[t]his is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris.

Most of those names are familiar; we don’t need to know the ex-classics to recognize that D’Artagnan was the fourth musketeer, that Cyrano had a big nose, or that John Carter knew some green men. Anra Devadoris is one of Leiber’s own creations, a master swordsman defeated by the Mouser. Scar Gordon is from Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road. But who on earth is Brandoch Daha?

The introduction to the Ace edition of Fritz Leiber‘s Swords Against Deviltry notes that

[t]his is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris.

Most of those names are familiar; we don’t need to know the ex-classics to recognize that D’Artagnan was the fourth musketeer, that Cyrano had a big nose, or that John Carter knew some green men. Anra Devadoris is one of Leiber’s own creations, a master swordsman defeated by the Mouser. Scar Gordon is from Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road. But who on earth is Brandoch Daha? He is, it turns out, one of the heroes of E.R. Eddison‘s novel The Worm Ouroboros, a faux-Greco-Nordic epic about the war between the Lords of Witchland and the Lords of Demonland, two nations on the suspiciously Earthly planet Mercury. The full text doesn’t seem to be available online, so I haven’t been able to fully experience the Elizabethan prose style that all the reviewers comment on, but based on one chapter, Eddison was a truly remarkable writer:

The air that was wintry cold waxed on a sudden hot as the breath of a burning mountain, and Gro was near choking with the smell of soot and the smell of brimstone. And the chamber rocked as a ship riding in a swell with the wind against the tide. But the King, steadying himself against the table and clutching the edge of it till the veins on his lean hand seemed nigh to bursting, cried in short breaths and with an altered voice, "By these figures drawn and by these spells enchanted, by the unction of wolf and salamander, by the unblest sign of Cancer now leaning to the sun, and by the fiery heart of Scorpio that flameth in this hour on night’s meridian, thou art my thrall and instrument. Abase thee and serve me, worm of the pit. Else will I by and by summon out of ancient night intelligences and dominations mightier far than thou, and they shall serve mine ends, and thee shall they chain with chains of quenchless fire and drag thee from torment to torment through the deep."

Fantasy novels like that just aren’t written any more (perhaps for good reason), but Eddison, like fellow early fantasists J.B. Cabell, Lord Dunsany (the author of The Book of Wonder and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, among many others), and A. Merritt, was making it up as he went along.

Before Tolkien’s massive commercial success created a fan base and a template publishers and prospective authors could follow, the whole genre of fantasy, such as it was, pretty much relied on authors’ personal foibles. (Tolkien’s own personal quirks, most notably scrupulous linguistic realism, were largely ignored by his successors in favor of the world-shaking good vs. evil tropes he pioneered.) Fafhrd and the Mouser’s Nehwon bears a striking resemblence to the stomping grounds of the last character on Leiber’s list, Conan. Conan began life as a Robert E. Howard character, and (along with Howard’s other characters), seems like a cross between the work of his friend and colleague, H.P. Lovecraft, and the manly pulp fiction of Westerns and true crime. Leiber’s Lankhmar — city of the black toga! — is all the decadence and civilization that Conan scorned, but it’s clearly much the same place. Leiber, Dunsany, Eddison, and Howard (and even Tolkien) were working out an idiom, one variously rooted in two-fisted action stories, fairy tales, the Arabian nights, European folklore, and clotted Jacobean prose. I’m not sure I could read an entire novel filled with "the unblest sign of Cancer", but I wouldn’t mistake it for anything else. Like Desmond Dekker, who twisted American R&B to suit his own devices and helped create reggae, or the directors of early cinema, they didn’t know what they were doing because it hadn’t been done before. An pioneer’s instinct and ignorance can lead to colossal misapprehensions about a medium, but it can also lead to great art, art which wouldn’t be made once the boundaries are mapped out.