Classic Review: Swords And Deviltry
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Fritz Leiber is one of the grandfathers of modern fantasy, writing as a contemporary to Robert Howard and JRR Tolkien; but while Conan and the abundance of elves and dwarves remain at the beating heart of the fantasy genre to this day, Leiber’s Lankhmar stories have fallen out of the general public’s consciousness. Devoted fans of fantasy, and in particular a great many contemporary fantasy writers still cite Leiber’s work as an inspiration for much of what the genre would someday become. In particular, the fact that over the course of their lifetimes, the characters were allowed to grow, settle into stable lives and to change. Something that many authors of “iconic” fantasy heroes seemed to fear.
Part of this may be the limited availability of his books, mostly comprised of hastily pulled together collections of short stories and novellas rather than the sweeping epics that many consider to be the cornerstone of the modern genre. They have not been adapted into other mediums, there was no Saturday morning cartoon of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, nor video games, nor films. It may also be because those protagonists are only barely heroic, existing in a morally grey world that doesn’t slot easily into the simple satisfying narrative of good versus evil.
The first collection of his Lankhmar stories, titled “Swords and Deviltry,” follows these two “heroes” from their humble beginnings to their first meeting in the great city itself. While the stories were not written in any sort of chronological order, when it came time to gather them into books, that was the structure that was chosen.
After a brief introduction to the world of Lankhmar which is little more than a description of the landscape, we are tossed into the “origin story” of the barbarian Fafhrd, recounting his time among his own people and what drove him to leave them behind. What really captured me in this story was the almost anthropological view it took of his native culture and the ways that the superstitions were considered to be entirely factual by both the character’s involved and the narrative itself. In Lankhmar, Fafhrd might have been an exotic barbarian but among his own people he was just a slight oddity, not far outside the norms of their society. Here we get to see him at what he considers to be his most heroic, before the corruptions of civilisation can seep in.
The following story explores the origin of Grey Mouser and what drove him out to explore the world. While Fafhrd’s tale has the hallmarks of heroic fantasy, Mouser’s story delves into the seedier side of Lankhmar, the dark magic, the corruption in the heart of feudalism and some fairly unpleasant moments that explains so much about the character’s motivations in only a few simple lines.
The final story in the book is the Hugo Award Winning Novella “Ill Met in Lankhmar” when the two finally cross paths with each other and form the lasting bond that will carry them on through the rest of their lives. It combines a slapdash criminality and jovial overtures of friendship with the kind of grim determination that would later define both these characters but also thousands more through the history of the fantasy genre. Even if their victory was pyrrhic in this particular story, the reader is left with a sense of hope because the two lost souls have finally found their mate and there are so many more stories left to tell.
More important than Leiber’s lasting influence on the fantasy genre is the fact that every one of the stories contained within this collection is a joy to read. The writing has the descriptive depth of Tolkien without becoming bogged down in purple prose, striking the perfect balance between immersion in the fantastical world and the kind of rapid pace that would come to characterise the sword and sorcery sub-genre.