By Howard Andrew Jones
Before Stormbringer keened in Elric’s hand, before the Gray Mouser prowled Lankhmar’s foggy streets—before even Conan trod jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet, Khlit the Cossack rode the steppe. He isn’t the earliest serial adventure character, but his adventures are among the earliest that can still be read for sheer pleasure. He was the creation of Harold Lamb, the unsung grandfather of modern sword-and-sorcery.
Lamb’s fiction exploded with cinematic pacing. Expect slow spots when you’re reading even the best historicals from Lamb’s time, but don’t look for them in his work. It drove forward at breakneck pace, paused briefly to gather a breath, then plunged the reader back into suspense. It rang with the shouts of battle and the clang of swords. It swam in an atmosphere as heady and exotic to western eyes as Burroughs’ Mars.
Consider this passage, composed in 1921. Khlit has sent his friend Chagan to kill a chief riding on the back of a massive war elephant. See if this doesn’t sound a little like a famous moment from the Return of the King movie:
Chagan had driven his horse at the head of the giant beast, clearing a path for himself with his sword. He swung at the black trunk that swayed above him, missed his stroke, and went down as his horse fell with an arrow in its throat.
“Bid your elephant kneel, cowardly lord,” he bellowed, springing to his feet and avoiding the impact of the great tusks, “and fight as a man should!”
His companions being for the most part slain, Chagan seized a fresh mount that went by riderless and rode against the elephant’s side. Gripping the canopy that overhung the elephant’s back, with teeth and clutching fingers he drew himself up, heedless of blows delivered upon his steel headpiece and mailed chest.
“Ho!” he cried from between set teeth. “I will come to you, Northern Lord!”
An arrow seared his cheek and a knife in the hand of an archer bit into the muscles of a massive arm. Chagan’s free hand seized the mahout and jerked him from behind the ears of the elephant as ripe fruit is plucked from a tree. At this the beast swayed and shivered, and for an instant the occupants of the howdah were flung back upon themselves and Chagan was nearly cast to earth.
Kneeling, holding on the howdah edge with a bleeding hand, he smote twice with his heavy sword, smashing the skull of an archer and knocking another to the ground. The remaining native thrust his shield before Paluwan Khan.
But the Northern Lord, no coward, pushed his servant aside and sprang at Chagan, scimitar in hand.
The Tatar sword-bearer, kneeling, wounded, was at a disadvantage. Swiftly he let fall his own weapon and closed with Paluwan Khan, taking the latter’s stroke upon his shoulder. A clutching hand gripped the throat of the Northern Lord above the mail and Chagan roared in triumph.
Pulling his foe free of the howdah, the Tatar lifted Paluwan Khan to his shoulder and leaped from the back of the elephant.
The two mailed bodies struck the earth heavily, Paluwan Khan underneath; and it was a long moment before Chagan rose, reeling. In his bleeding hand he clasped the head of the Northern Lord.
Lamb placed his emphasis on conveying the story rather than conveying his scholarship, and he made each tale unique. Even a jaded reader, even one familiar with Lamb’s work, is unlikely to anticipate the turns his plots will take. His characters do not remain static–they change, they age, and some of them die.
His most famous hero was a Cossack, one of that breed who lived in picked war camps along the frontier–self appointed protectors who had all the independence and skilled horsemanship of an American cowboy, the camaraderie of The Three Musketeers, and a reputation a little like a cross between the famed French Foreign Legion and pirates. Tricksters, daredevils, vagabonds, the Cossacks lived a dangerous and exciting existence.
Khlit, also known as the Wolf, is owner of a curious sword that has earned him the additional sobriquet of Khlit of the curved saber. Contrary to current trends in popular fiction, he’s an older man from his first adventure. He is one of a very few Cossacks who has survived into his middle-years. This is no accident, and while we soon see that Khlit is a fine horseman and sword wielder, it is his keen intellect that sees him through so many escapades. Archetypally he is not Achilles, Luke Skywalker, or Superman–he is modeled from wily Odysseus.
Khlit gallops off into the wilds of Asia, China, and India. It’s a glorious ride. With him we infiltrate the hidden fortress of assassins, Alamut, track down the tomb of Genghis Khan, flee the vengeance of a dead emperor, lead the Mongol horde against impossible odds, safeguard a stunning Mogul queen through the lands of her enemies, stamp out a cult of stranglers, and much more. His nineteen tales, some of them short novels, are adventure writing at its very finest, awash with ancient tombs, gleaming treasure, and thrilling landscapes. Khlit matches wits with deadly swordsmen, scheming priests, and evil cults; he rescues lovely damsels, rides with bold comrades, and hazards everything on his brains, skill, and luck.
Gruff and taciturn, Khlit is a firm believer in justice. He is the friend and protector of many women, but he leaves romance to his sidekicks and allies. He rides alongside heroes from many different nationalities, with varied beliefs-—among them a heroic Afghan swordsman, a Manchu Archer, a Hindu warrior, and daring Mongol horsemen.
Over the course of his journeys Khlit may bear some of his own prejudices with him, but his perceptions grow and change: the Cossack first views Tatars as hereditary enemies, then embraces their culture as his own. And then there is the devoted friendship shared between Khlit and Abdul Dost, who teams up with the Cossack in four stories of the saga; an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a Muslim. Both are devout in faiths that have lost little love for one another, yet the men are brothers of the sword. Lamb has no theological or philosophical axe to grind–he aims only to present a cracking good story, and he almost always succeeds.
Lamb never wrote overtly of the fantastic or the supernatural like Robert E. Howard, keeping his historical fiction grounded in reality, but he did play around its edges, frequently exposing his characters to the strange and macabre. Some of his villains masquerade as sorcerers and miracle workers of great power.
It’s grand stuff. I believed in it so much I devoted several years to getting it back into print. If you’re a fan of sword-and-sorcery, you owe it to yourself to read it.