I recently talked about a fantasy series I finished, Malazan, which is well noted for its usage of “dynamic duos”, having characters appear frequently in pairs who bring out the most interesting in each other. This heavily reminded me of a sadly often forgotten part of the formation of fantasy – the author Fritz Leiber.
Fritz Leiber is one of my all-time favourite authors, who ranged across fantasy, science fiction and horror in his writing, and his most famous creations are certainly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a pair of warriors who engage in sword and sorcery type adventures across the world of Nehwon, particularly in and around the great city of Lankhmar. Leiber began writing the stories as early as the late 1930s, but only began organizing the short stories into collections in the 60s and 70s. The concept behind the characters was to create more “human” variations on the archetypical pulp heroes, such as Conan and Tarzan. Fafhrd is a gigantic northern barbarian with a straightforward view on life, while the Gray Mouser is a sly and more cynical thief.
While we might take these kinds of “odd couple” pairings for granted in modern fantasy, at the time, this must have been quite revolutionary. The difference is that with two different characters, there is ample chance for them to discuss and reflect upon the strange occurrences and peoples they encounter. This is where Leiber’s writing can really shine, because the man was a true wit. Where Conan and Tarzan may have been taciturn, Fafhrd and Mouser often pass the time with hilarious conversation, when not getting into adventures that deftly mix horror, exoticism, comedy and action. The two are often sent on absurd and dangerous missions by their wizardly patrons, Ninguable and Sheelba, who have a bickering relationship with their chosen heroes that also reminded my greatly of Malazan – Ninguable in particular always makes me think of the character of Shadowthrone.
While not having the impact of Conan, the pair have left an indelible mark on the fantasy genre, as seen by the many games and comics (including a fantastic rendition by Mike Mignola) based on them and their world, and the countless nods and references in other fantasy works. Indeed, Leiber seems a favourite among fantasy authors, and its not hard to see why given the charm with which he writes.
Of course, Leiber went far beyond sword and sorcery, writing some of my favourite science fiction stories, and perhaps the greatest urban fantasy story ever written, “Our Lady of Darkness”. Just focusing on his sword and sorcery (a genre he helped name) accomplishments would be selling him short. I might return in the future to give some of his other works more love. Still, if you love old fashioned fantasy adventure and witty dialogue, there’s none better.