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Robert E. Howard

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Robert E. Howard

In my misspent youth I devoured the works of Robert E. Howard.  The creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard was a writer for the pulp magazines of the twenties and the thirties.  He had a knack for creating literary worlds and populating them with unforgettable characters.  His characters were men of violence, but usually not without a sense of honor.  His puritan hero, Solomon Kane, set in sixteenth century Africa, had a faith in Christ:

“Nay, alone I am a weak creature, having no strength or might in me; yet in times past hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance. And I trust, shall do so again.”

Not to be mistaken for great literature, Howard’s stories almost always make great, rattling reading, and sometimes even give a thing or two to think about.

Catholic science fiction author, a convert from atheism, John C. Wright, has a good review up of a Conan tale:  The Tower of the Elephant:

Conan is young here. The internal chronology of the stories is subject to some guesswork. But it is fair to say that this is the second or third tale in Conan’s career, taking place after Frost Giant’s Daughter (1934). We see him for the first time in what will be his signature costume: “naked except for a loin-cloth and his high-strapped sandals.”

I found, as I often do, that not only is Robert E. Howard a better writer than I was able, as a callow youth, to see he was. He also easily surpasses the modern writers attempting to climb his particular dark mountain. From the high peak, brooding, he glares down at inferior writers mocking him, and, coldly, he laughs.

Particularly when Howard is compared with the modern trash that pretends to be fantasy while deconstructing and destroying everything for which the genre stands, he is right to laugh.

Let us list the ways.

Howard, as many pulp-era writers had to be, is a master of structure.

The Tower of the Elephant is divided into three chapters. The first introduces the set-up. In the most lawless quarter of a city of thieves, in a stinking tavern where rogues and lowlifes gather, rumors are spoken of a silvery tower that looms above the city in an isolated garden on a hilltop. In it is a gem of fabled worth and eldritch powers, that is the talisman of a sinister wizard. The tower seems strangely unguarded, or, rather, guarded strangely.

The wall is low, the way is not difficult: but none of the famous thieves will dare approach it. Our very own Conan (whom last we saw as a king) is here a barbaric lad who asks about the tower and the gem, is rudely answered, and rashly vows to make the attempt. Words are exchanged, and a fight ensues. We soon see how tough Conan is.

The second chapter is a heist. We are introduced to Taurus the Prince of Thieves. He and Conan join forces, attempting to elude or outfight the dangerous or unchancy defenders, human or otherwise, guarding the treasure. When even the Princes of Thieves is unable to overcome a particularly strange peril, a second fight ensues. We soon see how tough the Tower is.

The final chapter is pure awesomeness. The weird and supernatural secret of the Tower reveals itself. Even bold Conan, who fears no mortal blade, is petrified, if only for a moment. The dire and supernatural revenge which follows those who meddle in the outer secrets unfolds.

Howard is also the master of the one trick that always seems to elude postmodern writers. He knows how to pen a proper ending: As in a fairy tale of old, Conan is wise enough to obey the supernatural being when it speaks, and a pathway to safety is opened for him. He escapes with his life.

Go here to read the rest.  Howard had a short and sad life of thirty years, ending in suicide when his beloved mother slipped into a coma, but he left behind works still being read 82 years after his death.  Not a bad feat for any writer.

 

 

 

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

9 Comments

  1. “Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you.”

    Conan’s relationship with his God is not unlike many who holds leadership roles in the Catholic Church. Listen to ME.
    Obidence?
    What’s that?

    Conan the Barbarian was a perfect role for a young novice actor and body builder. His pages of dialogue could fit on the back of a Wheaties box.

  2. A fairly typical relationship between a pagan god and a “worshiper”. Far more like a business relationship than the love between God and a Christian. This is shown in Howard’s own writings in contrasting the religion, if it can be called that, of Conan, and that of Solomon Kane:

    “I am a landless man. I come out of the sunset and into the sunrise I go, wherever the Lord doth guide my feet. I work the will of God. While evil flourishes and wrongs grow rank, while men are persecuted and women wronged, while weak things, human or animal, are maltreated, there is no rest for me beneath the skies, nor peace at any board or bed.”

  3. Yep; it really is helpful in understanding religions not based on Himself to get out of the “God is God” mindset and into the “this thing has power I don’t in a specific area, so I’m asking it for help.”

    This is actually important when you’re getting into arguing against various magic.

  4. Two things I remember from freshman Ancient History: many of the early paganisms were fertility cults: Man beseeching (temple prostitutes, etc.) the gods for good agricultural outcomes and their world views (then it was geist weltangshaun sp.?, now its zeitgeist) were cyclical/circular(?) based on growing seasons and around the floods of Nile and Tigris/Euphrates. The Judeo-Christian world view is completely different. It is linear, progressing toward the Second Coming of Christ.

    A bit off topic. One of the major outrages of the 20th century was that Arnold didn’t get an Oscar for “Conan”.

  5. Re: Conan the Librarian. We have one at my sons’, all-boys Catholic HS. He is a former nationally-ranked discus man and weight coach. He’s about six-five and his shoulders are as wide as a barn door. I still see him when we stuff envelops for the alumni parents association. He coached discus/shot put for my sons. We have fished with him. He was an Army ranger, too.

  6. The comments remind me of a video series that I saw where a rabbi did a presentation about the ten plagues in the book of Exodus. He said that pagan idol worship is based on self-interest. That in the pagan system that a person worshiped an idol that would serve their own self interest. He said that you need a creator God for love to enter into the picture.
    *
    The rabbi goes through an explanation of the names of God. He says that YHVH (YHWH) in the original language is an amalgam of the three Hebrew words for existence. Existing in the past, the present, and the future laid one on top of the other. For God time is a simultaneous expression. He places YHVH (YHWH) as existing totally outside of creation. This is the name of God in His essence. This makes God atemporal.
    *
    He further says that in the original language that the word that is translated as lower case g gods in the Commandment against idolatry can also be translated as the words judges or powers. The word is elohim. The gods of pagan idolatry often represent the powers, or forces, of nature. The word can also apply to earthly repositories of human power as well. Elohim is the name of God as power. In the Old Testament we list the ban on idolatry as being part of the First Commandment, in Judaism it is the Second Commandment.
    *
    El Shaddai was another name of God that the rabbi talked about. “Shaddai” stands for “Mi she’Amar Dai L’olamo”—”He who said ‘Enough’ to His world.” This name centers on the control that God has over His creation.
    *
    In the English translations of the Bible YHVH(YHWH) is replaced with the word LORD in all uppercase. The word HaShem “The Name” is also used in place of YHVH (YHWH), as is the word Adonai. In English we also use the word Yahweh.

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