What I’m Reading: Fritz Leiber – Swords and Deviltry

Swords and Deviltry is the first volume of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, a series that in its own way has probably been every bit as influential as The Lord of the Rings. With the difference, though, that this influence was not primarily literary – while Tolkien’s magnum opus spawned countless High Fantasy novels that imitated or emulated it, reworked it or pitted themselves against it, Low Fantasy authors looking for literary inspiration for the most part turned towards Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories as their model. But what Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, their world of Nehwon and particularly its largest city Lankhmar were a huge influence on, is fantasy roleplay gaming, in particular Dungeons & Dragons (and everything in turn influenced by D&D, like a large part of Fantasy movies – leading to the slightly bizarre situation that the Conan movies owe at least as much, if not more, to Leiber as to Howard).

It is not so much the setting where that influence is noticeable (there are neither elves nor dwarves in Leiber’s world), but it is the adventuring mindset – everyone who ever got together with friends for a round of D&D will immediately be familar with the banter between the two protagonists here, recognise their unabashed mercenary proclivities and feel right at home in the way many of these stories resemble a traditional dungeon crawl.

This volume is the first one in the series and contains a brief “Induction”, followed by three novellas, an origin story for each of our heroes plus the tale of how they first met. As such, it is undoubtedly the place to start reading the series, even though it is one of the weaker offerings – neither Fafhrd nor the Gray Mouser are as fun on their own as they are together, and while I would not say that “The Snow Women” and “The Unholy Grail” are bad stories (quite far from it, actually) they are missing that incomparable magic that springs to life and invigorates the narrative the moment they join forces during a robbery in Lankhmar (a robbery, almost needless to say, that they perform, not one that they are a victim of). What was slightly-above-standard Sword & Sorcery fare before from then onwards is transformed into something unique and uniquely spirited by the (not always harmonious) friendship between the hulking Northern barbarian and the slight Southern apprentice mage.

That joy in and elation through Fafhrd’s and the Gray Mouser’s friendship is also noticeable in Leiber’s writing – while the first two stories, “The Snow Women” in particular, are mostly remarkable for Leiber’s habit (almost something of a tick) to adverbize and adjectivize every word he can lay his hands on, leading to some epically awkward formulations like “He slitheringly walked toward it across the bediamonded snow crust” (I am still uncertain whether he meant that sentence to be taken seriously or not), in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” there is a new quality to the language, in particular the dialogues that Leiber pushes way over the top with obvious relish, making his youthful protagonists talk in an overdone archaic idiom that would fit Ye Olde High Fantasy Knight but is totally and comically out of place for aspiring teenage rogues and is played out by Leiber to considerable effect.

It is not all fun and laughter, though – as it turns out, there is a strong horror element to these stories as well (like in most, if not all, early Sword & Sorcery – Lovecraft, even though I am not sure whether there is even a single sword in any of this stories, should be considered as one of the founding fathers of the genre), and Leiber does not flinch back from tragedy, either, ending the collection on a rather melancholy note. But as good as “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is (and it is good indeed), overall this collection is mostly a promise of things to come, things that get a lot better than this.

This post is part of Lurv A La Mode‘s Year of the Fantasy Classic Challenge.

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6 comments

  1. Completely agree—the solo stories just don’t work without that banter and camaraderie. Feels more vibrant and energetic when the characters are riposting both swords and words. The stories do get MUCH better as the series progresses. (Doing a quick search, most of the best, or rather my favorite, stories are in Swords Against Death and Swords in the Mist.)

    I remember reading somewhere (perhaps the graphic novel, putting my dork hat on) that the Lankhmar tales were “sword-and-sorcery for those who like film noir,” and that has irrevocably changed my perception of them—the gritty, smoggy underbelly of Lankhmar and the seedy citizens and noxious horrors that infest it.

  2. I am currently in the process of re-reading the complete series (just finished Swords in the Mist – I’m a bit behind with the blog and can’t seem to manage to catch up). I’m increasingly getting the impression that the best stories very frequently are the ones written early, while later ones tend to feel a bit flat compared to those.

  3. I’d have to look at the story chronology again, but from what I remember about the collections that’s spot-on. Some of the later books I just couldn’t finish… Swords of Lankhmar felt a tad too drawn-out and long, and by the time you get to Knight and Knave of Swords, the spark has gone out of the stories.

  4. Knight and Knave of Swords had not been out yet when I last read the series, but I remember Swords and Ice Magic as being rather meh. As far as I can tell, the stories from the 40s seem to have most of the best ones, the 60s are a bit of a mixed bag, and from the 70s onwards there appears to be a noticeable drop in quality. To be taken with a grain of salt, obviously.

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