Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two sword-and-sorcery heroes appearing in stories written by American author Fritz Leiber. They are the protagonists of what are probably Leiber's best-known stories. One of his motives in writing them was to have a couple of fantasy heroes closer to true human nature than the likes of Howard's Conan the Barbarian or Burroughs's Tarzan.
Fafhrd is a very tall (nearly seven feet) and strong northern barbarian, skilled at both swordsmanship and singing; the Mouser is a small (not much more than five feet) mercurial thief, gifted and deadly at swordsmanship (often using a sword in one hand and a long dagger—technically a main-gauche—in the other), and a former wizard's apprentice who retains some skill at magic. Fafhrd talks like a romantic, but his strong practicality usually wins through, while the cynical-sounding Mouser is prone to showing strains of sentiment at unexpected times. Both are rogues, living in a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and—most of all—relish true adventure.
The characters were loosely modeled upon Leiber himself and his friend Harry Otto Fischer. Fischer initially created them in a letter to Leiber in September 1934, naming at the same time their home city of Lankhmar. In 1936, Leiber finished the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novella, Adept's Gambit, and began work on a second, The Tale of the Grain Ships. At the same time, Fischer was writing the beginning of The Lords of Quarmall. Adept's Gambit would not see publication until 1947, while The Lords of Quarmall would be finished by Leiber and published in 1964 and The Tale of the Grain Ships would become the prototype for "Scylla's Daughter" (1961) and, later, the novel The Swords of Lankhmar (1968).
The stories of the two were only loosely connected until the 1960s, when Leiber organized them chronologically and added additional material in preparation for paperback publication. Starting as young men, the two separately meet their female lovers, meet each other, and lose both their lovers in the same night, which explains both their friendship and the arrested adolescence of their lifestyles. However, in later stories, the two mature, learn leadership, and eventually settle down with new female partners on the Iceland-like Rime Isle. Leiber contemplated continuing the series beyond this point, but died prior to doing so.
The majority of the stories are set in the fictional world of Nehwon ("ne hwon", or "Nowhen" backwards: contrasted to Samuel Butler's 1872 "Erehwon" (Nowhere)). Many of them take place in and around its greatest city, Lankhmar. It is described as "a world like and unlike our own". Theorists in Nehwon believe that it may be shaped like a bubble, floating in the waters of eternity.
Technology in Nehwon varies between the Iron Age and the medieval. Leiber wrote of Lankhmarts: "They may be likened to the Romans or be thought of as, if I may use such a term, southern medievals." About his Eastern Lands, he wrote "think of Saracens, Arabs, Parthians, Assyrians even. They ride the camel and elephant, and use the bow extensively."
The series includes many bizarre and outlandish characters. The two who most influence—and, some would say, cause the most trouble for—Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their sorcerous advisers, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. These two lead the two heroes into some of their most interesting and dangerous adventures.
The first story appeared in Unknown in 1939 and the last in The Knight and Knave of Swords in 1988. Although Leiber credited his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, with the original concepts for the characters, it was Leiber who wrote nearly all the stories. 10,000 words of The Lords of Quarmall were penned by Fischer early in the development of the series; the story was completed by Leiber in 1964. Fischer also wrote "The Childhood and Youth of the Gray Mouser", published in 1978. The stories' style and tone vary considerably, but nearly all contain an often dark sense of humor, which ranges from the subtle and character-based to the Pythonesque. The earlier tales owe as much to Clark Ashton Smith as to Robert E. Howard.
