Fritz Leiber at work
Fritz Leiber at work

The fantasy, science fiction, and horror author Fritz Leiber is a man whose creations inspired generations of RPGs and their players. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his work. He was close enough to Gary Gygax and company to contribute an article to the very first issue of The Dragon magazine. If you play any D&D-style RPG at all, you’ve brushed up against his creations. I highly recommend experiencing them in their original form.

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Fritz Leiber was born to a pair of Shakespearean actors, and studied philosophy and theology before trying his hand as a college professor for a while. He worked in aircraft production during World War II. After the war he became a staff writer for an encyclopedia and then served on the staff of Science Digest before launching his fiction career in earnest. Although he produced a substantial number of works considered “science fiction,” Leiber himself admitted that much of that body was rewritten fantasy, repackaged to escape the post-war contraction of the fantasy market.

Leiber’s strongest early influences were Lovecraft (particularly the Cthulhu Mythos, which inspired a novella and multiple stories) and his close friend, Harry Otto Fischer. Beginning in 1934, Leiber and Fischer began imagining a loosely-connected saga centered on the barbarian Fafhrd (modelled on Leiber) and the thief, the Gray Mouser (after Fischer).

In 1937, well before Leiber had written the first story, Leiber and Fischer also developed a wargame for themselves set within the world they had created. In 1976 they turned their personal game into a board game called Lankhmar for TSR. TSR also licensed Leiber’s mythos for use in its Dieties and Demigods supplement for Dungeons and Dragons. The tropes developed within the canon of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories were a huge influence on the game.

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser star in Swords and Deviltry
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser star in Swords and Deviltry

Leiber is credited with coining the term “sword and sorcery” to describe his richly imagined Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and other works in its style. The characters were introduced in 1939 in Unkown magazine, a title edited by the influential John W. Campbell. This also marked Leiber’s first professional sale. Campbell also bought Leiber’s first two novels, serializing Conjure Wife in Unknown and Gather, Darkness in Astounding.

Although Leiber wrote many significant stories and novellas over his long career (some of which are listed below), his most enduring contributions are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and their adventures in Lankhmar and beyond. Leiber’s writing could be weighty, but he injected his stories with dark humor and originated many of the conventions now commonly recognized as the sword and sorcery subgenre.

While Leiber’s characters did not become as instantly recognized by name as Conan or Cthulhu, they could not be ignored, either. Robin Wayne Bailey (founder of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) continued their legend by writing an additional Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novel in 1998, with the promise of another. Joanna Russ (producer of brawny feminist fantasy and science fiction) was inspired by Leiber’s characters and saw her own adventurer, Alyx, appear in two of their stories. The late Terry Pratchett cheerfully modeled his city Ankh-Morpork and characters the Weasel and Bravd on Leiber’s creations.

As an aside to his fiction Leiber also wrote a small amount of literary criticism, most of which was collected in Fafhrd and Me (1990). This work includes a number of essays on Lovecraft, who was hugely influential on Leiber’s writing and who inspired several stories set within the general Lovecraft Mythos. Unlike many other authors working in the Golden Age of science fiction, Leiber wrote very little by way of nonfiction, with his interests and talents better aligned with the philosophy-inflected fantasy he favored. The vast majority of Leiber’s body of work was short fiction, with some of his modern-day horror stories inspiring, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the emerging sub-genre of “urban fantasy.”

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, again, in Swords and Ice Magic
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, again, in Swords and Ice Magic

While Leiber would occasionally drop out of sight for varying lengths of time, he did not labor in obscurity. He was a founding member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America with such notables as Lin Carter, C.L. Moore, L. Sprague de Camp and Andre Norton, among others. Leiber won six Hugo Awards, four Nebulas, three World Fantasy Awards, and two British Fantasy Awards. Even in the years he did not win, Leiber was a frequent, sometimes multiple, nominee. Leiber was also named Gandalf Grand Master and SFWA Grand Master, and received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Horror Writers Association and at the World Fantasy Convention. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2001. His work was of such influence that he continued to receive nominations for his story collections a decade after his death.

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If you have made it this far, you probably would like to read more. To get you started, the following is an extremely abbreviated bibliography of Leiber’s collections, novels, and stand-alone short stories:

 

 

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Collections:

Swords and Deviltry (1970).

Swords Against Death (1970)

Swords in the Mist (1968)

The Swords of Lankhmar (1968)

Swords and Ice Magic (1977)

The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988)

Novels/ Collections

Gather, Darkness! (1943), a post-apocalypse theocracy where science is witchcraft

The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (1997), a rediscovered Lovecraftian novella from 1936

The Best of Fritz Leiber (1974), which collects twenty-two of his many short stories

Short stories

“Smoke Ghost”, where urban pollution is the monster

“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” is a creepy reimagining of the vampire

“Space-Time for Springers” features a genius kitten as its hero, and is one of my favorite stories, ever

“To Arkham and the Stars”, a Cthulhu Mythos story

“Gonna Roll the Bones”, a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards

“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, a classic Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story

If you want to dive into Leiber’s works, many of them are available here and here. Sometimes, we have to look behind us to see how we got to where we are—and looking back at Fritz Leiber gives us a very good idea.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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L. Sprague de Camp
L. Sprague de Camp

I would like to offer a fresh introduction to L. Sprague de Camp–one of the old guard in the art of speculative fiction and an inspiration for the familiar shape of the world in many current role playing games. Some of you may already know him. If you don’t, you might want to.

