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Time to admit a heresy. This year I began reading for the first time the sword and sorcery adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, proclaimed classics of the genre. And I’ve found most of the ones I’ve read so far to range from decent to good, but are hardly classics. This might be one of those cases where I’m not putting it in context in which in was written, or that I’m judging it by the standards of forty-plus years of fantasy that has taken frequent inspiration from it, so the original no longer seems new. Whatever the reason, I haven’t been entertained as much as I was hoping.

Though if the stories were all like the one I’m covering today, I’d definitely have a different attitude.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a usually inseparable duo, begin the story having split up, and the narrator only gives a number of bar-room theories for their falling out; the limited omniscience of the narrator, who observes the duo but rarely reveals their thoughts on key issues, is a strength of the piece. Regardless of the cause, they are off to make their way in the world in separate ways. The Mouser joins a religion racketeer, responsible for collecting secular tithes from the more successful collection boxes of the religions on the Street of the Gods. And where do all these religions come from, you may ask?

The gods in Lankhmar sometimes seem as if they must be as numberless as the grains of sand in the Great Eastern Desert. The vast majority of them began as men, or more strictly the memories of men who led ascetic, vision-haunted lives and died painful, messy deaths. One gets the impression that since the beginning of time an unending horde of their priests and apostles (or even the gods themselves, it makes little difference) have been crippling across that same desert, the Sinking Land, and the Great Salt Marsh to converge on Lankhmar’s low, heavy-arched Marsh Gate — meanwhile suffering by the way various inevitable tortures, castrations, blindings and stonings, impalements, crucifixions, quarterings and so forth at the hands of eastern brigands and Mingol unbelievers who, one is tempted to think, were created solely for the purpose of seeing to the running of that cruel gauntlet. […]

Lankhmar itself and especially the earlier-mentioned street serves as the theater or more precisely the intellectual and artistic testing-ground of the proto-gods after their more material but no more cruel sifting at the hands of the brigands and Mingols. A new god (his priest or priests, that is) will begin at the Marsh Gate and more or less slowly work his way up the Street of the Gods, renting a temple or preempting a few yards of cobbled pavement here and there, until he has found his proper level. A very few win their way to the region adjoining the Citadel and join the aristocracy of the gods in Lankhmar. […] Far more godlets, it can justly be said, play a one-night-stand near the Marsh Gate and abruptly disappear, perhaps to seek cities where the audiences are less critical. The majority work their way about halfway up the Street of the Gods and then slowly work their way down again, resisting bitterly every inch and yard, until they once more reach the Marsh Gate and vanish forever from Lankhmar and the memories of men.

While the Mouser is off extorting them, the barbarian Fafhrd breaks his sword, rends his clothes and wanders off into the wilderness until his hair grows long and haggard. When he returns to Lankhmar he seeks out one of the lowliest religions on the Street, Issek of the Jug. It is a most pathetic institution with a single elderly priest for a proselytizer, Bwadres, and an utterly mundane message to preach (namely that the Jug once contained the Waters of Peace). It is to this that Fafhrd attaches himself, without voicing any reasons or motive.

At first all Fafhrd contributes is his presence, with his height and strength ending the casual bullying of Bwadres. After a while he begins to play a lyre and sing, for when he lived in the north he had been trained as a skald, a teller of tales. And as more people take notice of Bwadres for the first time, Fafhrd starts expanding on the liturgy of Issek of the Jug, infusing it with his more violent barbarian mythology until Issek of the Jug becomes a mighty figure with a captivated audience.

All this means that Bwardes and Fafhrd gradually move from the Marsh Gate up the Street of the Gods, and as they grow in popularity and richness they begin to be noticed by the religion racketeers. It doesn’t take an oracle to predict that at some point the Mouser will be forced into conflict with Fafhrd.

In short, it’s an enjoyable tale with the Street of the Gods being a memorable social institution, all played with a light-hearted air that verges on the comedic at times. I’m not sure if you could call it sword and sorcery, given the distinct paucity of sorcery and (for much of it) swords, but it’s good fun all the same.

Lean Times in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

Availability: print

Word count: 15,400

First published: Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, Nov 1959

Where to find it: Swords in the Mist, collection, 2007, Dark Horse Books

Lankhmar, collection, 2008, Gollancz

Grand Master’s Choice, edited by Andre Norton, 1991, Tor

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