The stories have been collected in the so-called "Swords" series:
- Swords and Deviltry (collection 1970)
- "Induction" (vignette 1957, Two Sought Adventure)
- The Snow Women (novella 1970 Fantastic)
- The Unholy Grail (novelette 1962 Fantastic)
- Ill Met in Lankhmar (novella 1970 F&SF)—telling how Fafhrd and the Mouser met, this story won both a Nebula award and a Hugo award
- Swords Against Death (collection 1970, expanded and revised from Two Sought Adventure 1957)
- "The Circle Curse" (1970, first publication)
- "The Jewels in the Forest" (novelette 1939 Unknown, as "Two Sought Adventure")
- "Thieves' House" (novelette 1943 Unknown)
- "The Bleak Shore" (1940 Unknown)
- "The Howling Tower" (1941 Unknown)
- "The Sunken Land" (1942 Unknown)
- "The Seven Black Priests" (novelette 1953 Other Worlds)
- "Claws from the Night" (novelette 1951 Suspense as "Dark Vengeance")
- "The Price of Pain-Ease" (1970, first publication)
- "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (novelette 1963 Fantastic)
- Swords in the Mist (collection 1968)
- "The Cloud of Hate" (1963 Fantastic)
- "Lean Times in Lankhmar" (novelette 1959 Fantastic)
- "Their Mistress, the Sea" (1968, first publication)
- "When the Sea-King's Away" (novelette 1960 Fantastic)
- "The Wrong Branch" (1968, first publication)
- Adept's Gambit (novella 1947, in Leiber's Night's Black Agents collection)
- Swords Against Wizardry (collection 1968)
- "In the Witch's Tent" (1968, first publication)
- "Stardock" (novelette 1965 Fantastic)
- "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" (1968 Fantastic)
- The Lords of Quarmall (novella 1964 Fantastic), with Harry Otto Fischer
- The Swords of Lankhmar (novel 1968—first part published as Scylla’s Daughter (novella 1961 Fantastic))
- Swords and Ice Magic (collection 1977)
- "The Sadness of the Executioner" (1973, in Flashing Swords! #1, ed. Lin Carter)
- "Beauty and the Beasts" (vignette 1974, in The Book of Fritz Leiber)
- "Trapped in the Shadowland" (1973 Fantastic)
- "The Bait" (vignette 1973 Whispers)
- "Under the Thumbs of the Gods" (1975 Fantastic)
- "Trapped in the Sea of Stars" (1975, in The Second Book of Fritz Leiber)
- "The Frost Monstreme" (novelette 1976, in Flashing Swords! #3, ed. Lin Carter)
- Rime Isle (novella 1977 Cosmos SF&F Magazine) (these last two published together as Rime Isle by Whispers Press in 1977)
- The Knight and Knave of Swords (collection 1988)
- "Sea Magic" (1977 The Dragon)
- "The Mer She" (novelette 1983, in Heroes and Horrors)
- The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars (novella 1983, in Heroic Visions)
- The Mouser Goes Below (novella 1988, first publication—portions first printed as "The Mouser Goes Below" (1987 Whispers) and "Slack Lankhmar Afternoon Featuring Hisvet" (1988 Terry’s Universe, ed. Beth Meacham))
In 2009, Benjamin Szumskyj's Strange Wonders included the first few chapters of "The Tale of the Grain Ships," written in the 1930s. This unfinished fragment depicts the Gray Mouser in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.The first six books in the series were reprinted in a uniform, archival series from Gregg Press, and were the first hardback editions of all these books save The Swords of Lankhmar.
Harry Otto Fischer's short story, "The Childhood and Youth of the Gray Mouser," was published in 1978 in The Dragon #18.
The series was continued by Robin Wayne Bailey in Swords Against the Shadowland (novel 1998).
A collection, Bazaar of the Bizarre, illustrated by Stephan Peregrine, comprised Leiber's three favorite Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories: "Bazaar of the Bizarre", "The Cloud of Hate", and "Lean Times in Lankhmar".
A sex scene from The Swords of Lankhmar, cut by editor Don Wollheim ("Good Heaven, Fritz, we're a family publisher...") was published in Fantasy Newsletter #49 (July 1982).
Several omnibus editions have also been published:Science Fiction Book Club: The Three of Swords (1989; books 1–3) and Swords' Masters (1989; books 4–6).
White Wolf: Ill Met In Lankhmar (1995; books 1 and 2, with a new introduction by Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and Me"), Lean Times in Lankhmar (1996; books 3 and 4, with a new introduction by Karl Edward Wagner), Return to Lankhmar (1997; books 5 and 6, with a new introduction by Neil Gaiman), and Farewell to Lankhmar (1998; book 7; the hardcover edition omits the final seven chapters of "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars").
Orion/Millennium's Fantasy Masterworks: The First Book of Lankhmar (2001; books 1–4) and The Second Book of Lankhmar (2001; books 5–7).
In 1972, Fafhrd and the Mouser began their comics career, appearing in Wonder Woman #202 alongside the title character and Catwoman in a story scripted by award-winning SF writer Samuel R. Delany. In 1973, DC Comics began an ongoing series, Sword of Sorcery, featuring the duo. The title was written by Denny O'Neil and featured art by Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin; the well-received title ran only five issues. Stories included adaptations of "The Price of Pain-Ease", "Thieves' House", "The Cloud of Hate", and "The Sunken Land", as well as original stories. This series was collected by Dark Horse Comics in a trade paperback collection published in June 2016.
In 1991, Epic Comics published a four-issue comic book adaptation of seven of the stories: "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (issue 1), "The Circle Curse" and "The Howling Tower" (issue 2), "The Price of Pain Ease" and "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (issue 3), and "Lean Times in Lankhmar" and "When the Sea King's Away" (issue 4). The comics were scripted by Howard Chaykin, who had drawn several issues of the earlier DC title, and pencilled by Mike Mignola, whose Hellboy comic book often has a similar feel to Leiber's work. Mignola also did the jacket covers and interior art for the White Wolf collection. This series was collected by Dark Horse Comics in a trade paperback collection published in March 2007.
Marvel Comics created their own version of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, when they introduced Fafnir of Vanaheim and his companion Blackrat to the Conan comic series. The pairs of characters were very much alike and Roy Thomas, who wrote the original Conan comics, made no secret that it was his intention to create characters that were a tribute to Fritz Leiber's creations.
