Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Leiber, Fritz

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(1910-1992) US writer of major importance in both fantasy and sf. His best-loved work is the long-running Heroic Fantasy series featuring the paradigmatic Duo: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (F&GM). These characters, respectively a tall northern barbarian of unbarbaric intelligence and a small, mercurial Trickster figure, were suggested by FL's friend Harry Otto Fischer (1910-1986) in 1934; FL acknowledged this when introducing his first collection, Night's Black Agents (coll 1947; 1 story cut vt Tales from Night's Black Agents 1961; original exp with 2 stories added 1978), going into greater detail in his essay "Fafhrd and Me" (1963; exp in The Second Book of Fritz Leiber coll 1975; further exp Fafhrd & Me coll 1991 chap). F&GM intentionally had something in them of the very tall FL and the small, ingenious Fischer.

The Picaresque sequence begins with FL's first published story, "Two Sought Adventure" (1939 Unknown; vt "The Jewels in the Forest" 1957), and was eventually organized as what has also been called the Swords series. (FL is thought to have coined the term Sword and Sorcery.) This comprises: Swords and Deviltry (coll 1970), placed first since it details the heroes' early lives and first meeting – the tale "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (1970 F&SF) won Hugo and Nebula Awards; Two Sought Adventure (coll 1957; exp rev vt Swords Against Death 1970); Swords in the Mist (coll 1968); Swords Against Wizardry (coll 1968) – including "The Lords of Quarmall" (1964 Fantastic) with Fischer – The Swords of Lankhmar (first part 1961 Fantastic as "Scylla's Daughter"; exp 1968); Rime Isle (coll 1977; exp from 2 to 8 stories vt Swords & Ice Magic 1977); and The Knight and Knave of Swords (coll 1988). The first three titles were assembled as The Three of Swords (omni 1989); the next three – the third in the exp vt form – as Swords' Masters (omni 1990); FL's three favourite F&GM shorts make up Bazaar of the Bizarre (coll 1978).

The F&GM Secondary World of Nehwon ("No-when") emerges with considerable stylish wit: it has Portals to elsewhere and elsewhen, accounting for the ancient Mediterranean setting of the early "Adept's Gambit" (1947 in Night's Black Agents), the comic German time-traveller riding a Sea Monster in "Scylla's Daughter", and the sinister Shop in "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (1963 Fantastic) which sells rubbish by deceiving Perception. Other recurring features are the sunken land of Simorgya, all-purpose barbarian hordes cheekily called Mingols, the Wizards Ningauble and Sheelba (F&GM's unreliable Mentors), a personified Death who repeatedly tries to harvest the elusive duo ... and above all the City of Lankhmar with its eccentric Overlords, Silver Eel tavern, Thieves' Guild, exotic pleasure-areas like the Plaza of Dark Delights, countless warring temples in the Street of the Gods (with a piquant distinction between these "Gods in Lankhmar" and the feared, unworshipped "Gods of Lankhmar") and general sense of sleazy, colourful inexhaustibility. The Swords of Lankhmar sees Lankhmar threatened by rats (see Mice and Rats) whose extensive Wainscot society, Lankhmar Below, elaborately reflects the city. Major plot strands share a knowing erotic perversity: the Overlord is a risible voyeur whose female servants are compulsorily nude, totally shaven, and subject to arbitrary whippings by a dominatrix; Fafhrd becomes entangled with a female "Ghoul" whose invisible but tangible flesh makes her seem a living skeleton; the Mouser is besotted by a tantalizing human/rat hybrid, pursuing her into Lankhmar Below when Sheelba's magic Potion to "put [him] on the right footing" to deal with the rat plague unexpectedly shrinks him to rat-size (see Great and Small; Read the Small Print). The novel is a tasty confection, and one of FL's best.

