HOWARDIANA

Volume I, Number 1, June 2001

Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association

E-journal by Josep Parache

"My empire is of the imagination", H. R. Haggard

 

 

© 2001 by Josep Parache. All rights reserved.

 

 

REVIEWS

Javier Martín Lalanda, La canción de las espadas: fantasía heroica en Robert E. Howard, Tiempo de Ediciones S. A., Madrid, 1983, 152 pp. Cover illustration by Alfonso Azpiri.

 

It has often been said that the appeal of Robert E. Howard's works is universal. In Spain, the adventures of Conan published by Lancer Books were translated and published by Bruguera in the 1970s. Since then the interest in Howard's works has been growing steadily there. The direct result of that interest was the publication of a series of books and other related material, besides many pastiches both in literary and in comic-book form. One of the very first studies on Howard was published in 1983 by Javier Martín Lalanda, a scholar of fantasy literature and translator of Solomon Kane's stories into Spanish, entitled La canción de las espadas: fantasía heroica en Robert E. Howard (1). This book, whose title could be translated as The singing of the Swords: Heroic Fantasy in Robert E. Howard, stemming from the first sentence in the story "Red Blades of Black Cathay", is one of the first contributions by Spanish scholarship, and, consequently, its historic value is significant. It is precisely because of its pioneering character that is conditioned by a series of theoretical positions, which either have been outdated over time or which would probably not be found in later works and that have a more extensive bibliographic backup.

If we went through the list of sources that Lalanda used in writing his book, which are itemised in the bibliographic section, we would see that the three main books of reference were Glenn Lord's The Last Celt, de Camp's Literary Swordsmen & Sorcerers and Robert Weinberg's The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword & Sorcery. The latter provided Lalanda with a model to follow. However, this does not mean that Lalanda's book has a parasitic relationship with Weinberg's book. On the contrary, Lalanda merely takes Weinberg as a point of reference, seemingly only to trying to improve upon it, to take it further, to provide a more complete vision of the life and works of Howard; his work is imbued with the desire for comprehensiveness, which the work of Weinberg does not have. The word "trying" is used here very consciously since we still have to ascertain whether or not Lalanda's effort achieved the success he was looking for. In order to do this we will have to make as exhaustive a comparison as possible between these two works. However, before going any further, it would perhaps be of benefit to reproduce the contents page of La canción:

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Foreword

The Man from Cross Plains

On the Translation of the Names of Nations and Races in the Works of Robert E. Howard

BEFORE CONAN

Kull of Valusia

Commentaries upon "The Hyborian Age" by Robert E. Howard

CONAN OF CIMMERIA

Chronology of the Conan Stories

Summaries of the Stories

Conan According to his Texts

Witchcraft in Conan:

  1. Introduction
  2. Two Important Wizards: Xaltotun and Thoth-Amon
  3. Gods and Demons
  4. Talismans, Amulets and Magic Books
  5. Exoticisms:
  1. Semihuman Beings
  2. Lost Ruins and Forgotten Empires

Conan, the Film

AFTER CONAN

Pyrrhas of Argos

Bran Mak Morn and the Picts

Cormac Mac Art

Turlogh Dubh O'Brien

Agnes de Chastillon

Solomon Kane

The Racial Memory Series

Stephen Costigan against Skull-Face

Esau Cairn "Ironhand" and the Planet Almuric

ABOUT ROBERT E. HOWARD

Robert E. Howard in Comic and Illustration

The Howardian Hero as a Berserkr

Hidden Sources in Robert E. Howard

Reflections about the Death of Robert E. Howard

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Heroic Fantasy Characters

Robert E. Howard and his Other Characters

The Film "Conan the Barbarian"

Spanish Translations

 

 

The first important difference is with regards to the number of works and characters chosen by Lalanda. However, if the reader wants to analyse the governing motive of this selection he would find himself faced with an important theoretical problem about genre. This problem can already be perceived in comparing the titles of Lalanda's and Weinberg's works. Where Weinberg says Sword and Sorcery, Lalanda uses Heroic Fantasy. Does Lalanda consider Sword and Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy to be interchangeable generic labels, or, alternatively, does he believe them to be two terms with their own differentiated characteristics and a hierarchical and interdependent relationship, which should be determined? Evidently some will say that the concept of genre is nothing more than an artificial category, excessively simplistic and reductionist, which does not correspond to the continually changing literary reality, or that any great author is far beyond this type of pigeonholing. In reply to this reasonable argument, however, it must be said that it was the very same Lalanda who decided that the framework for the selected characters should be a generic one and not one of any other type. On the other hand, it seems obvious that it is impossible to write a book subtitled ╬Heroic Fantasy in Robert E. Howard' and organised according to this term without first having some idea of what Heroic Fantasy actually is.

