Sunday, December 04, 2011

Platypi Against Death: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIII

This post comments on Fritz Leiber's "Swords Against Death."  If you wish to remain spoiler free, do not read on.

As noted earlier, Fritz Leiber begins his tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser with a heroic foursome; the two male leads and their ladies fair.  By the third tale, however, the foursome is reduced to a duo with the death by art magical of Lady Ivrian and the intrepid Vlana.  The result seems to be that our heroes can now never be whole and are thus doomed to wander the world in search of adventure and forgetfulness. 

This equation almost changes in the second volume with The Price of Pain-Ease where the wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes promise to restore a lost love to one of the two men provided he can steal the mask of Death.  Tormented, literally, by the ghosts of their lost beloveds, Fafhrd and Mouser accept the quest even if it means slaying each other to get to the mask.  Along the way, they continue to be haunted by Vlana and Ivrian and each hero comes to realize that his particular heroine wasn't exactly the picture of perfection he'd remembered.  Since Leiber is unwilling to kill off one or both of his leading men, the evil duke Danius gets to the mask first and cuts it in half.  Death shows up just in time to finish of Danius and Fafhrd and Mouser each make off with a piece of the mask.  Predictably, this satisfies neither of the wizards but, true to their word, they keep half their promise for half the mask: each man is able to let go of his misery and move on.

It's a wry and cynical ending in a wry and cynical series of books.  We are left wondering if things ever really could have worked out for the formidable foursome had the two women lived.  Of course, the question arises as to whether any breakdown would be the fault of the two beaus as much as the fault of the two femmes.  Vlana calls Fafhrd her "beloved booby," and her "man-boy-lover."  Given the stories thus far, that's an accurate assessment of Fafhrd's character.  The Mouser doesn't fair much better.  In each of them, there is far too much of an over-indulged boy and too little of a real man.  It makes one wonder if the inference that should be drawn is that Leiber believes masculine friendship rests on some principle of prolonged adolescence.  If true, this is rather sad.  The adventures go on, and adventures are fun, but they can't go on forever.  In the end, even Odysseus, that consummate adventurer must come home and be a man: husband, father, son.  "The Odyssey" works because the adventures come to an end.  For Fafhrd and Mouser it seems as if the only end is weariness.

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