In his time de Camp was an aeronautical engineer, World War II Navy Reserve veteran, and the witty, prolific, and inspired author of several speculative classics as well as other works on a wide-ranging assortment of topics. In addition to his voluminous output of short fiction, de Camp wrote more than a hundred books over his sixty-year career, ranging from science fiction and fantasy to nonfiction about science fiction and fantasy, evolution, archaeology, and biography.

De Camp was a major author during science fiction’s Golden Age in the 1930s. John W. Campbell, then-editor of the seminal magazine Astounding, published a great number of de Camp’s stories during that decade.  According to the L. Sprague de Camp Fan Site, it was also during this period that he met fellow author Fletcher Pratt, and the two writers began a long collaborative relationship. Through the forties and fifties they produced the humorous Compleat Enchanter fantasies about Harold Shea, psychologist and alternate-world explorer. The character proved so popular that years after Pratt’s death de Camp revived the series with Christopher Stasheff.

When World War II broke out it disrupted a great many writing careers, and de Camp’s was among them. De Camp joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942, where he worked as a researcher in the Philadelphia Naval Yard with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Like several other notable science fiction and fantasy authors of the Golden Age, de Camp came from a scientific background which informed the content and direction of both his fiction and his nonfiction. Most of these Golden Age authors also knew each other, and their interactions built the framework for many of the classic tropes of the genre.

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov
Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov

De Camp’s creative trajectory is detailed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the mid-1950s his Science Fiction Handbook (1953; revised in 1973 with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp) offered advice to budding writers from the front lines of speculative fiction. But shortly after telling people how to follow in his footsteps, de Camp moved away from science fiction in favor of heroic fantasy, especially the sword and sorcery kind. He resurrected the character and epic world of Conan the Barbarian by editing Robert E. Howard’s existing cannon, completing Howard’s unfinished manuscripts, and adding additional tales of his own to the original body of work. After this immersion in Conan’s world, he went on to author a definitive biography of Howard. His work helped to bring sword and sorcery back into popularity after a lull when speculative fiction had gone in other directions.

By the early 1960s, the fantasy world was ready for barbarians again. De Camp edited the first-ever sword and sorcery anthology in 1963, called, fittingly enough, Swords and Sorcery, that contained eight stories from the masters. De Camp was also one of the original members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America, otherwise known as SAGA, along with fellow heroic fantasy authors Lin Carter (who really is the reason that SAGA begins), Poul Anderson, John Jakes, Michael Morecock, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and Andre Norton. With them, de Camp was at the forefront of rekindling interest in this particular brand of fantasy adventure, and of laying the groundwork for what would become the archetypal world of early RPGs.

Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian

But he didn’t limit himself to fiction. De Camp also wrote extensively about sword and sorcery as a genre in the nonfiction anthologies The Conan Reader (1968), Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (1976) and Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages (1975). These essay collections explored the authors who created the genre and their various contributions to its evolution and form. In addition, de Camp was a biographer of other fantasy authors, producing excellent works on both H.P. Lovecraft (no longer the definitive biography, but still a remarkable portrait of the man) and Robert E. Howard after editing their respective works.

In addition to his fantasy-themed nonfiction, de Camp also spent considerable energy on debunking pseudoscience and fancifully inaccurate history, joining the Committee to Scientifically Investigate Claims of the Paranormal (or the pithier abbreviation, CSICOP) with such luminaries of rationality as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, B.F. Skinner, and James Randi. Much like Houdini before him, de Camp felt it was important to distinguish the imagined or illusory from the actual, and to prevent the less scrupulous from using fantasy and parlor tricks to prey on the gullible. He produced some lovely explanations for and take-downs of pseudoscience and extraterrestrial-attributed history in his books The Ancient Engineers, Ancient Ruins and Archeology, and Great Cities of the Ancient World, because like most of the speculative authors and professional magicians he associated with, he knew he was selling fiction as fiction.

De Camp earned many awards over his career, including the Gandalf, the SFWA Grand Master, the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement, and the Pilgrim. His own autobiography won a Hugo in 1996.

The following are a few selected titles to give you a taste of de Camp’s style, range, and expertise:

  • Lest Darkness Fall(1939) early, excellent time-travel and continuously in-print
  • Rogue Queen (1951) insectile aliens and strong female characters
  • Tales of Conan(1955) (with Robert E. Howard) the character that set the standard
  • A Gun for Dinosaur and Other Imaginative Tales(1963) some classics of de Camp’s short fiction
  • Swords and Sorcery(1963) the first sword and sorcery anthology ever published
  • The Ancient Engineers(1963) humanity’s great engineering projects from Ancient Egypt onward
  • Conan the Adventurer(1966) (with Robert E. Howard) more of our favorite barbarian
  • Lovecraft: A Biography(1975) the first definitive biography of Lovecraft
  • Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers(1976) short essays on the makers of heroic fantasy
  • Dark Valley Destiny: the Life of Robert E. Howard(1983) (with Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin) his second biography of Howard

While many of his books have gone out of print, a number of his more popular titles (including some of those listed above) are still available at L. Sprague de Camp’s Amazon Author Page. I highly recommend his nonfiction, in particular The Ancient Engineers. Believe me, de Camp is an author worth knowing.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!