Monday, July 19, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Ill Met in Lankhmar

If ever there were a pair of fictional characters who felt as if they could Dungeons & Dragons adventurers, it's Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Though the duo made their first appearance in publication in 1939 (in the novelette "Two Sought Adventure," printed in Unknown), it was not until 1970, in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that readers were treated to the story of how the barbarian from Cold Corner and the thief from the mean streets first met. "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is widely considered one of Leiber's best works, an opinion supported by the fact that the novella won both a 1970 Nebula Award and a 1971 Hugo Award -- a reminder of the fact that the stark division between "fantasy" and "science fiction" is a product of a later age.

The story begins as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, at this time unknown to another, simultaneously undertake the same plan: to steal from two members of Lankhmar's infamous Thieves' Guild, who had just previously stolen from a gem merchant.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser faced each other across the two thieves sprawled senseless. They were poised for attack, yet for the moment neither moved.

Each discerned something inexplicably familiar in the other.

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.

"You said?"

"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 Mouser hesitated, sheathed his dirk, and rapped out, "A deal!"
And so begins the most famous partnership in pulp fantasy.

Emboldened by their initial success as a team -- and spurred on by their lovers -- they decide to strike against the Thieves' Guild itself, about which Fafhrd boasts:
"I am not a coward!" he cried. "I'll dare the Thieves' House and fetch you Krovas's head and toss it with blood-a-drip at Vlana's feet. I swear that, witness me, Kos the god of dooms, by the brown bones of Nalgron my father and by his sword Graywand here at my side!"

He slapped his left hip, found nothing there but his tunic, and had to content himself with pointing tremble-armed at his belt and scabbarded sword where they lay atop his neatly folded robe -- and then picking up, refilling splashily, and draining his mug.

The Gray Mouser began to laugh in high, delighted, tuneful peals. All stared at him. He came dancing up beside Fafhrd, and still smiling widely, asked, "Why not? Who speaks of fearing the Guild-thieves? Who becomes upset at the prospect of this ridiculously easy exploit, when all of us know that all of them, even Krovas and his ruling clique, are but pygmies in mind and skill compared to me or Fafhrd here? A wondrously simple, foolproof scheme has just occurred to me for penetrating Thieves' House, every closet and cranny. Stout Fafhrd and I will put it into effect at once. Are you with me, Northerner?"

"Of course I am," Fafhrd responded gruffly, at the same time frantically wondering what madness had gripped the little fellow.
Unfortunately for them, things do not turn out quite as planned. The Thieves' Guild of Lankhmar does not appreciate being made to look foolish, not once but twice by the same freelancers and, with the help of a sorcerer in the employ of its guildmaster, exact revenge upon the pair, a revenge that in turn pushes them to the brink and forever forges the bonds of friendship between them.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" is an excellent story and a good introduction to Leiber's fantasy world and characters. All too often, prequels written years after the fact feel off in various ways, as if the author couldn't quite remember what it was that inspired his earlier writings. That's not true of "Ill Met in Lankhmar," which, if anything, feels even truer to these characters than some of Leiber's earlier efforts. Reading this tale, it's hard not to see in it the literary protoplasm out of which D&D arose. So many D&D staples, most notably the very idea of a Thieves' Guild, are presented here in glorious form, making it an enjoyable way to see where Dave and (especially) Gary got the ideas out of which they created this game we all so love. Read it, if you've never before had the chance; read it again, if you have. It's a great story by a great fantasy author.


  1. Leiber is one of the best, possibly the best fantasy author of the 20th century. He's certainly my very favorites, along with Tolkien and Lovecraft. I find it difficult to understand why he is so underappreciated compared to Tolkien, Howard, et al.

  2. I'm currently re-reading the reprint of the first two books in the F&GM series that White Wolf put out years ago:

  3. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book won the Best Novel Hugo last year. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won a couple of years before that. The Nebulas have gone to fantasy works plenty of times in the last decade. As far as the big awards are concerned, that stark division still doesn't exist.

