Saddened as I am by other more recent losses in the field, today I’m sending out props to the late Fritz Leiber. Why? Lots of reasons, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, I’ll concentrate on the personal–Fritz Leiber was responsible for a revelation. For those of you (anyone? Bueller?) who are old enough to remember, the mid to late 1970’s saw a boom in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Yes, it’s still around, sort of, but back then it was different. S&S was HOT, hot like urban fantasy hot, like Steampunk hot, if you can grasp that. As both a reader and a beginning writer, I got caught up in it. REH, the De Camp retellings, Andy Offutt, Gardner Fox for pete’s sake.
And then I found Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser series. I was a little too late to the party to have read them in the Cele Goldsmith Fantastic, as I said before, I came along in the Ted White era, but the Fafhrd and Mouser stories were being collected in book form by that time, and that’s where I found them.
Yes, they were S&S. There was both swords and sorcery in abundance, and high adventure. There was also humor, real-world problems, tragedy, courage, cowardice, and just about anything else you’d name. I loved them. I thought that was simply because the characters were engaging and the stories interesting and well-written. All true, but not quite it. Took me a bit of time to sort that out, but I finally realized that Leiber was using the form to do a different sort of story. His sort of story. Most everything up till then had been imitation Conan of various stripes. Not Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Any resemblance to the Conan’s Cimmerian was superficial at best and not to be taken seriously. Sure, I went on to Confure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness but, masterpieces that they are, I never considered the Fafhrd and Mouser stories as secondary to them.
Ok, but so what? Simply this—with all due respect to Mcluhan, I finally realized that the medium was not the message. That the alleged genre of a story did not dictate its content nor its tone nor even its rightful subject. That the genre used to describe a story was in the service of the story, and not the other way around, and to force your work to fit a preconception of what they were supposed to be was stupid and self-defeating. Seems simple and obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t obvious to me then. Fritz Leiber was the writer who taught me better.
I never met Fritz Leiber. I had one chance. I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Nashville, TN, back in 1987, just five years before his death. He was there, surrounded, as seemed right, by an adoring mob. He looked tired. I thought about becoming one more snowflake in that particular avalanche, demanding a piece of his time like all the others. Couldn’t do it. Maybe I was acting with appropriate restraint. Maybe my natural shyness shackled me. Either way, I’ve always regretted that, even though, given another chance, I’m not sure I’d have done things any differently. Besides, it’s not like I could pay him back. So I’ve tried to pay forward, like everyone else who owes a debt of gratitude in this field.
There are other debts I owe for lessons learned, some perhaps even larger, but this particular one was crucial, the right lesson at the right time, and it belongs to Fritz Leiber.