This post will focus on Fritz Leiber's "Swords and Deviltry". If you wish to remain spoiler free, don't read on.
Kill all the women so the real story can start.
I like buddy stories. There's a special place in my heart for "A Separate Peace" even though the whole pacifist thing is heavy-handed and unnecessary. I had great friends growing up, I had great friends in college, and I had great friends in grad school. One of the finest things in life, to me, is sitting around with the guys and cackling inanely over some good joke. Strong, masculine friendship is seriously under-rated in today's culture; mostly because everyone worries about being called "gay." Now, that said. I don't enjoy male companionship to the exclusion or denigration of women. If you asked me who my best friend was I would tell you its my wife, and that brings me to the meat of the matter (ok, not quite, but almost).
I've been wanting to read Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories ever since I picked up Mike Mignola's graphic novel adaptation. My chance to do that came this past summer when I was strolling through my local used bookstore. Evidently, someone had dumped almost the whole series in the old Ace edition and they were on sale for a couple of bucks each. Having finally recovered from my trek through "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," I picked up volume one and started reading. "Swords and Deviltry" gives us the back story of Leiber's dynamic duo and records their first meeting in the legendary city of Lankhmar. It also introduces us to their lady-loves, the cunning, vengeful, and forceful Vlana, and the meek, cultured, and faithful Ivrain. Each of these characters has great potential in their own right and also as part of a budding foursome. That is until Leiber promptly kills them off.
Now, I'm not averse to character killing, but this matter of fem-icide really does bother me a bit. The purpose seems to be to free the men up for further adventures. From what I've seen in Mignola's adaptation, there will women a-plenty for one-night stands, but no more abiding ladies-fair for Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Leiber seems to need them to lose the loves-of-their-lives at the beginning and never recover so that the infinite tales of adventure can go on. That just doesn't seem right. It reeks of the belief that marriage is a sort of "game over" for everything that makes the masculine life worth living; as if aimless adventuring and drunken reveling are what make a man a man. While I would argue that those strong male friendships are still a masculine need after marriage, Leiber's exculsivist vision seems more like an endless adolescence than a frank acknowledgement that marriage can't (and wasn't meant to) satisfy ever need of the human soul.
So what am I getting at here. I do understand that Leiber is trying to tell a particular kind of story and that requires him to shape the plot and cast in certain ways. Still, I wish there was a chance to use the compelling characters he creates in Vlana and Ivrain to complement the men in a more extended fashion. That said, I think there might be something else that Leiber is getting at (if I'll just be patient and stick with him). Leiber comments that both his characters, Fafhrd and Mouser, are each only half a hero. They stick together through thick and thin because each has something the other needs. They balance each other out. Thinking on this a bit, I wonder if the purpose of killing Vlana and Ivrain off is that they each complemented their beaus in ways that all four complete. With them gone, the men can never really be whole, and thus their quest can never really have an end. If so, then the adventures of Fafhrd and Mouser are not merely about the virtues of masculine friendship but a meditation on humanity's tragic brokenness. We all need each other to be ourselves, but in a world of pain and death that isn't always possible.