The Three of Swords

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three of Swords: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber.

This omnibus volume contains the first three books of the series of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The individual books are themselves collections, though, made up of individual stories not all written or first published in the sequence of internal chronology with which they are presented. Still, there are general plot advancements peculiar to each book. In Swords and Deviltry we are supplied with the youthful origins of the two separate heroes, their meeting, their orientation to the city of Lankhmar, and the loss of their first loves. Swords Against Death accounts for the period in which they acquire their sorcerous patrons, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. Swords in the Mist mainly supplies the novella “Adept’s Gambit” (1947), which puts Fafhrd and the Mouser in the classical Near East, adventuring out from Tyre in search of a sorcerer who has cursed them.

The earliest component stories in the whole omnibus are “The Bleak Shore” (1940) and “The Howling Tower” (1941), first published in Unknown Fantasy Fiction. These make Fahfrd and the Mouser less than a decade junior to Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and part of the original generation of sword and sorcery in American pulp adventure fiction. The flavor of these is quite distinct from that of the Conan stories, though. The Conan prose is generally high tempo narrative in a fairly transparent contemporary style, although framed by the imaginary ancient canon of the Nemedian Chronicles. (Moorcock’s Elric stories pick up this mode intact.) But Leiber presents us with a more orally-oriented storytelling, invoking rumor, riddle, and enigma. His heroes are accomplished rogues, not destined for high histories, despite their daring achievements.

Besides style, the main difference between a Conan story and a Fafhrd and the Mouser one is that Conan–companions, lovers, and lackeys notwithstanding–is a loner with a sovereign destiny. Whereas the Mouser and Fafhrd are an indissoluble duo, even when they are at odds with one another, and the fate of each is bound up with the other. Neither is dominant; each saves the other’s bacon with equal frequency as vice versa. Their ultimate bond to one another is really the fantasy cornerstone of their heroics.

The three component collections pull together the various stories according to internal narrative chronology, and insert brief bridging stories to solidify the continuity where needed. Thus, in 1968 Leiber started doing for his own pulp sword-and-sorcery heroes what Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp had begun doing to Howard’s Conan a year earlier. This effort, with its patent commercial motivation (and doubtless some genuine appetite to systematize and canonize the stories) is still uneven when done by the author, though better than the posthumous treatment the Conan stories received. The table of contents gives wonderful glosses on each of the stories, such as this:

“Once again blackness, spirit of night, with the Grey Mouser (one who strikes a balance between black and white) and russet-headed Fafhrd battling it. The well-known dangers of stealing the eye of an idol, whether the idol be doll-tiny or mountain-huge. Ice, snows, volcanoes, lava–and seven most deadly killers.” (ix)

My favorite stories in this volume were “Claws from the Night” (1951), “Bazaar of the Bizarre” (1963), and most especially “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959). All of these transpire in the city that forms the geographic focus of the series. Although a majority of the stories take place in distant countries and wildernesses, the best ones are set in “Lankhmar the Imperishable, City of the Black Toga,” where the two renowned swordsmen, whether they like it or not, are at home. [via]