Fritz Leiber, Swords Against Death

SWRDSGNSTB1979Over a few months I read Swords Against Death, a volume of fantasy short stories by Fritz Leiber featuring his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser characters; two companions, a tall barbarian and a shorter thief, who travel across the land on adventures. These tales feature lots of action, swords fights, imaginative spectacles and goodnatured camaraderie, and are overall good escapist entertainment. What follows are my observations and summaries about each story, in varying detail,  hastily written after completing each story.

The Jewels In The Forest (1939.) Here, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are pursued to a tower among the woods, where they seek an unguarded treasure. To its credit, this is a story that promises fantasy genre thrills early on, and fulfills them; horse chases, sword fights, mysterious old men, a damsel in peril, tense scenes in a dark skeleton-strewn tower, and between everything is the camaraderie of the archetypal thief and his taller barbarian companion. This is the first Lankhmar story I’ve read. It feels like a more lighthearted and readable Conan story with less purple prose.  Good fantasy escapism and pulp thrills in forty pages. 3/5

The Thieves House (1943.) Here Leiber combines comic book moments with genuinely tense scenes (e.g., Fafhrd in the dark cellar, feeling something small and hard brushing his cheek.) In this and the previous story I thought the swordfighting stood out – better than I can recall from the handful of Robert Howard’s Conan stories I have read, because I could visualise the parries and lunges clearly. The authors love of fencing must account for his able swordfighting choreography here. 3/5


The Bleak Shore (1940) is a shorter story at 12 pages. At the outset, the two companions are playing dice at the rambunctious Silver Eel tavern when they encounter mysterious pale man. He promises to send them to their death, after which they embark by sail, as if possessed, on a long journey across perilous seas to an island of doom. This short tale of mind control is narrated by one of the surviving slaves of F+GM’s ship after events. The mysterious man represents doom, and challenges the pair to resist his powers – can they resist? This a straightforward and enjoyable nautical story. 3/5

The Howling Tower (1941.) The story begins with the pair encamped in front of a dying fire a far-flung location, when they hear a peculiar howling sound like wolves. Their fearful guide informs them that the howling is rumored to be from an old tower across the grasslands. He disappears the next morning. There is a touch of HP Lovecraft and the gothic about this story; a tale of rescue, a long journey of foreboding through a barren plain, and an encounter with a grisly family history. 4/5

The Sunken Land (1942.) A rollicking seafaring adventure, horror, and the standout story of the collection. After finding an ancient key, Fafhrd falls overboard his sloop, and finds himself in the company of a Northmen sea raiding party who are headed for a fabled sunken city. There are more than a few Lovecraftian flourishes; eery wall carvings, phosphorescent walls, unsettling sea creatures shifting in the shadows. Best of all, Leiber has captured vividly the feeling of being swept along with viking-esque sea raid. 5/5

Continuing through my volume of book 2 of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, I read The Seven Black Priests (1953.) Here, the tall barbarian and his shorter thief companion are journeying through the cold hills and wastes when they see a strange volcanic hill in the distance, one with an indistinct impression of several giant faces below its summit. They spy a gleaming rock set within an ‘eye’ and resolve to steal it. This is a light hearted adventure tale, buoyed along by the pair’s sardonic banter and their encounters with the stone’s order of protectors, who ambush the protagonists in variously sudden, desperate, and inventive ways. This is also somewhat of a travelogue with much description of the cold landscape, its rock formations, frozen plains and suspicious cave mouths, along with scenes of outdoorsmanship, camping and hunting. A couple of twists prevent a predictable ending to an entertaining piece of low fantasy. 5/5

Claws From The Night and The Price Of Painease were read, and passed the time, but my impressions were not recorded. Of these, Claws From The Night was most memorable for its Lankhmar-menacing birds and their embittered owner. The latter story was more forgettable.

Bazaar Of The Bizarre (1963) seems to be a highly rated Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, but I couldn’t get into it. It milks its central premise and theme, the illusory nature of a trinket shop in Lankhmar whose wares are extremely interesting to some, and junk to others; and has plenty of imaginative scenes and comic moments. But I found it all too whimsical and comic for my taste, like a Terry Pratchett story, and Leiber seems to be writing in longer fluid sentences than previously here, as if it was written by dictation. 2/5

Overall Swords Against Death has much to be recommended in it. Stories like Seven Black Monks, The Howling Tower, and The Sunken Land appealingly combine elements of action, the weird, and the gothic, with the camaraderie of the duo protagonists. This last element is central to these stories, and adds a wholesome subtext to the overall work; Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s problems and antagonists are usually overcome by cunning, cooperation and teamwork, rather than by Conan and John Carter-like feats of superhuman prowess.


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