The Historical Fiction of Robert E. Howard

This is a continuation of my journey through the works of Robert E. Howard. A journey that began with an interest in reading the stories of Conan the Cimmerian and led me to his other great tales. I have written previously about Conan, Solomon Kane and most recently about Kull of Atlantis in the middle of last year. Now having recently finished Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures which is from the same outstanding Del Rey published series in which I read Kull and Solomon Kane, I have more to write. I’ve also began slowly going through the Conan stories again and plan to write more at length in the future as despite my increasing knowledge of Howard’s excellent oeuvre,  Conan remains by far, my favourite character.

I did not like the cover but the illustrations within are much better.

As with the other collections, this contains pretty much every historical adventure Howard wrote — including unfinished drafts and fragments. It is also important to point out there are only two complete stories about the Sword Woman, Dark Agnès de Chastillon. Most of the stories in this volume concern different characters and the bulk are set during the Crusades in the Holy Land and occasionally even further East. Most were written for a short-lived magazine called Oriental Stories which later became The Magic Carpet Magazine before its demise. If I have my chronology right, these were being written after Howard had already found some success with Kull and Solomon Kane but before he began writing the Conan stories. Though only seven of the eighteen complete stories in this volume were published in Howard’s lifetime. So there is no one character to focus on as I have previously as even the title character has few appearances.

A problem I often have with historical fiction is the way authors can fall into the trap of being male fantasies or even masculine romance novels. Where a heroic man in a historical setting, saves the girl and wins a famous battle. Examples of these are found particularly in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell and the Roger Brook novels by Dennis Wheatley. These aren’t badly written by any means but from what I’ve read, they both fall into the same trope each time. Ian Fleming’s Bond novels do the same though they aren’t historical fiction. As might be expected, Howard’s historical adventures are all visceral and bloody affairs but they don’t quite fall into the same trope. Not all his protagonists are virtuous and not a few are scoundrels themselves. The antagonists are also often more complicated than the norm and occasionally even likeable.

Hawks Over Egypt, the second story in the volume, is certainly one of my favourites. It is a tale of revenge and intrigue between a Christian Spaniard and a Muslim Turk — two unlikely allies with a shared purpose. It begins excitingly from the opening in a dark alley in the streets of Cairo and remains highly engaging to the end and includes a few twists along the way. It is also delightfully politically incorrect which is always refreshing in the times we now live. The example below neatly illustrates this.

“The Spaniard knew nothing of the circumstances; he only saw a huge black man tearing his sword out of the body of  a white woman; and he acted according to his instincts.

Othman, wheeling like a great cat, threw up his dripping scimitar, only to have it beaten stunningly down on his woolly skull beneath de Guzman’s terrific stroke. He staggered, and the next instant the saber, wielded with all the power of the Spaniard’s knotty muscles, clove his left arm from the shoulder, sheared down through his ribs, and wedged deep in his pelvis.”

Howard has romantic as well as gruesome descriptions of battle throughout as in this example below from The Road of Azrael a story about Muhammad Kahn’s obsessive pursuit of a Frankish girl which eventually leads to his death:

“Yet there were no more terrible in battle than my brother-at-arms, Sir Eric. I swear, his sword was a wind of death and no man could stand before it. His face was lighted strangely and mystically; his arm was thrilled with superhuman strength, and though I sensed a certain kinship between himself and the wild barbarians who chanted and smote beside him, yet a mystic, soul-something set him apart from and beyond them. Aye, the forge of hardship and suffering had burned from soul and brain and body all dross and left only the white hot fire of his inner soul that lifted him to heights unattainable by common men.”

The antagonists are generally well written and often real historical figures including Ghengis Kahn and and Timur (or Timour as Howard writes the name), the latter of whom I was unfamiliar with though he was a great conqueror. The following exchange is from The Lion of Tiberias:

“You are a pagan at heart, Zenghi,” sighed Ousama.

