Vernal Equinox Posting, 2003
prior publication in The Cross Plainsman my journal for REHupa 180

Notes on Some Influences of G. K. Chesterton
on the Work of Robert E. Howard


Hear one of the few remaining recordings of G. K. Chesterton's voice
as he recites two stanzas of The Ballad of the White Horse.
Available in WAV, RealAudio RAM, and QuickTime MOV.

For the great Gaels of Ireland
  Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
  And all their songs are sad.
— G. K Chesterton
[and the sentiments of the last two lines might just as well
be said of Howard's work and world view]

"Though dead are all the paladins
  Whom glory had in ken,
Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
With proud hearts died among the Danes,
While a man remains, great war remains:
  Now is a war of men.
— G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book VI, "Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs"

REH to TCS, Cross Plains, Texas, August 6, 1926
There is great poetry being written now. G.K.
Chesterton, for instance. Especially that "Lepanto"

. REH to TCS, ca. Sep 1927
Several books I purchased on my trip, among them G. K. Chesterton's
"The Ballad of the White Horse". Ever read it? It's great. Listen:

ilbert Keith Chesterton was a man both ahead of and behind his own time. He refused to get caught up in the Modernism-for-its-own-sake of his day and the remnants of the Victorian views of "Cosmic Optimism" and Universal Progress. To Chesterton ours was "a world at once of wonder and of war." The "war" he spoke and wrote about was the constant holding action of Good against the ever-present, shape-shifting, and sundry forms of Evil. The War was between Knowledge and Ignorance, between Light and Darkness. It was a constant vigil, an endless holding action, a battle that could never be won, but which must never be lost. Ultimately, it was a war against Chaos and Anarchy in all their forms, and a belief in that "wildest of all experiments" — Civilization and a belief in Order — as Chesterton saw it, under the rule of God.

Robert E. Howard, as evidenced by the lines quoted above, admired Chesterton's poetry. Howard liked and used the meter of the "long ballad" cadences of "The Ballad of the White Horse" and he made some use of the syncopated rhythms of "Lepanto" (which two poems, by the way are still the most generally admired of GKC's poetic work). Robert E. Howard was also convinced of this Endless War, but his philosophical answer to it was one of rage rather than righteousness, of battle rather than Bible, of physical courage rather than Christianity, of physical strength rather than moral right. He was a man who believed that Chaos and Anarchy had already won — or at least must ultimately win — that stoic courage and physical prowess and loyalty between friends were about the only "good" possible in the face of those unconquerable foes.

Chesterton wrote well about War (and in several more than these two already-cited poems). And the warrior hero — in various senses — was to become the focal character of the vast majority of Howard's fiction.

The two poems cited in the epigram above as examples, both in letters to Tevis Clyde Smith, give proof that REH had encountered Chesterton's "Lepanto" by the age of 20 and had purchased a copy of the long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, while on the "little jaunt to San Antonio," as he calls it in the same letter as cited above.

"Lepanto" is about the sea battle of Lepanto, fought in 1571 near the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth (which separates Northern from Southern Greece) between the Turks and a Christian alliance (Spain, Venice, Malta, the Papal States, and other Italian states) and which was led by the King of Spain's half-brother, Don John of Austria. Nearly all of the ships of the Turkish flotilla were destroyed, and nearly 10,000 of their galley slaves, mostly Christians were freed [and here was the importance of the event for Chesterton, who saw it as a latter day "Crusade" of sorts]. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, fought with distinction, being wounded three times.

Written in 1911, "Lepanto" was also cited and recited quite often in the "Great War," since it had to do directly with the new fight against "Johnny Turk" and the Ottoman Empire as ally to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Some lines have an interesting echo for us today as well:

From "Lepanto" by G. K. Chesterton

And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung [120]
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings' horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell, [125]
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds, [130]
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

The Ballad of the White Horse is, arguably, the last epic great poem written in English, a sort of "Alfrediad," being the story of Alfred's [subsequently called "the Great's"] victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune (878 A.D.) [The other great epic in Modern English that is little read today is William Morris's Sigurd (full title The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs — which had great influence on Tolkien's work and is also well worth the read]. The Ballad of the White Horse was enormously popular during both World Wars, since it's subject was the great defender of England and Christendom against the pagan, barbaric attackers (as the English saw "The Hun" in "The Great War" and Hitler's Germany in WWII. The subject matter and length of The Ballad of the White Horse are epic enough; the variance from established epic tradition is the use of what I've elsewhere called an "expanded ballad stanza" (often 5 or 6-liners rather than the 4 of the standard ballad). The usual English heroic meter is iambic pentameter blank or rhymed verse.

Howard would quote from The Ballad of the White Horse often and he made use of several stanzas from it as chapter-heading epigrams in his own fiction. In addition to this, Howard made use of both standard and expanded ballad stanza — I believe inspired by Chesterton's poem — in many of his own original verses.

