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Literature / Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

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The pair of rogues themselvesnote 

"Now about Lankhmar. She's been invaded, her walls breached everywhere and desperate fighting is going on in the streets, by a fierce host which out-numbers Lankhmar's inhabitants by fifty to one — and equipped with all modern weapons. Yet you can save the city."
"How?" demanded Fafhrd.
Ningauble shrugged. "You're a hero. You should know."

One of the most seminal pieces of Sword and Sorcery was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series of short stories and novellas. Set in the world of Nehwon (except for one story set on Earth), often in the city of Lankhmar, it starred Fafhrd, a seven-foot tall barbarian from the North, and the Mouser, a trickster thief and former wizard's apprentice, who find and befriend each other one day. To quote Wikipedia: "They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, and gambling, and are seldom fussy about to whom they hire their swords. But they are humane and — most of all — relish true adventure."

A massive source for inspiration for much of modern roleplaying, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, either directly or indirectly, and pretty much any swashbuckling fantasy story written after about 1970 or so probably owes a debt to these stories. The fact that the most important city in most of the Discworld stories is called Ankh-Morpork is absolutely no coincidence, too; expies of Fafhrd and the Mouser show up in the first chapter of the first book, after all.

The pair weren't entirely Leiber's creation, but a joint effort between him and his friend Harry Otto Fischer. (Fafhrd being loosely based on Leiber and Mouser on Fischer.) Fischer's only story contribution was "The Tale of the Grain Ships", which was ultimately integrated into Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar. Leiber would end up writing the series but was always insistent on equally crediting Fischer for the pair's creation. There are seven books containing all the stories: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, The Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and The Knight and Knave of Swords. There is also the authorized novel sequel Swords Against the Shadowland by Robin Wayne Bailey.

This series provides examples of:

