Friday, March 18, 2011

Noonday Sun: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

At the same used book store in Providence where I bought my copy of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: 20th Annual Collection, I once found what I believe was a complete set of Fritz's Leiber Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books. I had heard good things about these stories, but I've never liked buying books blind, and at that time I wasn't a great fan of the sort of sword and sorcery that I assumed the Lankhmar stories to be. So, as a compromise, I only bought the first three books in the series instead of all seven. (That I thought of this as a compromise is, of course, yet more evidence of my alarming book-buying habits.) And promptly failed to read them.

Then last month I was working on filling out a second order for a book sale I've pledged not to mention here again, and I remembered that I "only" owned the first three of the series. I told myself that buying the remaining four would be a good way to jumpstart myself into reading the series. This is not a policy that has always worked (I bought all of Elizabeth Haydon's Symphony of Ages books and only read two of them before giving the series up as a bad job), and as I begin reading Swords and Deviltry (the first in the series, more or less), I wasn't sure it would pay off this time. Leiber's style was odd, and all the talk of barbarians and civilization, warriors and wily women, seemed to be the kind of thing that has caused me to bounce off Robert E. Howard every time I tried to read him. But I persevered, and I'm glad I did.

The heroes of the series are Fafhrd, a tall barbarian from the cold wastes of the north, and the Gray Mouser a short, slim southerner.  Despite the difference in their stature, and some like variations in temperament, the two discover an affinity for adventuring, for travel and thievery and intermittent acts of heroism.  The whole vast world of Nehwon-- and beyond-- is the stage for their adventures, from their base in the city of Lankhmar to the frozen mountains of the north to the waters of the Outer Sea.  Along the way they meet wizards, ghouls, priests, kings, and stranger creatures.  You get the idea.

What prevents this from feeling like stock sword-and-sorcery is Leiber's style.  Naturally it evolves a bit, as the stories in these seven books were written over a period of nearly fifty years, but there are some things that remain constant. There's the mystical, fantastic strand, suggestive of the wonders of distant lands and ancient magic, that reaches back to the classical weird tales of the 1920s and early 1930s:
 Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries. Nehwon's known realms crowd about the Inner Sea: northward the green-forested fierce Land of the Eight Cities, eastward the steppe-dwelling Mingol horsemen and the desert where caravans creep from the rich Eastern Lands and the River Tilth. But southward, linked to the desert only by the Sinking Land and further warded by the Great Dike and the Mountains of Hunger, are the rich grain fields and walled cities of Lankhmar, eldest and chiefest of Nehwon's lands. Dominating the Land of Lankhmar and crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants - Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga.
But there's also a modern modern, ironic sensibility that ought to clash with the first and yet merges seamlessly, producing stories with the sensawunder of the pulps and the more intellectual leanings of mid-century fiction. Some of this play of vocabularies is captured by this paragraph from The Swords of Lankhmar, the fifth book in the series and the only novel:
Fafhrd, stretched out in a grassy hilltop hollow lit by moonlight and campfire, was conversing with a long-limbed recumbent skeleton named Kreeshkra, but whom he now mostly addressed by the pet name Bonny Bones. It was a moderately strange sight, yet one to touch the hearts of imaginative lovers and enemies of racial discrimination in all the many universes.
There are a number of wry touches like that, which prevent the stories from feeling too dated and too distant.  But they also work as good old-fashioned storytelling.  Leiber can describe a sword fight in terms that are detailed yet not over-elaborate, clear but not too simplified, and he knows to add enough layers of narrative complexity to keep the reader entertained.  It's not just the mysterious tower with its promise of jewels and threat of a guardian; it's also the lord who's chasing them with a band of soldiers, and the wizard who shares their goal, but for a very different reason.  Turns of the plot arrives quickly enough that the familiarity of most of the concepts rarely becomes a serious problem.

When the situation calls for it, Leiber is also capable of generating an atmosphere of awe and dread that will come as no surprise to readers of his horror fiction (which includes the justly-famous industrial ghost story "Smoke Ghost").  "The Sunken Land," for example, offers a Lovecraftian vision of a risen continent and its slimy tunnels, and the short novel Adept's Gambit includes an unsettling tale-within-a-tale of the bond between a reclusive, studious brother and his more adventurous sister.  There are also more fantasy-tinged descriptions of the uncanny and unusual, from the wares at the titular "Bazaar of the Bizarre" to the subterranean nation of Quarmall with its great vents and warring princes.  Leiber may not be as lugubrious a stylist as, say, Lovecraft, but he's just as gifted at suggesting the strange.

Naturally, given the five-decade history of the series, some installments are stronger than others.  As a rule the longer pieces are better; if it's under fifteen pages, it's apt to be too simple, too predictable, or too much like another story in the series.  Swords and Ice Magic, the sixth in the series, starts with several brief stories in which Death targets Fafhrd and the Mouser by various stratagems.  That ought to be brilliant, but the execution is uninspired and the premise quickly palls.  It doesn't help that these stories touch several times on the series' greatest flaw: its treatment of female characters.

I don't mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser treat women principally as sex objects; they're medieval rogues, what else should they do?  The problem is that the stories, as well as the characters, have no interest in women of any depth.  The series description at the front of several of the books promises "delectable girls a-plenty, some of the last having great wisdom and character."  I can't say I saw much of either quality; with a couple exceptions in the final books, the women of Lankhmar are capricious, shallow, and frequently cruel.  I think Leiber means to suggest that they have to be that calculating to survive in a world of phyically powerful, callous men, but he doesn't draw them with enough depth for this to come across, and the description of every single woman in terms of her body quickly becomes tiresome.  And then there's this deathless passage from book three, Swords in the Mist:
[T]hey forcibly prevented Ourph from raping even one of [the elderly witch-women], let alone all five as he had boastfully threatened.  [They departed, with the women calling down curses on Fafhrd and the Mouser.]  Their failure to curse Ourph also, made the Mouser wonder whether the witch-women were not angriest because Ourph had not been prevented in his most lascivious designs.
Ah ha ha ha no.  I'm willing to grant Leiber some leeway based on the genre he's working in and the dates of composition, but that's a little much.

These complaints aside, though, I'm very glad I stuck with the series.  Although Fafhrd and the Mouser aren't characters in any fleshed-out, literary sense, they make for charming rogues, and the description of their adventures, though elevated and poetic, is readable and often very funny.  Fantasy fans interested in dipping a first toe into the sea of sword and sorcery could do a lot worst than to check out the Swords books.
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But where to begin?  The first book in internal chronology is Swords and Deviltry, and the earliest stories are included in the second book, Swords Against Death, but the continuity is loose enough that you can start anywhere.  I would recommend Swords in the Mist, which includes the fine short novel Adept's Gambit and the riotously funny religious satire "Lean Times in Lankhmar."  Used copies of all seven books, in many editions and a few collected versions, are plentiful.

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