The Seven Black Priests

Friday , 23, February 2018 4 Comments

The Mouser did not find his watch a pleasant one. In place of his former trust in this rocky nook, he now scented danger in every direction and peered as often at the steamy pit as at the black entrance beyond the glowing coals, entertaining himself with vivid visions of a cooked priest somehow writhing his way up. Meanwhile the more logical part of his mind dwelled on an unpleasantly consistent theory that the hot inner layer of Nehwon was indeed jealous of man and that the green hill was one of those spots where inner Nehwon was seeking to escape its rocky jacket and form itself into all-conquering man-shaped giants of living stone. The black Kleshite priests would be Nehwon-worshippers eager for the destruction of all other men. And the diamond eye, far from being a bit of valuable and harmless loot, was somehow alive and seeking to enchant Fafhrd with its glittering gaze, and lead him to an obscure doom.

Leiber, Fritz. “The Seven Black Priests”, Swords Against Death (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Book 2) 

Shortly after the skatefish of sunken Simorgya supped on Lavas Laerk and his Northmen crew, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser trek through the snowy wastes even further north than the Cold Waste. They encounter a tropical priest who tries to kill them. After dispatching the speed bump, they find a green oasis in the snowy desert, six more black priests, and a diamond eye in a cliff face that ensorcels Fafhrd…

The seven priests ambush one at a time, and although they used jungle weapons such as blowgun darts, I never thought of their furs and hats as something as primitive as Fafhrd’s barbarian kin, but something more Cossack in nature.

With the exception of “The Circle Curse”, the Nehwon stories prior to “The Seven Black Priests” all originally appear in John Campbell’s Unknown, at the end of the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction. And although Campbell was trying to turn fantasy into something less Gothic and gloomy, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales were originally pitched to Weird Tales. These early tales, despite appearing in Unknown, reflect the mood and setting of the traditional sword and sorcery pioneered by The Unique Magazine. “The Seven Black Priests,” however, was written at the end of the Campbelline Era, appearing in Other Worlds Science Stories. The change in storytelling in the ten year gap between Unknown and Other Worlds shows the signs of Campbell’s influence. “The Seven Black Priests” is less moody, more humorous, and less personal than the Weird Tales-inspired stories in this volume. The seven black priests meet their fate, one by one, in almost a slapstick manner, never posing a greater threat than a speed bump to Fafhrd and the Mouser. These priests were just doing their jobs protecting the world from the diamond eye. As such, there was no personal malice towards Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as there was with Lavas Laerk and Lord Rannarsh in the previous stories of Swords Against Death. As the Campbelline influence gave way, some of the missing moodiness and personal stakes will return in future stories. Perhaps this might be due to Leiber’s later friendship with Michael Moorcock.

The core formula, however, remains unchanged. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are out on a different adventure when they get swept up into something grander. In this case, a chance encounter as they trek across the frozen wastes entangles them with a shrine protecting the bones and magma blood of the earth. Whether it is “just” a titanic earth elemental or the world itself is unclear. Not that it matters, as whatever power that warms the green oasis is powerful enough to charm Fafhrd (again). The Mouser saves Fafhrd from the enchantment and the monster causing it, and the two adventurers walk away with less than what they had before their adventure. They contemplate a brief moment of sobriety, and then it’s off to the next adrenaline rush. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Fafhrd and the Mouser still delivers fun.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Although Swords Against Death is listed as book 2, I would recommend reading it first, as these stories were published first. The early stories of Fafhrd & Mouser were written almost 35 years before their origin stories in book 1, and Leiber’s writing had changed, as you point out.

  • deuce says:

    I prefer the early tales. They have a grimmer tone, though they still have a sardonic humor that places them just as much in the Klarkash-Tonian school of sword & sorcery as in the Howardian branch of the genre.

  • JohnnyMac says:

    It is interesting to see the differences in tone and technique in these stories. It is not surprising when you look at the fact that Fritz Leiber wrote them over a period of almost half a century. The first one “The Jewels in the Forest” was published in 1939. The last “The Mouser Goes Below” in 1988.

    Personally, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories I like best are those I think of as “the middle period” ones. Those collected in “Swords in the Mist”, “Swords Against Wizardry” and “The Swords of Lankhmar”.

    My favorite passage from these stories is the opening to “Adept’s Gambit”:

    “It happened that while Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were dallying in a wine shop near the Sidonian Harbor of Tyre, where all wine shops are of doubtful repute, a long-limbed yellow-haired Galatian girl lolling in Fafhrd’s lap turned suddenly into a wallopingly large sow. It was a singular occurrence, even in Tyre.”

    Now that is a great example of a narrative hook!

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