No. 1 -- A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
A look at redemption, survival, and death in the fiction of
Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, and Jack London
Stories and Main Characters:
The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
Harry -- A failed writer
Helen -- Harry's wealthy wife
Compson -- A pilot
The Frost Giant's Daughter by Robert E. Howard
Conan -- A warrior from Cimmeria
Atali -- The frost-giant's daughter
Ymir -- The frost-giant
To Build A Fire by Jack London
The man -- A newcomer to Alaska
The dog -- The man's companion
The old-timer -- An experienced prospector
The Snows of Kilimanjaro deals with Harry, a failed writer, who is dying of gangrene in Africa. Harry is dying and knows it. Before he dies he remembers events in his life that he should have written about. He blames his reliance on Helen's (his wife) wealth for his failure to write. At the end of the story, Harry is aware of the grim reaper's presence and has a dream where a pilot, Compson, flies him to the snow covered peaks of Kilimanjaro.
The Frost Giant's Daughter tells a story of Conan the Cimmerian. The world of Conan is not our world. It is a forgotten past before recorded history where gods and magic interfere with daily life. This story has Conan as the last survivor of a battle between yellow haired Aesir and red haired Vanir. Conan, a dark haired barbarian, has fought with the Aesir. Conan lies weakened from battle in the cold snow. A beautiful woman, Atali, appears and leads him into a trap. Conan survives the trap and attempts to rape her. Her father, the Frost Giant, Ymir, rescues her. Conan's Aesir allies find him collapsed in the snow. Conan tells the story; and one of the Aesir suggests that the incident was a dream.
To Build A Fire deals with a nameless man alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Only his dog accompanies him. The temperature has dropped to a dangerous level. Due to inexperience the man does not realize his danger. He slowly freezes to death. Before dying the man imagines himself with others looking at his own frozen body. He imagines himself back on Sulphur Creek and telling the old-timer, whose advice he has ignored, that he was right about the dangerous cold. The dog survives to look for another provider.
* * *
Hemingway's character, Harry, is introduced through dialog. The dialog shows us a bitter man who is dying of gangrene. Harry ignores his wife's advice and drinks alcohol to relieve his mental pain. Hemingway explains that the gangrene's progression is painless. Harry's torment is for his missed opportunities. Harry had aspirations of being a writer. Harry blames his wife's wealth for his procrastination and slothfulness. Harry is not someone the reader immediately identifies with. He is bitter and rude. The reader grows to sympathize with him through a series of flashbacks.
Howard starts his story in the aftermath of a great battle. Conan and Heimdul are the last survivors. Conan is a fantasy figure. A tough alpha-male that certain readers would want to be or imagine them self to be. Conan's world, while seemingly fantastical, really IS our world. Men continue to kill each other in blood feuds. There are winners (survivors) and losers on the battlefield. Conan is a survivor. He possesses enough strength and skill to survive dangerous situations. He doesn't pray by his gods, as much as swear by them but Conan believes in his gods. Some readers might have to suspend literary notions about fantasy to completely identify with Conan but he is a realistic enough character to identify with.
London introduces the man and the cold together in the opening sentence. London's unnamed character is a reasonably capable and intelligent man but doesn't have the experience and imagination to realize the harm he is in. The reader easily sympathizes with him. His experience becomes our experience. His terror of freezing to death becomes our terror.
* * *
Hemingway's story is certainly the most modern and complicated in structure. It is told in dialog and flashback and Harry's dream is not immediately understood to be a dream. Harry's first flashback recalls his time spent in war-torn Bulgaria. It was winter and Harry recalls the snow and the misery resulting from the war. He has some happy memories of skiing. After this first memory Harry continues to insult his wife and her money.
"Love is a dunghill," said Harry. "And I'm the cock that gets on it to crow." Helen is hurt by Harry's bitterness. "You liked to do many things and everything you wanted to do I did." Harry continues to insult her. She asks Harry why he has to turn into a devil. "I don't like to leave anything," the man said. "I don't like to leave things behind."
Afterward Harry realizes he has squandered his talent by himself. He traded his talent for money and comfort. Helen truly loves Harry but Harry can't honestly say he loves her. Harry recalls time spent whoring in Constantinople. He experimented with opium. Harry meets a Dadaist writer who he despises. This man's writing success is juxtaposed with Harry's escapism from life. Harry has more memories that highlight events that he should have written about. Harry's final flashback recalls a soldier who was in intense pain having been hit by a bomb. Harry in a moment of sacrifice gives the man his supply of morphine.
[á] he was caught in the wire, with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire, so when they brought him in, alive, they had to cut him loose. Shoot me, Harry. For Christ sake shoot me. They had had an argument one time about our Lord never sending you anything you could not bear and some one's theory had been that meant at a certain time the pain passed you out automatically, but he had always remembered Williamson, that night. Nothing passed out Williamson until he gave him all his morphine tablets that he had saved to use himself and then they did not work right away.
After this final memory, Harry tells his wife that he has been writing. His recollections of past events have been writing of a sort. It comforts Harry as much as Helen to hear himself say this. Harry has a final conversation with his wife.
"Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull," he told her. "It can be two bicycle policeman as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena."
* * *
Howard begins by describing the aftermath of battle. He expertly has the reader hear the sounds of battle and the now silent battlefield with a minimum of words. The story is full of stark poetic imagery. His images are of battle, the beauty of the snow, and the beauty of the female who is one with the cold.
"This day I have seen four score men fall, and I alone have survived the field where Wulfhere's reavers met the wolves of Bragi. Tell me, woman, have you seen the flash of mail out across the snow-plains, or seen armed men moving upon the ice?"
"I have seen the hoar-frost glittering in the sun," she answered. "I have heard the wind whispering across the everlasting snows."
Conan seeks help in finding his Aesir allies. Atali ignores Conan's questions and baits him to follow her using her beauty as enticement. Conan chases her across the frozen earth.
"Brothers!" cried the girl, dancing between them. "Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father's board!"
Conan kills the brothers and continues to chase Atali. Despite the descriptions of snow and frost the reader is more heated by Conan's chase than chilled. More than a few readers are ready to rape Atali along with Conan.
Her golden hair blew about his face, blinding him with its sheen; the feel of her slender body twisting in his mailed arms drove him to blinder madness. His strong fingers sank deep into her smooth flesh; and that flesh was cold as ice. It was as if he embraced not a woman of human flesh and blood, but a woman of flaming ice.
* * *
London tells his story in a straightforward manner. We are told the man is a newcomer, a chechaquo, and that this is his first winter. He is outwardly capable but doesn't have the imagination needed for preservation. He can measure the cold in degrees but cannot fathom the cold as a dangerous adversary. London's description of the cold is beautifully chilling.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below -- how much colder he did not know.
The story is all narrative without dialog. London's prose is not as poetic as Howard's or as matter of fact and clipped as Hemingway's. It is remarkably effective and mood setting though. A dog accompanies the man. London compares their reactions to the cold.
Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being. But the man knew, having achieved a judgment on the subject, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was cold.
The dog's instincts are truer than the man's intellect. By the time the man realizes the danger he is in it is too late. The man recalls an old timer's advice about traveling alone. The man gets to the point where he is so cold he cannot build a fire.
The man hits upon the idea of killing the dog to warm his fingers. The dog senses a note of fear in the man's voice. It scares him. The man uses his assertive voice, the one accompanied by the whiplash. The dog obeys. The man cannot hold the struggling dog, nor are his fingers able to hold a knife. The man realizes he is going to die. He runs madly. The dog follows.
The warmth and security of the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears appeasingly. [á] Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There are worse ways to die.
* * *
All three stories share certain elements: snow, a dream sequence, a lead male character, and believable conflict. Each author did something unique and personal with these elements and the characters involved. Hemingway, Howard, and London share an affinity for strong male characters and all are excellent at describing conflict. Their writing styles, as discussed above, are also somewhat similar. But they differ in several ways. Hemingway's story is also concerned with male/female relationships. Harry and Helen (despite his adventuring and her wealth) have problems like most any married couple. Howard's female character is an object of divine deceit and lust. Howard is concerned with more than a simple male/female relationship. In London's story the relationship between the man and the dog is one of practicality and need. Their final themes differ but all are morality tales with lessons to be learned.
In Hemingway's story Harry dies. He has been in conflict with nature (in the form of disease) but he is mostly in conflict with himself. He has a vision before his death that comforts him. The angel-like Compson flies him to the peak of Kilimanjaro. The peak represents a sense of attainment and the snow represents clean beauty. Harry's death wish attainment is a gift from the hand of death. Harry's life, while imperfect, was his life. His choice to enjoy the leisure that his wife's money afforded him was a mistake but it was his mistake. He has only himself to blame. Harry's life was not meaningless though. His memories reveal his character and his last memory redeems him. His sacrifice of the morphine pills was significant. Hemingway's reader gets a sense of how the shortcomings of their own life can be redeemed by self-sacrificing actions that they barely remember.
Howard's Conan is the ultimate survivor. Conan's conflict is with man, nature, and God. Conan survives all three. The cold landscape represents the beauty and harshness of nature. Conan is one with the land. He is an instinctual being like London's dog. But Conan does not submit to authority. Ymir saves his daughter from the rape but does not seek revenge on Conan for the loss of his two sons and the humiliation of his daughter. The God has learned a lesson about demanding sacrifice and interfering with man's will to survive. The reader becomes empowered by Conan's survival. The fantastical nature of a human besting a God and his family is muted by Howard's suggestion that it could be a dream. That Howard ends the story with Conan holding an otherworldly gossamer garment tells us that the events were true enough though. The discerning reader has learned that man's desire to survive can be more powerful than nature or god.
In London's story the man freezes to death. The cold is Alaska at its harshest. The man has learned a lesson about listening to old timers and learning from their experience. His final memory is what could have been had he followed the advice of men that can feel the Alaskan wilderness with their soul. The dog survives due to his instincts not his intellect. The reader is saddened by the man's fate but we have come to accept it. The reader has learned a lesson about the harshness of nature and the common man's inability to perceive its magnitude.