Despite their elevated status among devotees of fantasy literature I have yet to read any of the short stories and novellas in the venerable sword an’ sorcery series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Written by the American author, poet and actor, Fritz Leiber, the maverick duo first appeared in the August 1939 edition of the famous if short-lived pulp magazine, Unknown, just weeks before France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. However their origins go back much further than that, to the summer and autumn of 1934 when Leiber was touring the United States with his father’s Shakespearean company, trying to keep himself gainfully employed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the time he was in close contact with his friend and fellow would-be writer Harry O. Fischer and from their correspondence would emerge the anti-heroes, Fafhrd the warrior and Mouser the thief. The pair are mentioned in passing in a letter written in September of that year by Fischer, giving him the honour of their naming.
“For all do fear the one known as the Gray Mouser. He walks with swagger ‘mongst the bravos, though he’s but the stature of a child. His costume is all of gray, from gauntlets to boots and spurs of steel. His flat, swart face is shadowed by a peaked cap of mouse-skin and his garments are of silk, strangely soft and coarse of weave. His weapons: one called Cat’s Claw, for it kills in the dark unerringly, and his longer sword, curved up, he terms the Scalpel, for it lets the heart’s blood as neatly as a surgeon. And this one was well feared, for he was sly as a wolverine, and while a great cheat and hard to engage in a fair quarrel, yet he did not fear to die and preferred great odds to single combat. And his style of fencing was peculiar, intermixed with strange side-steps and glides and always an attack wavering and elusive, and the sudden end at the upward flash of Scalpel from the very air it seemed. And many who claimed enmity to this one were found strangely strangled, as by their own hands. So the Gray Mouser was feared and only drunken bravos dared a quarrel and they dissuaded quickly by wiser companions.
Until one night, the market night, the hunters all acry and horns blaring wares and smoky, stinking torches flared yellow-red in the foggy air — for the walled city of the Tuatha De Danann called Lankhmar was built on the edge of the Great Salt Marsh — there strode into the group of lounging bravos a pair of monstrous men. The one who laughed the merrier was full seven feet in height. His light chestnut hair was bound in a ringlet of pure gold, engraved with runes. His eyes, wide-set, were proud and of fearless mien. His wrist between gauntlet and mail was white as milk and thick as a hero’s ankle. His features were clean cut and his mouth smiled as he fingered the ponderous hilt of a huge longsword with long and nimble fingers. But ne’er the less…
Anyhow, they met, and the saga of how the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd of the Blue Eyes came to the innermost vaults of the City of the Forbidden God and there met death in the moment of victory in no common fashion, was begun.”
From these speculative paragraphs was born one of the seminal examples of fantasy fiction, though it was Fritz Leiber who took up the challenge of expanding the original idea, producing some fifty short stories, many of which were recycled across subsequent decades into novellas and linked collections. A related board game for TSR in 1976, called Lankhmar, helped cement the saga’s popularity among the early Dungeons & Dragons crowd, influencing a generation of future genre authors and artists.
As far as I know there were no further Irish or Celtic references in the series proper, as Leiber acknowledged in a speech made at the 20th World Science Fiction Convention in 1962 where he described his response to his friend’s opening idea.
In a letter postmarked September 24, 1934, I replied:
“Last night I walked down by devious paths to the sea. And there I sat beside a congeries of silver gas tanks in the light of a veiled moon. I crouched upon a bulkhead and the sea lapped subtly at the rocks about my feet.
And it came to pass then that a low black craft slid into my range of vision. In the back rose the ominous frame of Fafhrd, clad all in black. Ever and anon he would chance their course when a whisper floated back from the bow, where the grays of the Mouser’s garments hung over the sea like a ghost’s. Through a strange scopic instrument he was peering into the sea—only I noted that the instrument made no ripples where it entered the deeps: it was not into our local waters that the instrument peered.
There came a swirl of waters on that calm night as if a whirlpool that lay at right angles to the boat had seized it. I caught a glimpse of the Mouser fighting an indistinct creature that held eight swords in as many writhing arms. Immediately afterward the dark sea was empty.”
Of these two fragments Harry’s has style and polish, a remarkable example of hitting the right tone on the first attempt. Mine is a reverie projected on the real world: I actually did go down by those oil tanks at night and sit by New York Bay and imagine things.
It is clear that Harry had been reading Irish myth and legend, for the Tuatha De Danann were the pagan gods of Ireland, children of Danu, the great goddess of fertility and death. They were later identified with the Aes Sidhe, or Little People.
This link with the world of Irish myth was soon dropped, however, and was not as great to start with as might appear. Lankhmar and the Great Salt Marsh are not to be found there, and while Fafhrd as first described is a rather typical Celtic hero, the Mouser certainly is not—he already sounds medieval, perhaps Mediterranean, a being of dark alleyways and docks rather than green forests and meads; a small handsome gray gargoyle come to life.
Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, the balancing mystic-counselor figure to Ningauble in the stories, is perhaps the last clear trace of Irish-sounding invention in them.
It’s rather pleasing to know that Harry O. Fischer’s interest in Irish mythology, however tangential or inaccurate, contributed something to the birth of a well-regarded sword an’ sorcery saga which became a legend in its own right. Though as we all know, the mysterious, boreal cities of the Tuatha Dé Danann were Fálias, Goirias, Fionnias and Muirias.