The Sadness of the Executioner
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Flashing Swords! #1, 1973
edited by Lin Carter

collected in —
Swords and Ice Magic

Return to Lankhmar September 2008


It is not easy to personalize Death, giving him a character and a home as well as a Dominion:

Sitting on his dark-cushioned, modest throne in his low, rambling castle in the heart of the Shadowland, Death shook his pale head and pommeled a little his opalescent temples and slightly pursed his lips, which were the color of violet grapes with the silver bloom still on, above his slender figure armored in chain mail and his black belt, studded with silver skulls tarnished almost as black, from which hung his naked, irresistible sword.

He was a relatively minor death, only the Death of the World of Nehwon, but he had his problems. Tenscore flickering or flaring human lives to have their wicks pinched in the next twenty heartbeats. And although the heartbeats of Death resound like a leaden bell far underground and each has a little of eternity in it, yet they do finally pass. Only nineteen left now. And the Lords of Necessity, who outrank Death, still to be satisfied.

Let's see, thought Death with a vast coolness that yet had a tiny seething in it, one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes. That would keep his books straight.

A weird physical description, followed by an eerie task accounting tinged with graveyard humor. "The Sadness of the Executioner" is a short story in Fritz Leiber's great fantasy series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It follows chronologically the one novel-length tale in the series, The Swords of Lankhmar, opening the sub-arc of the next several stories.

In the list of those to die before twenty heartbeats pass, we glimpse the richness of Leiber's world of Nehwon: this is a world that not only lives and breathes, but teems with people who rule, farm, wander, fight, get laid. Some of these take at least a brief bow in this story, or connect to other parts of the series.

Okay, so we have an idea of this little story of about eight pages. Wait, though; in each of these book collections Leiber provides an old-fashioned Contents page with abstracts or teasers for the stories, rather as many magazines do. What does his abstract say for "The Sadness of the Executioner"?

A danse macabre as viewed from the vantage point of its choreographer. He contemplates his own mortality and finds compensation in the search for knowledge. Of melancholy, madness, and other moods and mysteries. The advantages of early rising and late retiring. An economic slaying and a salutary but not therefore altogether unsadistic rape. Savoir-faire. The rewards of craftsmanship and unceasing professional discipline. How each heartbeat, like toll of funeral bell, has in it something of eternity.

Yes, we're still talking about the same story, not a Dostoevskian novel but a short fantasy of eight pages. "The Sadness of the Executioner" zips along, but it's most subtly packed. As is characteristic of Fritz Leiber's work, it repays slow reading. Take your time to savor it, if not on the first reading, then on the second or third. This is Leiber so apparently artlessly writing of death, writing of his heroes struggling to survive and thrive among the odd dangers of Lankhmar, this is Leiber having fun. This is the work of a master.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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