Although it is true that normally these two terms, Sword and Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy, seem to be used as if they were synonyms, John L. Flynn (1995) proposes to distinguish them in his articles published within The Encyclopedia Galactica. He defines Heroic Fantasy thus: "The term heroic fantasy, most commonly attributed to Lin Carter who first coined the phrase, refers to a sub-genre of fantastic literature which chronicles the tales of heroes and their conquests in imaginary lands. Heroic fantasy emphasizes the conflict between good and evil, and often casts a reluctant protagonist (human or hobbit) in the role of champion. Though he may not always be saintly, the hero's strength, wit, or resourcefulness helps him triumph over evil forces. The background for that struggle is almost always an exotic one; but whereas many works of science fiction tend to look toward the future, heroic fantasy creates magical realms where science and technology have little place. From as distant as Earth's prehistoric past (even before Atlantis) to recreations of the Middle Ages or other lost worlds, the settings are sometimes as important as their mythopoetic narratives. Often fused or confused with sword and sorcery, weird fantasy, science fiction or historical romance, heroic fantasy is as old as the first stories told (and written down) about heroes and their legendary deeds." His definition of Sword and Sorcery, on the other hand, is the following: "Sword and Sorcery, a term usually ascribed to Fritz Leiber who first used the phrase in 1960, refers to a sub-genre of fantasy which deals with the swashbuckling exploits of violent, amoral swordsmen and their (often) bloody confrontations with agents of evil in imaginary lands. Whereas heroic fantasy emphasizes the valiant struggle of the hero to overcome these supernatural forces, Sword-and-Sorcery focuses on the darker, more sinister and often brutal nature of that struggle. The emphasis is almost always on the might of the sword as contrasted with the power of magic. The protagonist is frequently strong, clever and resourceful, but he (or she) can also be savage, barbaric and brutally ambitious to the point where he often negates his ╬goodness.' His heroic challenges repeatedly find him in lost worlds (nearly always tribal or feudal) where the laws of science and reason have been replaced by mysticism and the occult. While he doesn't necessarily deserve to triumph over these forces, the hero's physical courage and tenacity nonetheless make the victory possible." (2) As can be easily seen this definition is so ambiguous that is not operative. As if this lack of clarity were not enough, in another part of his article Flynn incoherently treats the two terms in question as synonyms when he affirms that, "in modern society, where most old myths have lost their power, the cultural imperative to invent new stories and create new heroes has given rise to the sub-genre of fantastic literature known as HEROIC FANTASY or SWORD & SORCERY." The reader no longer knows what to think. On the contrary, it seems that the editors John Clute and John Grant, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, make a more satisfactory effort in defining the limits of this/these genre/s: "In 1961 Michael Moorcock requested a term to describe the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular heroes in violent conflict with a variety of villains, chiefly wizards, witches, evil spirits and other creatures whose powers are -unlike the hero's- supernatural in origin. Fritz Leiber suggested ╬Sword and Sorcery', and this term stuck. It is commonly considered synonymous with Heroic Fantasy; both are aspects of Adventurer Fantasy [Ě]. [T]his encyclopedia generally employs the time-honoured term S&S for adventurer fantasies fitting Moorcock's original specification." "There may be a useful distinction between HF and Sword and Sorcery, but no one has yet made it. The term itself [Ě] was almost certainly coined in an attempt to avoid the garishness of the S&S tag. This seems and inadequate reason to adopt a term which might seem synonymous with Epic Fantasy [Ě]. A term like Hero Fantasy might be more arguably, because a central thread in any analysis of S&S is the understanding that it is a kind of Genre Fantasy which features a Hero. In this encyclopedia, the term Sword and Sorcery, being familiar and self-evident, appears often; the type of fantasy of which S&S is a facet is neologistically referred to as Adventurer Fantasy" (Clute-Grant 1997: sv "Sword and Sorcery" and "Heroic Fantasy" respectively). It is unnecessary to insist much more on the utility which a clear and functional definition of the genre would have in situating Howard's work in its appropriate context. This digression, nevertheless, must be finalised here since continuing it would take us further away from our objective, and a review is not the appropriate place to carry it to term, as in order to achieve a viable definition of Heroic Fantasy we would have to define it in relation to other literary genres. That is, we would have to situate it in the much more ample framework of all fantasy literature, understood as a network of oppositions and relationships that modify over time. It is sufficient here to point out the general confusion and difficulty in defining the limits of Heroic Fantasy. If works of such a theoretic character present such disorientating definitions, it is hardly surprising that Lalanda's La canción, which does not claim to be a theoretic work, also sees itself affected by indefinition and confusion.

We find the answer to the above question about whether Lalanda considered Sword and Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy as two different generic categories in the chapter on witchcraft in the stories of Conan: "Estamos viendo los personajes de Fantasía Heroica de REH, sección o clase de la Fantasía que incluye el género de la Sword & Sorcery (Espada y Brujería), por lo que es imprescindible tratar, aunque sea de forma rápida, la brujería" (p. 79) (3). As we can see here Lalanda includes Sword and Sorcery within Heroic Fantasy, that is, the relation is one of species to genus, but at no point in the book does he establish what the difference is, if any, between the two genres. We have already indicated the similarity between the titles of Lalanda's work and that of Weinberg. However, Lalanda was able to achieve this change from Sword and Sorcery to Heroic Fantasy either simply because, as a consequence of this theoretic confusion, he considers the two terms to be equivalent, or, more coherently, precisely because he considers that they are not. This is because, as affirmed on p.79, the category Heroic Fantasy does indeed include Sword and Sorcery and since Lalanda was driven by a desire for comprehensiveness -the reasons for which we shall examine later- he perhaps believed it more convenient to choose the term which would allow him to select a larger number of stories and characters. However, his selection criterion, as we will see, becomes so lax that it provokes various contradictions.

Let us begin with Solomon Kane, one of the most important characters created by Howard. It has conventionally been considered that the founding story of the Heroic Fantasy genre is a Kull story, "The Shadow Kingdom": "Sword-and-sorcery fiction had its modern beginning with a story published in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales. [Ě] The true creator of modern barbarian hero fiction is Robert E Howard, and the first true hero of the genre was King Kull" (Weinberg 1976: 24). This has been the usual mantra of critics and fans alike for years. However, the question arises: if the Solomon Kane stories belong to the Heroic Fantasy genre, and the first Solomon Kane story, "Red Shadows", was published in August 1928 in Weird Tales, would it not then be more appropriate to consider "Red Shadows" and not "The Shadow Kingdom" as the inaugural story of the genre? Evidently, theoretical considerations aside, we could agree that, at least in an intuitive manner, Kull and his stories possess more fundamental traits of Heroic Fantasy than the adventures of Kane. The fact that the stories of Conan, Kull and Hialmar have more in common than those of Kane has already been observed since the Kane stories, "are among the few such stories in the genre which do not feature a barbarian as a hero and yet still qualify as sword-and-sorcery" (Weinberg 1976: 5). It must be deduced, therefore, that whether the hero of a story is a barbarian or not, this is not one of the defining characteristics of the Heroic Fantasy genre, but should be considered merely as a secondary characteristic of this genre, considering that all genres as such would be formed of principal and secondary characteristics (4). However, the inclusion of the adventures of Kane in Heroic Fantasy presents more problems. Lalanda comments on "Blades of the Brotherhood", but in this story there are no fantasy elements; it is merely a straightforward, swashbuckling adventure, which means to say that one of the principal characteristics of Sword and Sorcery (that which justifies the term "sorcery") is absent and we cannot, therefore, speak of Heroic Fantasy. In fact, Clute and Grant, in their definition of Heroic Fantasy, have tried to reconcile the more adventurous aspect with the more fantastic in these stories by using the figure of Alexandre Dumas: "The true father of S&S may be an author no longer widely known for his stories of supernatural adventures: Alexandre Dumas. As the most influential creator of swashbuckling historical adventure tales, Dumas provided a model not only for writers like Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950), who followed in his footsteps with works like Scaramouche (1921) -wherein swordsmanship [Ě] was specifically valued- but also for pulp writers in every genre, including fantasy and weird fiction. Robert E. Howard, who was deeply versed in the ways and opportunities of pulp, was inevitably influenced by Dumas or Dumas's successors. ÷ It is possible, therefore, to see Howard's Conan as a figure combining characteristics of two characters ÷D'Artagnan and Porthos- from Dumas's most famous single swashbuckler, The Three Musketeers (1844 [Ě]) with Auguste Maquet [Ě]. D'Artagnan is impulsive, intelligent, a superb athlete, successful with women, romantic, and totally involved in an exciting world -17th-century France- which he has no wish to alter in any significant fashion; Porthos is vast, chthonic, almost supernatural in his physical strength and attributes, a trencherman, loyal to his friends, indifferent to the social order. Together, they make a very passable S&S hero" (Clute-Grant 1997: sv "Sword and Sorcery"). They make a very interesting point, but the fact remains that not all of the Kane stories surveyed in La canción, and by extension not all of the stories of other characters commented upon, can be included in Heroic Fantasy. However, the genre that furnishes the framework of the book is violated even more when Lalanda decides to include the Cormac Mac Art and the Dark Agnes stories. Of the four Cormac Mac Art stories only one, "The Temple of Abomination", can be considered Heroic Fantasy and of the three Dark Agnes stories again only one, "Mistress of Death", belongs to Heroic Fantasy, and in both cases they are unfinished stories completed by pasticheurs, by Richard L. Tierney and by Gerald W. Page respectively. The incoherence which this represents is great since it means that the organising core of the material is not the Heroic Fantasy genre as announced in the subtitle of the book, but that the stories have been organised according to an axis which is defined not by genre but by character. On the other hand, if only one story possessing the principal characteristics of Heroic Fantasy is enough for all the stories about that character to be commented upon, then it seems a grave omission that the two Black Vulmea stories have not been considered in view of the fact that "Swords of the Red Brotherhood" at least, if we widen the criteria, could be encapsulated by Heroic Fantasy. Furthermore, this last story is actually already dealt with in La canción in its initial form as a Conan story entitled "The Treasure of Tranicos" (original title, "The Black Stranger"). From a practical point of view, it does seem a little absurd not to deal with all the stories of a character if this is what is sought, but then Lalanda would have had to have chosen a much wider generic frame or have used a different criterion to select the stories. That provokes an interesting question. That is, is it possible to arrange a wide selection of Howard's stories according to criteria which do not correspond either to genre or character, as was done traditionally?

However, Lalanda seems more successful when he includes three stories from the racial memory series in La canción, which were not dealt with by Weinberg: "The Cairn on the Headland", "People of the Dark" and "Children of the Night". These stories, despite the fact that they shift between present and past, could fit perfectly into Heroic Fantasy along with the James Allison stories. However, the inclusion of Almuric might be surprising. Thus Lalanda justifies it: "La continuidad con la Fantasía Heroica no se pierde ¸a pesar de que algunos críticos hablan de ╬Science Fantasy', como si el mero hecho de que aparezca un planeta invalidase los esquemas narrativos¸ por la presencia del héroe guerrero y salvaje, (Cairn es el nombre con el que los pueblos célticos designaban los túmulos recubiertos de piedras), de los Yaga, los prehumanos ¸equivalentes a los hombres-serpiente¸ de turno, y de los monstruos, como la araña entre las ruinas y el Horror Final, especie de babosa gigante, que Yasmeena deja en libertad, al comprobar que su reinado toca a su fin" (p. 131). Lalanda is conscious of Burroughs' influence in Almuric; even though this novel could be considered as a part of the subgenre of Planetary Romance, due to the blending of elements from different genres, it is possible to study it within the parameters of Heroic Fantasy (5). The choice of Skull-Face is even more controversial: "En una atmósfera que raya entre el terror y lo policiaco, el héroe ha abandonado la espada, pero sigue luchando contra la brujería pre-humana, de Kathulos, venciéndola" (p. 129). Thus, as it could have been foreseen, eventually all of the conventions and limits of the genre are shattered. Probably few of Howard's readers would agree that this racist fantasy is ruled by the conventions of Heroic Fantasy. Weinberg, who treats neither the Dark Agnes stories, nor the three stories of racial memory which swing between past and present, nor the Cormac Mac Art stories, nor the Skull-Face and Almuric novels, seems therefore a bit more coherent with the criteria he decided to follow (6).

In his foreword, Lalanda makes some affirmations that deserve to be commented upon. According to Lalanda, the literary work of any writer expresses his interior world and reaffirms his being in such a way that the different elements and characters within his narratives have an equivalent in and are a transposition of anxieties, fears and desires which the author experiences in the real world when he is faced with hostile situations and individuals: "Así tenemos todo un mundo que refleja los demonios exteriores a los que estuvo sometido: las fieras serán los peligros, los sacerdotes y gobernantes, que siempre nos dicen lo que tenemos que hacer, son las imposiciones de la sociedad, los hechiceros que combaten al héroe -intentando en ocasiones ganarse su sumisión- son los falsos profetas que ofrecen caminos fáciles y metas prósperas a costa del envilecimiento personal y de la pérdida de la condición de hombre" (p. 5). This point of view, which implies a conception of literature derived from romanticism, means shifting attention from the narrator, the ╬I' in the text, to the author, the ╬I' in the real world, and consequently could distort a reading of the text by the reader and the critic since it does not take into account the fact that the writer, if he really is a writer, does something more than pouring his anxieties and emotions into the text, and that the reader, if he really is a good reader, also does something more than simply identifying himself with the situations and characters of the work. Normally the attempts to use life to explain literature only serve, at best, to distance us from the text. However, Lalanda's vindicating objective in using this argument is very clear: Howard's work is not trash literature because it is possible to find philosophical meditations and reflections on the human condition. Thus Howard pits an individual against society and action against passivity. Howard also pits evolution against regression, although this Darwinistic perspective implies a racist attitude against all groups of people who, according to Howard, hinder man's evolution.

Lalanda goes on to explain that his principal reason for writing the book was to introduce Spanish readers to the adventures of Conan, in their chronological order, both by the original author and his imitators, and to present the rest of the characters of Heroic Fantasy. However, in this latter case, without taking imitations into account -even though he did take into account the stories unfinished by Howard and later completed by other writers. Since at the time of writing La canción, the translations of Conan from Lancer Books published by Bruguera had been sold out (7), since few stories concerning other characters had been translated into Spanish (8), and since a large part of Spanish fans knew the Howardian characters mainly through comic form, Lalanda considered it necessary to do a summary of all the stories commented upon, to present maps of the different worlds which the Howardian characters inhabit and to present the physical appearance and personality of each character through the texts (i.e. only those by Howard). Therefore we see that this desire for comprehensiveness which we noted before is due to the need to present a whole myriad of characters and adventures to a public still barely familiar with the literary world created by Howard.

"The Man from Cross Plains" offers a brief summary of Howard's life; we must remember that this was written before the publication of the biographies by de Camp and Burke, and that this inevitably leads to a certain inaccuracy in explaining some facts and occurrences (e.g. his relationship with Novalyne Price was much more complex, his mother went into a coma the 8th and not the 11th of June, etc.). However, there are some interesting comments: Lalanda links the nomadic nature of Howard's firsts years with his characters' obsessive wanderlust, and does not present his death as a direct consequence of his mother's illness.

"On the Translation of the Names of Nations and Races in the Works of Robert E. Howard" is of little interest to the English-speaking reader, although it is interesting for any translator. Like an anecdote, Lalanda explains that in the Bruguera translations the name of Zamora was changed to Zamara so that the inhabitants of the Spanish town of Zamora would not think that they were being accused of being thieves.

In "Kull of Valusia" we are given a brief description of the world of Kull and a summary of each of the stories arranged in "a chronological order", whose base is never explained to us (it does not follow the order of the stories as it appears in any of the English editions) (9). In concordance with what he had already expressed in the foreword and with some other critics (10), Lalanda thinks that, "son estos relatos los que mejor nos informan acerca del rico mundo interior de REH, suponiendo una etapa de dudas e inquietudes, a la que seguiría otra dominada por la doctrina de la acción. Así, Kull dejaría paso a Conan, bárbaro como él y más tarde también rey, narrándonos sus diversas etapas: ladrón, pirata, soldado de fortuna, bucanero, explorador, general y finalmente, como se ha dicho, rey"(p. 14). In speaking about the poem "The King and the Oak" Lalanda gives a brief summary, which is at the same time a suggestive attempt at interpretation: "Se trata de una poesía que nos describe un sueño de Kull, en donde se enfrenta a un roble que representa la Naturaleza. La vida del hombre es efímera, pues la Naturaleza seguirá existiendo sobre la Tierra después que el hombre haya desaparecido" (p. 17). Other poems are summarised by Lalanda in La canción, "A Song of the Race", "Solomon Kane's Homecoming", etc. Nevertheless, the limitations of the value of summaries are clearly shown when it comes to summarising poems. Lalanda, Weinberg and other critics all fall prey to what has been dubbed "the heresy of paraphrase". That is to say, reducing a poem to a summary omits all the elements of musicality, rhythm, etc., which make a poem a poem. It replaces everything which can be termed poetic with a referentiality which reveals very little of the value of the poem itself. Poems do not tolerate paraphrasing; and, actually, if we look at the paraphrasing by Lalanda and other critics, we will realise that they are much briefer that those of the stories. The reception of Howard's work has in fact produced an odd phenomenon, which someone will have to analyse one day, which is that with some exceptions the critics have generally decided to ignore the poems and to relegate them to a secondary place behind the fiction. This oversight is particularly grave when we consider that the Howardian poetry and prose comprise one complete whole which cannot be systematically broken down and in which the clearest points of intersection are shown in the poems which deal with characters such as Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. Examples of incomprehension in Howardian lyric output are abundant; thus Weinberg relegates "The King and the Oak" to the notes along with the stories completed by Lin Carter, and comments: "The poem is a miniature sword-and-sorcery story and one almost wishes Howard had written it as a short story instead of a verse" (Weinberg 1976: 45) (11).

Afterwards Lalanda comments and summarises the contents of "The Hyborian Age" essay with the aid of a series of nine maps. These maps therefore describe the different evolutionary phases of the world and the nations that inhabited it, as they were conceived by Howard, from the time of Kull up till the time of Conan. Neither the maps nor the commentaries make reference to the years since Lalanda affirms that evolution from hominid to Homo sapiens, as proposed by Howard, is scientifically impossible. These maps are one of the most interesting aspects of La canción. The maps, drawn up by Lalanda, are practical and functional, without any unnecessary decoration. The only defect that they have is that they include all the details from not only the works of Howard, but also from all those of his imitators. In spite of everything, the maps can be of great usefulness. It is unfortunate that there is not a map describing the world after the fall of the Hyborian civilisation. The chapter ends with a description of peoples and the society of Conan's world and with a brief summary of events following his death.

We are now entering the heart of La canción by commenting on the chapters dedicated to Conan. Lalanda presents us with another map of the bare essentials of the Hyborian world and puts all of Conan's appearances -as recorded by Howard and his imitators- into the chronological order established by Jim Neal in Amra. It is not in itself negative, and to a certain extent unavoidable, that the critics attempt to establish a chronological order starting from a series of stories, as long as this order is merely presented as their hypothesis and not as a certainty, which is something that Weinberg (1976: 89) does. Each of Lalanda's summaries is accompanied by the Cimmerian's age, a brief commentary relative to the quality of the summarised text and a series of abbreviations that indicate the different thematic elements that appear in the stories (lost cities, serpent-men, curses, wizards, etc.). This system of abbreviations can be useful when we need to locate one of these themes quickly. Just as Segre points out, "il reperimento dell'unità del testo mediante parafrasi è una operazione inevitabilmente interpretativa" (Segre 1985: 366). Paraphrasing implies understanding as may be seen in the case of "The King and the Oak", as discussed above. In spite of this, paraphrasing has only limited worth, generally speaking, and can never be a means to an end by itself. Unlike Weinberg, who accompanies his summaries with relatively long commentaries, Lalanda reduces his commentaries to one or two sentences, that are hereby converted merely into opinions, and as such are of little use. It becomes inevitable that the reading of the summaries of the fifty-seven accounts of Conan's life ends up tiring the reader.