  • Adjective Animal Alehouse: The Silver Eel Tavern.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Averted. Some races are definitely on the nastier side, such as the cannibalistic Ghouls, but there's always exceptions. The antagonistic rat-people from The Swords of Lankhmar are antagonists for a genuine reason rather than being generically evil, and not only do ghouls have a reason for their hostility to other races (by their own rationale, at least), but there are those who have broken away from their culture.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Death
  • Author Appeal: The heavy BDSM overtones of some of the romantic and sexual scenes, especially in some of the later stories as taste-and-decency standards were relaxed, though Fafhrd is something of an Author Avatar throughout.
  • Barbarian Hero: Fafhrd. Downplayed in that he's based on actual historical barbarians - he wears armor, seldom ever uses two-handed weapons, is a skilled horse archer, is a well-trained seafarer, and generally tries to avoid fighting more than one enemy at a time.
  • Barbarian Longhair: Fafhrd, the tall northern barbarian, is described as having long, flowing red hair. The Mouser, who hails from the civilized south, often comments on Fafhrd's unkempt appearance.
  • Bash Brothers: Guess.
  • Basso Profundo: Fafhrd is a bass but pitches his voice tenor to sing. When he gets religion in Lean Times in Lankhmar, this starts gossip that he accidentally castrated himself when he broke his sword over his knee.
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: In the story of the same name.
  • Brains and Bondage: The Mouser has some pretty heavy tendencies to sexual sadism, with increasing explicitness over Leiber's lifetime.
  • Brains and Brawn: Massively averted. Fafhrd is single-minded, but sometimes has as many utility skills as the Gray Mouser. The Mouser, while conspicuously intelligent, is inclined to let his ego lead him into foolhardy actions. To make it more plain, it's usually the Mouser who does the most damage and fights the toughest fights.
  • Broke Episode: All the time. The two never manage to hold on to any of the riches they come across in their adventures.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Ningauble and Sheelba went to a lot of trouble to gain the duo's (nominal) fealty.
  • Cartwright Curse Girl of the Week: They almost always have love interests, they never seem to last from one story to the next. Eventually averted in the final tales of the series when both the heroes got two new steady girlfriends.
  • City of Adventure: Lankhmar.
  • Clipped-Wing Angel: In "Cloud of Hate", once Fafhrd and the Mouser have killed the humans under its control, the eponymous cloud begins transforming into an Eldritch Abomination, growing tentacles to pick up weapons and an eye to see its prey. It still goes down more easily than its controlled humans.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: During the height of Conan the Barbarian's popularity over at Marvel Comics, DC tried launching a series based on Fafhrd and the Mouser. It didn't last very long, but did result in a very fun (if improbable) crossover story with Wonder Woman.note 
  • Cosmic Chess Game: Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face use their champions this way.
  • Damsel in Distress: While the duo is not as susceptible to these as Conan the Barbarian, they do crop up and sometimes get the plot moving. Often to our heroes' detriment.
  • Dark Magical Girl: Almost as common as evil sorcerers. In some cases, they're related.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Mouser.
  • Death by Origin Story: When they first meet in Ill Met in Lankhmar, both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have serious girlfriends. Neither survives the end of the story.
  • Decon-Recon Switch: The series started out as a good natured semi-parody of Conan the Barbarian and his imitators, but ended up being so influential that it became a foundational work of the genre itself.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Divine on Mortal: Mouser got raped by the Goddess of Pain (which he sort-of enjoyed). She's a goddess—what are you going to do? Complain?
  • Dual Wielding: Both heroes are experts at this.
  • Earth Drift: The first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories Leiber wrote (as opposed to the first published) took place on Earth, before the world of Lankhmar was written into the series, with the result that when collected, some lines had to be added explaining why they were on Earth.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Lots.
  • Extra Eyes: Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.
  • Eyeless Face: Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. All that is seen inside his hood is featureless darkness.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Played up by the one story that takes place on Earth, with the two being exactly the same characters despite their nominal different origin.
  • Fog of Doom: "The Cloud of Hate".
  • Genius Bruiser: Fafhrd is a Barbarian Hero and expert swordsman, as well as a clever tactical thinker.
  • Genius Loci: One story has our heroes doing battle with a murderous building.
  • Girl of the Week: They are even called out on it in one story.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: In several different stories.
  • Half-Human Hybrids: Here and there.
    • In The Swords of Lankhmar, the main antagonists are the product of long-going interbreeding between humans and sentient rats.
    • In Swords in the Mist, the antagonist's father is a stone god.
  • Hate Plague: In the short story "The Cloud of Hate", a cult generates a magical cloud, converting almost everyone it touches into a murderous psychopath.
  • Here There Were Dragons
  • Heroic RRoD: In one of the stories the villain fights the lightning-quick Mouser to a standstill — for a while. When defeated the tremendous overstrain caused the villain's corpse to go into immediate rigor mortis. Or at least, the heroes think it's rigor mortis... The truth is much more bizarre.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Lampshaded, as they actually ponder the fact that they've never had any desire to fool around with each other.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Depending on the story, Ningauble and Sheelba sometimes have this vibe. And sometimes, they seem simply like two quirky wizards, who just happen to look weird.
  • I Call It "Vera": Fafhrd has a broadsword named Graywand and a poniard named Heartseeker. The Mouser has a rapier named Scalpel and a dirk named Cat's Claw. Leiber plays with this one, though, by having the pair lose their weapons all the time. They just use those names for whatever blades they happen to be carrying at the moment.
    • The Cat's Claw gets referenced by a number of early Square RPGs (Final Fantasy, SaGa), appearing as a store-bought dagger/sword that's usually one of the better daggers in the games. Later games seemed to have forgotten the original reference and made the Cat Claw/Cat Claws into an actual paw-shaped glove weapon with claws.
  • I Choose to Stay: The ice cat Hrissa, a valued companion to the two as they climb Stardock, chooses to stay with the princesses of the invisible race who live near its peak
  • In Harm's Way
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: In the 1970s, they appeared in a Wonder Woman comic (Catwoman's in it, too!). DC Comics was starting up a comics adaptation of the Leiber stories, so this guest appearance was probably considered as a fairly standard in-house crossover, meant to promote the new comic.
  • Interspecies Romance: Fafhrd hooked up with a ghoul (see below) and had a brief fling with a Djinn; Mouser with a girl who was descended from rats (in Swords of Lankhmar). Both during the events of "When the Sea-King's Away" (with a pair of Sea Witches with gills and membranes between their fingers)
