Autumnal Equinox — 2003

Elsewhere Man:
The Spiritual Voyaging of Robert E. Howard

(an essay in progress, initial "rough")

(creative writing feature of
The Cross Plainsman
my Journal for REHupa)

Elsewhere Man
by Frank Coffman, late September - 1 October 2003
(with apologies to The Beatles)

Was a real elsewhere man,
Restless in his nowhere land,
Spinning all his elsewhere tales for anybody.
Had decided points of view, and the lands he yearned to know
Prompted wondrous tales for one and all.
Elsewhere man, he listened —
Knew just what he was missing —
Elsewhere man: Elseworlds were at his command.
And his pent creativity
Forced its walls and then broke free
Telling tales to awe us, you and me.
Elsewhere man, in a flurry —
Always in a goaded hurry —
Also left us fine, edged poetry.
Wished to be elsewhere, elsewhen,
Saw Life's elsehows and elsewhys,
Gave us elsewhats and elseviews,
Gave us hero deeds and wild surmise.
Gave us otherworlds and vistas new —
Springing from his Elsewho in disguise.

obert E. Howard can be seen as an "Elsewhere Man." A man who lived vicariously to a large degree through the stories (and some of the poetry and, to some extent, the letters) he created.

He was an "escapist" in the good sense of that word as defined by Tolkien in his essay "On Fairie Stories" — not a fleeing "deserter," but an escaping "prisoner" of his physical environment and of his social and family setting. Tolkien's differentiation between "The Flight of the Deserter" and "The Escape of the Prisoner" is an important one for all of the genres of popular fiction. The critics who use "escapist" as a uniformly disparaging word are missing the important point that ALL fiction (even so-called "Realism") takes us to "Secondary Worlds" — as JRRT calls them — of the author's invention. We live vicariously in these other realms while we walk between the covers of the book or magazine.

John Keats wrote:

"Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen.
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold."

But Keats never travelled broadly — except to Rome in his last days to try to find a better climate to ease the end brought on by his consumption (tuberculosis). And critics generally agree that the "realms of gold" are the gilt-edged pages of old fine books that allow the transport of the soul. He most certainly never visited "many goodly states and kingdoms" — at least not in the flesh.

Emily Dickinson touches on a similar theme:

"There is no frigate like a book
To Take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

"This traverse may be the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is that chariot
That bears a human soul!"

But Robert E. Howard, a man literally "land locked," a "landlubber" would write often about the sea and "crossing over," would write about heroes and their adventures in lands both elsewhere and elsewhen. He found the means to go "lands away" on the humble paving stones of the pages he wrote, on the "prancing poetry" of his verse that careers on to new and strange and wondrous vistas.

My primary contention with this embryonic set of premises is that — just as readers may live and adventure vicariously through the pages of a text — by the "injection" of vicarious stimula, so to perhaps an even greater degree can an author (specifically REH as a prime example) "project" himself into such realms of wonder — and this is likely much of the source of magic in Howard's writings. This "soul projection," this "transportable spirit" is a large part of the Howardian formula. In doing so, Howard allowed us to go through his wonderfully wrought portals into elsewhere and elsewhen, but also in doing so, he himself became an "elsewho."

Various psychologists will have different names for this. Possibly Freud's "super ego" might work, but that seems to me to fall short of what creative artists do. Some, quite possibly, would call it "delusion," but I do not believe REH was out of touch with the actual "realities" of his life and situation. He merely didn't want to be bound by them. He found ways for himself to break free, thereby blazing trails for us to follow. In one of his own poems he writes:


I too have strode those white-paved roads that run
Through dreamy woodlands to the Roman Wall,
Have seen the white towns gleaming in the sun,
And heard afar the elf-like trumpet call.

The beck of that "elf-like trumpet" was heeded by REH through his imaginative wanderings. He prepared for his "journeys" by stocking up on great amounts of knowledge of old worlds and peoples and by reading voraciously all the history and adventure literature and fine poetry he could lay his hands on. He prepared for that journey by living as closely as his real situation would allow to those ideas of stoic heroism and strength and honor which would epitomize the heroic creations of his mind.

As some have already suggested, his stories "made him" perhaps as much as he made the stories. But ultimately, these cross-influences had their nexus in the person of Robert Ervin Howard.

What I'm getting at is, as usual, expressed best by the writer himself. In what I consider to be Howard's finest poem upon this same theme of travel to "the realms of gold" or "lands away," I believe "The Adventurer" says it all quite nicely (note that the underscored emphases are mine and not in the original poem):

The Adventurer

Dusk on the sea; the fading twilight shifts'
The night wind bears the ocean's whisper dim -
Wind, on your bosom many a phantom drifts -
A silver star climbs up the blue world rim.
Wind, make the green leaves dance above me here
And idly swing my silken hammock - so;

Now, on that glimmering molten silver mere
Send the long ripples wavering to and fro.
And let your moon-white tresses touch my face
And let me know your slim-armed, cool embrace
While to my dreamy soul you whisper low.

