Celebrating Robert E. Howard
Hello, everyone! A hearty welcome to all the new backers! As part of this Kickstarter we are presenting essays on sword-and-sorcery fiction written by our contributors. If you're new to the Kickstarter, you can catch up by reading these previous essays:
- Defining Sword-and-Sorcery
- Sword-and-Sorcery's Grandfather
- Dynamic Duos of Fiction
- Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Two Who Sought Adventure
- The Dark Tower of Jaquays
- The Three Ms: Writing Horror in Sword & Sorcery
And for today's update, we bring you some thoughts on a man who needs know introduction - at least, not for sword and sorcery fans.
Celebrating Robert E. Howard
By Howard Andrew Jones
When I tell people what a great writer Robert E. Howard was, a lot of them don’t seem to believe me. If they only know him through depictions of Conan or, worse, rip-offs, then they think Howard’s writing is all about a dull guy in a loin cloth fighting monsters and lots of straining bosoms. It’s not that Robert E. Howard thought himself above describing a lithesome waist or a wilting beauty, especially if he needed to make a quick buck, it’s just that there’s a lot more going on in a Conan story than his imitators took away.
Here in one of his historical stories, “Lord of Samarcand,” the Scotsman Donald MacDeesa rides to the court of Tamarlane the Great. See how swiftly, how easily, Howard conjures the scene in all its splendor with just a few well-chosen words, as though he’s panning a camera as MacDeesa rides.
The Frank’s wonder grew; the cities of the West were hovels compared to this. Past academies, libraries, and pleasure-pavilions they rode, and Ak Boga turned into a wide gateway, guarded by silver lions. There they gave their steeds into the hands of silk-sashed grooms, and walked along a winding avenue paved with marble and lined with slim green trees. The Scotsman, looking between the slender trunks, saw shimmering expanses of roses, cherry trees and waving exotic blossoms unknown to him, where fountains jetted arches of silver spray. So they came to the palace, gleaming blue and gold in the sunlight, passed between tall marble columns and entered the chambers with their gilt-worked arched doorways, and walls decorated with delicate paintings of Persian and Cathayan artists, and the gold tissue and silver work of Indian artistry.
Let’s turn our attention to Howard’s most famous creation, Conan. He is powerful and courageous in “The Tower of the Elephant,” but he is new to cities, as these two excerpts show.
The Cimmerian glared about, embarrassed at the roar of mocking laughter that greeted this remark. He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
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, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formula 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.
Conan does not stride forward, unthinking, and hack everything before him. Here he comes upon a chamber where he hoped to find the treasure, and finds instead a frightening, humanoid creature… one that’s not what he expected
…Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own. And suddenly all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by a great pity. What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidences of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian, he knew not why. He only felt that he was looking upon a cosmic tragedy, and he shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him.
Howard seldom failed to entertain, and at his best, he was not just good, he was great – he stands as one of the finest adventure writers we’ve ever had. There is much to be gleaned from his craft, and much enjoyment to be found in his writing.