Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem identical.”
“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.
“I said, ‘Seem? Surely, must be!'”
“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.
“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.
“Take care, in the eye of action, exactly what’s said,” Fafhrd explained. Without letting the Mouser out of his vision, he glanced down. His gaze traveled from the belt and pouch of the one fallen thief to those of the other. Then he looked up at the Mouser with a broad, ingenuous smile.
“Sixty-sixty?” he suggested. [The meeting of the perhaps he best duo in all of fantasy, Fafhrd and the Grey-Mouser, who are both robbing the same thieves using the same plan. To say that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship is an understatement. From Ill met in Lankhmar]
When Fritz Lieber wrote about the Theive’s Guild and Slayer’s Brotherhood in Lankhmar he apparently meant them as kind of humorous and cool. He was certainly not trying to reference to anything historical or create a metaphor pregnant with hidden meaning. I think he would likely be amused at how tropeish (is this a word?) bands of thieves and assassins are in modern fantasy.
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are the dynamic duo of fantasy. Fantasy readers can still feel their influences in modern works, even if they’ve read anything about them. Fafhrd is a giant of a man, a northern barbarian, who travels to the city of Lankhmar seeking adventure and intellectual stimulation. Unlike most barbarians he is inordinately smart, well-spoken, and enjoys culture — most of the time. His smaller partner, the Grey-Mouser is is all wiry grace and shadow; pretty much the archetype of the modern assassin hero, deadly, swift, smart, with some magic on the side. He is set apart from his modern Grimdark exterior by the fact that underneath his cynical exterior, he is a pretty decent guy. Mouser is also the more impulsive of the two, usually.
Most of their adventures take place in Lankhmar, one of the truly great cities of modern fantasy, almost a character unto itself and worthy of a later blog post. Lankhmar is decadent and deadly, sprawling and shadowy, cultured and crowded. The two meet when they simultaneously rob the same thieves, who just robbed a gem merchant. Being free agents in a city with powerful and territorial guilds they are initially suspicious of each other, but instead of fighting they banter and discover a kindred spirit in the other. The collected tales are, in truth, more about their friendship and personal growth than the plot of the various short stories they appear in.
As heroes go, they don’t seem like much initially. They seem to few cares beyond good times, witty banter, wonderful women, and adventure. They are thieves and sellswords because Lankhmar is not a very nice place, and these are the only professions available in such a place that allow them freedom. The tone of the stories is often witty, but also Grim. Shortly after their initial meeting, their secret hideaway is discovered by the guild that they robbed and their wonderful, interesting girlfriends are gruesomely killed as a warning. This kicks the story into swashbuckling mode and the two invade the guild to exact bloody vengeance. It is a complex heady mix that is held together by a writing style that is both fun and utterly without pretension.
Here are a few of the things that I think mark these two characters as important for modern Fantasy:
1) Urban and urbane: Both Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have a strong relationship with the city. They love culture. They seek new experiences. They want to lose themselves in taverns and crowded streets. At times they hate the city but they always seem to get drawn back in. More importantly, with their wildly different backgrounds they are brought together because of the city, which is an important part of modern fantasy both as a trope and social commentary. They are more worldly and cynical, like most city dwellers, than more pastoral fantasy characters.
2) A focus on character: The Tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are entirely character driven. The underlying focus, other than crazy cool fun, is always on the interaction between the characters. What ties the tales together is the sense of the two characters evolving and their lifelong friendship.
3) An awareness, and love, of Fantasy tropes: Thieves guilds, strange religions, crazy mage advisers save the world plots, giant spiders, crazy magic, cults, ghosts, weird races, and comic book crossovers! Fritz Lieber lovingly pokes fun at all of the Fantasy tropes of his time. This is a very modern trait, and one that many authors after him pick up on. Fantasy is a little bit silly, and a little bit crazy, and thus easy to make fun of. However Lieber’s stories do so in a way that really shows his deep affection for the genre and paves the way for Geek Chic.
4) A sense of play: The banter in these tales remains some of the best. Cheeky and funny, they demonstrate that Fantasy can be both funny and playful without losing its sense of wonder.
5) Comradeship: Buddy Fantasy? Hell yes. One of the strongest aspects of these works is the sense of friendship, of a real relationship to another human being the main driver instead of a quest, ideology, fate, or plot-line. This is something I wish we saw more of. Few authors develop friendships over the course of a work with this kind of sensitivity towards the negative and positive aspects of the ties that bind very different people.
I can’t recommend these works enough. Mike Mignola even did a Graphic Novel version of Ill Met in Lankhmar. If you haven’t read them and are in the mood for a fun romp with a touch of dark humour, do yourself a favour and read these!