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A magazine of all-new swords & sorcery fiction in the classic pulp style!
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Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Two Who Sought Adventure

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Hi everyone, we hope you are enjoying the essay updates for this Kickstarter! We started with two by Howard Andrew Jones: "Defining Sword-and-Sorcery" and "Sword-and-Sorcery's Grandfather." Now came "Dynamic Duos of Fiction" by Bill Ward. Over the course of this Kickstarter, these essays will provide insight into the kind of material that inspires us - and indirectly, our publishing filters. And here is the next entry, about a dynamic duo who we all know well...

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Two Who Sought Adventure

By Bill Ward

It’s impossible to take a look at sword & sorcery without coming face to face with one of its grandmasters, Fritz Leiber – after all, he invented the very term itself. Of course, Leiber’s original coinage was swords & sorcery, plural, and I’ve always suspected the reason for that ‘s’ was because Leiber was father not of one but of two heroes, the dynamic duo of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Unlike the explosive burst of creativity that saw Robert E. Howard shape his Conan cycle over just a few short years, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales were written over a span of half a century. Leiber’s changing style over this period can often surprise and confuse readers new to the series, particularly when encountering collections that place stories from different eras next to one another. It can also make it difficult to speak in general terms about the tales. But the best of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, stories like “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “The Sunken Land,” “When the Sea-King’s Away,” and “Lean Times in Lankhmar” all combine beautiful prose and authorial wit with colorful adventure and truly great characterization.

The tall northern barbarian and his diminutive thiefly companion might seem at first blush to be a cliché (and may indeed be the cliché’s originators!), but those are just the broad delineating brush strokes that Leiber takes as his starting point. And so we see Fafhrd, savage outlander, weep over a fallen foe, versify extemporaneously while hanging from a cliff face, and undergo sincere religious conversion to the cult of Issek of the Jug. His guileful companion was once so absorbed in a disguise that he almost sabotaged his own plan and, when a literal Cloud of Hate threatened to posses him, it found the Gray Mouser far too self-absorbed to be anything other than a “source of his own evil.” The two once attempted a brief period of domestication, prefaced by the stealing of a house. The source of their most serious falling out was rumored to be an argument over the correct spelling of Fafhrd’s name. Fine, funny, strange twists of character and observation litter these tales like spilled jewels marking the path of a hastily retreating thief. 

What may be yet more impressive is that Leiber combines this humor seamlessly with high stakes adventure and, amazingly enough, real suspense and horror. Many writers of the weird tale follow the method of simply plopping a Lovecraftian horror athwart the hero’s path, but Leiber often incorporates the actual techniques of horror fiction into his adventures. The suspense of exploring a delicate bubble of air at the bottom of the sea, or the terrifying appearance of a half-glimpsed god, share equal space with swashbuckling, roguery, and an overarching playfulness that leaves an indelible impression of Leiber’s world and heroes. 

And, perhaps most of all, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser enjoy adventure for adventure’s sake. It is no surprise that these stories were one of the principle influences for the invention of fantasy role playing games, where the players themselves share motives more akin to Lankhmar’s finest than they would with epic heroes upon whom the fate of the world rests. This sense of fun, and the lightness of tone and archness of wit of these highly polished stories that never stray too far into parody or satire but remain sincere adventure at their core, are the reasons why these fantasy classics will continue to be read, and reread, by generations of fantasy fans.

Paul Watson, Dan Steeby, and 9 more people like this update.

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