“It may be,” answered the Turk with a shrug of his shoulders. “Had I been born beyond the Oxus and bowed to yellow Erlik as did my grandsire, I had been no less Zenghi the Lion. I have spilled rivers of gore for the glory of Allah, but I have never asked mercy or favor of Him. What care the gods if a man lives or dies? Let me live deep, let me know the sting of wine in my palate, the wind in my face, the glitter of royal pageantry, the bright life and living, and I quest not whether Muhammad’s paradise, or Erlik’s frozen hell, or the blackness of empty oblivion lies beyond.”

As mentioned, the antagonists are also sometimes likeable enough despite their ruthlessness. And the protagonists in contrast aren’t always men to look up to. In Gates of Empire Howard’s more typical stoic protagonist is instead a fat, drunken fool named Giles Hobson who bumbles his way from one peril to the next and somehow survives to the end even when on the losing side of a major historical battle.

An early prototype of Conan can be seen in Cormac FitzGeoffrey who appeared in two stories published in 1931. Cormac appears in Hawks of Outremer and The Blood of Belshazzar as well as one almost finished and untitled story given the title: The Slave-Princess in the Del Rey release. He is the son of an Irish mother and Norman father. In Howard’s Hyborian lore the Irish are very distant descendants of Conan’s Cimmerians and his name is of course Irish too. He shares many of Conan’s physical characteristics but is a different character and far more ruthless and ill-humoured. In the unfinished story he was trying to sell a slave girl he rescued from slaughter as he believed she could pass for a missing princess. Conan carrying off lithe beauties on his shoulders was as common as his fights with apes and other monstrosities. And while he could be ruthless at times, he had an instinctive sense of justice that led him to defend the vulnerable or innocent.

There are even hints of the Hyborian age in The Blood of Belshazzar, the title which refers to the name of an ancient jewel of uncertain make that was discovered in an underground temple decorated with ghastly carvings of demons that match none of the known cultures in antiquity. Below is Cormac’s reaction on entering the temple where the jewel that has maddened so many men was discovered.

“Now the light showed a huge cavern in the center of which stood a black and utterly abhorrent altar, hideously stained, and flanked with grinning skulls laid out in strangely systematic lines. The horrific figures were disclosed to be huge images, carved from the solid rock of the cavern walls, strange, bestial, gigantic gods, whose huge eyes of some glassy substance caught the torchlight.

The Celtic blood in Cormac sent a shiver down his spine. Alexander built the foundations of this fortress? Bah — no Grecian ever carved such gods as these. No; an aura of unspeakable antiquity brooded over this grim cavern, as if the forbidden door were a mystic threshold over which the adventurer stepped into an elder world. No wonder mad dreams were here bred in the frenzied brain of Skol Abdhur. These gods were grim vestiges of an older, darker race than Roman or Hellene — a people long faded into the gloom of antiquity. Phrygians — Lydians — Hittites? Or some still more ancient, more abysmal people?

The age of Alexander was as dawn before these ancient figure, yet doubtless he bowed to these gods, as he bowed to many gods before his maddened brain made himself a deity.”

Finally, the unpublished Cormac story also has some more of Howard’s delightful political incorrectness:

“Cormac stepped over the body of a Jew that lay in a crimson pool. Zuleika noted with a shudder that his fingers had been cut away — even in death the Jew clung to his pitiful treasures.”

This is before the Second World War and that the Jews tend to feature as fat, ruthless, scheming merchants. Few objected to such portrayals until very recently in history. Though I’m sure passages like this would be singled out by modern censors, Howard is an equal opportunity offender and as likely to show virtue as well as vice in any character. Obviously, he also wrote what was commonly observed in the historical works he could lay a hold of.