  4. "If ever there were a pair of fictional characters who felt as if they could Dungeons & Dragons adventurers, it's Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser."

    Except that it's really hard to make characters like that with D&D mechanics. Just saying...

  5. I read Conan and The Tolk long before these great stories. It was not till Jr. High that I started reading them. Lankhmar sure as hell helped me understand why I loved City State of the IO and Arduin so much...wild and wooley, anything goes D&D type fantasy.

  6. These are great stories, though I think I prefer Howard to Leiber. (And my favorite Leiber by far is his occult horror tale, "Conjure Wife.") Lankhmar, however, is my gold standard for what a fantasy megalopolis should be.

  7. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories are one of the few fantasy series I can actually read and enjoy.

  8. Leiber is the best classic fantasy writer. I own the White Wolf printings of the F&GM, and they are well-worn favorites of mine.

    I find it very strange that such superb fantasy stories are so poorly known by most fans of the genre. You almost never see them at the bookstore - I believe they're out of print at this time - while Howard's Conan stories and the Lovecraft Cthulu stuff seems to always be available.

  9. In 10th Grade (circa 1983) for some reason I was made to sit in the front of my English classroom, probably for talking too much to my friends. There was one of those revolving paperback book racks right in front of me, and on it were a few of the old Lankhmar paperbacks. The rest is history...

  10. Huh. Funny--we've been reading the same stuff. I run an RPG Meetup in my area, and one of the offshoots is an "Appendix N" book discussion group. We just finished Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (which contains the short story "Ill Met in Lankhmar") and our next selection is The Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

  11. You cannot go wrong by reading Leiber's fiction. Even beyond Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, the guy is a genius!

  12. Yes, almost everything by Leiber is brilliant (I could never get into the Change War stuff, though, for some reason).

    Just as a side note for James... Leiber wrote a novel in the '70s entitled Our Lady of Darkness, the plot of which revolves around some supernatural inrigue previously investigated by Clark Ashton Smith and recorded in his Black Book. Thought you might want to check it out for the CAS angle.

  13. Hardcore Leiber fan here, as dhowarth333 said Our Lady of Darkness is superb

  14. I'm gratified to see that so many others share my enthusiasm for Leiber. Sometimes it seems like he's been forgotten.

  15. His stuff still crops up from time to time. In 1978, when I was obsessed with D&D, you couldn't find Lovecraft for love nor money, and Conan wasn't easy to find except in used bookstores, but for some reason, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were on every book rack.

    Leiber's Lankhmar stories and Vance's Cugel stories should be required reading for anyone who wants to play a rogue type.

  16. Totally agree! Loved Leiber back in the day, and still do - his stories actually read like D&D adventures, but without the obvious and heavy-handed feel of "this novel is actually a lightly edited transcript of our last D&D campaign" that a lot of stuff that has come out since has.

    I think I just figured out what to read next...

  17. The curious thing is that the anthologies (whether the original 7 books or the condensed 4 book version) only run the F&GM material in the internal chronological order, not publication order. Is there a good list of what to read if one were to actually go through them as they were put out?

  18. @Wayne:

    Is there a good list of what to read if one were to actually go through them as they were put out?

    There's a publication history here: , though it comes with the required "It's Wikipedia" warning.

  19. Just keep in mind that to some extent the order of writing and the date of initial publication don't always match, either. For instance, "Adept's Gambit" was the first F&GM story written, but "Two Sought Adventure" (later retitled "Jewels in the Forest") was the first published. "Gambit" was published years later (maybe the 5th or 6th published, have to check).

    Additionally, some of the tales were expanded somewhat between their original appearance in the magazines and the late '60s/early '70s Swords "novel fixups". "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is a prime example. There are several additional paragraphs in the novel version, and some slightly altered wording in a few places (i.e., Fafhrd's "Sixty-sixty?" question to the Mouser, quoted above, was original, "Fifty-fifty?"--I like the change, myself :).