Robert E. Howard and the Great Game

This is a continuation of my journey through the literary oeuvre of Robert E. Howard which began with Conan the Cimmerian and has covered Solomon Kane, Kull of Atlantis and his historical fiction including the Sword Woman, Agnès de Chastillon. Most recently I have returned to (and gone into more depth with) Conan after re-reading all the Howard stories for the second time. I have now finally read the adventures of Xavier Francis Gordon or El Borak (the Swift) as he is known throughout the Levant. As with most of the previous stories, I have been reading the excellent Ballantine publication which includes everything most enthusiasts could want. It is a shame this series doesn’t include everything Howard wrote and isn’t available in a hardcover set as I’d most certainly buy it.

El Borak has the distinction of being the first character created by Robert E. Howard though the stories he appeared in had a long gestation and weren’t published until Howard had already seen a number of his much better known characters in print. The historical background to these stories is in the later years of “The Great Game” between Russia and Britain. The Great War even comes into it at one stage and Lawrence of Arabia is mentioned though he never appears and his real adventures were certainly an influence on Howard as were a number of other real life Western adventurers. Unlike the fiction previously, some of El Borak’s adventures are set within Howard’s own lifetime.

As mentioned, the idea for El Borak might have come early but he was not fully formed as a character until later. Xavier Gordon is a gunslinger from El Paso, Texas which is within Howard’s direct experience. The character also has plenty of similarities with his other characters which includes both the ability and willingness to use deadly violence when necessary. His introduction in Sword of the Hills (The Lost Valley of Iskander) is as follows:

Francis Xavier Gordon was known by repute from Stamboul to the China Sea. The Muhammadans called him El Borak, the Swift, and they feared and respected him.

He gets a similar description in Chapter III of The Daughter of Erlik Khan:

El Borak was a name known from Istanbul to Bhutan and repeated in a hundred wild tales wherever the wolves of the desert gathered.

This proves to be true throughout all the stories where he is known by reputation even when not immediately recognised. Even his deadliest enemies have a grudging respect for him. This first introduction has him encountering a lost group of Greek’s from Alexander the Great’s army who have maintained a hidden civilisation within Afghanistan for thousands of years. This was a popular trope in fiction at the time when the last pockets of the world were being explored and such a discoveries weren’t beyond the realm possibility.

A description of his physical appearance comes through Gordon’s encounter with a British diplomat in Hawk of the Hills:

Willoughby nodded, absorbed in his scrutiny of the man before him. Gordon was not a large man, but he was remarkably compact, with a squareness of shoulders and a thickness of chest that reflected unusual strength and vitality. Willoughby noted the black butts of the heavy pistols jutting from his hips, the knife hilt projecting from his right boot. He sought the hard bronzed face in vain for marks of weakness or degeneracy. There was a gleam in the black eyes such as Willoughby had never before seen in any man of the so-called civilized races. 

No this man was no degenerate; his plunging into native feuds and brawls indicated no retrogression. It was simply the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment. Willoughby felt that the man before him must look exactly as an untamed, pre-civilization Anglo-Saxon must have looked some ten thousand years before.

Hawk of the Hills, Chapter II

He is not as large as Conan but is certainly as swift — if not swifter when drawn into action. Obviously here also is the familiar theme found throughout Howard’s work in the contrast between civilisation and barbarism. If one has to compare him to any of Howard’s other heroes it would be Solomon Kane who is also driven by a straightforwardly lethal sense of justice. Xavier Gordon defends or avenges his friends, the innocent and those who are wronged with a ruthless dedication. In none of these stories is he out for personal gain or benefit. Even the few beauties he encounters (and usually rescues), do not become romantic partners though there is one story with some romantic interest hinted at the end.

