Some brief thoughts on Robert E. Howard.
So just to keep the blog moving, and since I’ve been reading Conan the Barbarian stories, I thought I might as well jot down some of my thinking on that.
Personally, I’m a big fan of Robert E. Howard. Not so much for his literature as the position he occupies in foundations of spec lit and sword and sorcery fantasy. The guy’s life was crazy, like, deeply crazy, and he wound up committing suicide at the age of thirty in 1936. He wrote in the pulps, and if you’ve never heard of him, looking him up is potentially worth your time, both for his life story and for his work.
There are times, reading him, that I can truly believe the anecdotes that he’d sit at the typewriter, banging out his stories and yelling them out at the top of his lungs as he worked. Here and there you get a hint of a voice that feels oh so slightly inappropriate to the antedeluvian world of the Hyborian age, and perfectly natural to a frustrated guy in small-town Texas in the early part of the twentieth century. There’s a beauty and lyricism to some of his stories, not all of them, but some of them, to a degree that it almost makes me feel like a lot of fantasy’s modern focus on over-literate and purpled prose isn’t actually something derived from ancestral memories of Tolkien’s work, but Howard’s.
As a relatively random example, the opening to the second chapter of The Tower of the Elephant. (You can read the whole thing here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Tower_of_the_Elephant )
The lurid lights and drunken revelry fell away behind the Cimmerian. He had discarded his torn tunic, and walked through the night naked except for a loin-cloth and his high-strapped sandals. He moved with the supple ease of a great tiger, his steely muscles rippling under his brown skin.
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, longsettled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.
His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do.
His sandalled feet made no sound on the gleaming pave. No watchmen passed, for even the thieves of the Maul shunned the temples, where strange dooms had been known to fall on violators. Ahead of him he saw, looming against the sky, the Tower of the Elephant. He mused, wondering why it was so named. No one seemed to know. He had never seen an elephant, but he vaguely understood that it was a monstrous animal, with a tail in front as well as behind. This a wandering Shemite had told him, swearing that he had seen such beasts by the thousands in the country of the Hyrkanians; but all men knew what liars were the men of Shem. At any rate, there were no elephants in Zamora.
The shimmering shaft of the tower rose frostily in the stars. In the sunlight it shone so dazzlingly that few could bear its glare, and men said it was built of silver. It was round, a slim perfect cylinder, a hundred and fifty feet in height, and its rim glittered in the starlight with the great jewels which crusted it. The tower stood among the waving exotic trees of a garden raised high above the general level of the city. A high wall enclosed this garden, and outside the wall was a lower level, likewise enclosed by a wall. No lights shone forth; there seemed to be no windows in the tower—at least not above the level of the inner wall. Only the gems high above sparkled frostily in the starlight.
Shrubbery grew thick outside the lower, or outer wall. The Cimmerian crept close and stood beside the barrier, measuring it with his eye. It was high, but he could leap and catch the coping with his fingers. Then it would be child’s play to swing himself up and over, and he did not doubt that he could pass the inner wall in the same manner. But he hesitated at the thought of the strange perils which were said to await within. These people were strange and mysterious to him; they were not of his kind—not even of the same blood as the more westerly Brythunians, Nemedians, Kothians and Aquilonians, whose civilized mysteries had awed him in times past. The people of Zamora were very ancient, and, from what he had seen of them, very evil.
In a lot of ways his prose is quite blatantly crowded with detail, racing after itself to throw the whole scene in front of the reader. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard, but there’s just a quality to the language that makes me look at it and spot a dozen beautiful things I wish I could emulate within that tangle — and the tangle’s half the beauty of it. And this is fantasy that was being written in the thirties — twenty years before Lord of the Rings was published. (Although sections were apparently being written as early as 1937 — supposedly J.R.R. Tolkien is noted to have read Howard. According to the Wikipedia, ‘In his book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, de Camp describes an interview with J. R. R. Tolkien in which he “indicated that he rather liked Howard’s Conan stories.”‘
So, y’know. Do the roots of fantasy literature really lie in the Shire and amongst the homes of hobbits? Or do they lie a little further back, in the pulps? (Or earlier still?)
I think at the end of the day, the roots of fantasy are twisted, tangled, and are wound up in dozens of authors over very divergent time periods. (Also our definition of ‘Fantasy’ changes depending on what period we’re looking at and at what subgenre.) But Howard’s work clearly occupies a serious niche in the early twentieth century history of the genre.
Also, the guy who wrote Eye of Argon was totally trying to write a Conan story. I’m not even joking.