Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was one of those authors who dabbled in many genres and was a master of all of them. He wrote horror, science fiction, and fantasy in equal measure, but a lot of his work blended them together. He was one of the first to write horror in urban settings, presaging such authors as Richard Matheson. He was a poet and playwright, as well as a chess expert. He also made an appearance as an actor in the 1970 cult film Equinox.
Leiber is most famous for a series of sword and sorcery stories focusing on a pair of adventurers called Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (for a brief definition of sword and sorcery, read my previous entry here). The characters were created in a series of letters between Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer in the 1930s; Fafhrd was based on Leiber and the Mouser on Fischer. The first story to feature the characters, “Two Sought Adventure,” was published in the August 1939 issue of Unknown. Over the next fifty years Leiber continued to write and publish stories following their exploits.
One of Leiber’s aims with the characters was to create pulp heroes that were more realistic than a figure like Robert E. Howard’s Conan. As such, the characters are marked by complex personalities. Fafhrd is a barbarian from the north, close to seven feet tall, and a gifted swordsman and singer. He has a tendency to boast, but is also clear-headed and pragmatic, rarely blundering in anywhere half-cocked. The Mouser is a thief and former wizard’s apprentice, tall but shorter than Fafhrd, who is skilled with daggers and has some ability to use magic. For all his practiced cynicism, the Mouser is prone to displays of warmth and humor. They recognize something “inexplicably familiar” in each other, a desire for adventure that is the heart of their friendship.
In keeping with Leiber’s desire for greater realism, the F&TGM stories do not take place in a vacuum but over a prolonged period of time. As the series progresses, Fafhrd and the Mouser age, mature, take on new responsibilities, and get married. The series ends with the two having settled down on an Iceland-like island. Leiber died before he could continue their adventures further. The focus of this entry, “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” is not about the end, however, but the beginning. When the story was written, Leiber had been chronicling his heroes’ adventures for thirty years. Here, he reveals how they met.
Things start off strongly: “Silent as specters, 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.” What an opening! The sibilant hiss of “silent as specters” suggests snakes moving in darkness, while “thin black night-smog” evokes the grime of a large city in only three words. You get a sense of the setting and its dangers immediately. It draws you in.
The thieves have just completed a job for the city’s notorious Thieves’ Guild. On their way back to their hideout, they are ambushed by two assailants. These assailants are revealed to be Fafhrd and the Mouser, working separately despite their simultaneous attacks. Recognizing that they are kindred spirits, Fafhrd and the Mouser agree to split their earnings.
The actual meeting is a very funny exchange:
Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem identical.”
“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.
“I said, ‘Seem? Surely must be!'”
“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.
“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.
“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what’s said,” Fafhrd explained. Without letting the Mouser out of his vision, he glanced down. His gaze traveled from the belt and pouch of one fallen thief to those of the other. Then he looked up at the Mouser with a broad, ingenuous smile.
“Sixty-sixty?” he suggested.
I am tempted to go through the rest of the story plot point by plot point just so I can quote more of Leiber’s delightful prose, but for the sake of brevity I won’t. I’ll just say that the remainder of the story concerns Fafhrd and the Mouser deciding to infiltrate the Thieves’ Guild and the fallout of that terrible choice.
If it is not yet obvious, I loved “Ill Met In Lankhmar.” Leiber’s writing has a humor that’s lacking in the more self-serious work of authors like Howard. The settings, particularly the interior of the Thieves’ Guild and the Mouser’s attic hideout, are expertly realized. He’s also a master of pacing and the novella flies by despite its length. He has a firm grip on the personalities of his characters and charts the progression from uneasy alliance to deep friendship in a way that feels true; his assured characterizations lend the climax a pathos that borders on tragedy.
If I had one criticism of “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” it is how its female characters are depicted. Leiber is not the worst writer of women – unlike the damsels in distress of lesser pulp fiction, his women have agency – but more often than not they seem like plot devices rather than flesh-and-blood humans. That is the case here. The characters of Vlana and Ivrien are given a few scenes to flesh out their personalities, but mostly they are defined by how they serve the story: first they are romantic interests for the main characters, and then they are the impetus that drives the climax. Never do we truly get a look at what makes their hearts beat as people.
“Ill Met In Lankhmar” was first published in the April 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. By that time, the F&TGM stories had attained some respectability, but this story represented a pinnacle for the series in that regard: it won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella in 1970 and ’71, respectively. Afterwards Leiber included it in the anthology Swords & Deviltry, the first of seven Swords books that collect the entirety of the F&TGM stories.
Gary Gygax included the F&TGM stories in Appendix N, the list of literary sources that inspired Dungeons & Dragons. When I read “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” I could see why. The novella reads like a play session of D&D in prose form: adventurers “inexplicably familiar” to one another join together and go on a dangerous adventure punctuated by friendly bickering. Mordicai Knode, writing for Tor, commented, “I might go so far as to say [Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser] are the most Dungeons & Dragons of anything on the Appendix N list.” Lankhmar, with its exotic perfumes, swordsmen for hire, and sinister Thieves’ Guild, is the prototype for any number of fantasy cities, not just in D&D but in other roleplaying games and future literature as well.
Expect to see more of Leiber’s work reviewed here. There are a number of wonderful F&TGM stories I want to cover (most notably “Stardock,” in which our intrepid heroes scale a perilous mountain), but I would also like to review his science-fiction and horror work. His novel Conjure Wife is a spiritual predecessor to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby.
To wrap up, this was a wonderful story that I greatly enjoyed. If you are a fan of fantasy literature, you should consider this essential.
NEXT TIME: “Prey” by Richard Matheson!