story, and that’s very offputting.
Fifty years is a long time for a set of adventure stories to still be read, and Leiber’s tales of the duo bring plenty of virtues: a setting that’s rich and mysterious, snappy action, stylish recounting, timing and pacing shaped by Leiber’s time in the theater, magic with enough detail to feel real but enough mystery not to be just another form of clockwork. Swords and Deviltry begins at the beginning, but skipping ahead might be a better course if one is coming to these stories for the first time. This is the warm-up act, the later books are the headliners.