Wednesday 19 February 2020

A History of Lankhmar, or, Arranging Fritz Leibers Swords

Recently become a proud owner of a near complete set of 1980s Grafton editions of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.

1980 Grafton editions of Fritz Leiber Swords Series
Covers by Geoff Taylor
The collected editions are organised in story-chronological order, rather than the original publication order. One of the many features that make the Marvel movies so execrable is their insistence on doing the (yawn) origin stories first. Nobody with any sense watches the Star Wars prequels before the original trilogy (if ever), you don't wade through the Silmarillion before reading The Hobbit and as far as Moococks Eternal Champion Tales goes, the old Fortean axiom "one measures a circle by starting anywhere" applies.

So ignoring the fact I'd already read Swords of Lankhmar I decided to put the series in chronological order and read them that way around.

Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser Publication Order:

2. Swords against Death2The Jewels in the Forest1939
2. Swords against Death4The Bleak Shore1940
2. Swords against Death5The Howling Tower1941
2. Swords against Death6The Sunken Land1942
2. Swords against Death3Thieves' House1943
3. Swords in the Mist6Adept's Gambit1947
2. Swords against Death8Claws from the Night1951
2. Swords against Death7The Seven Black Priests1953
3. Swords in the Mist2Lean Times in Lankhmar1959
3. Swords in the Mist4When the Sea-King's Away1960
1. Swords and Devilry2The Unholy Grail1962
3. Swords in the Mist1The Cloud of Hate 1963
2. Swords against Death0Bazaar of the Bizarre1963
4. Swords Against Wizardry3The Lords of Quarmall1964
4. Swords Against Wizardry2Stardock1965
3. Swords in the Mist3Their Mistress, the Sea1968
3. Swords in the Mist5The Wrong Branch1968
4. Swords Against Wizardry1In the Witch's Tent1968
4. Swords Against Wizardry4The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar 1968
5. Swords of Lankhmar1Swords of Lankhmar1968
1. Swords and Devilry1The Snow Women1970
1. Swords and Devilry3Ill Met in Lankhmar1970
2. Swords against Death1The Circle Curse1970
2. Swords against Death9The Price of Pain-Ease1970
6. Swords and Ice Magic1The Sadness of the Executioner1973
6. Swords and Ice Magic3Trapped in the Shadowland1973
6. Swords and Ice Magic4The Bait1973
6. Swords and Ice Magic2Beauty and the Beasts1974
6. Swords and Ice Magic5Under the Thumbs of the Gods1975
6. Swords and Ice Magic6Trapped in the Sea of Stars1975
6. Swords and Ice Magic7The Frost Monstreme1976
6. Swords and Ice Magic8Rime Isle1977
7. Knight and Knave of SwordsSea Magic1977
7. Knight and Knave of SwordsThe Mer She1978
7. Knight and Knave of SwordsThe Curse of the Smalls and the Stars1983
7. Knight and Knave of SwordsThe Mouser Goes Below1988

Compiled using the data from ISFDB.

Fortunately there is quite a lot of reading to get done before I need to track down a 1990 Grafton edition of The Knight and Knave of Swords.

The end.

While ostensibly the tales have been put into story-order, much of the rearrangement appears completely arbitrary. Swords and Ice Magic in particular seems to have reordered the stories from 1973-1977 completely at random, unless Lieber for some reason decided to put important character and plot developments that would dramatically effect earlier published stories into stories written just months later, it makes little, to no sense.

The first story in the anthology - The Snow Women - was written in 1970, which is over half-way through the publication history of the series. It's about the barbarian Fafhrd in his youth escaping the clutches of his manipulative witch mother - all fur-clad snow-drenched Jungian archetypes, Howardian barbaric suspicion of civilisation, and centred on Fafhrds personal relationship to his family and home.

The first story written - The Jewels in the Forest - from 1939 is a slightly different beast, a tale of Fafhrd and Mouser uncovering an ancient fabled treasure rumoured in forgotten fragments of sorcerous scrolls, but not all is what it seems, elements of cosmic horror and Lovecraftian strangeness creep in, and the different characters perspectives on the same events provides the final hook of the story.

Both of these firsts are great, entertaining short stories, tightly focused on their themes, lightly written and full of action, adventure and a little humour. The description of the Mousers nausea in The Jewels in the Forest is an effective, visceral piece of writing, and captures the sensation very well.

So much to answer for.

Coming to Lieber mostly due to Gary Gygaxs recommendation in the infamous Appendix N. of the Dungeon Masters Guide for the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,  it is interesting that The Jewels in the Forest, on it's surface at least, is a much more D&Desque tale - and eminently playable as a short scenario - it's finale being a twist on a D&D staple. I'm not saying which, because it would give the game away. But D&Ds strict codification of monsterisms doesn't allow the literary effect of the difference of perspective that Lieber is using Fafhrd and the Mouser to achieve here. The Snow Women, focused as it is, on a single character and his personal relationships, doesn't directly lend itself to D&D all that much, although of course much of the trappings and motifs could be easily lifted.

