Monday, June 21, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Thieves' House

I've said it many times before, so many that long-time readers are probably tired of my saying it, but, if I had to choose a single author whose writings best exemplify what I mean by "pulp fantasy" as it pertains to the literary inspirations of Dungeons & Dragons (at least in its Gygaxian form), I'd choose Fritz Leiber. More specifically than that, I'd choose Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the first of which was published in 1939, just three years after the death of Robert E. Howard, another serious contender for the title of the single most inspirational author on the creation of D&D. 

One of the primary reasons I choose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser over Conan as prototypes of the D&D adventurer is not their larcenous goals – which they have in common with Conan – but rather because they operate as a team. Lots of people like to point to the Fellowship of the Ring as the closest literary antecedent to a D&D party and I can certainly see why. If one's preferences in fantasy lean toward the epic, the Fellowship isn't a bad model, but, as I've tried to argue here for more than a decade, Dungeons & Dragons makes much more sense if you look to the pulp fantasies that inspired Arneson and especially Gygax. With that firmly in mind, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser inevitably loom very large indeed.

The story "Thieves' House," first published in the February 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, amply demonstrates what I mean. Krovas, master of the Thieves' Guild of Lankhmar, seeks to recover "the skull Omphaal, of the Master Thief Omphaal, with great ruby eyes, and one pair of jeweled hands," which was "stolen from the Thieves' Guild by the priests of Votishal and placed by them in the crypt of their accursed temple." Krovas wishes to recover it so "that it may be given the proper veneration in the Thieves' Sepulcher." Unfortunately, the skull is hidden behind a door "reputed to be beyond the cunning of any thief to pick" and watched over by "a guardian beats of terrible ferocity." Because "men still shudder when they speak of the crypt of Votishal," no one within the Thieves' Guild would dare attempt to recover it – but "there are those outside the Thieves' Guild who can." 

Unsurprisingly, Krovas is referring to "a certain rogue and picklock known as the Gray Mouser" and the "huge barbarian who goes by the name Fafhrd, but is sometimes called the Beast-Slayer." Krovas sends one of his underlings, a man named Fissif, to employ the Twain in this endeavor. His reason for wishing to hire them isn't simply because of their skills as accomplished burglars but because the Thieves' Guild has a score to settle with them for their past crimes against one of Lankmar's most powerful institutions. Fissif is described as "the smoothest of double-crossers" and Krovas expects him to use Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to recover the skull Omphaal and then set them up for a fall.

One aspect of "Thieves' House" that's very striking is that, after the initial build-up about the crypt beneath the temple of Votishal and the difficulty in breaching it, Leiber describes neither it nor the bold theft to find the skull. Instead, he picks up after Fissif has double-crossed Fafhrd and the Mouser, as he flees back to the Thieves' Guild, with the goal of luring them inside. As the brothers in arms pursue the fat thief, Fafhrd senses that this is exactly what Fissif intended, but his friend initially dismisses the idea, claiming, "I know these thieves, Fafhrd. I know them well." Upon reflection, the Mouser concedes that "there may be something to what you say" and he becomes warier.

It's at this point that the story truly begins. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sneak into the headquarters of the guild, the eponymous Thieves' House, with the goal of finding not just Fissif but the skull he had stolen from them. Shortly after entering, though, they're set upon by guards, who try to stop their advance. Working together, they evade the guards and rush toward the guild master's chambers where they assume Fissif must now be. Once they reach the room in question, they find that, in addition to Krovas, it holds a red-haired woman who quickly snatches up the skull and flees beyond a secret door. Their attempt to open the door fails, at which point they recall that Krovas the guild master is still in the room with them.

But the black-bearded man had not taken any notice of the commotion. As the approached him slowly they saw that his face was bluish-purple under the swarthy skin, and that his eye bulged not from astonishment, but from strangulation. Fafhrd lifted the oily, well-combed beard and saw cruel indentations on the throat, seeming more like those of claws than fingers. The Mouser examined the things on the table. There were a number of jeweler's instruments, their ivory handles stained deep yellow from long use. He scooped up some small objects.

