Tag Archives: robert e howard

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!

Tolkien’s mythology

As I mentioned here once recently, I am reading the letters of JRR Tolkien right. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man — mostly, so far, into the long labour that went into The Lord of the Rings, although some highly Roman Catholic epistles and ones of more literary and philological concern have made their way through the editors’ net.

I have to confess that I have never read The Silmarillion. I tried twice, maybe a third time. I will try again — it took three tries to get me into Paradise Lost, and then I gobbled it up! (My review of Milton’s epic here.) One reason why I think I will survive my next reading of The Silmarillion is the fact that I have now read Letter 131 of late 1951, which runs pp. 143-161, to Milton Waldman of Collins, whom Tolkien hoped would publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings since things seemed not to be progressing with Allen & Unwin at the time. This letter is a long description of Tolkien’s mythology as represented by The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I think it is important to think of this series of tales of Elves as mythology and not as the history of Middle Earth. First of all, Elves do not originate in Middle Earth but Valinor. Second, history to our mind is a different sort of thing from myth — even if the etymology and use of mythos by ancient Greeks was not clearly delineated from ‘historical truth’ as we think it. Tolkien wished to produce a mythology as grand, as big, as cosmic as the unified myths of the Greeks and the Norse.

Furthermore, myths are often told in a different mode from histories or modern novels. One of the things I found offputting in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is that the power of Sophocles’ mythos was stripped away by the cynical, post-War Frenchman. There is no good and evil, not law of heaven or nature vs law of man. There is just … raw humanity? Pain and ambiguity. We certainly live our lives in a world of pain and ambiguity — but romance and mythos are not genres intended to relate that world; that is the job of historia or political science/philosophy.

Tolkien knew full well, as his letters to Christopher attest, that in real wars there are orcs on both sides, and noble men on both sides as well. This is a man who fought in WWI; one of his sons suffered PTSD because of WWII. He is not unaware of the murkiness of real humans and real human motivations.

But the good and the beautiful — to kaló. These are still real, substantial realities — and these, alongside the depths of evil in Morgoth and Sauron, are what Tolkien relates in the mythology of The Silmarillion and the romance of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is worth remembering the creative force of the good; it is worth remembering that is a better way to live; it is worth remembering that some things are worth fighting for — things like trees and architecture and gardens and friendship and beership.

I have suddenly moved from what makes Tolkien’s work like other mythologies to what sets it apart. Greek mythology comes to us in a vast myriad of sources written over a millennium by a combination of both Greeks and Romans. It is not a thematically united body of work, and it frequently contradicts itself. This is no surprise; it was not made to convey scientific realities, after all.

Tolkien’s work, on the other hand, as this letter shows us, is tightly controlled by a single author, auctor, creator, a single mind, a single man. As a result, he has particular themes that he explores. He has precise ideas of what makes the Valar, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Men, the Orcs, the villains what they are; he grasps their substance, their essence, in a unified way that we do not get from natural-born mythologies that arise out of the chance of cultural circumstance and hundreds of authors.

These thematic unities are, I imagine, what make The Silmarillion readable? I’ve not succeeded yet, of course. But still. They are also what make Tolkien’s work Catholic — they draw out themes such as sub-creation, the tendency of humanity towards misuse of power, the allure of power, the need to protect the simple and beautiful, the unrelenting drive towards the good. Certainly not themes exclusive to Roman Catholics; but certainly typically Catholic themes!

And because Tolkien was crafting a mythology and not a world, his work takes on a different feel. His goal is twofold: To create histories and stories that correspond to his imaginary languages and to craft a united, substantial mythology. This is similar to yet different from Robert E Howard’s pseudo-historical essay, ‘The Hyborian Age.’ This essay exists to provide a grand backdrop for Howard’s adventure stories; this is a necessary thing for the good fantasy writer — it gives verisimilitude, and a clear idea of what Hyperborea is, who Picts are, and where Cimmerians live, as well as all of this in relation to Atlantis, helps the author maintain consistency in references.

Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote The Hobbit, an adventure story ‘for boys’ (and girls!!). And as he wrote, his pre-existing mythological world invaded the story quite outside of his own intention. He did not, that is, take The Silmarillion and decide to flesh out a story from it, or to write a story set in that mythological world. In fact, there is no room for hobbits in that work, anyway! But Tolkien’s mythology invaded, anyway.

