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.
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.
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.
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.