“Ill Met in Lankhmar”

This week’s weird fiction I approached with a sigh and a bit of trepidation.

I’ve been bouncing off the appeal of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser since first encountering them in grade school in “The Sadness of the Executioner” in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords #1 anthology. I’m a fan of much of Leiber’s science fiction, and his horror and weird fiction was very innovative. But, to date, I’ve been unimpressed with his sword and sorcery.

Review: “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, Fritz Leiber, 1970.Ill Met in Lankhmar

Leiber started his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1970, with this story, that he told how the two met.

The story starts with Fafhrd and Gray Mouser independently ambushing a party of thieves in the smoggy city of Lankhmar. The city is ruled, de facto, by the Thieves Guild. I’m not aware of any historical society that had anything like a Thieves Guild, but sword and sorcery writers love the idea. (I suspect it started with Robert E. Howard, but I don’t actually know.) Later in the story, Leiber lavishes a lot of detail on what training the Thieves Guild offers to its apprentices and those in the associated Beggars Guild.

Congratulating themselves with lots of wine and ale, the two new friends go home to Gray Mouser’s den in a decrepit, slummy attic where he keeps love Ivrian – rescued from her father’s torture chambers – in a sort of solitaire confinement which Fafhrd privately thinks leads to Ivrian being rather anxious and flighty.

Joining the three is Vlana, Fafhrd’s love who has run afoul of the Thieves Guild for freelancing. Privately, the two men think that its best to not run afoul of local customs and traditions, and a woman’s call for vengeance is the one request lovers should not accede to.

But Vlana’s pleas and prodigious drinking by our heroes change their minds.

They promise to bring Vlana the head of Krovas, head of the Thieves Guild. So, they go off to do a little reconnaissance of the Guild’s headquarters before taking any action – after stopping at the pub again.

Much of this tale is humorous. Not only is there Gray Mouser’s and Fafhrd’s drunken rhetoric and panache (something alcoholic Leiber probably was familiar with), there’s their cluelessness about a rat they keep seeing. They dismiss Vlana’s worries that the similar looking wizard’s familiar they saw during their robbery might cause trouble.

And so it does.

During their infiltration, in disguise, of Thieves Guild headquarters, they see a wizard at work. They don’t connect the odd configurations of Lankhmar’s smog with the wizard.

The two get captured and make a daring escape.

But when returning to the Gray Mouser’s love nest, they find their lovers dead, suffocated by smog and partially eaten by the wizard’s familiar and his rat army.

In horror and disgust, the two torch the place and leave Lankhmar. No revenge is taken on Krovas. Presumably, the two young men are now less callow if just as accomplished as thieves and fighters. Wisdom has been sadly won.

This story doesn’t make me want to read more in the series, but I didn’t mind this installment. Leiber’s prose is full of elaborate description and some lovely pacing if not up to the baroque decadence of a Clark Ashton Smith.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

4 thoughts on ““Ill Met in Lankhmar”

  1. jameswharris December 10, 2018 / 12:29 pm

    Your review of Swords and Deviltry made me get out an Audible copy I bought on sale years ago, and listen to it. I’ve been developing an appreciation for Leiber while reading through The Great SF Stories series. I’m not much of a fantasy fan, but Leiber’s writing has an abundance of significant details that makes his storytelling vivid. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories would make a colorful movie.

    One thing that intrigues me about these stories and ones by Robert E. Howard is how they seem built on a world of pre-history.

    • marzaat December 10, 2018 / 12:48 pm

      I don’t know how much Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a reaction to Robert E. Howard’s work. I’ve read all of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith’s work, but my knowledge of the other Musketeer of Weird Tales is not that good.

      The few bits of Howard’s fantasy I’ve read does seem filled with historical names or names that remind one of names of people from pre-history. Howard seemed to have a fair bit of historical knowledge. The story is that someone pointed out an error about British prehistory in Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall”, and Lovecraft acknowledged the mistake but said no one would catch it. Then Howard did and their odd friendship was born.

      Yes, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is full of a lot of vivid detail. I’m not sure why I’m not a fan of the series — the plots? the characters? the dialogue? I’m not sure.

      Like you, I don’t read a lot of fantasy apart from Tim Powers, Michael Moorcock, and Clark Ashton Smith.

      • jameswharris December 10, 2018 / 2:00 pm

        I’m not against fantasy stories, I just don’t get into them. However, I ran across an article in Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyborian_Age – about the Hyborian Age and that intrigued me. Then I read there were connections to H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and that intrigued me. Someday I hope to study it further. Do you know of any book or essay that explains the overlap in their stories?

      • marzaat December 10, 2018 / 2:50 pm

        http://www.robert-e-howard.org/exedrae_2_ae2001.htm seems to say that CAS used Hyperborea before Howard. However, the Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s “Hyperborea” entry says CAS’s “Hyperborea” should not be confused with “Hyborian Age”. http://eldritchdark.com/articles/reviews/67/introduction-to-%27the-book-of-hyperborea%27 talks about Lovecraft’s borrowing of the idea from CAS.

        That’s about the best I can find on such short notice. My general impression is that the three borrowed from each other as sort of a game and because they liked certain ideas, but they weren’t really try to do anything consistent or with elaborate links between each other’s works.

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