When it came time to write a sequel — something that lasted from 1937 until 1951, with revisions until 1954 (I think?) — Tolkien could not help weaving the story more and more tightly into the mythology had had already crafted. The result is a world already old, not only with its own history but with its own songs, its own divine beings, its own demons, its own magic, its own cultures, its own topography. The ruins of The Silmarillion dot the landscape of The Lord of the Rings the way acqueducts and the Villa of the Quintilii dot the landscape on the bus ride to Ciampino airport in Rome.

These facts do not make Tolkien’s mythology and fantasy novels better, necessarily (although I still think The Lord of the Rings is the perfectly-crafted example of its genre), but they do set Tolkien’s storycraft apart, both from ‘real’ mythologies and from other fantasy stories.

Cimmeria (Conan & the Classics)

Your typical Conan cover

As you know, I recently re-watched 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, and mused on some of its Classical connections on this blog. This inspired me to read a little Conan; thus far, I’ve read the poem ‘Cimmeria’, Howard’s pseudo-historical essay ‘The Hyborian Age’, and ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on Conan’s homeland, Cimmeria. First, Howard’s poem (source, allpoetry.com):

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista–hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts?  I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

This poem, like ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’ draws forward Howard’s ‘Northernism’ much more clearly than the 1982 film. Nonetheless, there is at least one Classical resonance here, in the final line of the final stanzas, ‘Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night’.

Having been introduced to Conan before Homer, let me tell you how excited I was as a 17-year-old to discover, in the inestimable Odyssey (on which I blogged here), this reference to Cimmeria:

She came to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the earth, where is the land and city of the Cimmerians, wrapped in mist and cloud. Never does the bright sun look down on them with his rays either when he mounts the starry heaven or when he turns again to earth from heaven, but instead horrid night is spread over wretched mortals. There we came and beached our ship, and took out the sheep, and ourselves went along beside the stream of Oceanus until we came to the place of which Circe had told us. (Odyssey, Book 11, lines 13-22, trans. A. T. Murray, revised by George E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library)

The context, for those who don’t think in terms of, ‘Oh, yes, Odyssey Book 11,’ is that of Odysseus and his comrades having departed Circe’s island (narrowly, of course), heading for the Underworld out across Ocean’s Stream, where Odysseus is to consult the blind seer Teiresias as to how to get home. Teiresias, FYI, is the guy who prophesied bad stuff to Oedipus over the whole murder-incest thing in Thebes (see Sophocles, Oedipus).

This is the first reference to Cimmeria in Greek literature. It is somewhere to the West of Italy (Circe’s isle is imagined by later geographers [and Vergil] as being in the Tyrrhenian Sea) very close to the Underworld. As characterised by Robert E Howard and Homer, it is a land of perpetual darkness.

I do not think it is in Italy near Lake Avernus, as asserted in the notes to Strabo’s Geography by H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer. Even if someone wishes to make Circe’s island into one of the isles of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is clear that Odysseus has left the realm of human geography when he has left Circe. He is in a new realm, a realm that does not correspond with historical Mediterranean geography; I imagine that Cimmeria and Campania are asserted to be the same place so that Odyssey Book 11 and Aeneid Book 6 (Aeneas descent into the Underworld) occur in the same place.

My searches in the Perseus Database find no other references to this legendary Cimmeria; and searching Oxford Reference Online got me only Conan and no Homer! The other references to Cimmeria associate it with Scythia, with the Crimea to be precise, much to the East of Homer’s Cimmerian land of darkness. As this map from Wikipedia demonstrates, Scythia is, like Conan’s Cimmeria, a northern land:

Scythians are archetypical barbarians, in case you were wondering. Herodotus is the most famous ethnographer of the Scythians, as you can read here. He links Scythians with Cimmerians thus:

Scythia still retains traces of the Cimmerians; there are Cimmerian castles, and a Cimmerian ferry, also a tract called Cimmeria, and a Cimmerian Bosphorus. It appears likewise that the Cimmerians, when they fled into Asia to escape the Scyths, made a settlement in the peninsula where the Greek city of Sinope was afterwards built. The Scyths, it is plain, pursued them, and missing their road, poured into Media. For the Cimmerians kept the line which led along the sea-shore, but the Scyths in their pursuit held the Caucasus upon their right, thus proceeding inland, and falling upon Media. This account is one which is common both to Greeks and barbarians. (The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 3, Book 4, Chapter 12)

Scythians do things like drink unwatered wine, perform human sacrifice, and drink from the gilt skulls of their enemies. North of them are another of Howard’s ancient peoples, the Hyperboreans.