Now we come to the title character, Agnès de Chastillon, a peasant woman who flees her home after her father attempts to force her into an unwanted marriage. She leaves her groom-to-be with a dagger in his heart and her adventure begins. Unlike most of Howard’s writing, the two stories Sword Woman and Blades for France are written in the first-person and are in direct chronological order. They act well as the beginning chapters of what could have been a full adventure novel. The second interestingly ends with the appearance of Cardinal Wolsey, a very real historical figure that could have seen the protagonist involved in political intrigue between England and France. There is one more unfinished story called Mistress of Death which would have taken Dark Agnès’s adventures in a far more supernatural direction. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what might have been either way.

There is one other historical adventure called The Shadow of the Vulture set during the Siege of Vienna with the character Red Sonya. Much later, the character Red Sonja became a part of the Hyborian world in the Conan comic series. She was a combination of the character and name Howard used and some of the characteristics of Dark Agnès. Though neither of Howard’s characters wear Sonja’s chainmail bikini (I’m not complaining — just observing).

To be fair, Conan is often wearing little more in battle.

Today’s writers of increasingly soulless fiction could learn a lot about writing a believable female protagonist by looking at what Howard has done with the two Agnès de Chastillon stories. Howard thought it important to explain his heroine’s prowess and skill so as to come across as believable. The reader is given direct witness to her tenacity as she plunges that first dagger into her would-be husband but she is still as yet unskilled in fighting and gets by initially because her early attacks are not expected by her usually deserving victims. The next man to receive the sharp end of her blade was one she discovered was planning to sell her into prostitution and is also taken completely by surprise. The next were a group of thugs that moved past her believing she wasn’t a threat. Howard has her explain their folly:

“There are actions to which we are born, and for which we have a talent exceeding mere teaching. I, who had never before had a sword in my grasp, found it like a living thing in my hand, wielded by unguessed instinct. And I found, again, my quickness of eye and hand and foot was not to be matched by these dull clods. They bellowed and flailed blindly, wasting strength and motion, as if their swords were cleavers, while I smote in deadly silence, and with deadly certainty.”

Events transpire following this that let her develop fighting skills to match her natural prowess:

“For hours each day Guiscard had instructed me in the art of swordsmanship. He himself was accounted the finest blade in France, and he swore that he had never encountered apter pupil than I. I learned the rogueries of the blade as if I had been born to it, and the speed of my eye and hand often brought amazed oaths from his lips. For the rest, he had me shoot at marks with pistol and match-lock, and showed me many crafty and savage tricks of hand to hand fighting. No novice had ever more able teacher; no teacher had ever more eager pupil. I was afire with the urge to learn all pertaining to the trade. I seemed to have been born into a new world, and yet a world for which I was intended from birth. My former life seemed like a dream, soon to be forgotten.”

Consider that so many professional writers tasked with writing “strong female protagonists” can’t even be bothered with the most basic exposition for their strength whether innate, practiced or both. Howard was a master of the short story (as I continue to discover even in the least of his work). As such, he often had to economise with limited space but seldom neglected this character development in his writing — especially where credibility could be strained. This makes Agnès both believable and even more likeable and both stories are more thrilling as a result. I observe again that early 20th century pulp writers show a lot more talent and ability than what most professional writers demonstrate today.

I have to lastly wonder about why Red Sonya and Dark Agnès are red-heads? I have heard and observed the presence of strong red-head females, especially in gamma fiction but I don’t get it and Howard was no gamma. It must have something to do with the stereotypical tempers of red-heads or it could be something more. In the case of these characters, the hair colour well matches their trails of crimson.

Howard’s efforts with stories in historical contexts certainly informed what became his most successful and well-known work with Conan the Cimmerian. The mixture of familiar and alien cultures is what really brought Conan’s world alive despite the frequent supernatural elements. His historical fiction still stands on his own and a number in this collection are now among my favourite Robert E. Howard stories.

I will next be reading El Borak, again the collection published by Del Rey. After that, I expect I’ll finally get to Bran Mak Morn. Beyond these two collections, I know I’m getting close to exhausting his amazing output. As with the other collections I have written about, I thoroughly recommend Howard’s historical fiction in whatever form you can find it.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Literature and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.