Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Ironic Heroes

I recently finished up reading Swords Against Death, the second collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a pair of adventuring rogues who’ve contributed a great deal to the Sword and Sorcery genre. They’ve also got an entry in the secretly famous Appendix N. Essentially they’re a couple of dude-bro friends, a barbarian and a more traditional (smaller) acrobatic thief type, who seek out riches and debauchery all over the world.

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The characters themselves, while not as iconic as Howard’s Conan, have many SFF-nerd-fans among the older crowd. As one would expect of the Greatest Swordsmen in the Universe (TM). At times I was reminded of Drizzt, actually, and I’m sure there’s a seed here in Fritz’s duo.

In many of the earlier tales, the two are fighter-thieves. Certainly powerful, but not really any more unbelievable than Conan or John Carter or Ender Wiggin (geez, I just realized I don’t even know any contemporary characters to allude to anymore). If you’ve read the first (chronological) collection, Swords and Deviltry, you’ll know that eventually they each morphed into some combination of fighter/ranger/rogue/wizard/barbarian/bard. In Swords Against Death, however, they’re simpler characters, and that is to the good.

It’s also worth noting that some of the stories take place in Lankhmar, which was one of the early fantasy cities that really came to model the “urban adventure” game setting. And the Fafhrd and Mouser stories are also one of, if not the earliest setting to make use of a “thieves’ guild.”

So what I’m saying here is that Leiber broke a lot of ground. Even if he doesn’t become your favorite author after reading these tales, there’s a lot to recognize and appreciate.

What did I think of Swords Against Death? Well, I’m glad I read it. And I liked it much more than Swords and Deviltry.

Once again I was surprised that the collection seemed to lead with the weakest material, for “The Circle Curse” is rather uninteresting.

The stuff in the middle is mostly good. There’s plenty of good adventuring and some cool ideas, like a house that eats people.

The final stories are interesting and my feelings are mixed. “The Price of Pain-Ease” held a compelling premise and a kind of cool adventure hook for any GM’s who are paying attention, but the foolishness and selfishness of the protagonists (who are supposedly as close as brothers) ultimately didn’t carry well.

“The Bazaar of the Bizarre” was an apt title. The main idea of this story was almost cool, but ruined by clumsy explanations and silly execution. One of the main shticks could have been direct forerunner to the whole idea behind the cult-classic film They Live, and it was an engaging idea here. As a weird story, The Bazaar works, but I think it’s one of the weaker entries here.

The idea of these two rogues becoming beholden to mysterious and powerful wizards struck me as a potent way to unlock future story ideas, but the way in which this developed could have been done better.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was the framing of Faf and GM as heroes, when they’re clearly not. As is often the case, Cirsova had some good insight into this for me, being the under-educated “critic” that I am.

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In summation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are worth checking out if you enjoy Sword and Sorcery, if you’re a GM looking for game ideas, or if you’re an Appendix N archaeologist. Skip Swords And Deviltry and go for Swords Against Death.

-Bushi

bushi

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Conan, Cugel, karma and Leiber

I’ve been making my way through Swords Against Death, the second collection of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. First off, let me say for the record that I heartily subscribe to Cirsova’s Rule that starting with Swords And Deviltry, the “first collection” of stories, is unwise. Indeed I’d be hard-pressed to think of a situation in which reading by publication order would be a bad idea.

Second, after reading a couple of the “good” stories, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are kinda cool. Or at least entertaining.

Third, I don’t foresee them ever taking a place among my favorite SFF characters. It’s not that they’re overly tropey (even if it sometimes grates, gotta forgive that when reading older tales, for it was fresher back then!). It’s not even that they’re morally gray, for look at characters like Howard’s Conan or Vance’s Cugel. I think it’s more that they’re cads who are cast as the good guys.

Let me rap on that a little bit.

Conan the Cimmerian is a badass dude. He’s also a noble savage, after a fashion. But he’s not really a hero in the sense of being a good guy. He’s a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate. And at times he is a murderer. I’ve seen this one debated, but the opening of the “Tower of the Elephant” is pretty clear-cut to me: a dude insults Conan, Conan gets pissed and lops the guy’s head off.

But we love Conan anyway. Why?

It’s not hard to imagine that Conan may have robbed and pillaged from innocent people. But during the time we spend with him, we don’t see that. Mostly we see him thieving from people who deserve it; fighting monsters; killing men who are bad, or at least worse than him. Often he’ll save a pretty wench, and he never forces himself upon her. As a leader he thinks of his men, and as a ruler he has compassion for his people. We like Conan because not only is he a tough-as-nails man’s man, but he generally winds up doing the right thing. When he does play the rogue, it’s largely targeting people who deserve it.

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Cugel the Clever is not a badass dude. He’s a a charlatan and a scoundrel. I must admit I disliked him throughout a large segment of my Dying Earth reading. But he grew on me as two things happened: one, I tempered my expectations, and two, I recognized the karmatic element to his adventures. First we have to recognize that Cugel is not a hero. He’s not marketed as one, and though he thinks very highly of himself, he doesn’t claim to be one unless it’s material to one of his scams. Second, when Cugel targets the innocent or victimizes the good, he usually pays for it in some way. These misadventures can be fun, but my favorite tales are the ones where Cugel winds up pitted against villains worse than him. In these cases, he is often the initial victim and he plays a part in delivering a sort of justice. He may wind up demolishing a ratmen lair or conning a niggardly merchant out of some valuable wares, and “yay” because they deserved it. It’s possible to appreciate Cugel when you accept that he’s a cur and learn to enjoy both his failures and successes.

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That brings me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think what bothers me about them is the fact that Leiber almost suggests that they’re heroes. And to be fair, their battles with the Thieve’s Guild can be fun. But despite being the Best Swordsmen in the Universe (TM) and master thieves, and later also bards and magicians, they aren’t good guys. One story offhandedly mentions that they like to rob merchants on the road (so they’re highwaymen). Fafhrd’s origin story renders him almost completely unlikable in my eyes – the fact that he abandons his pregnant girlfriend because he’s got the hots for a traveling dancer.

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It’s certainly plausible that Conan’s got a bunch of bastards floating around. And maybe if he were in Fafhrd’s situation he would have done the same thing and abandoned his woman rather than be pinned down at home. After all, Conan is driven by wanderlust and a thirst for adventure. But we’re not told that Conan did any of this, and I think that’s important to maintaining his image as an almost-hero.

You may be able to say that justice is visited upon the pair. After all, even if they always survive, they don’t always win. Their plans go awry, they lose the treasure, they get beaten up. But it’s never really presented in the “ha-ha you got what you deserved” kind of way we see when Cugel gets his comeuppance. That’s because Fafhrd and Mouser are supposed to be likable and Cugel isn’t.

For now I’m just trying to enjoy the stories of Fafhrd and Mouser for what they are – the fun exploits of two rogues who get into trouble and do some cool stuff. But when I think about who they are as characters and what Leiber built them into, I’m just not impressed.

-Bushi

bushi

Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

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I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi