The Shadow Singer / Summer Solstice 2003

Volume 2003, Number 2, Summer Solstice 2003

The Ballad of King Geraint, The Epic-Heroic Tradition,
Some Thoughts on a "Missing Shelf" of the REH Bookshelf,
and Other Conjectures
(inclusive of some foundation)

he Ballad of King Geraint is unique in the poetry of Robert E. Howard in several important ways. But before getting to a discussion of Geraint, it is important first to acknowledge the excellent discussion by Rusty Burke in his "Afterward" [sic] to an equally excellent small-circulation publication of the poem done for REHupa #100. My thanks also to Rusty for photocopying me in on this version.

Rusty suggests that one of the inspirations for the poem was Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse, a poem which REH enthuses about in several letters to TCS and uses -- especially for brief epigrammatic chapter intros -- in several pieces of his fiction. Rusty further suggests that the Chesterton prefatory material to White Horse, containing the fairly famous and frequently noted comments by GKC about the presentation of legendary material is important as a possible source of Howard's conflation of various Celtic (Briton, Irish, Scots) and Germanic (Anglo-Saxon and Norse) historical names into one innovatively fictive legendary vision -- a sort of legend made of various legendary figures.

To quote the relevant passages of Chesterton again is likely important here as a point of departure for the following essay. I hope to -- without refuting Rusty's view in any way -- suggest some further influences (or at the very least VERY likely influences upon Robert E. Howard) from what might be called the "missing" shelf on the REH bookshelf. I will be making a few leaps of faith, based upon what might be considered the "normal" and "easily accessible" readings for a young man of REH's interests and voracious appetite for legendary and heroic material. But first back to Rusty's discussion and some quotes from GKC.

Chesterton asserts in his prefatory material to The Ballad of the White Horse that, "I only seek to write upon hearsay, as the old popular balladists did." It is certainly in this same manner that Howard proceeded with Geraint. For let us examine that notion of "writing upon a hearsay." William Thoms coined the term "folklore" in 1846, changing forever (within a fairly short span of time) the old terminology of "popular antiquities."

I'll suggest that what Chesterton and Howard and many other writers of pulp and popular fiction have done is simply the extension of folklore into the Age of Print. Instead of "popular antiquities," with popular imaginative literature we have "popular modernities" but, nonetheless, the stuff done OF, BY, and FOR the people. And, which is more, it is stuff done in the keeping of traditions. The only difference in the tradition-keeping is in the medium: literary instead of "illiterary," written rather than chanted or sung, preserved by print rather than by performance. The mode, manner, and often the matter of the storytelling remains the stuff of tradition, following the tales, themes, and conventions of the earlier Oral Culture (as Walter Ong has differentiated them: Oral Culture, Scribal Culture, and Print Culture in the long sequence of human communication -- we're now well into "Hypermedial" of course).

So, GKC and REH are each "writing upon a hearsay." They are committers of the old orality to a new textuality, but they are SCOPS (O. E. for "shapers"/"makers") and BARDS (Celtic for the story-singer/great poet) for the modern era, making use of old things that they've heard said or that they have gleaned through documented textual evidence are part and parcel of the old grand "hearsay" of myth, epic, folktale, and legend.

Rusty (I am sure correctly) sees it as significant that Chesterton goes on in his "Prefatory Note" to assert:

". . . it is the chief value of legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment; to see all ages in a sort of splendid foreshortening. This is the use of tradition: it telescopes history."

Hence, we have Roman and Celt and Saxon and Viking in White Horse and we have the conflation of several centuries worth of names (mostly with historical and legendary/literary connections, but a few entirely fictive) from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain in Geraint.

I have no disagreement with what Rusty maintains as Chestertonian influence upon Howard in the writing of his own heroic "ballad." Likely the spur or at least one of the spurs for Howard's poetic endeavor was his admiration for GKC's famous poem. I also concur that the notion of "telescoping history" is a concept that REH either grabbed onto -- or perhaps had already felt or intuited, waiting for Chesterton's verbalization of the concept. Howard uses the technique again and again in narratives both in prose and also in poetry.