He is thoroughly familiar with the languages and cultures of the region and even other European languages. He has “gone native” in many ways and his dark eyes and complexion help him to blend in and there is some implication (though it is never explicit) that he is an adherent or at least sympathetic to the Mohammadan religion. Whatever the truth of this, his personal morality is not complicated to understand as the aforementioned Willoughby learns in the same chapter when Gordon ends their discussion:

“I’ve had my say. Go back and tell the Amir the feud will end — when I’ve killed Afdal Khan.”

And turning on his heel he vanished as noiselessly as he had appeared. 

Willoughby started after him helplessly. Damn it all, he’d handled the matter like an amateur! Reviewing  his arguments he felt like kicking himself; but any arguments seemed puerile against the primitive determination of El Borak. Debating with him was like arguing with a wind, or a flood, or a forest fire, or some other elemental fact. The man didn’t fit into any ordered classification; he was as untamed as any barbarian who trod the Himalayas, yet there was nothing rudimentary or underdeveloped about his mentality.

So he is a force of nature and we aren’t lost for evidence of this in any of the seven stories Howard completed. A great example of his drive is given in The Daughter of Erlik Khan when he is trying to rescue a young girl named Yasmeena, having been set on this path by the murder of a friend:

The next instant El Borak sprang, bearing his man to the floor. Yogok let out one hair-raising yell, and then Gordon found his throat and crouched over him, savagely digging and twisting his fingers in the priest’s neck.

“Where is Yasmeena?” he demanded.

A gurgle answered him. He relaxed his grip a trifle and repeated the question. Yogok was mad with fear of his attack in the dark, but somehow—probably by the body-scent or the lack of it—he divined that his captor was a white man.

“Are you El Borak?” he gasped.

“Who else? Where is Yasmeena?” Gordon emphasized his demand by a wrench which brought a gurgle of pain from Yogok’s thin lips.

The Daughter of Erlik Khan, Chapter VIII 

His ability to drive himself seemingly beyond physical limits is also displayed in the climax to the story:

His bloodshot gaze traveled over them as they stood blinking, disheveled, and haggard, with lamps paled by the dawn, like ghouls caught above earth by daybreak. Grimly he marshaled his straying wits. Gordon had never reached the ultimate limits of his endurance; always he had plumbed a deeper, hidden reservoir of vitality below what seemed the last.

Beating himself into wakefulness by striking his own face with his open hand, he began to climb, a rifle slung to his back. Orkhan was plucking at him, begging to be allowed to make the attempt in his stead, but Gordon shook him off. In his dazed brain was a conviction that the responsibility was his own. He went up like an automaton, slowly, all his muddled faculties concentrating grimly on the task.

The Daughter of Erlik Khan, Chapter X

My favourite of the stories was Three-Bladed Doom which was also the longest. There is also a shortened version included as Howard rewrote the original when it was rejected for publication. Both are worth reading but the first is certainly the better story and I can’t fathom why it was rejected. It includes the two motifs of a “lost city” trope and the very real Great Game that is the background of most of the stories. This was popularised in fiction by Rudyard Kipling who Howard was certainly familiar with. The excellent essay included at the end of the volume titled Gunfighters of the Wild East by David A. Hardy gives an idea for a number of other sources of inspiration; including some real life American mercenaries who had adventures throughout Asia. Where Gordon stands in the messy politics of the Great Game is revealed through a discussion with the Cossack villain Konaszevski:

“I know your stubbornness in refusing to do anything against the interests of British rule in India, though I can not understand why. You are an American. And you are not even English by descent. Even before your ancestors crossed the Atlantic they had fought the English for centuries.”

Gordon smiled bleakly.

“I care nothing for England as a nation. But India is better off under her rule than it would be under men who employ such tools  as yourself.”

