SWORDS AGAINST DEATH
by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1970, Fritz Leiber began publishing collections of the stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser which set the tales’ internal chronology. In addition to reprinting the earlier stories, these collections also included new works which helped bridge those tales and build in an overarching story for his adventurers. The first volume, Swords and Deviltry included mostly new stories. The second volume, Swords Against Death is more balanced between original stories and reprints.
Swords Against Death opens with a brief linking story, “The Circle Curse,” which Leiber wrote in 1970 to connect the events related in Swords Against Deviltry and the older stories contained in the volume. Picking up with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser leaving Lankhmar, vowing never to return, it sketches in their first enigmatic meetings with the wizards Ningauble and Sheelba and outlines three years of adventures that took them throughout Nehwon. The time jump this story covers allows Leiber to show the more mature forms of the characters without really having the describe their growth, but it also provided Leiber with a broad outline of adventures if he had ever chosen to fill in the period between “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and “The Jewels in the Forest” with details of what he describes in “The Circle Curse.”
“The Jewels in the Forest” was originally published as “Two Sought Adventure” in the August 1939 issue of Unknown, the first story of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to appear in print. It is a pretty generic story, with the two adventurers learning of an ancient treasure in an abandoned building and seeking it out, along the way coming across a farmer’s family that lives nearby whose daughter offers them warnings about the building as well as a rival band of adventurers who are attempting to gain the treasure. Gary Gygax was a fan of Leiber’s stories and incorporated aspects of them into Dungeons and Dragons. “The Jewels in the Forest” feels like it could easily be a role-playing module. Because it was an early story, Leiber’s characters and setting aren’t very well fleshed out, although the names one expects from a Lankhmar story are used liberally throughout.
“Thieves House” was originally published in 1943 and tells of the Lankhmar Thieves Guild’s attempts to avenge themselves on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by using them to retrieve a jewel encrusted skull. The crime doesn’t work out well for anyone involved, causing the death of the guild master, a falling out amongst the thieves, and nothing to show for it for the heroic duo. Leiber used the characters and events in “Thieves House” to create the situation in his Hugo Award winning story “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” ensuring that the events in that prequel aligned with the descriptions in “Thieves House.”
“The Bleak Shore,” which appeared in the November 1940 issue of Unknown is a bit of a departure for Leiber. Although it opens depicted the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd in a tavern in Lankhmar and places a geas on them to travel to the Bleak Shore, most of the story is told by Ourph the Mingol, a slave they acquired in between stories who traveled with them and is apparently the only surviving member of the journey to the Bleak Shore. Once he tells of leaving the heroes there and making his way back to Lankhmar, Leiber again takes up the story of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as they battle strange creatures and an embryonic version of the sorcerer who caused their travel. Although they show their characters in the opening section, for the remainder of the story they could as easily be any other generic sword and sorcery heroes.
“The Howling Tower,” from 1941, is an exploration of paranoia, although not on the part of Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser. Traveling across a desolate plain, they are struck by the sound of howling wolves and a huge black tower in the distance. Abandoned by their guide, Fafhrd disappeared towards the tower with the Gray Mouser following him, eventually to find Fafhrd in a coma and himself threated by the only other living person in the tower, whose paranoia led him to kill not only his family, but all of the dogs who lived in the tower, although he is now haunted by their incorporeal form. Reading the stories in Leiber’s internal chronological order, it is striking how many of the stories separate the two partners for significant periods of time, thereby avoiding the banter and camaraderie which forms so much of their eventual relationship.
In 1942, Leiber mined our own myths of Atlantis for his story “The Sunken Land” about a one-time land of plunder for Fafhrd’s tribe which has disappeared beneath the waves. A chance encounter on the seas leads Fafhrd to discover that the land had sunk beneath the waves, although their culture has managed to survive the upheaval. As with so many of the earlier stories, Fafhrd and the Mouser are separated throughout much of this story which was set off because of a strange ring Fafhrd recovered from a fish, leading him to want to find more piscine treasures.
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser finally get to work together in the story “The Seven Black Priests,” published in 1953. The story tracks them through the Cold Wastes after they have stolen a massive gem that was an idol’s eye. Also tracking them are a group of seven priests from the southern land of Klesh. The priests attack the pair one at a time, using a variety of improbable and unsuccessful methods. The pair squabble over possession of the gem and in time, Fafhrd becomes possessed by it as well. An interesting piece in the story is a song Fafhrd sings which directly describes the events of “The Sunken Land,” published more than a decade earlier.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser return to Lankhmar in “Claws from the Night,” published in 1951. A mysterious crime wave has descended on the city. The citizens of Lankhmar quickly determine that birds are carrying out the crimes and the pair decide to try to enrich themselves using the birds as cover. Unfortunately, the worshippers of the banned goddess Tyaa who are using the birds to commit their crimes are no more pleased with their freelancing than the Thieves Guild was previously. Leiber paints a quick picture of the city and locations Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser visit, occasionally implying an almost Lovecraftian horror, although never quite crossing into that realm.
In 1970’s “The Prince of Pain-ease,” Leiber sends his heroes to Hell at the behest of Ningauble and Sheelba in order to bring to a close the threads hanging over the characters from “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” published earlier in the year. On their journey to the Shadowlands, they come across the shades of their loves, Ivrian and Vlana. This brief story is mostly designed to release the characters from the pining that Leiber worked into the stories published in 1970 and to free them up to be the characters he had previously written about. It is a slight story, but important for the overall saga.
The final story in Swords Against Death is “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” first published in 1963. Although the characters spend a lot of time alone, with the Gray Mouser brought under the spell of the Devourers, Leiber is able to show Fafhrd’s connection to the Mouser in how quickly he turns from questioning his instructions from Ningauble and Sheelba when he learns what is happening and that his partner is in danger.
Swords Against Deviltry is something of a mixed bag with some very strong stories, such as “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “The Jewels of the Forest,” and “Thieves House” and other tales which feel more as if they are filler. The characters aren’t always consistent in these tales and often only have the vaguest interaction with each other.
|The Circle Curse||The Sunken Land|
|The Jewels in the Forest||The Seven Black Priests|
|Thieves' House||Claws from the Night|
|The Howling Tower||The Price of Pain-Ease|
|The Sunken Land||The Bazaar of the Bizarre|
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