FL continued to be unpredictable: heroes' success with willing or unwilling women is taken for granted in S&S, but "Under the Thumbs of the Gods" (1975 Fantastic) sees F&GM punished for hubris with a series of sexual humiliations. FL moved further from the adventurer Template with the darker "Rime Isle" (1977 Cosmos): the duo ultimately save the eponymous northern Island from ice-magic, invading Mingols and the interventions of Odin and Loki, but at high cost when Fafhrd loses a hand to magical snares intended to provide Odin with a multiple Human Sacrifice. In "The Mouser Goes Below" (inset novel in The Knight and Knave of Swords) the now older heroes have settled on Rime Isle and it is the Mouser's turn to suffer: he experiences a phantasmagoric Night Journey whose sexual episodes and torments are no longer so adequately leavened with wit.

FL also wrote notable Supernatural Fiction and some Horror. "Smoke Ghost" (1941 Unknown) imagines a city Elemental of smoke and grime which, as an incipient god, demands worship. Conjure Wife (1943 Unknown; in Witches Three omni 1952 ed Fletcher Pratt; 1953) is set on a 20th-century US university campus where male career advancement depends on magical conflict between Secret Masters: academic wives who are (like all women) Witches. By making his wife abandon this "superstition", the professor-hero destroys his own defences. A cement Dragon moves (see Animate/Inanimate) to threaten him; the wife's Soul is stolen, with Possession and Identity Exchange to follow; the protagonist is forced to abandon scepticism and discover the underlying equations of magic, via symbolic logic (see Rationalized Fantasy). It is an effectively uneasy exercise in the paranoid. It has been filmed as Weird Woman (1944) and Burn Witch Burn (1961).

The Sinful Ones (1950 Fantastic Adventures as "You're All Alone"; cut vt as title story of You're All Alone coll 1972; text restored 1980) is a paranoid solipsist fantasy in which most people on Earth are automata who never depart from their life-scripts, and the few who have "awakened" jealously – and murderously – guard their privileged status. "A Bit of the Dark World" (1962 Fantastic) depicts a disturbingly alien, and non-anthropomorphic supernatural intrusion, differently perceived by different viewers. "Gonna Roll the Bones" (1967) is a fine tale of a gambling addict playing dice with the Devil for his Soul, the whole adventure being an Illusion devised by his wife; this won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. "Belsen Express" (1975) grimly hints at a Timeslip visit to World War II death camps; this won the Lovecraft and Derleth awards. Our Lady of Darkness (1977), a smoothly underplayed Urban Fantasy with echoes of H P Lovecraft (including a new addition to the Necronomicon library, the prophetic work Megalopolisomancy; see also Books), has elements of autobiography and of ironic Allegory – when the irrational Monster finally takes form, it is composed of shredded paper from the books to which the protagonist has given too much of his life, and is dispersed by reciting rationalist names of power including those of Pythagoras, Newton and Einstein.

FL additionally received the 1975 Gandalf Award, the 1976 Life Achievement Lovecraft Award, and the 1981 Grand Master Nebula Award – the latter for sf as well as fantasy. The sheer variety of fine work (often subversive of clichés and received ideas) which he produced over such a lengthy career is remarkable. At his best, his stylistic confidence unifies quirky notions, mannered passages sometimes verging on prose poetry, unexpected imagery and a frothy sense of fun, into stories that glitter and sing. [DRL]

other works (selective): Night Monsters (coll 1969 chap dos; exp 1974 UK); The Book of Fritz Leiber (coll 1974); The Best of Fritz Leiber (coll 1974 UK); The Worlds of Fritz Leiber (coll 1976); Heroes and Horrors (coll 1978); Ervool (1980 chap); Quicks Around the Zodiac: A Farce (1983 chap); The Ghost Light (coll 1984) including the specially written "Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex: An Autobiographic Essay"; The Leiber Chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber (coll 1990) ed Martin H Greenberg; Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness (omni 1991); Graphic Novel adaptations Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Book 1 (graph 1991) and Book 2 (graph 1992) by Howard V Chaykin; much sf.

see also: Cats; Chess; Swords; SFE.

Fritz Reuter Leiber Jr


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.