Much of the work posted herein and to follow in forthcoming numbers of this online journal will be material already published within REHupa, The Robert E. Howard United Press Association, a print APA of which I am also a member.
The selections below represent work previously published in Official Mailings of REHupa, The Robert E. Howard United Press Association. The first is an essay presenting a general view of what might be called a "Theory of Juxtaposition" or of "Bold Relief" or, as I term it below: "Crossed Planes."
The other selections are some poems from my creative writing section of my REHupa journal (THE CROSS PLAINSMAN). I call that section "Coffman Street" because of the history that a family named Coffman (same as mine, same spelling, likely no relation) owned the land upon which the Robert E. Howard house in Cross Plains, Texas rests, and -- up until the recent renaming of the dirt road to the west of the house (now "Mesquite") -- that road was called "Coffman Street."
Cross Plains, Crossed Planes,
and the Nature of Fantasy
Cross Plains, Crossed Planes,
by D. Franklin Coffman, Jr.
Assoc. Prof. of English and Journalism, Rock Valley College, Rockford, Illinois
© 2000 by Frank Coffman, all rights reserved
That Robert E. Howard delineated the boundaries and sketched in most of the background and fleshed out most of the key elements of the Sword & Sorcery genre is little disputed. Any successful artist in any art both extends and redefines the genre; few have done so much as Howard to set basic parameters. One could argue with great success that the work of Doyle in perfecting the Classic Detective Story or the work of Wells in defining what Science Fiction was to become would qualify as such achievements. In that particular niche in the early 20th century that could be called the "primordial fantasy adventure" only Howard and Burroughs qualify as masters; although inspiration has to be acknowledged from writers of the Naturalist schoolÖespecially Jack London and Robert Service.
As T. S. Eliot maintains in his important essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent":
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
The questions of analogues, influences, and inspirations for Howard's achievements are matters for other papers with other foci --although there are rich and waiting mines of material for the researcher to explore. My purpose here is to assert that Howard's adventure-laden fantasies demonstrate an axiomatic principle of the creation of fantasy worlds.
It is interesting that Robert E. Howard's brief, creative life should be lived in part and ended at Cross Plains, Texas. The varied vistas of central Texas offered springboards of inspiration for the writer's backgrounds, but the town name coincidentally suggests an angle of approach and interpretation to the broader genre of all fantastic fiction. This principle could properly be called "The Principle of Juxtaposition" or of "Bold Relief," the notion that Fantasy is important and powerful as a genre in that, when it succeeds, it enables us to see objective and inviolable and unalterable Truth against a background of untruth. At the very least it enables us to see the artist's "Truth" --whatever that vision may contain. In bold relief against the background of the fantastic, when juxtaposed against the elements of what Tolkien calls the "Secondary World,"1 those elements which we can relate to as human beings, those elements which ring "True," stand out. These elements are sometimes, perhaps most times, blurred or indistinct against the backgrounds of Realism.
But another way to view the achievement of effective fantasy is to view the world of our perceived reality and the world of the received fantasy as two separate "planes" of existence. This notion of fantasy happening on another level or plane is not new, but we may extend the metaphor with a little imagination. The concept of "parallel worlds" is often encountered in stories of fantasy or science fiction or in that blend which is termed "science fantasy." But parallelism is, in the final analysis, an incorrect metaphor, because parallel lines or parallel planes, by definition, never meet or touch. The truer metaphor is the imagined picture of intersecting planes, of "crossed planes" that have a line of shared points and commonality. All points along this "Axis of Truth" are touchstones of objectivity, allowing us to see the essential realities of our existence and our human situation to the clearest extent possible.
This view is flawed to the extent that the metaphoric vision includes a single, clear, and obvious "line" of intersection, something straight and true and perceived with little difficulty. To extend this analogy further, the notion of "plane" must be modified to one of "surface" with undulations and even peaks and valleys. Now we have a complex three-dimensionality and a mind's eye view of two decidedly "unflat" surfaces with various and sundry places where these surfaces touch, approach, intersect, or even convolute across one another. There are, now that we have complicated our three-dimensional model, single "points" of contact that we may perceive as readers. There are places where the surfaces hover quite closely to one another, but, nonetheless, where "contact" seems imminent but ultimately fails to occur. There are places where an entire "line" of connections appears, but these lines are rarely straight and almost always demand following like a winding trail. There are places where the surfaces cross in wild shapes of significance, like the convolutions of aKlein bottle where patterns of commonality, patterns of reality, patterns of Truth suggest themselves, perhaps indicating a higher dimension of perception, but this last point is one for the metaphysicians and philosophers.
