FRITZ LEIBER: SWORD & SORCERY GROWS UP

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leiber1In 1939 Farnsworth Wright began a move away from Sword & Sorcery. With Robert E. Howard dead, he no longer championed the dark fantasy tale, publishing Henry Kuttner’s Elak as the last. This meant that Fritz Leiber, who had written horror stories for Weird Tales, was not welcome with his new series, this featuring two rogues, Fafhrd the Northern barbarian and his dark, slender partner, the Grey Mouser. Which was a shame for Leiber had taken the Howardian tale and improved upon it. While Clifford Ball and Henry Kuttner can be said to have solidified what a Sword & Sorcery tale looked like, it was Fritz (who would name S&S in 1961, many years later) who showed that Howard was not the pinnacle but the starting place for heroic fantasy.

The first innovation that Leiber brought was having two heroes, each equal, neither a sidekick. He did this not in a calculating way but mostly by chance. Leiber’s inspiration for the two best thieves in Lankhmar were himself (Fafhrd) and his best friend Harry Otto Fischer (Grey Mouser). The creation of the stories began in correspondence between the two friends, with Fischer writing a portion of “The Lords of Quarmall” in this way. Leiber has always acknowledged the debt though most of the writing is his own.

leiber2Secondly, he took for his inspiration, not merely from Howard’s Conan but other fantasy writers who had come before. Robert E. Howard’s work shows a debt to Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), in particular in “The Tower of the Elephant” as Tom Shippey points out in The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994) but Leiber claims that his inspiration came from two other writers, E. R. Eddison (1882-1945) and his The Worm Ouroboros (1922) and the works of James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), with Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919) being the most famous. A close look at Leiber’s actual writing supports this. His sparkling humor, his saucy entanglements with women, his weird sorcerers, none of these feel like a Conan tale. What this meant was that the texture of Sword & Sorcery was evolving away from the straight adventure story, toward a more colorful, sardonic feel that appealed to Leiber’s new editor, John W. Campbell.

Campbell was famous as editor of the Golden Age’s best Science Fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. He also created a second magazine for Fantasy called Unknown, later Unknown Worlds. The paper shortage of World War II killed Unknown but not before Campbell published many new forms of Fantasy along with the first five Fafhrd & Grey Mouser tales. “Two Sought Adventure” (August 1939) (the story was retitled “The Jewels in the Forest” when reprinted) seems like a typical Howardian escapade with two heroes in search of a treasure guarded by a monster. Of all the Lankhmar stories it is closest to the Howard model. Despite this, it still crackles with a humor and sense of fun unknown to the more literally-minded Howard. “The Bleak Shore” (November 1940), “The Howling Tower” (June 1941) and “The Sunken Land” (February 1942) follow the two swordsmen on adventures largely thrust upon them by their patron/masters, the sorcerers, Ningauble and Sheelba. Unlike the Conan, these two know the true pecking order of the universe does not hold much chance for a swordsman to defy a magician for long.

leiber3The last of the set really shows how Leiber differs from Howard as the two thieves gain vengeance over the Thieves’ Guild in “Thieves’ House” (February 1943), a tale without monsters or other trappings of S&S. This story and a later prequel “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” (1970) would be crucial to the creation of the “Thieves” class in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s. Howard suggested the idea of a ring of thieves in tales like “Rogues in the House” and “The Tower of the Elephant” but Leiber fleshes it out brilliantly with the kind of logic that John W. Campbell expected of his authors.

The passing of Unknown was an unfortunate blow for Sword & Sorcery and Leiber. Fritz would write a few more tales in the early 1950s, selling them to obscure pulps when able, but by 1955 Fafhrd and Grey Mouser seemed to be casualties of the ’50s SF boom. But Sword & Sorcery was done yet and neither was Fritz Leiber. In fact, his greatest achievement still lie ahead…

1 COMMENT

  1. It's nice to see Fritz Leiber getting his due. He was a real original in a world where so many writers wheel out the same old monsters and fantasy tropes. Having said that, towards the end of his career, his stories became much weaker. The later tales are often repetitive re-hashes which relied too much on characters from previous books – but his earlier tales still pack a punch. His wizards are especially odd and creepy, as you say. It's always worth taking a trip back into the world of Lankhmar.

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