Rusty also points out the likely source of Howard's character of Geraint as "The Elegy for Geraint" -- a set of triads (the old Welsh often composed in three line stanzas or in parallel groupings of three) from The Black Book of Carmarthen. I think Rusty's on track here too.

In pointing out that Howard's "ballad" -- contrary to the Chesterton poem where the Christianized Saxons defend against pagan Vikings -- is a supposed last stand Celtic defense against the invading still-pagan Saxons, Rusty comments that "Howard has turned Chesterton's theme on it's ear (so to speak)." But this is not entirely so -- as I will try to maintain below.

Rusty goes on to say, "Howard deals with one of his own favorite themes, the valiant, but doomed, last stand of the barbarian against the invaders of his homeland." But here (except for the notion of the defender being "barbarian") IS a similarity with Chesterton's poem. King Alfred and his Saxons are defending England against the Danish incursion. Furthermore, there is some evidence in Geraint that the defending Celts are Christianized -- or at least less decidedly and too-the-man pagan than their Saxon foes (but that for a different occasion for discussion).

And at this point of departure from Burke's discussion, I'll begin to suggest some other possible -- but I believe likely -- influences upon and very possible antecedents of The Ballad of King Geraint.

My suggestions are based partly upon Rusty's excellent and exhaustively complete effort (based upon surviving texts) of recovering "The REH Bookshelf" and his excellent commentaries and notes about the same.

But my suggestions to follow are also based upon what might be called "the missing shelf" -- the "shelf" not directly attested by textual evidence from Howard himself or reliable sources, but nonetheless more than likely -- and not entirely without support. These "missing shelf" items fall into two main categories.

First, we may make conjectures (with some support from common practices and pedagogical standards of the day) about the range of material that he very well might be expected to have read during his formal schooling at Cross Plains High School and Howard Paine (and available almost certainly at the HPU library, if not the high school library -- possibly even in anthologies or "readers" for courses at Cross Plains) [And YES, the actual check of records at HPU has yet to be done; of course the check for CPHS is difficult if not impossible due to records destroyed by fire. I hope to explore these areas more fully while there is still some glimmer of hope that a few individuals survive who might remember the academic regimen at CPHS in the 1920's to early 1930's].

Second on the "missing bookshelf" might be those volumes that REH almost certainly sought out on his own, based on his voracious reading habits and interests and the commonly available texts and translations of his day.

Most of the "leaps" I'll make below are educated guesses to some degree. Some are supported, if albeit tangentially, by Rusty's own research into the bookshelf. Others are good conjectures by a school teacher and English professor with a pretty fair knowledge of what was available in Howard's day and which might be considered "common" reading, or "specialized, but likely" reading in REH's areas of known interest.

Rusty's bookshelf for REH references Homer (and I believe that both the Iliad and Odyssey would have been read by REH as standard fare -- at least in excerpt and/or synopsis -- for the high school upper classman of his era).

Another reference is Gildas -- one of the early writers on the history of the Britons after the Roman conquest and departure and the Saxon incursion. I think it highly likely that REH would have had access to and also ACCESSED such other writers on the subject as Geoffrey of Monmouth (early Arthurian material) and Nennius and, more importantly for my purpose, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle -- available in several modern English translations in the early 20th century.

Rusty notes that Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was a favorite, but I'll venture that REH knew ALL of Tennyson (Tennyson and Browning being the great "reading circle" poets of the late Victorian and early 20th c. epochs), including with this reading almost certainly The Idylls of the King -- Tennyson's great "Arthuriad."

There is some textual evidence to ponder in Geraint. The word "morte" is used for death in Howard's "ballad," and my leap here -- not too great a one, I believe -- is that REH had read the standard version of the Arthurian legend: Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

My greatest leap will be to suggest that Howard read voraciously in heroic literature in translation. This would include not only Beowulf, but, for my purposes, other European heroic-age epic poetry, most importantly, Le Chanson de Roland -- The Song of Roland, the national epic of the French (most available would be Charles Scott Moncrieff's edition, published London, 1919 and introduced by none other than Gilbert Keith Chesterton).

Let's examine Howard's The Ballad of King Geraint from some new perspectives.

First, coming from both the tradition of the Classical Epic (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautica, Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and Milton's Paradise Lost) and that of the so-called "Heroic Epic" (the popular or folk epics) of the Middle Ages: Beowulf, Roland, El Cid, Niebelungenlied, Volsungasaga, etc.) the "Roll Call of Heroes" or "Catalogue of Heroes" is a well-recognized convention of the epic form. Famous in the Iliad is the catalogue list of the various warriors of the Greeks and how many men and ships they each brought to Troy. I believe that Howard is simply using this technique -- commonly attested and utilized in heroic/epic literature to form the foundation of his lists of heroes on, first the Celtic, then the Saxon side. He gives us precise numbers like Homer and other epic writers often do. The "numbering of the hosts" is a fairly common convention in the epic genre.

Rusty notes that Howard's poem is, in meter and rhyme pattern nothing like Chesterton's White Horse. As a matter of fact, Howard's poem is NOT a ballad in the true sense at all (While it could be argued that Chesterton diverges from the traditional ballad himself, his 4, 5, or 6 liners are much more in keeping with the accentual and rhyming sequences of the ballad).

Howard uses stanzas of various length but rhymed in 4-beat couplets consistently (with the occasional triplet for variation). This is actually much more consistent with the patternings of the French epic, The Song of Roland -- which also includes MANY explicit one-on-one detailed battle scenes, each as a separate contest given in a single stanza, which is the general pattern of Howard's presentation of battle sequences in his poem.

Here is a sequence of Howard's The Ballad of King Geraint:

Nial smote on the pagan horse
Quenching his ivory-hilted sword
In the first and best of the Saxon blood,
The red horse raged through the clashing flood.
Ceorl and eorl and chief went down
With rended breast or cloven crown.
Aella the chieftain of the Tyne,
He clove through the shoulder and the spine.
He hacked his way to Geraint's side
Where the heathen brake like a broken tide.
Nor faltered Turlogh of Connacht;
Red the destruction that he wrought.
His red sword shore through breast and brain,
His corpses littered the trampled plain
And the red blood fell in a grisly rain.
Gulla he slew, the Juttish thane.

Dulborn smote on the shield of Gurth,
Horse and rider crashed to the earth.
Gurth arose from that deadly fall
Where dead men lie and horses sprawl.
Leaped like a tiger on his foe,
Dented his shield with a savage blow,
Gashed the shoulder that lay below.
Dulborn laughed like the twang of a bow.
Rose in his stirrups, downward smote,
Cleaving the Saxon to the throat.

And here is a sample from Moncrieff's translation of Roland which chronicles the demise of Roland (Charlemagne's nephew) and the others of the 12 Paladins of Charlemagne at the battle of Roncesvalles against the Moslems:

CCXLIII
Pure white the horse whereon Malprimes sate;
3370 Guided his corse amid the press of Franks,
Hour in, hour out, great blows he struck them back,
And, ever, dead one upon others packed.
Before them all has cried out Baligant:
"Barons, long time I've fed you at my hand.
3375 Ye see my son, who goes on Carlun's track,
And with his arms so many lords attacks;
Better vassal than him I'll not demand.
Go, succour him, each with his trenchant lance!"
Upon that word the pagans all advance;
3380 Grim blows they strike, the slaughter's very grand.
And marvellous and weighty the combat:
Before nor since was never such attack.
AOI.

CCXLIV
Great are the hosts; the companies in pride
Come touching, all the breadth of either side;
3385 And the pagans do marvellously strike.
So many shafts, by God! in pieces lie
And crumpled shields, and sarks with mail untwined!
So spattered all the earth there would you find
That through the field the grass so green and fine
3390 With men's life-blood is all vermilion dyed.
That admiral rallies once more his tribe:
"Barons, strike on, shatter the Christian line."
Now very keen and lasting is the fight,
As never was, before or since that time;
3395 The finish none shall reach, unless he die.
AOI

[the "AOI"s are common to end stanzas in The Song of Rolanda sort of "Hail!" or jubilant outcry -- or perhaps just a signal to the hearers of a new verse.]

