This week’s recommendation is a `Sword and Sorcery’ classic from Fritz Leiber, the man who virtually invented this sub-genre. `Swords and Deviltry’, which was first published in 1970, is one of six volumes of  stories about two of Fantasy fiction’s most enduring and endearing  characters – Fafhrd (pronounced Faf-erd) and the Gray Mouser. Leiber and his college friend H.O. Fischer invented these `two dubious heroes and whimsical scoundrels’ in the 1930s and Leiber went on publishing stories about them until the late 1980s. `Swords and Deviltry’ opens Leiber’s `Lankhmar’ sequence. It describes key episodes in the early lives of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, including their first meeting, and the bizarre circumstances in which they became a fighting duo. Scandalously, most of Leiber’s work is not currently in print but you can get ebook versions of `Swords and Deviltry’ and two of its successors – `Swords Against Death’ and `Swords in the Mist’. Old paperback editions of `Swords and Deviltry’ are easy to find and you may be able to track down a hardback copy of an omnibus volume `Three of Swords’, which contains all three collections.

`Swords and Deviltry’ consists of a brief `Induction’, followed by three novellas : `The Snow Women’, `The Unholy Grail’ and `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’.  The opening pages introduce the varied realms of the world of Nehwon and the sinister metropolis of Lankhmar. According to the `runic books of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face’, this was the city where `two long-sundered matching fragments of a greater hero’ first met. A statement which `The Snow Women’ shows to be not quite accurate. At the start of this story, eighteen-year old barbarian Fafhrd is living in the Cold Waste with his mother Mor, the leader of the Snow Clan. Fafhrd is uncertain what role his sorceress mother played in the death of his father and he’s beginning to rebel against the life Mor has planned for him. While taking part in his first raid, Fafhrd met a scawny youth with `a legend-breaking mind’ and became interested in the civilized world. Now he longs to travel to its great cities. When the Clan are in their southernmost Winter Camp they are visited by traders and a troupe of actors. The women of the Snow Clan disapprove of their menfolk ogling scantily clad actresses, so they inflict all kinds of magical punishments on them. Fafhrd has a girlfriend within the Clan, but he becomes infatuated with an actress called Vlana after rescuing her from a spiteful attack by the Snow Women. Vlana is looking for a champion to help her gain vengeance on her enemies and young Fafhrd isn’t her first choice. He’s soon struggling to preserve Vlana from kidnappers and his mother’s ice magic but can he trust the wily actress?

`The Unholy Grail’ introduces a young magician’s apprentice who is nicknamed Mouse because he’s so small. After completing a dangerous quest to win an amulet, Mouse is eager to be reunited with his gentle master, the white magician Glavas Rho, and his fellow apprentice, the sweet and timid Ivrian. Instead, he finds that Glavas Rho has been murdered by Ivrian’s magic-hating father, Duke Janarrl.  Fearing that he has been betrayed by Ivrian and in danger from her cruel father, will Mouse give in to his dark side and become a Mouser? In the Hugo and Nebula-winning story `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’, Fafhrd and the young man now known as`the Gray Mouser’ meet for the second time when they both ambush members of the powerful Thieves’ Guild in a Lankhmar street. The two swordsmen are delighted with each other’s company and get very drunk together. Egged on by their girlfriends, they set out on a rash mission to penetrate the headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are about to face a horror that will change their lives for ever.

The exotic and perilous world of Nehwon seems to owe much to the wonderful Fantasy tales of Lord Dunsany (if you don’t know about these, see my post of June 2012) and sly acknowledgements of this, such as the little cough that introduces the character of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes,  are scattered throughout the Lankhmar series. Leiber’s work is full of dark humour. He delighted in inventing grotesque fates for many of his characters (don’t read this book if you’re afraid of rats) and ghastly places, such as Lankhmar, a city so polluted by sooty fogs that the rich wear black togas. The stories in `Swords and Deviltry’ are packed with droll detail, such as the `sessions of chanting and ominous moaning’ during which the Snow Women inflict `sniveling, nose-dripping colds’ on their husbands; or the glimpses of the Thieves’ Guild where `instruction was going on in slipping, dodging, ducking, tumbling, tripping and otherwise foiling pursuit’.  Good as the writing is, you may still feel that this is the kind of Fantasy world you’ve read about before. What makes the `Lankhmar’ series stand out is the unpredictability of much of the plotting. Leiber wasn’t afraid to mix comedy and tragedy and the good guys don’t always win. In `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’ there are startling shifts from hilarity to horror and in the first two stories it’s genuinely hard to guess which way the central characters will jump. This is partly because Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are more complex people than you might expect to encounter in this genre.

The two heroes have an outstandingly strong physical presence. It’s hard to forget a seven-foot tall, green-eyed, copper-haired Northern barbarian who hangs out with a diminuitive dark-haired Southern `slum boy’ who dresses all in grey. Opposites attract and complement each other but this isn’t a simple case of a tall strong one and a small brainy one. Fafhrd may look and sometimes act like the sort of jovial barbarian that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to play but he has a cold analytical `schemy self’, while clever cat-like Mouser is impulsive and over-confident but formidable in a fight. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been used as characters in Fantasy War Games but in spite of being great swordsmen, they are not professional warriors. As Mouser says, `Killing is murder, no matter what nice names you give it.’ In the course of the Lankhmar series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser make a living as bodyguards and couriers, thieves and confidence tricksters, treasure-seekers and entertainers but `never, never, never enlisted as mercenary soldiers’ (`Swords Against Death’). No-one is better at describing fights and chases than Leiber, so our heroes’ progress through the danger-spots of Nehwon is highly entertaining but if you’ve only encountered Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in some of their lighter-hearted adventures, you may be surprised by how dark their `origin stories’ are.

In `The Snow Women’, Fafhrd is haunted by his father’s ghost, cursed by his mother and feels (like many young men) trapped by a clingy girlfriend. He condemns the `shut-mindedness’  of his clan and has an over-romantic view of the `civilized world’. People try to warn him about `the stinks and snares of civilization’ but of course he doesn’t listen. Fafhrd is said to be based on Leiber himself but it isn’t always a complimentary portrait. The young barbarian behaves very badly to his pregnant girlfriend and to a rival in love and allows `the White Spider of Death’ into his soul. In `The Unholy Grail’, orphan Mouser is driven to use `the magic which stemmed from death, hate and pain’ to avenge the loss of the magician who has treated him like a son. Yet the story makes it clear that even if there had been no tragedy, Mouser was always likely to stray into the excitements of a life of crime. In `Ill-Met in Lankhmar’,  the two young men recognize each other as kindred spirits but also perceive each other’s faults, especially when it comes to their dealings with women. Fafhrd has failed to take Vlana’s overwhelming need for vengeance seriously while over-protective Mouser is treating a `potentially brave and realistic girl’ as if she was a fragile doll. This leads to disaster and so the partnership between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is forged by grief and guilt. The Lankhmar series may be full of laughs but melancholy is never far from the surface. In the last stories he wrote about them, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser become the noble leaders they always had the potential to be. Leiber clearly loved the two characters he lived with for so long. This is Dark Fantasy with heart. Until next week…