Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of Leiber's Lankhmar


Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two friends of questionable ethics who become the most renowned rogues and swordsmen in the world of Nehwon

Author: Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)
Subgenre: Fantasy--magical world
Type of work: Stories
Time of plot: slightly before 200 B.C. at the time of "Adept's Gambit," but time runs quickly in Nehwon. By the time of "Rime Isle" more than a thousand years have passed in our world (for this story takes place when the last worshiper on Earth of the Norse gods dies or abandons them)
Location: Nehwon, a universe in a bubble
First published: Swords and Deviltry (1970; stories published 1962 to 1970), Swords Against Death (1970), Swords in the Mist (1968; stories published 1947 to 1963), Swords Against Wizardry (1968; stories published 1964 to 1968), The Swords of Lankhmar (1968; part as "Scylla's Daughter" in Fantastic, 1961), Swords and Ice Magic (1977; stories published 1973 to 1977), and The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988; stories published 1978 to 1987)

The Plot: The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series was written over a period of at least four decades as 36 short stories and one novel. The stories form a coherent whole: the adventures of two of the greatest swordsmen (and greatest rogues) any world has ever known.
Fafhrd is a tall northern barbarian, and the Mouser a small, dark man of uncertain but urban origin. They share a common attitude towards life because they are the sundered halves of an even greater hero from ages past. They meet as youths in fabled Lankhmar, 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 37 stories in this series (the first two occur before the two meet, and the third is the tale of their meeting), chronicle their joint adventures,
which cover much of Nehwon and even part of our 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 Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face appear to be self-appointed protectors of Nehwon, occasionally sending the cavalry (in the form of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) to avert some catastrophe.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser encounter many women romantically over the years, and care about not a few of them deeply, but their friendship for each other always comes first. This is clearly true even in the last two books, when they make long-term attachments to two ladies of fabled Rime Isle (Fafhrd's love is Afreyt; the Mouser's is Cif).
Most stories have the typical structure of an adventure story: evil entities have designs that should be thwarted. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser discover these designs either by accident or otherwise, and oppose the villains. Not all of the villains are killed, but their nefarious plans are rendered, at best, only partially successful. A few opponents come back to fight in subsequent stories, but there is no "evil mastermind" analogous to Fu Manchu or Professor Moriarty. Death, the Power of the Shadowlands, comes closest, with the sorcerer Quarmal, Lord of Quarmall, a distant second. At series end, the two swordsmen, now middle-aged, are still firmly attached to each other and to their (then-current) lady loves. However, it is clear that they were intended to have more adventures.

Analysis: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were actually created by Harry Otto Fischer, but, with the exception of 10,000 words of "The Lords of Quarmall," Leiber wrote all of the stories.
The author's presence is felt through the somewhat archaic device of a narrator, whose comments, in the hands of a lesser writer, might have prevented total immersion within the fictional world. However, Leiber's mastery of narrative, pacing, dialogue, and character grab the reader and force him or her head-first into fog-shrouded Lankhmar, or wherever Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's wanderings take them.
The early stories in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series helped spawn an entire genre of fantasy stories whose protagonists are likable antiheroes. Leiber's literary influence on fantasy in this century has been exceeded only by J. R. R. Tolkien. (L. Sprague de Camp was a contemporary and mined the same vein.) Fantasy writers who appear to have been influenced strongly by Leiber include P. C. Hodgell, Michael Moorcock, and Roger Zelazny. The Thieves' World series of anthologies, edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey, could never have existed had not Fritz Leiber helped invent the genre to which it belongs. Fantasy role-playing games owe their existence (in part) to this genre,a nd therefore indirectly to Leiber.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were explicitly a reaction to improbable fantasy heroes like Robert E. Howard's Conan (Leiber said as much in an author's note in The Swords of Lankhmar). Indeed, in some ways they are almost parodies. Leiber made a point in his introductions to most of the books of asserting that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were the best swordsmen in all the worlds. In what he called "Induction," at the beginning of the first book, Swords and Deviltry, Leiber even claimed that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were the two reincarnated halves of a greater hero. This cannot be taken seriously, and the idea was used in only one of the stories ("The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars," one of the latest). Even the name of the world is a joke: Nowhen backwards, an obvious reference to the famous novel Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler, but a reference evidently used only to amuse those in the know. (This is not the only such sly inversion: for instance, in The Swords of Lankhmar, Kokgnab is named as a source of subtle massage techniques.) Even the seamy-side attitude of the whole series was in part a reaction to the J. R. R. Tolkien approach to heroic fantasy (Leiber hints at this as well in The Swords of Lankhmar).
Yet there is far more to these stories than reaction to traditional fantasy literature. The novelty of the likable antihero probably contributed much to the early popularity of the series. In addition, the strongly developed protagonists gave the reader something easy to identify with. However, the continued success of these stories does not result from novelty. Leiber's story ideas were original and intriguing. He gave free rein to his imagination in inventing villains, religions, cultures, natural laws, and more. Nehwon sports a truly preposterous mythology and magic (not to mention geography), which adds to its charm. Talking skulls and killer jewels are but the tip of the iceberg. Leiber was a good enough writer
to make even the most ridiculous notion acceptable. It is this combination of writing skill, excellent story ideas, a unique and enchanting setting, and good characterization that made the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series what it is, and earned it a place among the great works of fantasy literature.
Leiber also employed (though sparingly) a trick used by many fantasy writers, of having his characters discover, or know, scientific principles not known on Earth before the scientific age. For instance, in "Stardock," the Mouser intuits why water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes. Leiber reversed the trick in "Trapped in the Sea of Stars," having Fafhrd guess at cosmological interpretations that would be correct in our world, but are subsequently proved wrong in his.
There is another reason that the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories are so popular. Leiber peppered many of them with references to our world, such as the mysterious inter-world traveler Karl Treuherz. "Adept's Gambit" even takes place on Earth, in the eastern Mediterranean of more than 2 millennia ago. These references to things terrestrial seem incongruous and so disturb the suspension of disbelief, but at the same time they provide personal interest for the reader.
It is interesting that, in so many stories, written over about 40 years, there are so few inconsistencies. The most glaring is the unintended sex change Sheelba undergoes in "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars." In this story he becomes and has ever been a she, yet in all earlier stories featuring Sheelba, he was definitely male.
The role of sex (as opposed to gender) is important in this series, and looms both larger and more kinky in the later stories. This is probably because the earlier stories were published at a time when sex in fantasy fiction was hardly acceptable (at least to publishers). By the time the later stories were written, many restrictions had been lifted.
Leiber received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, in no small part due to his success with the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories.

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