Three-Bladed Doom, Chapter V: The Mask Falls

Gordon’s position is simple and pragmatic. The British are in charge and are at the very least preferable to the Russians. There are a number of European villains behind the scenes including British, Russian and even a Hungarian in Sword of the Hills. Gordon is a man of simple conviction out to help those who need it. No matter what your convictions, it is relatively easy to approve of El Borak’s motives as he seeks simply to bring justice to those who deserve it. The men he kills are almost invariably murderous scoundrels. Even then, his sense of honour won’t even allow him kill them in cold blood as his Hungarian adversary Hunyadi experiences in Sword of the Hills:

Then he saw Hunyadi. The Hungarian was groping in his belt, and Gordon knew he was out of ammunition. 

“We’ve tried hot lead, Gustav,’ challenged Gordon, “and we both still live. Come and try cold steel!”

With a wild laugh the Hungarian ripped out his blade in a bright shimmer of steel that caught the morning sun.

El Borak would have been shown the same mercy by very few of the men he crosses swords with in the stories.

Returning to Three-Bladed Doom, another window into the working of his mind is given in the chapter following the one above:

As they advanced, the walls were more thickly pitted with cave-like lairs, in which the rank scent of the ape hung strong. Gordon scowled and Lal Singh swore at the numbers of skeletons which litter the gulch, which evidently had been the monster’s favorite stamping ground. Most of them were of women, and as Gordon viewed those pitiful remnants, a relentless and merciless rage grew redly in his brain. All that was violent in his nature, ordinarily held under iron control, was roused  to ferocious wakefulness by the realization of the horror and agony those helpless women had suffered, and in his own soul he sealed the doom of Shalizahr and the human fiends who ruled it. It was not his nature to swear oaths or vow loud vows. He did not speak his mind even to Lal Singh; but his intention to wipe out that nest of vultures in the interests of the world at large took on the tinge of a personal blood-feud, and his determination fixed like iron never to leave the plateau until he had looked upon the dead bodies of Ivan Konaszeviski and the Shaykh Al Jebal.

Three-Bladed Doom, Chapter VI: The Haunter of the Gulches

The stories mostly remain grounded and none of the magical elements found in Kull, Conan and Solomon Kane stories are found here. The closest is Gordon’s encounter with a monstrous ape mentioned above who is initially believed to be a djinni by the natives. Gordon puts their beliefs to rest along with the ape in a fight that would not be out of place in many a Conan tale.

Finally, his determination even when death is the likely outcome:

A red flame grew in his eyes, and his dark face set in wolfish lines. Water was life in the desert; life for him and for Al Wazir. There was water at the well, and camels. There were men, his enemies, in possession of both. If they lived, he must die. It was the law of the wolf pack, and of the desert. He slipped the limp bags from his shoulder, cocked his rifle and went forward to kill or be killed—not for gold, nor the love of a woman, nor an ideal, nor a dream, but for as much water could be carried in a goatskin bag.

Blood of the Gods, Chapter III

The collection has a few other stories including three starring Kirby O’Donnell who is American like Gordon. These are similar to El Borak‘s adventures but the major difference is O’Donnell is a treasure hunter but willing to do the right thing when necessary. He is disguised as Kurd in all three stories while El Borak’s identity usually isn’t hidden. His physical description is also very similar to El Borak:

“The American was somewhat above medium height, leanly built, but with broad shoulders and corded sinews which gave him a strength out of all proportion to his weight. He was a hard-woven mass of wiry muscles and steel string nerves, combining the wolf-trap coordination of a natural fighter with a berserk fury resulting from an overflowing nervous energy.”

Gold from Tartary, I: Key to the Treasure

These three stories and the one other with another American treasure hunter named Steve Clarney wouldn’t have taken much editing to turn into further tales of El Borak. This was not something Howard was ever unwilling to do as Conan himself first came into print as a re-write of a Kull story. These other four stories are still worth reading but noticeably not as strong as the seven El Borak adventures. As they have the same setting, it is fitting that they are all included together. They also further show Howard’s fascination with the Scotch/Irish and their ancestors. This will become all the more relevant when I read the stories of the Pictish King Bran Mak Morn which is next on my rapidly shortening list of unread Robert E. Howard fiction.

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