Robert E. Howard and Ariosto

When I was a teenager, I bought a copy of The Essential Conan as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy book club. This anthology of classic Robert E. Howard Conan stories came complete with a poster of Conan wielding an axe, about to cut off the head of a serpent. Slinking in the background is an almost totally nude woman. Before putting the poster up, I honest-to-goodness cut out a paper dress to put over the mostly naked woman.

So, basically, your average, run-of-the-mill Conan picture.

I was reminded of this poster recently, reading my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso. The cover depicts Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, mounted on a winged steed (bird? hippogriff? I don’t know yet), lancing a dragon from atop his mount. Angelica is nude:

This is, as I have alluded to above, standard Conan cover material: Naked (or mostly naked) woman being rescued from a monster by a hero with weapons. Ingres might paint fewer muscles, but all the essential elements are there for a cover of Savage Sword of Conan (for example).

This led me to start thinking about Howard and Ariosto. Now, I’m not saying that Robert E. Howard ever read Ariosto (or Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato). I do wonder if maybe he read Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, which is essentially a synopsis of Boiardo and Ariosto from what I can tell. Nonetheless, Ariosto and sword-and-sorcery fantasy are not as far as apart as you may guess.

Magic swords. Magicians from the East. Magical castles built by demons. Magic rings. Ghosts rising up from rivers. Various monsters.

There are men who fall in love with women so powerfully they will literally hunt them to the ends of the earth. There are men of nobility as well as villains amongst all races.

The cast of Orlando is essentially the same as in Conan, it’s just a different time period.

There are important differences between Howard and Ariosto, though. Howard is into what we would call the weird, etymologically speaking. The chilling, spooky, terrifying. There are dark and ancient evils hiding in the deserts of Howard’s imagination. Things without names. He also believes in the power of steel — it is not a magic sword that can save the day, but bravery and strong steel, even in the face of enchantment. His men are rough and violent, thieves, mercenaries, and the like. Conan is barely a hero, although he can rise to the heroic given the opportunity.

Ariosto’s world, a world of woods, castles, Saracens, and Christians, is different. The darkness is less heavy, and if enchantment is involved, you need enchantment to undo it. There is still nameless and faceless evil. But his men are cleaner and more civilised (if you will), living by a code of chivalry regardless of religion or ethnicity. They can also be straight-up wicked, despite their cleanliness and manners, mind you.

I’m sure that if I were reading Ariosto in Italian I would also find subtler differences than these. And if I read beyond Canto 4.

Most importantly for me right now, what they both have in common is that their stories are rip-roaring fun!

14 thoughts on “Robert E. Howard and Ariosto

  1. deuce

    It’s a hippogriff. Having read ARIOSTO, I’ve wondered if REH had access to it in some form. There are some intriquing parallels in some scenes that are fairly hard to write off as coincidence.

    Howard was on record as being bored by the Hellenistic Greeks and loathing the Roman Empire. He said this to arch-Romanophile (and all-around Classical enthusiast) Lovecraft, so it wasn’t just empty posturing. He deeply respected HPL. REH stated that his favorite time periods were the Ancient Near East up to the time of Cyrus, the Middle Ages (which he seemed to reckon as being from about 450-1650 AD) and the American Old West. So, him reading Bullfinch’s “Charlemagne” is certainly not out of the question.

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      1. deuce

        Glad to be of service! BTW, I can’t believe I typed “ARIOSTO” (as in a book title) rather than ORLANDO FURIOSO.

        Anyway, I thought I might add that Roy Thomas, when he left Conan at Marvel and created Arak for DC in 1980, used ORLANDO FURIOSO as a major part of his worldbuilding. That was actually how I first learned about Ariosto’s epic.

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      2. MJH Post author

        ARIOSTO in capitals made me wonder if you write for academic Dutch publishers, who often put author names in capitals in notes and bibliographies.

        Once I’m done Walter Simonson’s Ragnarok, I’ll have to find Thomas’ Arak! After Schwarzenegger, Roy Thomas was my introduction to Conan, but I’ve always relied on others as guides to comics and ‘pulp’.

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    1. deuce

      “Delightful”? More like condescending (to both authors) and cliched. These “revelations” have been bandied about for decades. Stereotypes are usually fairly accurate and so is this one, up to a point. However, the Gutter guy might’ve wanted to pick a better title than “Punching Cthulhu in the Face” as a way of showing the oh-so-astonishing differences between HPL’s and REH’s protagonists. Johansen in “The Call of Cthulhu” INTENTIONALLY DROVE A SHIP THROUGH CTHULHU’S FACE. It doesn’t get more badass than that.

      There are fistfights etc in several of HPL’s tales. Most of HPL’s protagonists don’t actually go mad. But oh-so-clever, johnny-come-lately poindexters on the internet love to trumpet the “revelations” they just spotted.

      Conan used a magic sword in the very first story REH ever wrote about the Cimmerian. It saved his life.

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      1. MJH Post author

        I took some of the apparent condescension as more akin to exaggeration intended for comedic effect. My journey through REH is still ongoing, and HPL has not yet been begun. Which is the first Conan story? My complete Conan runs in order of Conan’s biography, not REH’s publication or writing. (Still ploughing through.)

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      2. deuce

        The first Conan story REH ever wrote was “The Phoenix on the Sword”, a heavily reworked “cannibalization” of the Kull tale, “By This Axe I Rule!” Conan also uses a magic blade in “The Devil in Iron”.

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  4. John Boyle

    It wouldn’t surprise me to find that Howard read ORLANDO FURIOSO; he was quite well read, more so than some would have us believe. Mr. Hoskin, if you’re interested in reading the early Conan stories written by REH himself, let me recommend THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN, published by DEL REY Books. It is available on Amazon and contains the first thirteen Conan stories in the order in which they were originally published, starting with “The Phoenix on the Sword”.

    These are the stories as Howard wrote them, without the changes made by later editors and some fine artwork to boot. Worth your while.

    I need to take a look at Roy Thomas’s work on Arak. I missed that completely!

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    1. MJH Post author

      I also should have said that the only reason I would ever doubt Howard having read Orlando Furioso would be availability — how widely disseminated were its English translations before the new ones of the 1970s published by Penguin and Oxford? Which libraries and booksellers did Howard haunt? (Which ones does he haunt today?)

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