In 1937, Leiber and his college friend Harry Otto Fischer created a complex wargame set within the world of Nehwon, which Fischer had helped to create. Later, they created a simplified board game entitled simply Lankhmar which was released by TSR in 1976. This is a rare case of a game adaptation written by the creators of the stories that the game is based on.
Nehwon, and some of its more interesting inhabitants, are described in the early Dungeons and Dragons supplement Deities and Demigods, and the stories themselves were a significant influence on the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.
In 1986 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were featured in a 1-on-1 Adventure Gamebook set, Dragonsword of Lankhmar. One player controlled Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who were trying to find a magical sword beneath an altar (just which one, they were not sure) in Lankhmar. The other player controlled assassins from the local thieves' guild, who were trying to kill the famous rogues for operating in the city without permission from the guild.
Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face are two wizards who serve as patrons for Fafhrd and the Mouser. Patron warlock of Fafhrd, Ningauble is so named due to his seven (usually only six) glowing eyes, seen roving within, and sometimes projecting from, the hood of his cloak. Along with the Gray Mouser's patron warlock Sheelba, Ningauble often sends his hapless minion on ludicrous missions such as recovering the mask of Death or to steal the very stars from the highest mountain. Ningauble's mysterious cavern has obscure space-time linkages which permit Fafhrd and the Mouser to be sent to other worlds. Ningauble is referred to as the "gossiper of the gods", for his fondness for stories of an unusual nature (whether or not they are true seems irrelevant) and his sometimes bizarre spies and informants. Ningauble is a mysterious being with a manipulative character, as described in this passage from Adept's Gambit:
Some said that Ningauble had been created by the Elder Gods for men to guess about and to sharpen their imaginations for even tougher riddles. None knew whether he had the gift of foresight, or whether he merely set the stage for future events with such a bewildering cunning that only an efreet or an adept could evade acting the part given him.
The relationship between Fafhrd and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes is captured well in this exchange from The Swords of Lankhmar:
Ningauble shrugged his cloaked, bulbous shoulders. "I thought you were a brave man, addicted to deeds of derring-do." Fafhrd cursed sardonically, then demanded, "But even if I should go clang those rusty bells, how can Lankhmar hold out until then with her walls breached and the odds fifty to one against her?" "I'd like to know that myself," Ningauble assured him. "And how do I get to the temple when the streets are crammed with warfare?" Ningauble shrugged once again. "You're a hero. You should know."
The Mouser's patron, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face is named for the featureless darkness within his/her hood. In contrast to Ningauble's love of often pointless storytelling, Sheelba is taciturn, choosing his/her words as if they were valuables to be disbursed parsimoniously. That the stoic Fafhrd is paired with the voluble Ningauble, while the story-loving Mouser with the laconic Sheelba is doubly ironic. Sheelba's sigil is an empty oval (presumably signifying an empty hooded face).
Sheelba's gender is ambiguous: Harry Fischer, who first conceived of the character, claimed Sheelba was female, while to Fischer's surprise Leiber referred to Sheelba as male beginning in The Swords of Lankhmar. In fact, Leiber refers to Sheelba as "he" throughout the six books of the series, switching to "she" for the first time only in the last book, The Knight and Knave of Swords, without explanation. Leiber's friend, Frederick MacKnight, who introduced Leiber and Fischer and was involved in the earliest days of the characters, called Sheelba "she-he (or it)". Fischer may have created Sheelba as a tribute to his wife Martha.
While Ningauble dwells in caverns, Sheelba's house is a small hut which strides about the swamps not far from Lankhmar on five chicken leg-like posts, which bend and scuttle like the legs of a great crab or spider. Sheelba's hut is similar in description to the Russian legend of the witch Baba Yaga, which is referenced in other Leiber works such as The Wanderer, where Baba Yaga is the name of a lunar lander.
Fafhrd commonly uses a sword which he names Graywand, a two-hand sword that he's able to use one-handed too (in later episodes by necessity). He also carries a poignard named Heartseeker and a short hand-axe which has never been named. For combat at a distance, he often carries a bow and arrow which he wields effectively even while on horseback or at sea, and which he's able to use despite his final handicap (he loses a hand). The Mouser, in one episode called "the best swordsman in the World", also fights with a pair of weapons: a "slim, curving" sword or sabre called Scalpel, and a dagger called Cat's Claw, the latter usually hidden in the small of the Mouser's back, and the original of which had a very subtle curve. (It was a straight-bladed weapon by the events of Lean Times in Lankhmar.) As the pair are often divested of their property, these are names they apply to any of their appropriate weapons and not necessarily names of specific ones. They are absolutely not magic weapons: both the wielders are just very able to use them. The Mouser is also an expert with the sling. The Mouser, having been an apprentice magician, can do some very small enchantments, especially while dueling.