Appendix N Heroes: Fafhrd and Gray MouserThe Dark Herald
Each discerned something inexplicably familiar in the other. Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem to be 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.
“I said, ‘Seem? Surely must be!’”
“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.
“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.
“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what’s said,” Fafrd explained. Without letting the Mouser out of his vision, he glanced down. His gaze traveled from the belt and pouch of 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, sheaved his dirk, and rapped out, “A deal!”
‘Inexplicably familiar in the other.’
That is the key phrase here.
The above paragraph chronicles the first meeting of Fritz Lieber’s seminal creations; Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. The Lankhmar Series, as these stories are sometimes called, are surprisingly influential given how many people haven’t heard of them. Authors, as varied as Stephen King, Larry Corriea and Terry Pratchett, owe much of their craft to Lieber.
In the very first chapter of the Colour of Magic (the very first Discworld book), we meet a tall barbarian and a short thief. This is before we meet Rincewind himself. There are a number of other authors who cite the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books as a profound influence, not the least of whom was Gary Gygax, who provided extensive background material for any DM that wanted to adventure in that cursed, ancient city.
They have appeared in numerous comic book adaptations and have long been a staple of gaming. Mouser’s dirk; Cat Claw is a frequently and dearly sought high-level weapon in many RPGs.More recently they showed up in Enter the Gungeon as Frifle and Gray Mauser.
They have even found their way into a Conan book as Fafnir and Black Rat. Which is kind of ironic since their creation was strongly influenced by the works of Robert Howard. But Lieber took that kind of demi-Atlantean world to a level that Howard couldn’t really reach. While the number of Conan books vastly exceeds the Lankhmar Saga, the depth of character and the quality of the storytelling are at a much higher level in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories.*
Lieber does not deserve sole credit for the creation, nor did he ever try to claim it. He whipped up the original idea with the help of his friend Otto Fischer while they were in college. They even came up with a board game based on these characters in 1937.
However, Fischer, as far as I can tell, only wrote one story in that world. The other seven volumes were penned by Lieber. It’s a funny thing to read the copyright years on those books because they progressed so slowly. I remember how much I would procrastinate between reading one volume in the series and the next because it was obvious that once I was done with the sixth book that would be it. I also remember how giddy I was when I walked into Waldenbooks and saw a huge cardboard cut-out proclaiming that the seventh book in the Lankhmar Saga had just been published. Given the age of the author at that time, that was a treat I hadn’t been looking for.
The lifelong partnership between these two bravos began in separate stories. Fafhrd running away from his home in the mountains of the north. And the Mouser avenging the death of the magician he was apprenticed to. While Mouser would always be drawn to magic, he found swordsmanship more attractive. “I fear me you will never be mouse in the end, but mouser. And never white but gray—oh well, that’s better than black.”
Prose of this quality is pretty hard to come by these days. John C. Wright can do it but the list of people who can come close is pretty slim.
After both men meet the women who will (apparently) be the loves of their lives, the two finally meet in Lankhmar. And they each find the ‘inexplicably familiar in the other.’ That really does describe their relationship. Fafhrd; the nearly seven-foot-tall barbarian who sought culture, yet, to the end of his days remained a mountain savage in his deepest heart. Contrasted with Grey Mouser; the amoral thief and magician. Short in stature and a product of civilization but quite the savage in his own way. They are both thieves and adventurers and are both humane when they can afford to be.
One of their oddest features was their patron… Okay, saints isn’t the right word here, but demon certainly doesn’t fit either. Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. These patrons are powerful creatures and frequently sent Fafhrd and Grey Mouser on adventures they would rather not go on. (Which made them extremely useful for DMs.)
My favorite of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories is Lean Times in Lankhmar. The lifelong friends had gone through a bit of falling out and were pursuing (slightly) more stable career paths apart from each other. Both were in the religion business.
This was the only one of the stories (that I remember) that went into the gods in Lankhmar not to be mistaken for the Gods of Lankhmar which is a much darker and more dire affair. I could explain how the Street of Gods worked but it’s easier just to show you:
The gods in Lankhmar moved up and down the Street of Gods depending on their popularity. The greatest of them ended up taking over the great temple in the center of the city. The least of them went into obscurity once they were forced out the swamp gate at the end. Fafhrd became the devout acolyte of the last prophet in the video. Issek of the Jug.
“Issek is known as a god of peace and as a symbol of strength and perseverance for those who suffer hardships such as poverty or disfigurement. He offers Waters of Peace from the Cistern of Cillivat (few thirsted for them. His manner of death was racking (which the Lankhmar crowds found rather dull).
Issek’s creed was preached by Bwadres, an apologetic old dodderer. Under Bwadres’ preaching Issek never became popular and in fact, was declining towards the Marsh Gate. Only when Fafhrd became an acolyte under Bwadres did Issek of the Jug become popular.
Issek of the Jug, as sung about in Fafhrd’s poetry, cavorted with beasts, and dumbfounded rulers by suffering colorful tortures without harm while delivering majestic sermons on brotherly love in perfect intricately rhymed stanzas. Fafhrd’s Issek did not merely die on the rack but broke seven racks before expiring on the eighth, and even then, he broke loose and broke the thick brass band of office from around his torturer’s neck and fashioned it into a beautiful symbol of the Jug before his spirit departed.”
Mouser was working the religious protection racket. “Nice alter you have there. Be a shame if something happens to it.” That kind of thing.
This put them on a collision course, since Fafhrd wasn’t keen on paying up.
In rereading the story for this piece, I came to the conclusion that I have no business at all trying to summarize one of the funniest climaxes in the history of sword and sandals fantasy. Please read Lean Times in Lanhkmar for yourself. Your brain will love you for it.
Role-playing games are under siege by the critical race cultists at Wizards of the Coast. If there is to be any future at all for RPGs then Appendix N stories are vital to the survival of tabletop gaming and to the genre of fantasy itself.
Which is why Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are so important. They are one of the corner stones of Appendix N.
*Also, a lot of Howard’s other writing were reworked as Conan stories by L. Sprague De Camp.