In the foreword, Lalanda stated that a writer's work reflects his sense of self. The commentaries of the Conan pastiches contradict this statement and water down Howard and his creation, Conan the Cimmerian, in a sea of clichés (12). As Herron asserts, in the pastiches "only the character is real-the role of the individual writers is negligible" (Herron 2000: 181). This use of imitations, that damage the recognition of Howard's individuality as a writer, may have consequences that shock the reader. A good example is the case of the summary of R. Jordan's Conan the Invincible that is much longer and more detailed than that of "Wolves Beyond the Border", which is put aside without much consideration just because Conan does not appear in it. However, Lalanda is very aware of the differences between the pastiches and Howard's Conan, and the commentaries concerning them are much more interesting than the summaries themselves. "└Es lícito alterar un relato, cambiando sus personajes o sus planteamientos, y vivir de un autor fallecido, al que se enmienda la plana? Eufemísticamente se ha denominado esta expoliación cobarde, porque el afectado no se puede defender al estar muerto, e indecente, no es decente el empeorar un relato, de ╬colaboración postuma'" (p. 35). In addition to this, the author observes that it is precisely in these pastiches, that the concepts of machismo, violence and eroticism are prevalent, aspects that in Howard are not seen to be the most important. Lalanda also enumerates some of the defects of Conan's imitations, and affirms that one of the differences between Howard and his imitators is that his Conan is ruled by instinct, whereas the Conan of other authors is ruled by logic and reason: "Esa intuición es apreciable en los relatos de REH que nos hacen sentir en carne propia el personaje, mientras que con sus continuadores éste tiene que ser pensado. Se intenta que racionalicemos lo que leemos. Entre ambos, REH y los que le han seguido, puede apreciarse esa distinción que el tejano hacía entre los bárbaros y los civilizados, y es ésta una idea que no detallaré. Siéntasela como tal" (p. 75). On this point he agrees fully with Weinberg: "these stories [the Carter-de Camp collaborations] do not have the basic underlying grimness of the best of Conan. They are more logical and better plotted, but they lack the force and drive of Howard's work"; "Howard was a true barbarian at heart or, at least, a barbarian as he imagined them to be. Those authors now writing sword-and-sorcery are too civilized" (Weinberg 1976: 85, 113). The great gap that exists between Howard's work and those of his imitators may also be seen, according to Lalanda, in the way in which they talk about Conan's religious belief: "┴Qué diferencia entre el Conan que conversa con Bélit sobre Crom y el destino, en The Queen of the Black Coast, y ese otro que, al final, llega hasta a rezar a Crom! Es el viejo Jehová quien en este último caso se encuentra detrás, y no el dios de REH" (p. 75). Once again Weinberg expresses the same idea: "Compare this god to the same god as written about by those authors who have continued the Conan saga. In reality, there is not comparison. The benevolent being masquerading as Crom in the Carter-de Camp-Nyberg Conan stories is not the same being that Conan speaks of here. Nowhere is the difference between the Howard and non-Howard stories better illustrated" (Weinberg 1976: 102) (13). Lalanda considers the end of Conan's saga in Conan of the Isles inappropriate, and compares this with the much more adequate end of the life of Solomon Kane in "Solomon Kane's Homecoming". "Por desgracia, no se puede cambiar ya su final, pues las novelas de la edición Lancer se han convertido en el ╬corpus' de sus aventuras. Sólo queda esperar que ciertos escritores dejen de practicar la nigromancia permitiendo al cimerio descansar en la paz de su tumba; mientras tanto, leeremos los volúmenes que K. E. Wagner ha recopilado de las obras escritas por REH sobre Conan, editados por Berkley, dando a éste el destino que cada uno considere más acertado" (p. 75). This last reflection is one of the reasons why the pastiches cannot be considered canonical.

In the chapter about witchcraft in the epic of Conan, Lalanda makes a near Marxist interpretation of the wizards: they are oppressors and exploiters just as Yara exploits Yogah in "The Tower of the Elephant". The lives of Xaltotun and Thoth-Amon, the two most important wizards, are described in explicit detail, based as always on Howard and other writers. However, in the case of the latter sorcerer, instead of using the pastiches it would have been much more interesting to use Howard's other texts and mention the intervention of Thoth-Amon in "The Haunter of the Ring". After that, we are presented with a series of lists with the main gods and demons; the talismans, magic books, potions; semihuman beings (apes, winged beings and so on) and lost civilisations. Lalanda refers to the latter as being normally situated in the south due to Ridder Haggard's and Burroughs' influences.

The commentaries regarding the other Howardian characters placed in our historical past are in general fairly routine. There is normally an attempt to give the reader useful information about the historical background of the stories that are being discussed. In the chapter dedicated to Bran Mak Morn there is a discussion about the exact historical moment and time in which his stories should be placed and it is suggested that the Wall mentioned in "Worms of the Earth" is the Antonine Wall. However, in "Men of the Shadows" a direct reference to Hadrian's Wall is made. This means that probably the stories of the Picts should be placed between the moment in which the Romans abandon the Antonine Wall and retreat to Hadrian's Wall, that is to say, between approximately 196 AD and 383-388 AD. It seems difficult to specify this more exactly not only because anachronisms appear in the series (the Norsemen) but also because of the presence of other contradictory historical facts. Maybe it is simply a case of "telescoping history" (cf. Burke 1999: 46). Just as in the case of the Pictish king, in the case of Cormac Mac Art and of Turlogh O'Brien we are presented with maps of the British Isles, even though in the case of the third character the range of the map should have been much wider regarding the geographic extension of his adventures. Lalanda discusses the moment of composition of the "The Shadow of the Hun" and starting from Turlogh's dream in this story he concludes that, "Turlogh se estaba acercando al lugar de su nacimiento, lo que quiere decirnos que REH se aproximaba hacia su muerte" (p.112). About Dark Agnes we are told that due to her destructive fury she is probably an avatar of Kali, goddess of war. Another map places Kane's adventures in African territory. We are also given useful historical information about Kane's world, the most important occurrences in his life are discussed and his stories are presented following "a chronological order" based on the chronology of Glenn Lord. One could ask to what extent this desire to order all his stories is justified. Howard's letter to P. Schuyler Miller (10th March 1936) is normally quoted to justify the fact that Howard had not taken into account a fully coherent and chronologically accurate account of Conan's development at the time of writing the stories. The fact that Kane's adventures take place in a historical and real time frame and Conan's in an imaginary one does not seem to be sufficient justification to order the stories of one character and not order those of the other. Actually Kane's Africa is just as fantastic as Conan's world (14).

