There are many memorable pairings of hero and sidekick in the fantasy genre – Frodo and Sam, Elric and Moonglum, Harry and Hedwig (or Ron and Hermione if you prefer). This is mirrored in science fiction by pairings such as Han and Chewie, Kirk and Spock, Doctor Who and his innumerable lovely assistants. In mythology, where would Robin Hood be without Little John, Gilgamesh without Enkidu? In all of my reading, however, I have never come across anything to match Fritz Leiber’s incomparable fantasy pairing of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fafhrd is a seven foot tall northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known just as Mouse, and a former wizard’s apprentice. They are perfect foils for each other: Fafhrd talks like a romantic, but his strong practicality usually wins through, while the cynical-sounding Mouser is prone to showing strains of sentiment at unexpected times. Both are rogues, existing within a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and – most of all – relish true adventure. Together, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are truly the Butch and Sundance of the fantasy genre.
There’s a tree, some say, at the heart of all the worlds. Its roots wind down into the ashes of the past and its branches reach into future skies. At the centre of a grove at the heart of the first of all forests, this titanic world tree binds the essences of That-Which-Was, That-Which-Is and That-Which-Will-Be together. There are many names for this tree, including Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the lotus of Meru. Legends say that mankind was born amid the Forever Trees of the First Forest. Here humanity dwelt for untold aeons until some dark sin or distant shame exiled them from the shade of the great world tree. Perhaps this explains why forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanting tales in world literature and mythology, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the fairy-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago sequence. However, Holdstock’s mythagos – living, breathing ‘images of myth’ who dwell in Ryhope Wood, a primeval tract of virgin forest, and other ancient woodlands around the world – are anything but harmless. Even Tolkien, despite his oft-mentioned Green ideology, was famously ambiguous about trees – as illustrated by the actions of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. This illustrates an equally important point about the way forests are portrayed in mythology. Just as there are shadows in the hearts of men, nature too has its terrors, and the sum of all of them becomes the Dark Wood – the dread within each forest’s core. In folklore there were said to be many ways through the forest – the narrow road beset with thorns and briars that was the path to righteousness; the broad, leavened road that was the path to wickedness; and the bonny, winding road that was the path to fairyland. For this reason, among many others, caution was always advised for those who travelled the deep woods.
…there is only war. So goes the famous strapline to Games Workshop’s futuristic fantasy role-playing game universe of Warhammer 40,000. I totally fell in love with Warhammer 4oK (as it is also affectionately known) as soon as I came across it. My only real experience of science fiction prior to 40K was watching Star Wars at the movies and Doctor Who on the small screen, both of which I liked but for some reason they both also fell short in some way. By that stage I was far more of a fan of fantasy – proper, big, epic fantasy, with wars, character conflict, large scale storytelling and immersive, fully developed worlds to explore. By contrast science fiction seemed either too shallow and childish, at the Star Wars end of the spectrum, or too esoteric and complicated at the Arthur C Clarke/H G Wells end. I had yet to discover the intricacy and imagination of books like the Dune, Pern and Majipoor series and to have my horizons expanded in weird yet wonderful ways by watching films like Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator. My first exposure to how good science fiction could be came when a friend bought me Space Hulk as a birthday present. I won’t lie, at first I was a little bit miffed – I mean, board games (as opposed to computer games) were already old hat even when I was a youngster. With its little carved figures and board sections I genuinely at first glance saw little difference between Space Hulk and chess. Then I read the rule book. These were just a few of the things that I came across: centuries-old superhuman soldiers who were organised into chapters like futuristic knights; aliens who were elves in all but name, roaming the stars in gigantic spaceships in an attempt to stave off the extinction of their race; a shadow universe inhabited by beings of unimaginable evil who constantly tried to corrupt and destroy humanity with their foul touch; hive fleets of nightmarish creatures floating in space, waiting for a chance to devour starships, planets and peoples to satisfy their unspeakable hunger; and a billion other worlds and races locked in a dark future whose only certainty was war. I was hooked.
Unlike his contribution to the sic-fi genre, Star Wars, George Lucas’s contribution to fantasy, Willow, has been largely forgotten by the public. Very much a film of its time, Willow appeared in 1988 amid a buzz that may now be difficult to believe. Only five years had passed since the triumphant, money-spinning conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones saga was still going strong and it seemed that everything George Lucas touched (barring Howard the Duck) turned to gold. With the notable exception of The Princess Bride, fantasy films had until then seemed to be box-office poison and it was thought that Willow was the film that would change everything – with the aid of that old Lucas magic of course. Lucas had originally conceived the idea for Willow as long ago as 1972, initially as an alternative to adapting The Lord of the Rings for cinema, since he couldn’t, as a then unknown young film-maker, manage to obtain the rights for Tolkien’s magnum opus. The similarity between the two stories is unmistakable, both in terms of the mythical fantasy world in which Willow is set and, in particular, its eponymous hobbit-like hero, the Nelwyn Willow Ufgood (who was played, incidentally, by Warwick Davis, the same actor who starred as one of the furry Ewoks in Return of the Jedi). Unfortunately, the comparison to Tolkien’s work did nothing to help Lucas’s film, which was only a modest commercial success and drew many critical reviews – a number of which came from the audience of fantasy fans at which it had been mainly aimed (foreshadowing the even worse critical response that The Phantom Menace would receive from Star Wars fans a decade later). Willow might have faded into oblivion entirely were it not for two things – ILM’s visual effects sequences, which led to a revolutionary breakthrough with the digital morphing technology that would later appear in films such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day; and the continuation of Willow Ufgood’s story in the novels which make up the Chronicles of the Shadow War. The question that you might, quite rightly, be asking at this stage is, why on earth should I care about a series of books based on a film that was a bit of a box-office flop?