I have no doubt further investigation could find more traces. Nonetheless, here we see a convergence of Howard’s ‘Northernism’ and the Classical tradition of Homer and Herodotus to produce a barbarian race who live in a land of darkness. What better race to produce the greatest barbarian of them all?

Conan the Barbarian (1982, of course)

I have a cold, so I stayed in today to recuperate. And because a friend on Facebook has made some recent Conan the Barbarian soundtrack posts recently, I was in the mood for the Cimmerian’s days of High Adventure. While you read this post, enjoy Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack:

conan_1That soundtrack, in fact, is the best place to begin. Conan the Barbarian would not be the film it is with Poledouris’ soundtrack. Although I haven’t seen Conan the Destroyer since I was a kid, I have no doubt that it’s the best part of the sequel. This soundtrack is the other protagonist, some say. I believe it. Soundtracks provide the mood of a film, and the mood of this film is that of high adventure, of epic, of a grand stage on which daring deeds are performed. It’s like how either ‘the mood’ or ‘Gormenghast Castle’ are the actual main character of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, not the hypostatic characters.

At the beginning, as Conan’s father teachers him of Crom and discusses The Riddle of Steel, there is a feeling that here, in these early roots of fantasy (Robert E Howard, Conan’s creator, died in 1936), Northernism was already present.

That’s not the case. Sword and Sorcery — the subgenre to which Conan belongs — is not as Northern as Tolkien or The Worm Ouroboros by far. Howard set Conan and Kull in the Hyborian Age, between the Ice Age and the beginning of recorded history; later adaptors/continuators such as Roy Thomas in the comics and L. Sprague de Camp in print (amongst whose writing credits is the novelisation of Conan the Barbarian, one of the two Conan books I’ve read) set it ca 10,000 BC.

Whenever the Hyborian Age was, it is a time long past. It is by no means mediaeval, and, although Howard’s Cimmeria whence Conan hails is Northern, this film takes place farther south.

Indeed, the sets of Conan the Barbarian‘s cities feel like early cities, not dissimilar to Mesopotamia. Certainly the topography is not northern. We have here a land reminiscent of the Eurasian Steppe at times, at Central Asia at others (which I’m pretty sure is what they’re going for). It is refreshing, in a genre overrun by medievalism and northernism, to find a world that is consciously pre-historical yet urban, purposefully mythical and technologically primitive.

I’m sure other people could point out more, but there are a few Classical echoes in Conan the Barbarian — Conan’s homeland of Cimmeria is one of the lands in The Odyssey, Conan fights as a gladiator, reference is made to Titans, and Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. In the Bacchanalian scene at Thulsa Doom’s lair, there is even a tamed ‘panther’, drawing us into the world of Dionysius and his revels.

Furthermore, to show us how transgressive Thulsa Doom’s people are in relation to the wider world and how they undermine civilisation, they are anthropophagists (cannibals) — the eating of human flesh was a strong symbol of savagery and the undoing of civilised life in Greek literature; Polyneices was accused of metaphorically eating the flesh of his fellow citizens in Antigone, for example. Also, this was a bad idea:

Tydeus eats Melanippus' brain in the campaing of the Seven Against Thebes on the pediment of an Etruscan temple, now in the Villa Giulia, Rome

Tydeus eats Melanippus’ brain in the campaing of the Seven Against Thebes on the pediment of an Etruscan temple, now in the Villa Giulia, Rome

Tydeus never really lived down eating Melanippus’ brain. The gods above are quite shocked.

Here is an undoubtedly subconscious Classical resonance, but one nonetheless.

Another ancient resonance is Conan’s famous quotation that the best thing in life is:

Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.

One of the most ancient codes out there is simply: Help your friends; harm your foes. Its traces are found in Homer and a lot of archaic period Greek poetry. It is the code of Gilgamesh. It is the code of Niall’s Saga. Indeed, it underlies much feud practice, from Troy to gangland and drive-by shootings.

I don’t have very many other thoughts, except that I’m going to read some Robert E Howard soon. I’ve read a number of the Roy Thomas comics and black-and-white magazines, and I saw the original two films plus Kull, and I’ve read Kull. But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in this, and I’ve actually read very little of Howard’s Conan output. Who knows what classical resonances I’ll find? Certainly, even if some scorn pulp and the sword and sorcery subgenre, these stories are amongst the foundations of modern fantasy.