I’m not, as a rule, a fan of the fantasy genre. Indeed, shortly I’ll be blogging about a work, The Crystal Cave, that I started over a year ago and which I think I have to recognise I’m simply never going to get round to finishing. Like any genre though, it has its exceptions, its talents, Fritz Leiber being one of them. Unfortunately, Swords and Devilry, the first volume of his collected Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories, is not an example of Leiber at his best.
Taking a step backwards, in the 1930s and 1940s pulp fantasy tended towards tales now known as sword and sorcery. These were generally episodic adventures in which protagonists of doubtful morality lived large on a lightly sketched stage. Tolkien, with his massive epic, changed all that, and after him sword and sorcery went into decline, eventually being squeezed out of the marketplace of ideas by bland multi-volume pseudo-Tolkeinian works now often referred to as “fat fantasy”. Part of this was I think due to Tolkien’s success being so huge as to encourage legions of imitators, part in that the morality of fat fantasy is essentially Western and liberal and comforting while the morality of sword and sorcery drew heavily on intellectual currents of the 1930s such as existentialism with an emphasis on the human-created nature of gods and ethics and the individual having little responsibility or purpose beyond that they created for themselves.
In its day, a lot of sword and sorcery was produced, but by the 1970s it was a dying genre. Today it is largely extinct, though writers such as Richard Morgan are apparently trying to resurrect it. Most of what was written is now forgotten, but among those who are remembered is Fritz Leiber, the man who actually coined the term “sword and sorcery”. Fritz Leiber’s great creation was the city of Lankhmar, and the two rogues who inhabited it, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. Leiber wrote a number of stories through the 1940s featuring this pair, one a tall Northern warrior and the other a small semi-wizard and civilised swordsman from the warm south. Together they stole, loved, drank and faced death (on one occasion, if I recall correctly, literally and in person) in a series of adventures often only loosely linked in terms of chronology or indeed logic. At their best, Leiber’s stories had an immediacy and passion which makes them deservedly remembered, at their weakest they were sometimes trite with dubious sexual politics.
Which brings me to Swords and Devilry. Swords and Devilry is a collection of some of Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser tales, one of six volumes containing all such. The oddity, however, is that the volumes are in order of internal chronology, such as there is, not real world chronology. The result is that although it is for his tales written in the 1940s that Leiber is best remembered, the ones in this (the first) volume were in fact largely written in 1970, by which time Leiber’s talent was perhaps starting to wane and when the freshness of his initial creation was increasingly affected by his knowledge of the wider fantasy genre as it had developed over the years.
Swords and Devilry essentially consists of four linked novellas, the first two respectively are origins stories for each of Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, before they came to Lankhmar, the latter two telling of how they became friends and of their first adventure together. The difficulty is that the charm of Leiber’s tales lay in the friendship between his two protagonists and the marvellous life he gave their city, it’s unfortunate then that for 120 pages of 192 the characters haven’t actually met or made it to Lankhmar yet. None of the tales which made these characters so loved appear in this volume, none of Leiber’s best writing does, and as such although I still enjoyed it I enjoyed it to a degree with memory’s eye, rather than perhaps the eye of a mature reader. I enjoyed it in expectation of what is to come in later volumes, less so for what is present in this one.
Niall at Torque Control has written an excellent piece on this volume, here (you need to scroll down the page a bit past some introductory remarks), he notes (correctly in my view) that the central theme of the volume is one of the lure of civilisation, in contrast to the simplicity of living with nature. At the start, Fahfrd is a tribesman among barbarians ruled by snow-witches (in some ways better than that sounds, in others much more sexist in the depiction of women generally, a problem throughout this volume), he dreams of escaping to the warmth of civilisation, and falls in love with a visiting dancer who both symbolises a wider world and promises to give him a path to it. In the next story (The Unholy Grail), the Grey Mouser is a hedge wizard’s apprentice, living in civilised lands but in the rural and more outlying parts of them. He falls foul of a local baron, leading to a conflict described by Niall at Torque Control as “incredibly generic”, an assessment I agree with. The Snow Women is at least sometimes funny, The Holy Grail isn’t even particularly consistent with the depiction of the Grey Mouser in other stories.