In the chapters dedicated to the stories set in the twentieth century, Lalanda points out some of the authors that could have influenced Skull-Face: John Buchan, Sax Rohmer and G. Meyrink. On discussing Almuric the influence of E. Hamilton's "The Monster-God of Mamurth" is pointed out.

In "Robert E. Howard in Comic and Illustration", a fairly thorough review of the graphic representations of the Howardian heroes, Lalanda concludes that whilst the artistic quality is maintained in the illustrations, in the comic-books stereotypes prevail.

The last three chapters are doubtlessly the most interesting contribution of La canción, even if the reader may not have the patience to read that far, worn out by the never-ending summaries. In "The Howardian Hero as a Berserkr" the appearance and function of the warrior called berserkr amongst the Scandinavian people is discussed. Lalanda describes the process through which the berserkr experienced a change from a valued function of warrior to one that gave rise to the legends of the shapeshifting beings, such as werewolves. So, the wolf, symbol of the warrior and the wanderer, converted into a symbol of an outlaw, designated by the terms wargus or Volveshevad (wolfshead) depending on its geographical location. This can be clearly related to the lycanthropic stories of Howard. There are three characteristics of the berserkr that manifest themselves in the characters of Howard: birth in the wilderness (Kull, raised by tigers, Dark Agnes, raised in the woods, etc.); the fact of being an outlaw, which implies in itself the idea of the wanderer (Conan, Hunwulf, Agnes, etc.), and/or that they are the only ones capable of saving a group of people because they exist outside of this group (Cormac Mac Art, Esau Cairn, etc.); and finally their great physical strength and courage. All the Howardian heroes would therefore be avatars of the berserkr, to which Howard would pay homage: "Una contestación fácil a la pregunta de por qué REH dio a sus héroes este tratamiento de seres apartados sería decir que porque él se consideraba a sí mismo un marginado. Pero yo prefiero creer que, como gran conocedor del mito y de las épocas pasadas, quiso rendir un homenaje a ese guerrero valeroso y temido, el ╬berserkr', que, como él, no era ya de este siglo" (p.140).

In "Hidden Sources in Robert E. Howard", a very thought-provoking chapter, works by philosophers and esoteric writers that could have influenced Howard's ideas about the rise and fall of races and the emergence of continents, amongst other things, are discussed. Lalanda comments on the works of authors such as Comte de Gobineau, H. S. Chamberlain and the theosophists. He discusses the term "Hyperborean" and the topic of the North Pole as the place of origin of humankind starting from the works by Fabre D'Olivet, B.G. Tilak, Hermann Wirth, R. Quinton and R. Guénon. Lalanda also establishes a parallelism between the King of the World in Guénon's work and the figure of Epemitreus in "The Phoenix on the Sword".

"Reflections about the Death of Robert E. Howard" is an interesting chapter not only because it does not present Howard's death as a consequence of an oedipal relationship with his mother, but also because it presents a rather original explanation in itself. Lalanda compares a passage of the letter of Howard to Lovecraft of circa late May-early June 1932 ("Most of my dreams are laid in cold, giant landsĚ") with Turlogh's dream in "The Shadow of the Hun". The desire to return to the past expressed by these texts would be manifest too in the letter of Howard to C. A. Smith of 14th December 1933, in the description of the beyond made to Belit by Conan in "Queen of the Black Coast" and in "The Valley of the Worm". This desire to return to the past is a desire for death as well: "Hay un deseo de muerte simbolizado en el retorno a los orígenes, presente en sus sueños y en sus personajes que van retrocediendo en el tiempo, hasta llegar a Conan" (p. 146). This thanatophilia could therefore explain Howard's death. Lalanda, however, offers a second explanation for his suicide. For this he again uses the contents of the letter to C. A. Smith, but they are explained starting from Rivolta contro il mondo moderno by Julius Evola. Some of the ideas we encounter in Evola (who, by the way, placed a Hyperborean race in the North Pole, as well) that present parallelisms with Howard's refer to the fact that for several cultures man was made up of body, conscious Self and a third part called daimon. It is worthwhile quoting a part of the passage to which Lalanda refers: "el propio daimón ha sido hecho corresponder en muchas tradiciones con el llamado ╬doble', ... lo que se ha relacionado íntimamente con el antepasado primordial, y con el tótem concebido como alma y vida unitaria, generadora de una estirpe, de una familia, de un clan, o tribu. Los individuos del grupo aparecen ahora como otras tantas encarnaciones o emanaciones de este tótem, espíritu de su sangre" (p. 147). After death, the daimon would integrate itself with the totem, that is to say, it would return to the species and thus it could reach immortality. This state could also be reached by means of a deed of heroic nature as long as a strong linkage between the daimon and the Self existed. An example of that could be the reappearance of Belit as a revenant in "Queen of the Black Coast". The death of Howard would then be a consequence of an inner fight between Self and daimon, a conflict that is allegorised by the fight between the Tecuhltli and the Xotalancs in "Red Nails". "REH estaba dominado -no sabemos las causas- por su daimón, estrechamente vinculado a sus antepasados, lo que le fue productivo para la creación de sus personajes. Pero a partir del momento en que estos comenzaron a imponérsele -en particular Conan cuya entidad quería negar- comenzó su sufrimiento y su desequilibrio" (p. 147).

