Fafhrd is a huge Northern barbarian with a liking for strong wine and direct action. The Gray Mouser is more subtle, a slight, lightning-quick swordsman with some crude magical knowledge. Together, they adventure all over the place, stealing treasures, killing monsters (plus a whole bunch of normal people) and seeing strange sights. Their travels take them across vast oceans and between worlds, but tend to start or end in Lankhmar, a city of thieves and wonders, and involve various mysterious sorcerers and dancing girls.
The pair featured in short stories published over a fifty-year period starting in 1939. These stories were hugely influential, being referenced by countless later authors and forming part of the inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons (and therefore countless imitators and successors). Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren’t amazingly well-known now, but they’re part of the roots of the fantasy genre.
The stories have been gathered into a number of collections, which have in turn been further gathered into two omnibuses, inventively called The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser I and II. This review is informed by my reading of the first of these only, because I stopped wanting to continue. Nevertheless, it’s quite a chunk of stories and I think I’ve had enough of a grounding to make a judgement.
Each story is broadly independent, but with loose connective tissue – one story might start in the location they wound up in at the end of the last, or they’ll refer to a previous tragedy or debt as a motivating factor. Neatly, both adventurers are in the habit of naming new swords (and other equipment) the same as the old, so they can lose everything in one self-contained narrative but then be reset to their default at the start of the next.
In terms of comparison, the closest works are Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and H.P. Lovecraft. The setting is vast and perplexing, with human settlements separated by endless wastelands and trackless woods. Magic is ever-present and inscrutable, understood by inhuman sorcerers and borne through mists and shadows. Most things – human or otherwise – can be killed with a well-placed sword thrust, but this is not a world (or worlds) where humanity is dominant. Frightened peasants cower from the unknown, while the powerful gather scraps of half-understood knowledge. Sometimes this leads to fortune and power, but more often this is hubris, punished in grisly ways by beings beyond comprehension.
The prose is ornate and complex, often slipping towards purple. Locations are described in exhaustive detail, from the icy wastes of the barbarian North, to living volcanoes, ghostly castles outside real space, or pelagic temples in temporary bubbles of air. I’m all for complex description, particularly when the locations are quite so bizarre, but it needs to serve, not overpower the narrative. Frequently, the overwrought explanations and asides slow the stories down, overshadowing what’s actually happening by focusing on every little detail in far too much depth.
The stories are at their best when lightest on the detail – they take on a fairytale cadence and you get the archetypes and actions shining through. That’s where the brash Fafhrd and the cynical Mouser can play off each other, supporting or opposing but grappling with the same issues from different perspectives. I wanted more of that side of things than I got; you can see the seeds of fantasy tropes being planted, but such tropes are best when sketched lightly for people to fill in later, not hammered down into specifics.
The biggest issue with the stories is the way they treat women. Fantasy is not a genre that has the best track record with treating women as people, and while it would be unreasonable to place that entirely on Leiber’s shoulders, these stories definitely contribute to that. To Fafhrd and the Mouser, women are things – objects of desire, possessions, quest objects and bargaining chips; few women gain much characterisation, and all of them die shortly afterwards. The two most important women to the adventurers’ origin stories are strangled by magic and then devoured by rats in a way that it’s hard not to read as the author punishing them for the crime of surviving for more than one story; other women from Fafhrd’s past are wiped out with their entire settlement in a way that serves no narrative reason and is entirely gratuitous.
The first stories date from the 1930s, and I’m fully aware that attitudes towards gender equality have evolved since then. However, just as Lovecraft was racist even for his time, the misogyny in these stories is not what I would describe as typical. Powerless women are toys and rewards, powerful women are manipulative witches and harridans who need to be killed or, once appropriately humbled and weakened, treated as toys or rewards. It makes for regularly and repeatedly uncomfortable reading; “under-aged”, for example, is not a word I’m happy with being used as positive descriptor for a woman given to the Mouser as an ostensibly happy ending.
Fafhrd is mostly little worse than a boor (unfaithful and jealous, though not, sadly, atypically so), but the Mouser is regularly shown to deliberately exploit, groom, and abuse women. This is presented as a humorous quirk, rather than anything more sinister. It’s not limited to character views and actions either – the narration itself is filled with completely superfluous misogynistic asides because the author just really wants you to know just how fickle and vain women are. It’s not that these stories a male-focused, or happen to contain scenes in which women are harmed; these are stories that are actively hostile to women, never missing a chance to revel in disparagement, abuse, or painful death.
I find that the time it takes me to read a book is strongly linked to how appealing I find it; when I’m enjoying reading something, I don’t sleep as much, and I pick it up eagerly in idle moments, so that even the weightiest tome is quickly finished. On the other hand, some books drag, taking months to finish because I can only bring myself to read a few short pages at a time. Alas, this book was the second type. At first I rolled along quickly enough, but the endless acquiring and discarding of women, the self-indulgent prose, meant that I had to push myself along with a definite effort.
I believe that influential works are always worth reading at least once, regardless of their quality. Books like Beyond the Fields We Know cast a long, long shadow over the fantasy genre, and the same is true of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. However, other than this legacy, I really struggle to recommend these stories. They’re Conan but with weaker prose, and a lot more baggage. I’m glad I’ve read some of them, but I have no intention of reading more, and the uncomfortably half-dismissive half-malevolent attitude towards half the population taints the stories in a way that I can’t get past. These stories sowed important seeds, but I’m glad that the genre has (as a whole, if not totally) evolved beyond them.