Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Badness of the Executioner - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

   In order to get more stuff going on here I figured I'd start going through some of Lin Carter's and Andrew Offutt's anthologies and looking at single stories.  I picked up "Flashing Swords #1" (1973) which opens with the then brand new Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, "The Sadness of the Executioner" by Fritz Leiber.  I hadn't read the story in ages and only had the vaguest memories of its plot so what better place to start off?  Woohoo!
   The sad executioner of the story is the Death of Newhon.  He is describes as a minor Death in the larger universe and responsible to the Lords of Necessity.  As such he must ensure that the number and types of people the Lords decree must die in the space of so many heartbeats.  Along with peasants and savages, warriors, beggars a priest, a whore and others, Death is informed that he must serve up the death of two heroes.
   To meet his quota, Death lets an adder know where to bite and a spider where to wait for a victim.  Sudden openings for thrown swords are unveiled to gladiators and a little bit of depression is added to that already weighing down the soul of a maker of war engines.  And that's it.  Eighteen paragraphs of Leiber's darkly funny funny prose and the image of Death on his throne nudging along the doomed to their ends is very good.  After that it turns into the sort of reason swords & sorcery gets a bad rap.
   After providing all of his required allotment of dead save the two heroes, Death turns his cold eyes to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  While he values the tremendous value and variety of deaths that have provided for him over the years, Death sadly chooses the two men to complete his quota.  "Yet without exception every pawn must eventually be snapped up and tossed in box," he mournfully thinks.  
   As Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are great heroes Death feels they warrant ends outside of the ordinary.  Their stature, Death believes also, allows him to be creative and take extraordinary steps to bring about their demises.  For Fafhrd he teleports a gladiator from the dead king's private arena straight to Fafhrd apartment.  For the Gray Mouser, well, Death chooses something a bit creepy and less straightforward.
   The depressed builder of war engines got that way because his great-granddaughter was stolen by the procurers for the harem of the King of Kings.  Death decides to use her as his instrument of destruction in regards to the Gray Mouser.
   Unfortunately for the reader she is a nubile sixteen year old, driven to fury and madness by her capture and imprisonment.  For misdeeds she has been shaved and tattooed.  For the reader's amusement, presumably, she dressed only in shin greaves and breast cups, the former hiding stilettos and the latter bearing poisoned spikes.
   In the end, after being teleported to the Gray Mouser's room and failing in her effort to kill him he "ravages her".  When Fafhrd, steps in on the rape he simply begs pardon and steps back out.  She ultimately acquiesces and later we find her madness has abated and she's set up shop in Lankhmar.
   I was actually shocked at the creepiness of Leiber's story.  I haven't read the entire Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories in a very long time.  One of the many benefits of doing this blog was that I planned to go back and read old classics I haven't even looked at in ages.  In recent years I've reread the first three collections of the Lankhmar stories and loved them.  What I hadn't done was reread this depressing little story.
   I love Fritz Leiber.  He wrote good, sharp horror like "Our Lady of Darkness" and clever science fiction like the Change War cycle.  I remember loving the entirety of the Lankhmar stories but I read this one first when I was sixteen and   This story is an utter letdown.
   "The Sadness of the Executioner" starts so well and degenerates into the sort of stuff John Norman might present to a reader.  I don't like to sound PC or bandy about words like sexist but there's really no way to avoid that.  It's the matter of fact presentation of the rape and Mouser's clear enjoyment of it that makes the story's ending so repellent.  


  1. I remember finding this story rather repellent as well, much as I love Leiber's Lankhmar tales in general.

    There is a possibility, I suppose, that Leiber never intended us to sympathise with this side of the Mouser's character. I remember the way in which both the Mouser and Fafhrd degenerate in the story which takes place on the street of the gods (I forget the name), Fafhrd becoming increasingly mystic and unworldly and the Mouser turning more and more venal and corrupt. I remember Leiber noting, in a similarly creepy detail, that he became fatter and fatter and the girls on his arm got younger and younger.

    Still, I agree that the way the rape is presented here leaves the reader a rather nasty impression.

    Excellent blog, by the way!

  2. I agree that we probably weren't meant to exactly sympathize with Mouser, but it is presented in such a jovial way I was really shocked on rereading it. It's the raping the rage out of her that's particularly creepy.
    The story you reference is "Lean Times in Lankhmar". It's probably been twenty years since I've read it but I remember enjoying the way the need Fafhrd and Mouser have for each other to make them the heroes they had been and will become again. I think I'll reread it this week or next.

    Thanks for the kind words.

  3. 'Lean Times...' - that's the one! I think I'll reread it myself. And yes, I quite agree with your views on 'The Sadness of the Executioner'.