The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series was written over a period of at least four decades as thirty-six short stories and one novel (The Swords of Lankhmar). The stories form a coherent whole: the adventures of two of the greatest swordsmen and greatest rogues any world has ever known. The first three books were collected as The Three Swords (1989) and the second three as Swords Masters (1990).
Fafhrd is a tall northern barbarian, and the Mouser is a small, dark man of uncertain but urban origin. They share a common attitude toward life because they are the sundered halves of an even greater hero from ages past. They meet as youths in fabled Lankhmar, the most cosmopolitan of the many cities of Nehwon, and instantly become friends. (Actually, this is their second meeting but their first “on camera.”) Their friendship appears destined to last a lifetime. Thirty-four of the thirty-seven stories in this series chronicle their joint adventures; the first two occur before the two meet, and the third is the tale of their meeting. These adventures cover much of Nehwon and even part of the ordinary world. Fafhrd and the Mouser save Lankhmar many times, and the world itself more than a few, but many of their adventures are the sort that would naturally befall a pair of reckless wanderers in a world full of magic, mystery, and danger.
The two rogues have two magical patrons, neither of whom is human. Ningauble of the Seven...
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Several things raise the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories well above the level of most sword and sorcery fiction. One is character development. Another is Leiber's satire. The most important, however, is style. Leiber is one of the finest prose stylists ever to write fantasy or science fiction, equaled in his generation only by Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. Although he is capable of writing terse, action-oriented prose when the occasion calls for it, he is most at home with a kind of elaborate, slightly archaic language which has as much in common with Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible as it does with the prose of genre fiction. Leiber has suggested that his love of language comes directly from his having been raised in a theater family and, almost from birth, having heard and seen his father, Fritz Leiber Sr., act in English Renaissance drama. Further it must be remembered that Leiber himself spent time on the stage. The closing paragraph of the award-winning "Ill Met in Lankhmar" contains a fine example of Leiber's most elaborate style:
With no more word than they had exchanged back at Mouser's burned nest behind the Eel, but with a continuing sense of their unity of purpose, their identity of intent, and of their comradeship, they made their way with shoulders bowed and with slow, weary steps which only very gradually quickened out of the magic room and down the thick-carpeted corridor, past the map room's...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Although Leiber writes stirring action sequences and can be a brilliant prose stylist, the success of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories rests ultimately on the personalities of his two protagonists. Fafhrd and the Mouser are in many ways typical of the old "thief with a heart of gold" tradition that includes Sinbad the Sailor, Robin Hood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Blues Brothers, and countless other characters, both historical and imaginary. In order to convince the reader of the essential goodness of his thief characters, an author must carefully design their crimes, their victims, and the representatives of the law who pursue them. The author must convince the reader that there is in fact a legitimate reason for those crimes to be committed and that both the victims and the pursuing law officers are morally ambiguous. A discussion of the Lankhmar stories might be profitably conducted within this context.
1. How does Leiber manage to make the crimes of his protagonists acceptable to his readers? Can you provide examples?
2. To what extent are Fafhrd and Grey Mouser equals? Is one or the other clearly the leader? Does the leadership role change from story to story? What do you see as the basis for their friendship?
3. It is often said that even though a fantasy or science fiction writer sets his story in another world, he's actually writing about our world. How does Leiber connect his stories to our...
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Heroic fantasy is humanity's oldest form of literature and if one looks for the earliest precedents for modern fantasy, whether it be the epic fictions of Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard, it is clear that one must go back to Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, and the medieval romance. Any critic of Fritz Leiber's stories, however, must add the satirists of that heroic tradition, Lucan, Ariosto, Cervantes, even Lord Byron. More directly, Leiber began writing for the pulp magazines and was undoubtedly influenced by such Weird Tales writers as Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. The great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, author of a number of fantasies with thieves as protagonists, was also a strong influence.
Leiber's own influence on other fantasy writers, though perhaps less than that of J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, is considerable. He, along with L. Sprague de Camp, brought humor into what was otherwise a sober-sided genre, he popularized the thief as a fantasy character, and his city of Lankhmar has become the model for others writing fantasy in an urban setting. Leiber's influence is particularly to be seen in the works of such writers as Tim Powers, Robert Asprin, and P. C. Hodgell. Further, he has had a considerable effect on the many writers producing shared-universe fantasy anthologies, Dungeons and Dragons modules and Choose Your Own Adventure-style interactive children's books.
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The seven books in the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series — five short story collections and two novels — although theoretically chronological, are to a very great extent interchangeable. The mood may vary from story to story and the later works are written with more polish than the earlier ones, but everything in the series is at least readable. Two works, however stand out. Strongly plotted and rather sexy, The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), it can be argued, is one of the two or three finest sword-and-sorcery novels ever written. Equally good is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella "Ill Met in Lankhmar," one of the finest exercises in pure language that the fantasy field has ever produced.
Titles in the series include The Swords of Lankhmar, 1968, novel; Swords Against Wizardry, 1968, short stories; Swords in the Mist, 1968, short stories; Two Sought Adventure, 1957, revised and expanded as Swords Against Death, 1970, short stories; Swords and Deviltry, 1970, novel; Swords and Ice Magic, 1977, short stories; The Knight and Knave of Swords, 1988, short stories; several other collections also contain stories in the series.
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In 1973 Sword of Sorcery appeared, a comic book based on Leiber's characters. It was a very well-written, intricately-drawn magazine, but only five issues were ever produced. Today they are considered collectors' items. Several game versions of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories have also been marketed, for example an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module entitled Lankhmar, City of Adventure (1985). In 1991 Howard Chaykin published a two volume Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser graphic novel.
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