Eight fought adventure
On the cusp of Summer, eight stalwart Beamers grappled with the flashing swords and dark sorceries of Fritz Leiber’s redoubtable pair, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Though, as in true Beamer fashion, many doubts about the pair were raised, particularly with regard to their paramours.
In a Tower in the Woods, There Burgled Two Heroes
Back in 1939, Fritz Leiber sold a story, “Two Sought Adventure” (later re-titled “The Jewels in the Forest”) about two raffish adventurers who put themselves into regular peril for the sake of riches and sometimes for the sake of putting themselves into peril. Fafhrd, a barbarian son of the northern Cold Wastes, teamed up with the Gray Mouser, a one-time apprentice wizard turned professional thief. With 30 years of stories accumulated, Donald Wollheim (owner of DAW Books) suggested collecting the corpus and publishing the various adventures. Leiber agreed and decided to put them into chronological story order, which left him without a starting point. So, he wrote a story about Fafhrd’s origin (“The Snow Women”), to go with an earlier tale about the Mouser’s start (“The Unholy Grail”) and then tied the two together in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” (1970), the first novella to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. The resulting collection is Swords and Deviltry (1970).
Begin at the Beginning, Continue to the End, Then Stop
Alan, who suggested the Fafhrd and Mouser stories to the group, admitted that perhaps origin stories would not be the best place to start, especially coming so late in the writing history of the characters. A bit of prior knowledge about people, places, and sorcerous things did seem to be helpful to those of us who already knew the world of Nehwon (“Nowhen” backwards, akin to Samuel Butler’s “Erehwon”/”nowhere”). The richness of Leiber’s world-building was lessened due to the brevity of the pieces, 3 separate stories instead of one continuous work, a distinction that not all editions made clear, leading Kathy to be disappointed by the shallowness of the characterizations and settings.
The sense, too, of Fafhrd and Mouser being natural allies and ready partners evokes the image of a long-settled friendship, obscuring the fact that both of them are still young adults (both barely the age of maturity) at the time of “Ill Met”, which callowness goes a long way toward explaining their rashness and naivete. But, as Fran noted, if you have to be told that a character is young, then you are not being shown it properly.
Telling and Showing
Leiber’s skill at crafting descriptive passages does show, as Liz noted that she was not bored by even the repeated emphasis on ice/snow/cold in Fafhrd’s story, although she hoped for more action and less static exposition. Much of Leiber’s work on Nehwon was informed by his studies in psychology and philosophy at the University of Chicago. There is an anthropological feel to his world, where he bases its peoples and places on real-world analogues, generally from the Bronze/Iron Age Middle East. (One story sends Fafhrd and Mouser to Tyre in Lebanon in 200 BCE, for example.) Still, the depth of history that is layered like strata in Lankhmar, one of the famed fictional cities, akin to Gotham or Arkham or Minas Tirith, is not displayed over the course of the concluding novella, but only glimpses and hints are offered. Which I thought was a successful choice, as the story is about the men and not about the setting. But it does short the new reader a chance to enjoy those layers that underlie the surface action.
Boys’ Night Out?
The biggest point of contention in our discussion focused on the role (or lack thereof) of women in the boys’ adventures. We have not be surprised to find female characters getting slighting treatment in books from before the Second Wave of Feminism (aka “Women’s Liberation”) of the 1970s. But, several of the female Beamers found that Leiber was egregious in his mistreatment of women. Kathy felt that the stories lacked any strong female characters and labeled the absence a sign of a contemptuous attitude toward women. Donna thought that a constant emphasis on women as manipulators indicated that only men held any real power, except for evil “witchery” like Fafhrd’s mother wields. I did find that Fafhrd’s mother and Vlana, his paramour, were significant in their own right and were able to determine their own fates, but I also admit that the focus is clearly on Fafhrd, so the female perspectives are skewed in being seen principally from his point of view.
A Barbarian and a Thief Walk into a Bar
The mixture of tragedy and comedy in the stories also had us debating. Fran had hoped for a more lighthearted romp, something that the quickness and inventiveness of the prose seems to promise. But, the unpleasant fates of Vlana and Ivrian haunted her and spoiled some of her enjoyment of the more amusing scenes (like Fafhrd’s fireworks-assisted ski jump). I thought that the mixing went back to Leiber’s Shakespearean background, playing on stage in his parents’ theater company. Just as Shakespeare added comic relief to the bloodiest tragedies (like the doorkeeper in Macbeth), so does Leiber toss in a bit of banter or slapstick (like Fafhrd pulling down a tent on the heads of two men negotiating the “sale” of Vlana) to lighten the mood. Most sword-and-sorcery fans dislike Leiber having his characters wink at the reader, but it works for some of us (like me and Chris).
And the mix of pleasant and unpleasant is one of Leiber’s strong points for Alan, who finds the stories much more realistic than if all the good and bad parts were separated from each other. Nick thought of Midnight Cowboy as a parallel for “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, with two young men meeting up in the big, bad city for adventures that are outside of law-abiding society, finding that their bond is the most important thing in both of their lives. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the two works come out around the same time (1969 for the movie, 1970 for the story).
At the School Dance
Overall, we came away our mixture of pleasant and unpleasant for Fafhrd and Mouser. Chris, Alan, and Nick all gave high marks (8s), while I pulled in lower (6) due to the hurried feeling of the stories making them seem better for experienced s&s readers. Fran and Liz were less pleased and offered only 5s, while Donna and Kathy were not inclined to finish the stories and felt unwilling to rate them beyond their obvious dissatisfaction. So, we should not be surprised to find that even a well-awarded story of 47 years ago may not meet up with our current, more sophisticated sensibilities. Alan, in explaining his love for Leiber’s stories, confessed to being an adolescent at heart, and that may be the best time to first encounter these comic/tragic heroes.