In the second pair of novellas, the characters have moved to civilisation’s heart, Lankhmar, a jaded metropolis which duly consumes such little innocence as our heroes possess. Possessed of streets named “Cash Street”, “Dim Lane”, “Cheap Street” and the like, it is “Lankhmar, City of sevenscore Thousand Smokes”, later described by one of the characters as follows:
Lying low between the Marsh, the Inner Sea, the River Hlal, and the flat southern grainfields watered by canals fed by the Hlal, Lankhmar with its innumerable smokes was the prey of fogs and sooty smogs. No wonder the citizens had adopted the black toga as their formal garb. Some averred the toga had originally been white or pale brown, but so swiftly soot-blackened, necessitating endless laundering, that a thrifty overlord had ratified and made official what nature or civilisation’s arts decreed.
Elements of classic Leiber style can be seen in the above passage, a fondness for alliteration (of which more shortly), a wry commentary on the exigencies of civilised life, but here it is a touch flat, a touch obvious, too much reliant on exposition. In later, paradoxically earlier, stories Leiber uses all these elements with a surer and lighter touch and the result is descriptions no less detailed but quicker sketched and more amusingly written.
Sometimes Leiber deliberately writes to excess, here he indulges his tendency to alliterate but employs it to comic effect underlining the drunkneness of the characters:
But the Mouser and Fahfrd merely exclaimed in mild, muted amazement at the stars, muggily mused as to how much their improved visibility would increase the risk of their quest, and cautiously crossing the Street of the Thinkers, called Atheist Avenue by moralists, continued to Plague Court until it forked.
I rather like the Atheist Avenue joke there, the sheer excess of alliteration is I think quite intentional, but at the same time when I read it I was thrown bodily out of the story, the language so plainly sculpted for effect that it quite distracted me from the narrative.
Some elements do work well, the last few pages of the collection are the strongest part, reflecting I suspect that by then Leiber has finished setting up the characters to be as they were when first written in the 1930s, the backstory is complete and it shows in a sudden improvement in literary style and content. The pair’s intrusion into the villainous thieves’ guild disguised as beggars is suitably comic, with them convinced of the brilliance of their disguises and all others commenting behind them that the standards of beggars are clearly slipping. Later, the assault on the thieves’ guild is both exciting and horrific, particularly the fiery attack on the entryway and Fahfrd’s rage-fuelled killing of a child that mistakenly comes into his path (an action regretted afterwards, but its mere presence shows how morally questionable these characters are intended to be). All this comes very much at the end of the volume, however.
Along the way, an enchantment involving magically controlled fog is suitably chilling, as is an evil sorceror’s disturbing familiar, but too there are continual issues with the depiction of women as either scatter brained, controlling shrews or manipulative femme fatales. Leiber’s work is at its best when it focuses squarely on Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, and their ongoing relationship with their city, each other and their curious patrons Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes – neither of whom make an appearance in this volume at all. Swords and Devilry suffers from the absence of these elements, and is at its best when they briefly come to the fore.
I’ve been very harsh in this blog entry, perhaps because the truth is I love Leiber’s work, and have since I first read it in adolescence. Stories such as The Bleak Shore, The Howling Tower, Bazaar of the Bizarre, The Cloud of Hate, Lean Times in Lankhmar (with its marvellous satire on religion) are all small marvels. Sadly, none of them are in this volume which I perhaps judge harder because of my fondness for Leiber’s better works.
Swords and Devilry appears as part of a compendium volume, along with the much better Swords against Death, and is currently out of print. Undeservedly so, despite my many critical remarks in this blog entry, bad Leiber is not a patch on good Leiber, but it remains better than much contemporary fantasy.