After the TCS letter quote in the epigram above regarding The Ballad of the White Horse — "Ever read it? It's great. Listen:" — Howard cites the following lines from Chesterton's poem:

"The men of the East may search the scrolls
  For sure fates and fame
But they that drink the blood of God
  Go singing to their shame.

* * * *

Before the gods that made the gods
  Had drunk at dawn their fill
The White Horse of the White Horse vale
  Was hoary on the hill.

For the White Horse knew England
  When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend
He saw heaven fall and the world end
  O God, how long ago!

* * * *

For the end of the world was long ago
  When the ends of the world waxed free
And Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves
  And the sun drowned in the sea.

* * * *

And men brake out of the Northern lands
  Enormous lands alone
Where a witchery's laid upon life and lust
And the rain is changed to a silver dust
  And the sea to a great green stone.

Tangentially here, I find it interesting and indicative that Howard, in citing these fragments within the text a letter to T. C. Smith would use the word "Listen." Clearly, Howard (and likely Smith too) had a developed sense that poetry was something to be heard and not read — or, if read, meant to be read out loud. This supports the oral/aural quality and the bardic tradition exemplified in Howard's own poetry.

Chesterton's influence upon Robert E. Howard is seen earliest — that is earliest in published work — in his poem inspired by the heroic central figure of GKC's epic, Alfred, the only monarch to this date that the English call "Great," uniter of the Christianized Saxons and Angles against the heathen Danish invaders and unifier of the several small and divided lands of what was to become England. According to legend (and most argue — historical truth) Alfred entered the Danish camp disguised as a harper, entertained the leaders with song and music, and gained valuable intelligence which led to the eventual English victory at Ethandune. The evocative power of Chesterton's poem upon the young REH manifested itself into one of Howard's earliest published pieces in WEIRD TALES.

Howard creates an homage to Chesterton with his poem, "The Harp of Alfred":

[From WEIRD TALES September 1928]

The Harp of Alfred

I heard the harp of Alfred
  As I went o'er the downs,
When thorn-trees stood at even
  Like monks in dusky gowns;
I heard the music Guthrum heard
  Beside the wasted towns;

When Alfred, like a peasant,
  Came harping down the hill,
And the drunken Danes made merry
  With the man they sought to kill,
And the Saxon king laughed in their beards
  And bent them to his will.

I heard the harp of Alfred
  As twilight waned to night;
I heard ghost armies tramping
  As the dim stars flamed white;
And Guthrum walked at my left hand,
  And Alfred at my right.

It is important, and I believe symbolically significant that, in this reverie of the young poet hearing the "ghost armies" tramping under his own white-flaming Texas stars, that he is already a man pulled two directions, walking between two world views. He is "bookended" as it were by the Christian background, belief, and ethics of his forebears — at least in this poem, written by REH at age 22, with "Alfred" (and Chestertonian influence?) still on his "right" hand — and, yet, on the other hand (as they say in heraldry, the "sinister" side), the pagan Norseman, who, along with the other "Northern" beliefs of pagan Celtic rites would have such eventual influence and sway over Howard's mind and art. I am reminded of a passage from Eliot that may not be entirely irrelevant:

from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Section V

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?

In his own fiction, Howard made frequent use of epigrammatic chapter introductions Here, by the way, is another interesting aspect of Howard's work — his love of the epigrammatic chapter head — I believe greatly influenced by both Chesterton's poems and, likely to as great an extent, by the masterful openings written by Talbot Mundy whom REH also greatly admired. And Howard, like Lovecraft and others, notably Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers [see Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" and Chambers introductory and other verses to and in The King in Yellow] made use of both existent texts (like Chesterton's poem) and texts of what Lin Carter called "Pretended Authority" (Like the Necronomicon of Lovecraft or Nameless Cults). An entire study ought to be done on the subject, but I will return to the Chesterton focus here.

Howard directly uses epigrams from The Ballad of the White Horse in several places in his fiction. Most notably and earliest [one might guess closest to the initial interest in and influence of Chesterton] in many of the chapter headings of "The Moon of Skulls."

["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930]

The Moon of Skulls

"The wise men know what wicked things
  Are written on the sky;
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten Seraph kings
  Still plot how God shall die."


["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930 intro to Section 2]

2. The People of the Stalking Death

"Their gods were sadder than the sea,
  Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night
  Sadly, from hill to hill."


["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930 intro to Section 4]

4. Dreams of Empire

"For Rome was given to rule the world
And gat of it little joy—
But we, we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy."


["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930 intro to Section 5]

5. "For a Thousand Years——"

"The blind gods roar and rave and dream
  Of all cities under the sea."


["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930 intro to Section 6]

6. The Shattering of the Skull

"By thought a crawling ruin,
  By life a leaping mire,
By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
  And the end of the world's desire."


["Moon of Skulls" from WEIRD TALES June & July 1930 intro to Section 7]

7. The Faith of Solomon

"The last lost giant, even God,
  Is risen against the world."