It is also worthy of note that, as in The Song of Roland where the Twelve Paladins (including Roland) face off against an equal number of the Moslem invader chiefs, the names of primary champions are listed in the "roll call" in Roland, AND that there are, including Geraint, 11 chief combatants for the Celts and, including Ceawlin, 12 chief combatants for the Saxon side. Perhaps not coincidence here?

As is the case in the typical clash of one set of combatants per stanza of Roland, the like is the case with Geraint. Rusty notes the relative lack of dialogue until later in Howard's poem. Most of the stanazs of Roland are narrative and descriptive too, rather than dialogic. And both poems are about failed defenses and fallen heroes.

Another important possible influence upon REH was, I believe, the collection of historical and legendary notes and snatches of heroic poetry which is usually called The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These chronicles are actually Annals in that they are arranged by year.

But two years are of particular interest and would have been -- assuming Howard had seen, any of the Chronicle -- the most likely introductions to it via his formal education (either in English or History classes) or his specialized and self-directed education. They are certainly the most often quoted passages from these famous annals of the Anglo-Saxons.

One of these is the account of the first recorded Viking incursion upon English soil in the year 793 A.D.:

"793 A.D. In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria, and wretchedly terrified the people. There were incredible whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and shortly after in the same year, on January 8th, the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne through brutal robbery and slaughter . . ." (my emphasis)

And in The Ballad of King Geraint we find:

Warriors from Lindisfarne and York,
Jutes and Angles, fierce and stark,
Rode in the Saxon phalanx dark. (my emphasis)

That REH knows of Lindisfarne as a place is not proof of his reading of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but it is a possible textual connection. Any reference to "Lindisfarne" would cross reference it's importance in the Chronicle.

More important is the lone reference in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 937 A.D. In that year, Aethalstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, asserted his right as King of all England. He and his brother Eadmund defeated a combined force of Vikings and Picts at what is usually called "The Battle of Brunanburh." Not only are "Athelstan" and "Eadmund" names in Howard's poem, but they are prominent figures among the Saxons. The entry for the Chronicle is a poem in heroic Old English meter (alliterated in "half lines"), usually also called "The Battle of Brunanburh." It begins:


Here (in this year, at this time) Athelstan the king, the Lord of Earls /
The warriors' ring giver, and also his brother, /
Eadmund the noble warrior, the elder of an ancient race /
Slew in the fight, with their swords' edges /
The foe around Brunanburh. They cleft the shield wall (literally "the wall of boards") /
Hewed foe's banners, the leavings of their war-hammers ("hamora lafum" = "the leavings of hammers"/
These sons of Eadward. So the people were ennobled /
Taught by the fervor of their kindred /
That they at battle often would defend /
Hoard and home . . .

Not only are Athelstan and Eadward prominent among the Saxons in The Ballad of King Geraint, but we have the following most interesting possible result of inspiration from the "shield wall" mentioned in the opening of the "Brunanburh" poem:


Now front them on the open plain,
The heavy-armed ceorls of Athelstane
With his comrade Edric the Red, the Dane.
They have locked their shields in a solid wall
Their spears a-bristle above them all.
Grimmest arm of the Saxon war,
Geraint sees his setting star. (emphasis mine)

In addition to a very plausible influence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, specifically the entries about Lindisfarne and the Battle of Brunanburh, there are other possible influences upon Howard's poem.

Certainly another set of inspirations must come from Howard's knowledge of Arthurian material. For one thing, Uther is a character in Howard's "ballad," and that is the name usually attributed to the father of Arthur -- Uther Pendragon. Also, and more importantly, Geraint becomes/IS, in effect, the Arthur figure for this poem. The historical Arthur (and there likely was such -- only he was most likely a general or "leader of battles" [Dux Bellorum] as the 9th century monk Nennius's calls him in the Historia Brittonum -- and not the great king of accumlated legend) was most likely a Romanized Celt, an upper class Briton, likely a Christian of mixed Roman and ancient Welsh or Cornish blood who did precisely what Geraint and his followers are doing in the Howard poem -- fighting against the then-Pagan Saxon invaders of the Island of Britain. This would have happened in the late 5th or early 6th centuries A.D.

