In this week’s Random Encounters, we’re back on the mean streets of Lankhmar. Fritz Leiber’s roguish heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, cross old enemies–and make a few new ones–in “Thieves’ House.”
So far I’ve enjoyed every story I’ve reviewed for this blog series. That said, each time the dice come up for another Leiber story, it’s a treat. His Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales are a good reminder of just how much fun the sword and sorcery genre can be. It’s especially noticeable on the heels of Robert E. Howard’s grim and brutal writing. By comparison, there’s almost a sense of whimsy here.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of violence and action. It’s just that Leiber’s handling of it is very, very, different.
“Theives’ House” opens with a scheme. Krovas, master of the Lankhmar Thieves’ Guild, wants a valuable set of relics returned to him. Those relics are the jewel-encrusted skull and skeletal hands of Ohmphal, the legendary Master Thief and lord of the guild in ancient times.
The skull and hands are secured in the vault of a cursed temple, stolen ages ago by the priests of Votishal. A great beast guards them, according to the legend, and the lock on the vault is said to be unpickable.
Krovas knows that no man in the Thieves’ Guild will ever reach them. But there are two men outside of the guild who might: the northern barbarian Fafhrd, and his companion the Gray Mouser.
As it happens, the guild has a score to settle with the two heroes, over a previous conflict in which they killed the guild’s sorcerer. Krovas reasons that he can make use of their skills before disposing of them. He assigns Fissif, the “smoothest of the double crossers,” for the job.
Leiber doesn’t show us the adventure in which our heroes (and villain) recover the jeweled bones. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might feel like a cheat. But Leiber has us off and running again when he picks up the events weeks later.
Fissif is fleeing for his life, relics in hand, back to the guild headquarters known as the Thieves’ House. Behind him–giving chase–are Fafhrd and the Mouser. Fissif ducks inside, warning the unseen sentries of the pursuit. Then our heroes arrive, pausing outside just long enough to wonder at the likelihood of a trap. They also allude to their previous dealings with the guild.
It’s a reference that doesn’t slow down the story at all, but for readers familiar with Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” it serves to deepen the conflict. The personal score that Krovas referenced in the beginning is bitterly felt on this side, too. And a chance at some extra payback against the guild while recovering the skull is a chance too good to pass up.
They enter the Thieves’ House, making short work of the sentries, and begin winding their way towards Krovas’ chambers for a confrontation. But there are more players in the game than anyone realizes. Thieves’ House is ancient, and even the guild members don’t know what every room and chamber holds…
“Thieves’ House” is a classic Leiber story. I’ve always felt that Fafhrd and the Mouser work better in the urban setting of Lankhmar than they do exploring the farther reaches of Nehwon. The characters just feel much more at home for me when they’re stalking the smoky alleyways and the dim shadows of the city. The interplay between Fafhrd and the Mouser is top notch, and once again you get a sense for the camaraderie and brotherhood they share with one another.
Leiber’s lighthearted take on the material gives the action a rousing, swashbuckling feel. The extended chase and escape through the corridors of the Theives’ House, for example, would have been a bloody massacre in the hands of Robert E. Howard, with passages describing split skulls and dashed brains. Leiber has no interest in dwelling on the gorier bits, though. He prefers to follow the dancing swords and sharp wit of the heroes. And he isn’t afraid to show us some of their pratfalls in the process, as Fafhrd repeatedly knocks himself senseless against low hanging arches and doorways.
That said, the proceedings aren’t without touches of darkness. After Fafhrd falls into the hands of the guild, an anonymous message is delivered to the Mouser at the arranged meeting spot. It contains a gruesome threat:
“If you do not bring the jeweled skull by next midnight, we will begin to kill the northerner.”
It’s a deliciously worded passage, and it’s much more effective than spelling out a bunch of slow and deliberate tortures would have been. Like many good sword and sorcery authors, Leiber had a sizeable output of horror fiction. He knew how to add creepy touches without overdoing it.
Likewise, Leiber shows a skilled hand when he plays with the tropes of the genre. The “northern barbarian” has been a fantasy cliché since Conan, and most writers do very little to set theirs apart from the crowd. Leiber does, though, and it’s on evidence here when Fafhrd uses his training as a storyteller and singing skald to stall his execution.
It’s a small moment, yes. But it’s a genuine one, drawing on Fafhrd’s background as a character. And it shows that Leiber saw him as more than just a muscle man with a sword.
I can’t say much about Mouser’s plan to rescue his friend in the later half of the story without spoiling some genuinely delightful scenes, so I won’t. Lets just say that the mental picture I had of the Mouser’s disguise was enough to make me laugh.
While it’s not necessary, I do recommend reading “Ill Met in Lankhmar” before this one. In fact, I’d recommend reading “Ill Met in Lankhmar” anyway. It’s just that good.