conceptual fiction
Swords and Deviltry

by Fritz Leiber
Essay by Ted Gioia
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.  

Related Stories
Fritz Leiber at 100
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

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.
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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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