Now we know that Howard admired at least one Tennyson poem. It's not too great a stretch to assume he knew lots or all of Tennyson.

Put the other way round, knowing Howard's interests and preferences as a writer and reader, why wouldn't he have read The Idylls of the King, Tennyson's great poetic rendition of the Arthurian cycle? For one thing, there is a section of the Idylls (as Rusty notes) called "Geraint and Enid." While this "Geraint" (same spelling though) is, as Rusty also properly points out, NOT the likely inspiration figure for Howard's poem, any search -- then as now -- at a good library for "Geraint" or its variations might have landed Howard at, for example, Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Welsh Mabinogion, or other early Welsh sources -- such as The Black Book of Carmarthen.

[REVISION (and a further note on the Tennyson connection): It must here be noted that Howardian scholar Patrice Louinet has also -- and previously, but in as yet unpublished research -- seen the likelihood of influence by Tennyson (especially Idylls upon Howard -- and particularly on "The Ballad of King Geraint." I agree with him in this observation.]

Most importantly from The Idylls, I will remind of certain passages in the last great episode: "The Passing of Arthur":

Then rose the King and moved his host by night,
And ever push'd Sir Modred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse--
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
There the pursuer could pursue no more,
And he that fled no further fly the King;
And there, that day when the great light of heaven
Burn'd at his lowest in the rolling year,
On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed.
Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:
Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and ev'n on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fights,

And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battleaxes on shatter'd helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Look'd up for heaven, and only saw the mist;

And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.
(emphasis mine)

In Howard's The Ballad of King Geraint we have the following interesting parallel:

Now while the fight had thundered on
A shadow over the plain had gone,
And a strange white mist fell over all,
Veiling the plain in a mystic pall.
Men could not see for half a pace
Through the strange white shroud before their face.
Turlogh and Eadmund dealt their blows
When sudden the mist swept down to close,
Hid friends from friends and foes from foes.
In the veiling mist Turlogh smote blind
Trusting to chance his foe to find.
He felt the axe on the helmet crash
And the chief go down with a sounding clash.
He heard in the mist the ring of steel,
The shout of men and the trumpet's peal.
He heard the clash of the flying swords
Where the King and Nial fought the lords,
But all was grisly and strange and white;
Forms rose and faded in his sight.
Unseen weapons dealt him blows,
He slew in the mist invisible foes.
And all the field was white and strange
Like a plain over which dead specters range.
Men groped like blind men through the tide

And no man knows how King Geraint died.

There is at least one other interesting parallel with Tennyson's Idylls. Here is another oft-quoted passage:

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
"The sequel of to-day unsolders all
The goodliest fellowship of famous knights
Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep
They sleep--the men I loved. I think that we
Shall never more, at any future time,
Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
Walking about the gardens and the halls
Of Camelot, as in the days that were."

This is the mood and theme traditionally called "Ubi Sunt" ["Where are they, where have they gone?" as in "Gone are the snows of yesteryear" and general longing for "the good old days" and the way things were -- in a better Past time.]

And in Howard we find:
All of the British men-at-arms
Sleep at rest from war's alarms.
All of his chivalry are reft,
None of his knights is to Geraint left.
Of all that followed his gleaming train
Only the Irish chiefs remain.
All of the three are wounded sore,
Head to heel they are steeped in gore.
Their shattered shields they have thrown away,
Splendor of God, what a fearful fray!
Snapped at the hilt was Turlogh's brand,
He snatched an axe from a dying hand.
"This is the end," King Geraint said,
"All our warriors and knights are dead.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I believe the parallel here provides textual support for Tennysonian influence in this passage. And both passages seem to urge us, as Shakespeare gives the words to Richard -- "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings."

