Lankhmar, jewel of Nehwon, city of a thousand curiosities. Have you read the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? The easier question is, have you ever read a fantasy novel influenced by them? If you’ve read a fantasy novel written after the 1930s, the answer is yes.
Fritz Leiber is one of those 20th century authors who created the damn genre as we know it today. The trifecta of fantasy’s more modern origin would be, I say, Tolkien, Howard, and Leiber. Howard of course wrote Conan of Cimmeria, on whom more eventually. Tolkien you might have heard of. But Leiber is inexplicably obscure, to my mind, though paradox-like I think I know the reason: short stories. Leiber’s Lankhmar stories are primarily short stories, but he shaped the specifically-novel format, with all-too-human adventurers facing the maddest and most dangerous things fantasy worlds could throw at them. Usually the most dangerous things, like in most stories, were other human beings. Or, at least, beings quite close to humans, though possibly related to rats, as one of Mouser’s loves were.
All right. I’m not dealing with one story in particular here, but the story that puts together their origin – a bit after the fact – is “Ill Met in Lankhmar.” I actually don’t think it’s best to read it first, because the stories were originally written out of chronological order, and sometimes the earlier stories – again, chronologically speaking – can seem a bit like filler. They’re still excellent, Leiber wasn’t fooling around, but there’s a sense that really you know who they are already, yet they’re being introduced before you anyway.
Here, for those of you who haven’t read them, heard of them, or know anyone who has, is the gist. Fafhrd contracted a severe case of wanderlust and left his northern barbaric home, meeting in Lankhmar with the Gray Mouser, a conniving thief and superstitious dabbler in fencing and magic. They become friends, kill a lot of people, many of them of the Thieves’ Guild (one of the earliest examples of the trope that is a foundation of fantasy stories today). They fall in love with ladies who probably are just using them, then the women die. Spoiler. Except not really. Like the fate of Elric’s love, the death of these two women is the driving force for the characters, not a plot element. The plot elements come from this event.
And there are a lot of things that come from that. At one point they race Death across his own countryside, solely because it’s a challenge and they don’t care if they win or lose. They meet mermaids, sorcerers, giant aquatic monsters, strange little German men from our world who try to converse with a Lankhmarese phrase book, and possibly Odin, at one point.
They are completely ridiculous, and entirely human, as I said before. They have difficulty fending off three bandits at one point, despite being the best swordsmen around. Well, they’re outnumbered, that’s how it would work. Leiber set out expressly to create an anecdote to the larger-than-life feats of Conan of Cimmeria. In doing so there’s a loss of vivacity, certainly, but instead these stories dwell on the strange half-life of emotions – though, honestly, if you really dig into the Conan stories, it might begin to seem odd that Conan is always all over the place, looking for mercenary work. After all, the first story begins with him a king, and the only Conan novel begins with him having lost that crown.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser can’t open themselves up because they already lost loves once. They bond only with each other, and sometimes they don’t do that. Once they set up competing religions on the street of small gods, Fafhrd singing skald ballads and the Gray Mouser using parlor tricks to simulate clairvoyance and miracles. They have to flee the city by story’s end, though.
They fight towers that are alive, the floating, jewel-eyed skulls of dead thieves, and an army of rats at one point. I don’t even have to crack jokes here, the weirdness does it for me. I mean, an army of rats? Mouser nearly marries one of them! And he ends up shrunken to their size, using a hair pin for a sword to defend himself.
These stories went on for nearly fifty years, though it’s not like he wrote a dozen stories a year, did Leiber. There are a lot of them. I haven’t read them all. I’ve read Leiber intended to keep working on them, every so often, but he died. Which happens to authors sometimes.
I should talk about RPGs here, too. Lankhmar very directly influenced the creation of DnD. TSR even released a Lankhmar campaign setting. In the typical settings of DnD, right out the box, Greyhawk is based pretty firmly on Nehwon, and the characters are tilted toward similarity with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A little less magic at your disposal, death a little more ready to come on, a sense of desolation and desperation at times, with mercenary motives driving near everyone, players as well as villains. What, in a world like Lankhmar, would you fight and die for? Countries hardly exist, lords and knights appear rarely if at all, and morals usually get one killed. Oneself, that’s what one fights for. Maybe friends, maybe money, but generally oneself. And Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser, they fight to relieve their boredom. What sort of characters could be bored in their world? Who would by a city that wants them dead, and goes out to find more dangerous situations than that? Who challenges death to contests with no need? Who invents a religion out of boredom? Lankhmar and Nehwon become operating rooms, and the motivations of the nearly nihilistic are laid out across them. The characters change over time, shaped by their encounters, but never losing that core of what Corwin, the narrator of the first half of Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles called his “wiser if more cynical self.”
Read these stories. Start with the first one that comes to hand, and don’t stop.