Monday, May 1, 2017

Ill-Met in Lankhmar

“Two Sought Adventure” was the first published story by Fritz Leiber, printed in Unknown magazine in 1939. It was the introduction to the inimitable team of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – the heroes who would go on to star in a multitude of stories and dominate Leiber’s literary legacy. He produced over 30 stories about the pair through his life, writing them through the 60s, 70s, and 80s until just a few years before his death in 1992, which makes them among the most long-lived Sword & Sorcery heroes in the canon.

Originally, the characters were invented by his friend Harry Fischer, and indeed they were based upon the pair – Leiber the tall one, Fischer the short – but while Fischer contributed to several stories, it was Leiber who made them immortal, most especially with his Hugo and Nebula-winning novella “Ill-Met in Lankhmar”. It was an origin tale, depicting the first time the two heroes met, and told, almost by accident, one of the most central and emotional stories about them.

Through the 60s and 70s Leiber was going through the Lankhmar stories and putting them in some sort of order, trying to tie the previously only loosely-connected tales into a kind of cohesive whole. That, in turn, put him in mind to fill in some gaps. The story of how the two met had not been told before, and it seemed an obvious choice. The story was published in 1970 in Fantasy and Science Fiction, then anthologized the same year in the inaugural Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection Swords and Deviltry. It caused a sensation then, and remains among his best-remembered and -regarded works even today.

Leiber was not a young man when he wrote it. Howard was maybe twenty when he started carving out “The Shadow Kingdom”. Leiber was about sixty when he wrote “Ill-Met”, and half a century had passed since the pulp days of the 1920s. He wrote a story that is indelibly Sword & Sorcery, told with a poetic voice and yet with the grungy, underworld aesthetic he always evoked with the pair. He could have made it a romp or a caper, but instead he told a tale of tragedy. He told a story of his two heroes doing what they do best – stealing – and while they succeed at it, they pay a terrible price, all the more tragic because they are not the ones who pay, but those they love, who they unwittingly set in harm’s way.

It is a dark story, full of thieves, cutthroats, beggars, and sorcerers. It gives full play to the setting of Lankhmar as a place of both wealth and squalor. He shows us two heroes who are not heroes yet, who are fighting and scraping to survive, clinging to the dreams of adolescence, trying to be men when they are not quite there yet. Details like the Mouser’s sad and desperate home he has made for his beloved Ivrian, trying to care for her as a lady, strike a chord that it far too keen and knowing to have been written by a young man.

Yet Leiber does not skimp on the action, and the story is a thrill ride, with chases, swordfights, and humor to spare, and then he wallops you with the unexpected twist, and shows that his heroes have been joined all their lives not simply by friendship, but by a shared grief and guilt that they can never wipe away. They have their revenge, but the ending is still so raw that he had to write “The Price of Pain-Ease” the same year to give his heroes some closure.

1970 was an in-between year for Sword & Sorcery. The 60s boom in Howard reprints and pastiches was receding, though not yet gone, and the popular vision of S&S had not hit its lurid stride in the comics yet. Leiber was a respected master of Fantasy and SF, and could have simply rested on his laurels, but he chose not to. He showed that S&S still could tell vital, emotional stories. That it was not limited to young men fetishising gore and nudity, that it was not just naked slave girls and bulging biceps. He showed what Sword & Sorcery literature could be when it is taken seriously and written with care and respect and love for the form. None of those things should be forgotten.

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