There are other parallels abounding I think. Angus is like Ajax the Greater in the Iliad, a huge and mighty man, a tower of strength. The recounting of his last battle is, to my mind, the greatest sustained sweep of heroic poetry in the Howard poem. Thor-like, he uses a mace, also called a "mallet" in the poem.

There is also, reminiscent of Homeric epic, the feud over a woman. Not Helen of Troy, but some woman like her in the passage about Swane's "ancient feud" with Turlogh of Connacht (the survivor of the battle and, of course, a Howardian character in other fictions):

Through the battle, Swane the viking sought
For the face of Turlogh of Connacht.
An ancient feud lay red between,
A long gone day and a traitor queen.
And a crashing of galleys
, black and lean.
(my emphasis)

Why the "crashing of galleys" and the mention of ships in a poem about a land engagement? A carry-over from "the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships?"

We also have other epic conventions like the Homeric Simile (an extended or elaborated simile) :

Like a triple thunderbolt of death,
That bursts through clouds heaped dark blue,
The three great steeds came crashing through.

and shortly thereafter:

Men saw the great white charger loom
Like a flashing thundercloud of doom,
And the great red steed like a storm of hate,
And the huge black horse like a wind of Fate.
(emphasis mine)

And, while we're on the topic of Horses of Different Colors, is there not surely also here a Howardian recollection (however repressed or sublimated) of the following culturally significant and very well known passage:

Revelation 6:

1: And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

2: And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

[Geraint rides the white horse and is King.]

3: And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

4: And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

5: And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. (emphases mine)

[Is it coincidence that the two horses of the remaining Irish chiefs are Red and Black?]

7: And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

8: And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
(all emphases mine)

[The three named horses, White, Red, and Black are not only named in the same order as the account in Revelation, but they also seem to represent the same things: White for Kingship, Red for Hatred and War, Black for Fate or Judgement -- and the Pale Rider of Death is certainly present, both backgrounding and foregrounding the poem.]

Concluding Comments:

There is room for a great deal more discussion and close reading of what is actually one of Robert E. Howard's most ambitious and successful poetic efforts.

In this poem -- as in much of his prose and other poetic storytelling, but here essentially distilled in the heady wine of heroic poetry -- Robert E. Howard creates and conflates "history" and historical or legendary personages. What I am contending beyond this, is that his likely sources were many and possibly legion as well as legendary. The roots of this poem were embedded in his psyche and memory and subconscious as well as imagined and realized in his active and conscious working of the piece.

What I'm suggesting is actually what Rusty Burke says in his "Afterward" to the earlier publication of The Ballad of King Geraint":

"I have elsewhere asserted that Robert E. Howard is best understood as standing squarely within the Celtic story-telling tradition of the Irish seanchai*"

*My Note: pronounced Shawn'-a-key -- not only a teller of old tales and legends, but a keeper of tradition.

Indeed yes! Howard was the Seanchai, the Bard, the Scop, working the ways of those old accumulators and "recombiners" and raconteurs (the word etymology in French means to RE-count, to RE-call -- to RE-member and RE-tell).

His memory and vast imagination were fed by examples -- in his case chiefly examples read and researched and not heard -- stories to be remixed and recombined and retold in writing and not by chanted voice.

Thus, Robert E. Howard's The Ballad of King Geraint is not only a conflation of historical and legendary names that "telescopes history," it is a conflation of sources and motifs. It telescopes heroic traditions and antecedent stories and legends.

On the one hand, it derives from Howard's skilled conscious Art and traditionally embued and endowed craft. It is the poet working with clearly remembered antecedent inspirations and modes.

On the other hand, it is the more mystical outpouring of Howard's inspired bardic soul and the sublimated memories of all the heroism and legendary lore he had read or encountered up to the point of writing. It is the bardic "recombinative imagination" at work. s


NOTE: This essay originally appeared as The Cross Plainsman, my journal contribution
for he Robert E. Howard United Press Association for June 2003.
2003 by Frank Coffman, all rights reserved
contact fcoffman@pobox.com for permissions.