Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola.

So I’ve been reading, and have now almost finished the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series of books by Fritz Leiber. They’re basically a series of strung-together pulp fantasy stories that were written over an almost unbelievable period of time, the first in 1936, and the final one in 1988.

The series is commonly cited as incredibly influential; and it’s easy to see why. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are a pair of anti-heroes, one a barbarian and one a thief, who lurch from one adventure to another. Maybe the most most obviously imitated part of the stories is the pair’s home city of Lankhmar, a big sprawling fantasy city in the middle of the marshes, with temples to various gods, a thieves’ guild and so on.

Lankhmar is incredibly clearly the model for pretty much any city in a fantasy setting in books, television, movies, video games, or whatever, that has come since. Kings Landing in Game of Thrones is a dressed-up Lankhmar. And Ankh-Morpork from Discworld is an explicit pastiche of Lankhmar. (According to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett claims this is not true, but obviously it is.)

But Nehwon, the pulp fantasy world that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser inhabit, with its various city-states and monsters is also clearly pretty foundational. It’s kind of Robert Howard-ish too, with a loosely disguised Europe and Asia and lots of vaguely racist groups of people out on the fringes — the wiry slant-eyed Mingols! — but it’s also a lot more creative and interesting- with crazy monster and gods and underground cities and were-rats and snow-snakes and women with pink skeletons and translucent flesh and so on. Basically if you had to pick a single author who most obviously created the whacked-out world that Dungeons and Dragons inhabits, it would probably be Lieber.

Another aside, the world of Newhon in the stories is described as on the inside of a sphere, or bubble floating in a watery universe. This is a cool idea, and also naturally reminds me of the title sequence in the HBO series of Game of Thrones, where we see a map of the story’s world inscribed on the inside of a sphere/orrery thing.

And beyond all this, the stories are very fun to read, with crazy purple prose and a lot of genuine humor, something that completely eludes Robert Howard. It’s all pretty trivial: our heroes save cities and occasionally the world from various nasty sorcerers and gods, all the while collecting treasure, drinking a lot, and bedding lots of freaky fantasy women to prove they’re not totally gay for each other.

Actually, the sex component of the stories — which apparently was occasionally so dirty that they couldn’t be published in the pulps — has a really unfortunate trajectory over the arc of the series. ┬áIt’s mostly just very silly, like when our heroes are kidnapped by invisible women who ride invisible arctic manta rays so that their heroic blood can reinvigorate their dying race. You know, standard. And they have extended sex-vacations with mer-women and some crazy half-rat lady who is implied to have eight breasts. Like you do.

But the later stories, written when Fritz Leiber was 180 years old or something, start dwelling more and more on how Fafhrd, the barbarian hero, likes his women really young, with newly-budded breasts and it all gets really creepy really fast. Enough so that it almost ruins the stories, and I might recommend reading just first two-thirds or so of the series.

Leaving that aside for the moment, that stories also feature a lot of the sort of world-and-mythology-hopping that I associate with L. Sprague de Camp. By which I mean – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sometimes leave their fictional world of Newhon, and show up in our own real world, or mythological figures get lost and show up in their world. Odin and Loki show up at one point, having somehow migrated from Norse Mythology, for instance, and it’s implied that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their world’s versions of those gods, or at least the archetype that they represent. And there’s one very odd sequence where a dimension-hopping adventurer from Germany appears to save the day while riding a two-headed sea dragon thing and shouting out “Ach du Lieber!” and things like that.

Basically, when I started reading these, I was expecting something kind of like the Conan stories but hopefully marginally less stupid. Where in fact they’re much MUCH more entertaining, and really trippy in a way that makes me actually wonder whether drugs were involved in their conception. They provide a great mind-vacation and are easy to read when I’m exhausted, which is pretty key for me right now. (Though again, with the caution that I now kind of wish I’d halted about 2/3 of the way through just to avoid Fritz Leiber being creepy.)

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