"Krovas had already pried three of the finger-jewels loose and several of the teeth," he remarked, showing Fafhrd the rubies and a number of pearls and diamonds, which glittered on his palm.

Fafhrd nodded and again lifted Krovas's beard, frowning at the indentations, which were beginning to deepen in color.

"I wonder who the woman is?" said the Mouser. "No thief is permitted to bring a woman here on pain of death."

The remainder of the story concerns the Twain's efforts to recover the jeweled skull and hands that had been stolen from them and discover exactly what happened to Krovas. In doing so, they explore the twisting corridors, secret passages, and labyrinthine cellars of the Thieves' House. It's a fun story, filled with plenty of action but also with lots of great character moments, allowing Leiber to give us greater insights into his protagonists – who they are, what they value, and what they mean to each other. It's that last bit that most interests me, I think. As I said at the start of this post, Fafhrd and the Mouser are a team. They're true friends and, while they frequently bicker and even occasionally fall out with one another, when the going gets tough, they've got each other's back. I find this quality of the Twain both admirable and touching and much more reminiscent of my experiences playing D&D than the lone wolf adventures of Conan, however exciting. 


  1. The first sentence of Induction by Leiber (written in 1957 according to my copy of Swords and Deviltry) is I suspect the first use of a certain two words together which would ultimately be used to define an entire genre:

    Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries.

    1. You're very likely correct. Leiber is regularly cited as the originator of the term.

  2. The story is also blatantly used in Judges Guild "Wraith Overlord" expansion to their classic City State of the Invincible Overlord.

  3. Leiber and Howard are how I like to approach D&D too.

    As stories, they're often constructed like the contemporaneous two-fisted, hard-boiled pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s, as evinced by the underworld setting, the heist, the double-crossing employer, and the femme fatale in Thieves' House.

    But it's clear Gygax drew no end of inspiration from The Hobbit. His claims to the contrary smack of protesting too much.

    1. All those elements show up (often in conjunction with one another) show up throughout fiction for a span of decades, if not centuries. Within some limits, good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of the exact genre or style.

      Howard & Leiber are what I think of for the grittier, more human-scaled sword & sorcery. The more grandiose world-shaking variety (which some folks would categorize as epic fantasy, not S&S) brings Moorcock to mind, particularly the early Elric books.

    2. Agree with your first paragraph but I don't think it's a coincidence that Conan and Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled private eyes are gruff loners, not given to introspection, comfortable with crime and violence, living by their wits, their abilities and their own code of ethics at the fringe of corrupt societies where anyone could double-cross them for their own ends.

      These pulp fiction heroes feel uniquely like creations of the 1920s and 30s.

  4. I dimly recall seeing a fanzine back in the late 70s with a short story that covered the theft from the temple of Votishal in exacting detail, with a note from the author about how Leiber had missed the most important part of the adventure so he wrote it to fix that. It was really quite shockingly bad even for what amounted to fanfic, read suspiciously like D&D session notes.

    Sadly the exact name of the zine eludes me, and it might have been a single-issue local thing. I know it was printed on a local (Schenectady NY) high school's mimeograph machine, or at least my copy was. Might have been something like "Tales of Swords & Skulls" - if this rings a bell for anyone I'd love to know for sure.

    Bad as the Leiber pastiche was, the thing had a poem about a sea captain who wound up cursed to sail a constellation across the stars for eternity. Younger me thought it was pretty good. Also had a schedule of upcoming events at a local game club, which is why I shelled out fifty cents for my copy.

  5. Thieves' House is certainly one of the best tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and it is my personal favorite.

  6. Great story and I agree; I think Fritz Leiber's influence on D&D and fantasy rpgs in general is significant.