Dream - aye, I've dreamed since last night left her tower
And now again she comes on star-soled feet.
Welcome, old friend; here in this rose-gemmed bower
I've drowsed away your Sultan's golden heat.
Here in my hammock, Time I've dreamed away
For I have but to stretch a hand out, lo,
I'm treading langurous shores of Yesterday
Moon-silvered deserts or the star-weird snow;
I float o'er seas where ships are purple shells,
I hear the tinkle of the camel bells
That waft down Cairo's streets when dawn winds blow.

South Seas! I watch when dusky twilight comes
Making vague gods of ancient, sea-set trees.
The world path beckons - loud the mystic drums -
Here at my hand the magic golden keys
That fit the doors of Romance, Wonder, strange
Dim gossamer adventures; seas and stars
Why, I have roamed the far Moon Mountain range
When sunset minted gold in shimmering bars.
All eager eyed I've sailed from ports of Spain
And watched the flashing topaz of the Main
When dawn was flinging witch fire on the spars.

I am content in dreams to roam my fill
The vagrant, drifting sport of wind and tide,
Slave of the greater freedom, venture's thrill;
Here every magic ship on which I ride
Gold, green, blue, red, a priceless treasure trove,
More wealth than ever pirate dared to dream.
My hammock swings - about the world I rove.
The sunset's dusk, the dawning's glide and gleam,
Moon-dappled leaves are murmuring in the wind
Which whispers tales
. Lo, Tyre is just behind,
Through seas of dawn I sail, Romance abeam. [all emphases mine]

The same metaphors are there. Sailing and "the vagrant, drifting sport of wind and tide," "the ocean's wisper dim." The realiziation is clear of the author, the poet, the dreamer-adventurer: "Here at my hand the magic golden keys / That fit the doors of Romance, Wonder, strange / Dim gossamer adventures; seas and stars."

Howard would use these "golden keys" constantly in his creations. Though his real life journeys carried him across the plains and deserts of the Southwest, his vicarious life journeys carried his yearning spirit much farther. He could not "voyage" in his physical body, but again and again he hazarded the seas of life and spirit and creative imagination.

The interesting paradox of Howard's words—"Slave of the greater freedom . . ."—underscores what I'm getting at here. Howard was a man both confined and free: restrained by the strict parameters and necessities of his physical, familial, and social surroundings; boundless (in multiple senses of that word) in his imagination and in the energy that he poured into his vicarious wanderings.

It is interesting how many artists who didn't travel much in actuality: Keats, Dickinson, and Howard already mentioned use these metaphors of sailing and great voyaging. As Archetypes [Jung], of course, they are symbols of the voyage, the adventurous journey of life itself. In the Campbellian sense, they echo the "monomythic" journey of the hero of tradition [see Jos. Campbell, Hero with 1000 Faces].

Many have noted that the front cover of a book is actually a door. Once opened, that portal once crossed, we are in that different realm of the mind and spirit and imagination of another. It is both a communication and a communion of sorts.

Even more truly, the crafter or creator of that world behind the door has had to go several degrees farther into the vicarious life and has to have seen more fully and precisely the visions of elsewhere, elsewhen. While we as readers can "identify" with characters in a well-written story, that "identification" is usually more along the lines of sympathy or empathy. The characters themselves are more truly "avatars" of the author — in the case of protagonists most often, they ARE beings of virtual "identity."

Beyond all this "Elsewho" business about Robert E. Howard, I'll contend that there is another "else-" of great importance: The ElseHOW.

By "Elsehow" I'm talking about Howard's methods and modes and distinctive nuances of creation, structuring, and styling. Certainly this would be the case with the genre he is most often credited with inventing: Sword and Sorcery.

I believe REH was a great writer largely because he knew the old formulae so well that he felt confident to experiment with them, break rules, and make his own way. In this too, I believe he was a "trail blazer" and not a "path follower." Such must one be to be a great artist and not simply a member of a "school."

He read widely and wrote wildly.

By "wildly," I do not mean with reckless abandon or with too little care. I mean that he wrote — at his best — unconstrainedly. Once he had learned and knew by heart the confinements of the rules of good writing and the literary traditions of good narrative and good poetics — he wrote himself free! He does not always break with rule or tradition or genre, but in his best work he shows a willingness to set his own rules and begin his own traditions — for which we credit him today.

This business of "Elsehow" is my primary interest in Howard's work — the study of the brushstrokes and choices of pigment and sizes of canvas and not merely the overall impact of the pictures wrought.

I want to see a critical focus on Howard's work which varies from the overly biographical emphases of most earlier critics. Let's look more at the literature we have from the man and a bit less — at least for a while — at his life and death.

Yes, of course, the "Elsewhere Man" as I have described him did go to that Elsewhere which awaits us all. Some have argued that it was that variety which Tolkien calls "Desertion." Perhaps it was, to Howard's way of thinking, merely a final gesture of breaking free.