The great fantasist, George MacDonald writes in his seminal essay, "The Fantastic Imagination," that fantasy creation involves the necessity of breaking some laws and the necessity of keeping others. I include a fairly extensive passage to present the essence of MacDonalds ideas on this point:
The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms--which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. . . .
His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it. . . .
Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.
In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey--and take their laws with him into his invented world as well. [italics and emphasis mine]
Many of these same points are paraphrased and expanded upon byTolkien and others, especially as they pertain to Tolkien's destinction of Primary and Secondary Worlds and the creation of, to play off of and correct Coleridge's often quoted but erroneous notion, what I will call an unwilled enchantment/enthrallment of belief. MacDonald's point (and Tolkien's) is that fantasy answers a creative urge, but must do so in accordance to some sense of order, of Law. To MacDonald's (and Tolkien's) view, this Law is the Law of God. The basic premises are that, for fantasy to be achieved, natural "laws" of our primary world must be broken or none can call it "fantasy." But moral laws and deeper laws that govern the human psyche and soul must not be violated; hence the touchstones of commonality and Truth under consideration. In MacDonald's (and Tolkien's) explanation, point and lines of contact, points of shared surface geometry in our metaphor are, in proper Fantasy, points of the unalterable Law(s) of God.
Tolkien considered one value of fantasy to be "arresting strangeness." The point MacDonald is considering above has to do with a detaining or captivating strangeness whereby the fantasy "holds"--in at least two senses of the word: it holds together and seems believable "while we are, as it were, 'inside'" (Tolkien), and it holds us as readers and appreciators of the fantastic art, captivated by the power and magic of words [the LOGOS] and the truths discovered against the strange background of untruth. The formalists and structuralists have called one aspect of this "defamiliarization." Dickens saw the word "Mooreeffoc" from the inside of a London coffee room on the glass window advertising the place and jotted it down in his notebook, along with a remark about the importance of observation and importance of seeing things in a new light and keeping a sense of awe. What really happens quite often is a "refamiliarization," a regaining of what was lost, or a revelation of a truth present all the time and right before us, but thus far unnoticed and unappreciated.
Of course with Robert E. Howard, these "Truths," these moral laws are different from those being discussed by MacDonald and Tolkien. At the very least, they are those of the "darker angels of our nature" (to twist Lincoln's famous line), the primordial, physical, lustful, often violent "Club and Fang" laws of the Darwinian principles to which Howard adhered. The truths of salvation for Howard were the truths of physical survival in this world (or any other) and the essential law of survival of the fittest.
That his "Truths" might differ from MacDonald's and Tolkien's adds another element to our evolving critical perspective. The discussion thus far has been along the analogy of these two "planes," or better, "surfaces," the one being the world of the fantastic text, the other being the surface representing objective Truth or Law. But let us now consider the possibility of intertextuality into the discussion. Let us consider the admission of multiple surfaces (multiple stories by multiple authors) and allow into our imaginary vision the manifold and complex interplay of "surfaces." While this will at first seem to be a likely source of confusion, does it not, upon further analysis, help the cause of the critical perspective. Now we may discover and examine places of multiple convergenge, discovering those points and lines of thought, emotion, or inspiration where many or even all of surfaces connect or "relate." And, thereby, are we not closer to a vision and understanding of whatever possible Truth or Truths that our limited potentialities may discern?
Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
Macdonald, George. "The Fantastic Imagination
1 Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-stories." in Tree and Leaf. New York: Ballentine; Houghton Mifflin.
©2000 by Frank Coffman / all rights reserved
by Frank Coffman (composed 15-16 January 2001) © 2001
"What do you study there?" asked Borothone
(In a tongue, of course, much different from our own).
"A tome recovered from the Mother Earth,"
Replied Zirlee, the noted scientist.
"This one, I think, may be of some great worth."
He strove to peer past ages that the mist
Of Time so quickly clouds.
There on the table
(What we might say were pages "rollodexed,"
Each leaf emplasticked, loose-fixed on central rod)
He gently turned the pages, yet unable
To make sense of the letters. Still perplexed,
But making plodding progress, gave a nod.
