Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “Lean Times in Lankhmar”
Bill Ward and I are continuing our read through of Fritz Leiber’s collection of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Swords in the Mist. This week we’re looking at the second tale in the collection, “Lean Times in Lankhmar.”
Howard: This is probably the funniest Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story in the entire canon, and likely the funniest sword-and-sorcery tale ever written that isn’t supposed to be a farce or a send-up. The only other tale by a famed sword-and-sorcery writer that comes close is Robert E. Howard’s “Gates of Empire,” which also is flat-out hilarious… but as it’s historical and free of supernatural elements I guess it’s not an apple to apple comparison.
Bill: You’re not kidding, I was snickering, snorting, and guffawing my way all the way through.
Howard: I can recall reading this multiple times and laughing out loud again and again each time I did so. Alas, even after nearly a quarter century away from the story I remember it too well to be completely delighted now, so I have to instead take pleasure in the careful build-up to the climax. Everything in the tale is setting us up for the grand finale — Fafhrd’s re-appearance in changed form, howling for the final jug of wine.
Bill: The climax slipped my mind until the moment the Mouser started getting Fafhrd drunk at the end, then it all came back to me.
Howard: Surely this is not just the funniest of the Fafhrd and Mouser stories, but one of the very strongest as well. A lot of the humor comes from being familiar with the characters and how they would normally act, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Leiber’s done such a fine job here that even someone unfamiliar with them would enjoy this outing.
Bill: I think so, too. Leiber is great at both the character-based humor, and also an overall narrative humor that’s part voice, part clever prose, and all about Leiber’s keen wit and outlook on the world.
Howard: It’s also interesting to see how they fare when away from each other. Not so well, as it turns out: like any great team, they’re stronger together than apart, with each becoming absorbed in matters that lead them to unhealthy habits — Mouser, grown soft with sensual pleasures, and Fafhrd with his head too high in religious clouds.
Bill: It’s wonderful that they both take opposite paths to basically get to the same point. Again and again it’s these great character moments (to echo what you just said, we have a scene where Fafhrd labors over the creation of a devotional object while the Mouser sizes up a street waif), and Leiber’s characterization in general, that is so wonderful. Fafhrd was as sincere about his religious awakening as the Mouser was cynical. Even at the very end some of Fafhrd’s serious, poetical self comes through when, in referencing the hilarious climax of the story in which a drunk, shaved, and bound Fafhrd is taken by a horde of worshipers as their god returned to earth, he says to Mouser that he really was that god.
Howard: Great point. That was a fine ending, as well.
There are subtle satiric touches among the broad comic ones, such as comments on human nature and the allure of religion as well as prophets, and even, despite all the comedy, some action and adventure and some creepy supernatural elements with the mention, then “appearance” of the Gods OF Lankhmar.
Bill: Indeed, and that’s one thing that is so amazing about these stories when they are at their best — they maintain a perfect balance between the serious and the humorous. After spending ten-thousand words on corrupt, imaginary, silly, bizarre, and contemptible religious cults we are treated to a blast of cold water in the form of the black bones of the true Lankhmarese gods. I don’t think anyone will be stealing their offering cask and replacing it with brandy anytime soon. Just as Leiber injects the serious with humor, he also does the reverse, and I think that’s a big part of why these tales have such a reality about them, and the characters are so vivid and so loved by fans.
Also, as a final aside, I loved that one of the possible falling out points between our heroes was the spelling of Fafhrd’s name — you and I both have stumbled over that “mouth-filling agglomeration of consonants” many times while discussing these stories!
Howard: …and likely will again. You’ve corrected my spelling of Fafhrd at least twice. Well, that’s it for this week. I hope, even if you haven’t been reading ALL of our selections, that you tried this one. Next time, “Their Mistress, the Sea.” I’ve little recollection of this one, but I’m afraid it may be one of the “filler” episodes Leiber added later. I hope I’m wrong. So far, this collection is two thumbs way up.