In spite of the fact that a good deal of La canción has a more descriptive rather than critical character, in spite of the fact that an excessive importance is bestowed upon the summaries and despite the fact that the Conan pastiches are used ÷which are actually accepted because the Lancer 12-book series were presented as definitive-, thus causing a certain Conancentrism in the book, the work by Lalanda is worth reading. In it, Howard's work is not presented as escapist literature, each one of his characters is given an individuality by means of physical and psychological portrayals, the maps are helpful, and the last chapters are an interesting contribution that offers something more than the book by Weinberg. It is in the final part of the book, and not in the Heroic Fantasy, where we can find the justification of the arrangement by which the Howardian characters are organised according to a temporal sequence that mirrors Howard's longing for the return to the origins, his racial awareness and his wish of paying homage to the berserkr.

 

 

NOTES:

  1. Henceforth La canción.
  2. Flynn immediately goes on to say: "The character of Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, and his adventures in the Hyborian Age are often mentioned in this context [that of Sword and Sorcery], in spite of the (literally) hundreds of other, more imaginative examples."
  3. All the page references in parenthesis are from La canción.
  4. Cf. Segre 1985: 247.
  5. Cf. Flynn (1995): "Admittedly, these stories [John Carter's and Tarzan's], and the other remarkable adventures set in Pellucidar, the ╬land that time forgot,' and Venus, are closer in nature to science fiction, but they also share many of the same hallmarks of heroic fantasy, including their exotic locales and magical realms, cliffhanging dangers and hairbreath escapes, occult mysteries and celebrated heroes."
  6. Cf. the reasons stated by Weinberg (1976: 77) not to include in his book tales precisely like those Lalanda decided to deal with.
  7. During the 1980s and 1990s they would be translated again by Forum and Martínez Roca respectively.
  8. The list of translations into Spanish until 1973 can be consulted in Lord (1977: 272-275).
  9. Omitting "The Curse of the Golden Skull".
  10. Cf., for instance, Drake (1995:3): "More than Conan, I think Kull was Howard's fictional self-portrait".
  11. Another example of this is the study by Reginald Smith on Weird Tales, that in spite of its many virtues deals with the poetry published in the aforementioned magazine in a marginal way (in Van Hise 1998: 42-44).
  12. Weinberg, however, decided not to take into account the pastiches (Weinberg 1976: 45).
  13. Herron (1976) uses the same reasoning in his famous article: "One of the major points of difference between Conan and Conantics is that REH's creation reacts to dangerous situations instinctively, whereas the de Camp-Carter imitation reacts logically"; "from the first tale in their chronological sequence that de Camp and Carter write, they make Conan a thinking man's barbarian"; "Carter's use of religion in the imitations is one of the major differences between Conantics and Conan, and one of the major flaws in an imitation of Howard".
  14. The essay by R. Toogood (in Van Hise 1997: 109-120) is excellent, but after reading it one is left with a feeling of being at the same point where one started.

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Burke (1999): Burke, Rusty, A short Biography of Robert E. Howard, New York, Cross Plains Comics, 1999.

Clute-Grant (1997): Clute, John and Grant, John (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, London, Orbit, 1997.

Drake (1995): Drake, David, Introduction to Howard, Robert E., Kull, Riverdale, Baen, 1995, pp. 1-4.

Flynn (1995): Flynn, John L., "A Historical Overview of Heroes in Contemporary Works of Fantasy Literature", in The Encyclopedia Galactica, 1995, http://www.towson.edu/~flynn/heroes.html

Herron (1976): Herron, Don, "Conan vs. Conantics", 1976, http://www.donherron.com/REH/ConanConant.html

------ (2000): Herron, Don (ed.), The Dark Barbarian, Gillette, Wildside Press, 2000.

Lord (1977): Lord, Glenn, The Last Celt, New York, Berkley, 1977.

Segre (1985): Segre, Cesare, Avviamento all'analisi del testo letterario, Turin, Einaudi, 1985.

Van Hise (1997): Van Hise, James (ed.), The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard, Yucca Valley, James Van Hise, 1997.

------ (1998): Van Hise, James (ed.), Pulp Magazine Thrillers, Yucca Valley, James Van Hise, 1998.

Weinberg (1976): Weinberg, Robert, The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword & Sorcery, West Linn, Starmont House, 1976.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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