Originally conceived in collaboration between Fritz Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer (Leiber would long credit Fischer with the original conception of the characters), and born in the middle of the Great Depression, the seven-foot tall barbarian Fafhrd and his diminutive companion, the former wizard’s apprentice Gray Mouser, would come to codify sword-and-sorcery, leaving behind a long and colorful legacy. Unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Fafhrd (despite his barbarian upbringing) and the Gray Mouser were urban characters, happy to be adapted to civilization and prowl its streets and alleys. Leiber would go on to publish six collections and one novel starring the pair.
Leiber’s stories always held a special appeal for me. They are removed from the sweeping epic fantasy of Tolkien, instead zeroing in on a couple of rogues who are (mostly) out for themselves. If they end up saving the city of Lankhmar (their home and the setting for many of their adventures) it is because it serves their best interests to do so. Fafhrd and Mouser are ultimately human and humane. They argue with each other, they fall in love, they grieve when lovers die, and they (or at least Mouser) trolls the everliving shit out of the mystical mentors, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Most importantly, they love adventure for the sake of adventure, languishing at times when a suitable challenge doesn’t present itself. In the fictional world Leiber crafted for them, adventure was never further away than down a dark alley.
Unlike Conan and some of the other classic pulp characters who were often the only constant in the stories told about them, Fafhrd and Mouser always shared the same space. There never could truly be one without the other, and this gave them a chance to play off each other, to banter, and to share in each other’s victories and defeats. While certainly not the first duo to crop up in fantasy, they hold a distinct place in being one of the most iconic.
To be sure, the world of Nehwon (itself a shout out to Samuel Butler’s Erehwon) is also distinctly separate from our own. This let Leiber indulge in the more fantastic elements, such as near-invisible ghouls, otherworldly bazaars, and the daughters of sea-kings. To be sure, using the “real world” was never a true barrier to pulp writers wanting to include fantastical or mystical elements to their work, but Leiber includes such elements as a race where only their bones are visible, a race of sentient rats dwelling below the streets of Lankhmar, and a physical representation of the land of the dead.
Leiber introduced and helped codify a number of what would come to be classic sword and sorcery tropes to the world. The concept of a Thieves’ Guild and a Slayer’s Brotherhood (a Guild of Assassins), originally meant by Leiber to be tongue in cheek, would be considered part-and-parcel of sword and sorcery adventures to come. Leiber would help define what it meant to craft a couple of swashbuckling characters who fought with both brain and steel, as opposed to Howard’s Conan who overwhelmingly preferred the direct approach.
What still surprises me, is that despite their lasting appeal (numerous reprints, popping up in Wonder Woman, having a game line in Dungeons and Dragons based off their adventures, and having a direct line to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series), is that they haven’t received the same pop-culture cachet as other properties. To be sure, there have been multiple role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons and Savage Worlds both have used Lankhmar for settings) and more than one metal album has taken inspiration from Fritz Leiber’s timeless collection, but I still find it strange that there hasn’t been an attempt to bring it to either the big or small screen. Maybe the ground Leiber first broke has been trod over by too many others.
Or, maybe it will be the next big thing Netflix or HBO tries to cash in on. One can hope.