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.
Fritz Leiber not only invented the phrase ‘sword and sorcery’, but was also one of the earliest and wittiest masters of this vein of heroic fantasy. His famous northern barbarian and his nimble, devious companion first saw print in 1939 and pursued their adventures and swordplay for more than 40 years thereafter. Back to back, eyeing their foes over the gleam of sharpened steel, Fafhrd, the giant warrior from the Cold Waste, and the Gray Mouser, novice wizard, master thief and unparalleled swordsman, stood as the two greatest heroes ever to walk the world of Newhon. Most of their exploits originated in the inexhaustibly colourful and sleazy city of Lankhmar, moving with breathtaking speed between farce, tragedy, bizarre ruses and desperate swordplay. An instant success upon publication, part of what made Fritz Leiber’s stories of the daring duo so appealing was his mastery of language – his words sing and the vividness of his descriptions bring his characters and settings alive seemingly effortlessly. For any fantasy reader out there driven to despair by the plodding, samey prose of most contemporary writers in the genre, Leiber’s books will undoubtedly seem like a breath of fresh air with their wit, verve and fluency. You really get the feeling that the writer is enjoying Fafhrd and Mouser’s adventures almost as much as they are!
Leiber’s own favourite story was Bazaar of the Bizarre, his comic-sinister version of the traditional Magic Shop story, where the goods are rubbish disguised by illusion-spells and the haplessly bedazzled Mouser has no idea that the shop’s gorgeous caged girls are in reality giant spiders. Not only is this tale an excellent introduction to fantasy’s best-loved pair of heroic rogues, it also illustrate’s Leiber’s narrative genius perfectly – he packs more into one paragraph than most others take a chapter to, telling a story with depth, detail, and clarity in a sophisticated yet economical style. Despite Leiber’s death and all the intervening years, I really don’t feel that the Lankhmar tales have aged at all. Ground-breaking at the time that they were published, Leiber’s stories remain refreshing to this day precisely because they don’t deal with world-saving heroics and nauseatingly brave, honourable central characters, but instead feature two rough, eccentric, greedy, selfish, self-assured drunkards, in behaviour and manners more resembling the common man than most sword and sorcery heroes.
Although one story takes place on Earth, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales are for the most part set in the fictional world of Nehwon, described as ‘a world like and unlike our own’. Theorists in Nehwon believe that it may be shaped like a bubble, floating in the waters of eternity, and its technology varies between the Iron Age and the Medieval. The series includes many bizarre and outlandish characters, such as Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. With their sorcerous advice, these two often lead the (anti)heroic pair into some of their most interesting and dangerous adventures. Although Leiber credited his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, with the original concepts for the characters, it was Leiber himself who wrote nearly all the stories – an incredible feat given that the first appeared in Unknown in 1939 and the last in The Knight and Knave of Swords in 1988. Intriguingly, it is often suggested that the characters were loosely modelled upon Leiber and Fischer. Despite Fafhrd and Mouser’s largely unreconstructed nature, in later stories the two mature and eventually settle down with new female partners on the Iceland-like Rime Isle. Leiber had long contemplated continuing the series beyond this point, but died in 1992 before he managed to do so. He has however left a lasting and iconic legacy in the form of his two heroes and has achieved perhaps the ultimate accolade in fantasy – his famous characters were parodied by Terry Pratchett in the very first Discworld novel!