  • Invisible Stomach, Visible Food: This happens when ghouls eat anything.
  • Jerkass Gods: Most gods of Nehwon are.
  • Jumped at the Call: They both do this a lot. See Damsel in Distress and Plunder.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: "The Bazaar of the Bizarre"
  • Loveable Rogue: The Gray Mouser.
  • Low Fantasy: One of the major works of the genre.
  • Magic Knight: Not really that much of a knight, but Mouser was a failed sorcerer's apprentice who turned mercenary. He is primarily a swordsman but he casts a spell once in a while.
  • Mars Needs Women: Gender-inversed. In one of the novels, a mountain-dwelling race of invisible people is on the brink of extinction, as almost all their males have become sterile. They decide to send a call for human heroes in order to breed with them: by their calculations, the invisibility will breed true. The catch is, their king doesn't intend to let said heroes to have sex with the invisible girls: he prefers more, shall we say, cutting methods of extracting genetic material.
  • Medium Awareness: In the origin story Ill Met in Lankhmar, the Mouser's response when Fafhrd introduces himself is to ask how "Fafhrd" is pronounced. Fafhrd also made sure to carefully spell it out to him, because else he couldn't have known how it was spelled, since they were, you know, speaking.
  • Mouse World: Lankhmar Below
  • Mr. Exposition: Parodied with Ningauble of the Seven Eyes — in one scene, as he tries to exposit, the Mouser keeps interrupting him again and again just for fun.
  • Multiboobage: One of the Gray Mouser's girlfriends was an albino wererat with eight nipples.
  • Mutual Kill: the two competing lords of Quarmall die simultaneously when Guay pulls a column out of the ceiling with his powers.
  • Odd Job Gods: Many of the gods in Lankhmar.
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: Ghouls are a humanoid race that have transparent skin, muscles, and organs, giving them the appearance of animated skeletons... oh, and they just so happen to be cannibals too. Though the only one who gets a speaking role turns out to be kind of cool.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: In The Knight and Knave of Swords, the Gray Mouser captures a girl and ties her up. She submits to this at the time, but later she grows spines out of her body and uses them to cut through the bindings.
  • Plunder: A typical adventure hook, most notably in Swords Against Wizardry.
  • The Power of Hate: Even after Guay’s sorcerers die and he succumbs to the cursed diseases, his hatred of his brother Haasjarl allows him to remain in his utterly ravaged body and even cast spells.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: The prequel "Ill Met in Lankhmar" depicts the first proper meeting between the two main characters, and includes a slightly medium-aware pronunciation guide for Fafhrd's name:
    Fafhrd: Name's Fafhrd. Ef ay ef aitch ar dee.
    Gray Mouser: Gray Mouser. Excuse me, but how exactly do you pronounce that? Faf-hrud?
    Fafhrd: Just Faf-erd.
    Gray Mouser: Thank you.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Ningauble is the red to Sheelba's blue.
  • Religion of Evil: Many, of various levels of evil. Usually they seem to have a beef against Lankhmar specifically as well.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: The all-too-sapient rats in The Swords of Lankhmar are of standard size — until the right magic comes into play, late in the novel.
  • Schmuck Bait: The treasure in "The Jewels in the Forest" — the sorceror whose property it was distributed several manuscripts to lure treasure-hunters to its location, there to be killed by the traps he placed to protect it.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Nehwon is backwards for Nowhen.
  • See the Invisible: The antagonist in Bazaar of the Bizarre throws dust over Fafhrd to counter his cloak of invisibility.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: In The Swords of Lankhmar, a shrinking potion does, in fact, displace mass, as the now rat-sized Mouser has to swim his way out of a good-sized puddle of meat, cloth fibers, and metal fragments (flesh, clothes, armor, and weapons). Later, he grows back to his full size away from that puddle, and the mass is taken from nearby objects (and people!), stripping some enemy Mooks of armor and weapons— and giving a nearby fat girl a magical liposuction. Great news for her, Squick for the Mouser?
  • Shout-Out:
  • Silver Has Mystic Powers: in Ill met in Lankhmar the sorcerer Hristomilo is eventually defeated by the mean of a silver dagger.
  • The Sneaky Guy: Gray Mouser.
  • Snowball Fight: The women of Fafhrd's barbarian tribe are described as throwing snowballs with such force and accuracy that they can break bones.
  • Soul Jar: One of the Big Bads put his in an egg.
  • Suffer the Slings: The Mouser always carries a sling in case he should need a ranged weapon, and is very skilled with it.
  • Sword and Sorcerer
  • Temporary Bulk Change: In Lean Times in Lankhmar, the Mouser's new easy life of riches leads him to gain a prominent gut. He is forced to work-out a lot to lose it in the sequel story, Their Mistress, the Sea. The reverse happens to Fafhrd, who loses a lot of weight due to his new ascetic life, and has to regain his former muscle mass by the next story.
  • Thieves' Guild: Possibly the Trope Maker
  • This Is Reality: In "The Jewels in the Forest", Fafhrd is attacked by two enemy mooks at once. He reflects that whereas in sagas heroes can overcome four enemies at a time, these two are just about his limit.
  • Trickster Mentor: Ningauble and Sheelba may fall into this, as they send Fafhrd and the Mouser off on some wacky adventures — stealing the mask of Death or the highest star from the sky, for instance.
    • Also invoked in the fact that Fafhrd and The Mouser are both paired off with the wizard least compatible to their personality: The wry and story-loving Mouser is paired with the incredibly terse Sheelba, who rebuffs any of The Mousers attempts at building a rapport; while the upfront and to-the-point Fafhrd finds himself working for voluble Ningauble, a lot of which involves him standing around while the wizard drones on and on.
  • Troll: The Mouser often makes comments deliberately designed to provoke, annoy, harass, or agitate simply for the fun of it. Fafhrd and Ningauble are often targets.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Popularised the Brains and Brawn pairing in heroic fantasy. However, it's repeatedly stressed in the novels that Fafhrd is just as intelligent as the Mouser - he just doesn't show it off as much, leading enemies to underestimate him.
  • Wainscot Society: The rats of Lankhmar.
  • Weird Trade Union: The Slayers' Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild in Lankhmar, though they've become such common tropes themselves that it's likely many modern readers wouldn't realize that Leiber meant them as a joke.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Although their moral conduct is often questionable, when the world of Nehwon needs heroes it knows who to call.
  • White Man's Burden: A really twisted version of this is used to justify the ghouls' cannibalism; they believe themselves to be the most enlightened and civilized race of all, as represented by their translucent flesh, so "transmuting the muddy to the pure" (read: digesting humanoid flesh) is elevating the souls of the inferior other races.
  • Witch Doctor: Two of 'em: Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, mentors to Fafhrd and the Mouser respectively.
  • Wretched Hive: Lankhmar.
  • You Know the One: Parodied.
    Ningauble: —the dread city, mention not its name—
    The Gray Mouser: Is it Khatti?