Page 167 of the Atlas of Fantasy, by J.B. Post has a street map of Lankhmar, the most decadent city in the decadent sword-and-sorcery world of Nehwon.
It’s in Lankhmar that you are most likely to run into the two greatest swordsmen in the multi-verse: the barbarian northern named Fafhrd and the agile thief known only as the Gray Mouser.
The adventures of these two exuberant characters were chronicled by the great writer Fritz Leiber, but they were first dreamed up in the mind of someone else. Harry Otto Fischer, a friend of Leiber, described the characters in a letter written in 1934. Fischer also wrote the first few thousand words of a novella called Adept’s Gambit (which initially placed Fafhrd and the Mouser on Earth around the time of Alexander the Great). Leiber finished this tale, though that particular story didn’t see print until 1947.
Leiber took the characters to heart. At the time, fantasy stories were dominated by larger-than-life characters such as Conan the Barbarian. Of course, the original Conan stories are classics in of themselves, but the genre was in danger of falling into a rut.
Science Fiction editor John Campbell (who was re-defining that genre with his work on Astounding Science Fiction magazine) felt the same way, starting up a fantasy magazine called Unknown to showcase stories noticeably different than the blood-soaked yarns appearing in Weird Tales. The first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to see print appeared in Unknown in 1939. Titled “Two Sought Adventure” (later called “The Jewels in the Forest” when republished), it introduced us to two very unusual but still human heroes.
Fafhrd is boisterous, optimistic and full of life. The Mouser is cynical and suspicious. But the two men are loyal friends, humane despite their activities as mercenaries and thieves, and heroes often in spite of themselves.
These guys have to think on their feet. For example, when Fafhrd is given an assignment by his sorcerous advisor Ningauble of the Seven Eyes to save the city of Lankhmar, that assignment includes the need to complete several seemingly impossible tasks. Fafhrd, annoyed, demands to know exactly how he was supposed to do these things. “Ningauble shrugged once again. ‘You’re the hero. You should know.’”
These guys have some great adventures—everything from doing regular battle with Lankhmar’s Thieves’ Guild (they earn the enmity of the Guild pretty early in their careers) to encountering the inter-dimensional “Bazaar of the Bizarre” to saving the city from a civilization of intelligent… well, that last one is from the duo’s only full-length novel (Swords of Lankhmar) and I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Heck, even the adventures they have between stories (or between paragraphs) sound cool:
“[It] turned out to be much more complicated than had been anticipated, evolving from a fairly simply affair of Sidonian smugglers into a glittering intrigue studded with Cilician pirates, a kidnapped Cappadocian princess, a forged letter of credit on a Syracusian financier, a bargain with a female, Cyprian slave-dealer, a rendezvous that turned into an ambush, some priceless tomb-filched Egyptian jewels that no one ever saw, and a band of Idumean brigands who came galloping out of the desert to upset everyone’s calculations.”
That’s from Adept’s Gambit and is there simply to explain why several weeks pass before Fafhrd and the Mouser return their attentions to the main plot. It’s an extraordinarily entertaining sentence on its own, as well as containing more of a sense of pure adventure than many full-length novels are able to generate.
Leiber’s prose is like that, full of good humor and real emotion. He really does succeed in breaking the Conan mold and taking fantasy literature in a different direction.
When I randomly chose the page about Lanhkmar in the Atlas of Fantasy, I then randomly picked one of the stories. I came up with “The Seven Black Priests,” first published in 1953.
The two are marching through a frozen northern wasteland, returning from another adventure. They are attacked by a black priest and soon discover that there are seven of these guys serving an ancient god. The god, as near as they can figure, is the inner world of Newhon itself, which hopes to one day rise up and rid itself of those vermin-like humans that infest its surface.
They steal a jewel from the priests and whittle down their numbers in a series of fights (which includes sword fighting while skiing down an icy slope). But the Mouser is worried about Fafhrd, who seems obsessed with the jewel and, in fact, leads them in a circle back to the rocky hill where they found it. Is the Mouser’s friend possessed and being used as a tool to call up the ancient god? And what can the Mouser do about it before all mankind is placed in horrible danger?
It’s a well-constructed and lively tale with good action, a mystery and two protagonists we really enjoy hanging out with.
Next week, we’ll see what we come up with from 101 Greatest Films of Mystery and Suspense.