"The cover fairly surely reads: 'Strange Stories' --
Or something very close. This one word, 'Tales,'
I've seen on more than one of the few remaining
Books of this age. Perhaps great myths and glories
Of this most ancient world await! 'Red Nails'
These marks are title to this part." Zirlee sat straining
His knowledge and his mighty intellect.
"Clearly the pictures show a warlike time,"
Said Borothone, "This mighty one? Perhaps a god?"
Nearby an eons-old, entrapped insect --
A prehistoric bee -- was locked sublime
In purest amber.
(Those two great minds that labored on the text)
The stripes of gold and dark that also wound
Within the book before them, crystal-cased.
Neither yet knew (perhaps would never know,
Perhaps Time's workings had indeed erased)
The words that held sharp sting and honey sound
To rival druid bards; those words could sing
Great tales of wonder, by? -- whoever he was --
Things touching their world, that world, or the next.
Yet they hoped on:
said Zirlee, "but I'll find the key, I think."
Meanwhile, multi-faceted and musing
The bee's eyes stared on those two who could blink.
The frozen words were fain to twitch and buzz.
a selection of creative writing inspired by
the life and literature of Robert Ervin Howard
by Frank Coffman
There was, in him, a stirring of the blood,
Awakening of native memories,
So that the words poured forth in fabulous flood
About dark craggy landscapes, savage seas;
About barbaric realms and golden days
Splashed with red carnage and the power of fist
Made crystal in quick prose and lyric lays.
There was in him a lifting of the mist.
And, as his fingers flew among the keys,
From Underwood to Otherworlds they flew:
Tales about those who drank life to the lees,
Talespinning tall, until live legends grew.
And then--too soon, too young--the pyre desired,
He deemed all fled, all done
--and the lamps expired.
The Future Howard Reader
(setting 3936 A.D. [or the equivalent], somewhere other than Earth)
Could you have known that final, fatal day
How well you had succeeded at your task?
Was there a moment ere you wiped away
Those tales that might have been? Your own? I ask
As one who hears the echoes of that choice.
If only one had stayed your mind, your hand,
A multitude undreamed of would rejoice.
But that grave glass with steady-sifting sand
Is not for us to turn. The ticks of Time
Tock like the steady measure of your rhyme.
Know this! The echoes of that pistol shot
Fade -- like the deeper wounds that made you shoot --
Before your words that live.
But oh! How mute
And marvelous the stories that are not!
(composed 26 May 2001)
© 2001 by Frank Coffman, all rights reserved
Free counters provided by Honesty.com.
Free counters provided by Honesty.com.
©2000 by Frank Coffman / all rights reserved
by Frank Coffman (composed 15-16 January 2001) © 2001 "What do you study there?" asked Borothone (In a tongue, of course, much different from our own). "A tome recovered from the Mother Earth," Replied Zirlee, the noted scientist. "This one, I think, may be of some great worth." He strove to peer past ages that the mist Of Time so quickly clouds. There on the table (What we might say were pages "rollodexed," Each leaf emplasticked, loose-fixed on central rod) He gently turned the pages, yet unable To make sense of the letters. Still perplexed, But making plodding progress, gave a nod. "The cover fairly surely reads: 'Strange Stories' -- Or something very close. This one word, 'Tales,' I've seen on more than one of the few remaining Books of this age. Perhaps great myths and glories Of this most ancient world await! 'Red Nails' These marks are title to this part." Zirlee sat straining His knowledge and his mighty intellect. "Clearly the pictures show a warlike time," Said Borothone, "This mighty one? Perhaps a god?" Nearby an eons-old, entrapped insect -- A prehistoric bee -- was locked sublime In purest amber. Neither understood (Those two great minds that labored on the text) The stripes of gold and dark that also wound Within the book before them, crystal-cased. Neither yet knew (perhaps would never know, Perhaps Time's workings had indeed erased) The words that held sharp sting and honey sound To rival druid bards; those words could sing Great tales of wonder, by? -- whoever he was -- Things touching their world, that world, or the next. Yet they hoped on: "Hidden now," said Zirlee, "but I'll find the key, I think." Meanwhile, multi-faceted and musing The bee's eyes stared on those two who could blink. The frozen words were fain to twitch and buzz.