Compare and contrast aside, the publication order allows us to just dive straight into the adventure stories - and this is the real heart of Swords and Sorcery, and fantasy short-fiction lays. it's not a character-centric soap-opera where one sits and relates to the feelings and 'development arcs' of made up people, nor yet is it an experiment in world-building with carefully mapped out pseudo-politics, pseudo-geography and pseudo-history, it's more like Haiku or Hard Sci-Fi - where all is constructed in service of a single idea, atmosphere and theme.

Of course each story, published in an initially ad-hoc manner across a number of magazines, books and journals, should stand entirely on it's own, but reading the stories in order over the 4-decade long publication should let us us see the changing themes and motifs as they emerge from the texts. Could also pace reading to match the publication schedule, but I'm not planning to take that long!


  1. Great work! I've had the complete Grafton set for a few years now (bought all but one from one second-hand bookshop, then stumbled on the very one I was missing in another shop a month or two later), and I find the 'internal chronology' annoying.

    A consequence of jumping around between the books (and having read some of them when I was quite a small kid, starting with Swords and Ice Magic) is that I'm never sure quite how many of the stories I've read. Your list sets me up nicely for a read-through according to real-world chronology!

    1. Glad you found the list useful! I think a checklist and a sturdy bookmark is definitely a good start.

  2. I picked up the ebook editions of a bunch of his stuff a couple of years ago. If never read it before but it's obviously will known and respected. This reminds me that I need to get back to reading it!

    1. I've just finished "Sunken Land" and can confirm it's all good stuff so far.

      A few years ago I also read Liebers "Our Lady of Darkness" - an urban occult-thriller set in San Fransisco (and watched the Dirty Harry and Bullit alongside, because the architecture of the city is important to the novel), which convinced me his short fiction would be worth reading.

  3. The first Lankhmar stories I read were the Marvel (!) adaptations by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola. Then I found one of the collections published by Borealis -- an imprint run by rpg company White Wolf -- which covered the same stories and also had a cover by Mignola.

    I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well the comic version compared to the original, and also how good the original stories were, so much so that I tried to track down the rest of them.

    I think Borealis/WW published three collections, but I'm not sure if they covered everything. I do remember that they presented them in or close to published order, so the "continuity" jumped around a lot, but I don't think the stories suffer as a result.

    1. Funnily enough, I think my very first Lankhmar stories were in some 1970s DC Swords of Sorcery comics that I picked up at a car boot and have long since wandered off to wherever those things go.

      Didn't know there had been more recent (and no doubt more faithful) adaptations, very interesting!

  4. Thanks for this! I knew the stories weren't quite arranged in publication order, but never quite knew what went where.

    I've got a Grafton copy of The Knight and Knave of Swords (I have the whole run, but it's a hodge-podge of editions).
    The order of stories is as follows: 1) Sea Magic, 2) The Mer She, 3) The Curse of the Smalls and Stars, 4) The Mouser goes Below.

    There was a Dark Horse comic book of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in the 1990s, with art by the wonderful Mike Mignola. That begun with 'Ill met in Lankhmar' and continued through parts of Swords against Death and Swords in the Mist. That worked fairly well in story-chronological order, but the work of invention had already been done by Lieber, and the art can pull together stories written years apart.

    While we talk of Lieber's influence, allow me to provide you with a few others he may have influenced:

    1. Many thanks for clarifying the story order in The Knight and Knaves of Swords. I'll update my list!

      Great post on some of Liebers downstream influences. I concur and have replied on your blog!

    2. The comic was originally published by Marvel's Epic imprint, and later collected by Dark Horse. I think it may now be out of print, which is a shame.

    3. Yes, sorry - missed that. I've only ever known it in the collected form. Plenty of used copies available, thankfully.

  5. Thanks for the service to the community, Zhu! And thanks also for the thorough chuckle that "fur-clad snow-drenched Jungian archetypes" gave me. I like my maternal symbols chilly and suffocating.

    The other Gygax recommendation that I am curious about exploring is Jack Vance. I've never read anything by him, but Gygax always called his magic system "Vancian". I wonder if he can stand up as well to scrutiny as Leiber, who is truly one of the greats.

    1. Lol! Cheers Matthew, yes the cold witch-mother is well represented here. I haven't caught up to 1970 yet, having been waylaid by H.P. Lovecraft and Grimmelshausen (who shall no doubt be commented upon here at some point) I'm still in the 1950s - and not much psychoanalytical influence has emerged yet, but there is quite a bit of baroque occultism, strange magics, Thieves Guilds and other D&Disms.

      I've not read Vance either but probably, like Lieber worth reading.

    2. If you are dwelling in the early period of weird-fiction/fantasy, I hope you'll take a look at Clark Ashton Smith's stories set in medieval Averoigne. I love 'em and would be glad to get your views on them.