It is important to note that this earliest epigramatic use in in a Solomon Kane story. Howard's growing antipathy for things English and with things Christian has not yet seen fruition — even though the dormant seeds of these antipathies are soon to awaken. His reverence for, things of the Northern Religions, at first that of the Norse, eventually, that of the Celts and Picts with whom he identified — however inaccurately as it may be, based upon his own actual lineage, this eventual "identification" in the truest sense was spiritual and inspirational to a high degree.

Later, we see another GKC-derived epigram in the opening of one section of "Kings of the Night." The story compresses time to allow Kull of Lost Atlantis, Bran of the Picts, and the Legions of Rome to exist on the same plane. The Chestertonian lyric, although abandoned in context, serves Howard's fictional purpose quite well.

[Opening epigram to Section 3 of "Kings of the Night" WEIRD TALES, November 1930]


"And the two wild peoples of the north
  Stood fronting in the gloam,
And heard and knew each in his mind
A third great sound upon the wind,
The living walls that hedge mankind,
  The walking walls of Rome."


Finally, in terms of use in epigrammatic introductions, we have the opening verse to "The Dark Man." It is an often quoted section of The Ballad of the White Horse, a brief capsule of the outcome of the battle and the victory of Alfred and the English over the Danes:

[Opening epigram to "The Dark Man" WEIRD TALES December 1931]

"For this is the night of the drawing of swords,
And the painted tower of the heathen hordes
Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,
  Leans a little and falls."


It is also worthy of note that the standard of the Saxons was a white horse upon a field of green (not accidentally the banner of Theoden of the Rohirrim in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, by the way). Of course the great images of horses carved into the chalky hills of Southern England at Uffington and elsewhere helped to give rise to legends about Alfred and give the title and inspiration for Chesterton's poem.

The White Horse of Uffington

Ultimately, Chesterton's influence upon Robert E. Howard and Howard's fictional work may seem to many to be minimal. Certainly Howard never approaches (or returns?) to anything like a Christian world view and ethic, let alone the orthodox precepts of Christianity for which Chesterton later became the great apologist. The influence was early and, perhaps, brief as far as content of GKC's poems were concerned, exhibiting itself in Howard's "The Harp of Alfred" and in the several epigrammatic quotes.

And perhaps also in a few interesting places within the flow of Howard's stories. There is one passage that echoes in Chesterton's Ballad, for example:

"Follow the star that lives and leaps,
  Follow the sword that sings,
For we go gathering heathen men,
A terrible harvest, ten by ten,
As the wrath of the last red autumn—then
  When Christ reaps down the kings.

Howard writes elsewhere about "gleaning" or "reaping" or "harvesting" kings or enemy warriors [help me here, fellow REHupans (and readers of this essay), exact reference escapes me right now], but for Robert E. Howard, the "reaper" would be Kull or Bran or Conan or Death itself. It would not be the power of Christ assisting his Christian soldiers onward in reaping down the hordes and kings of the unbelievers.

Chesterton's influence upon Howard's poetic technique, however, is another matter. Howard adopts and adapts several of Chesterton's inventive meters, including the variations on the ballad from The Ballad of the White Horse and the long-line syncopated rhythms of "Lepanto."

More than this, Howard was impressed early on with the power of Chesterton's language and his way with words. That anyone could write of war and conflict and of man's confrontations with the gods or God with such vitality and virtuosity impressed the young Robert E. Howard and, I believe, helped shape the developing style and "word hoard" and power with which Howard depicted both his own fictive epics in realms of imagination blent with history and also, to a degree, the epic struggles seething in his own soul.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton on Radio, ca. 1935
The audio files below are the same Chesterton voice clip in three different formats: WAV, RealAudio RAM, and QuickTime MOV. Click on the link of your preferred format to hear GKC's voice reciting the first two stanzas of "The Woman in the Forest," Book IV of The Ballad of the White Horse. The source of this recording is ambiguous; it may have been made by the BBC for Canadian radio. The text is provided to the below.

Chesterton's Voice

WAV file  | RealAudio RAM file  | QuickTime MOV file

The opening of BOOK IV of The Ballad of the White Horse
by G. K. Chesterton

Thick thunder of the snorting swine,
Enormous in the gloam,
Rending among all roots that cling,
And the wild horses whinnying,
Were the night's noises when the King,
Shouldering his harp, went home.

With eyes of owl and feet of fox,
Full of all thoughts he went;
He marked the tilt of the pagan camp,
The paling of pine, the sentries' tramp,
And the one great stolen altar-lamp
Over Guthrum in his tent.


[Corrected Photo IDs]

A Garden Party in Dublin 1924

Gathered are important English and Irish writers of the day.
Front row, left to right:
William Butler Yeats, Compton MacKinzie,
Augustus John, Sir Edward Luytens.
Back row, left to right:
G. K. Chesterton, James Stephens, Lennox Robinson.