When Ace released the swords series in it’s own internal chronology, Fritz ended up writing many link pieces to fit the stories. He also had to formally set in place the backgrounds Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as well as their meeting.
He had already visited the antecedents of the Gray Mouser in 1962’s ‘The Unholy Grail’, in ‘The Snow Women’ we follow Fafhrd’s earliest adventure. There was a feeling of gothic in the Unholy Grail, with it’s mad lord, dungeons and waif like heroine, but the Snow Women, written in 1970, is much more typical of Leiber’s later work.
Fafhrd is just 18, and somewhat emotionally distant to almost everyone, and only presents a half truth to his lover Mara. The arrival of a theatrical troop offers Fafhrd a chance to escape the cold waste and become his true self in ‘Civilization’.
This is a coming of age tale for Fafhrd, who is very much a teenager. His parents are monstrous and both show a disregard for their son. Nalgron is an absent father, through death, yet we feel his oath breaking and general manliness made him merely a cipher, an idealised warrior father for Fafhrd to emulate in body, if not in mind. Nalgron’s oath breaking may well have been his way of duelling with Fafhrd’s Mother, but it also left his son Fatherless.
As a mother, Mor is monstrous. A descendent of the worst of the women in Conjure Wife, most recently seen in Gonna Roll The Bones. Witchcraft is the tool of choice along with ice hardened snowballs.
The men and the women in the story offer no aspiration for Fafhrd. The women, petty and small minded, keen to control and own their male flock. The men are nothing to write home about. Brutal, lecherous, ignorant and equally hidebound.
Of course, this is the world seen by an adolescent, in which there is no grey (no pun intended). Fafhrd idealises civilization, believing it to be everything Cold Corner is not, yet while his birthplace indeed highlights much that is wrong in the world, it becomes apparent everyone (both in Cold Corner and the civilized theatrical troupe) is duplicitous in one way or another, indeed the only group who could be said to be direct is Mor and her coven, who are at least open in their hostility.
Fafhrd himself cruelly plays Mara and lies as it suits him, Vlana offers half-truths throughout and Velix is decidedly shady, and his intentions are never clear. Of course the catalyst for all this change is the arrival of the theatrical troupe, and by the nature of theatre, everything is fakery, emotion, even gender, may be hidden or transformed on stage. Fafhrd ‘Acts’ his final scene with Mara, just as his emotional distance from everything has been a mask to hide the ambitious and bright boy beneath. He leaves the story, wiser, and aware that civilization hides terrible things behind its mask, and sees him heading off with Vlana towards his inevitable meeting with his feline twain.
If all this seems theatrical, that is what makes this story such a fine romp. Leiber’s touch is spot on here, light and funny when needs be, dark and portentous on the next page. Cold Corner is brought alive, the constant tinkling of ice crystals seems to fill your ears. Much of the pleasure comes from the dialogue and interactions of the colourful characters, with a sizeable dash of action and magic at the end. The elements of Fafhrds character are brought into sharp focus here, his strong, but stubborn sense of what is right and wrong, but also his recklessness when situations provoke him and the gentle sense of melancholy we often find in him.
Fritz did a great job with this tale, I prefer it to Mouser’s intro, The Unholy Grail. It makes a fine first story for Swords Against Deviltry.