Nothing and the Night #4
for WINTER SOLSTICE 2002
Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
THE SHORTEST DISTANCE
BETWEEN TWO TOWERS
by Steve Tompkins
He was aware of this quality of "things passing"-of time raveling away-as was no other figure in
the whole field of literature. It coloured all his work; his best prose is built around it, his poetry
is redolent of it!·You feel, along with Howard, some portion at least, of that same anguish of
loss for kings and kingdoms sold to doom-for great deeds come to naught, for beauty quenched,
and laughter stilled forever.
— Roy G. Krenkel, introduction to The Sowers of the Thunder
Surely, anyone trying to "escape" through the magic portal of "fantasy" would not insist, in
volume after volume, tale after tale, on the incalculable devastation and annihilation faced by
the denizens of Middle-earth from Feanor to Frodo. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that anyone
seeking to hang onto the past-whether it be the Edenic period of the First Age or the Edwardian
era of Tolkien’s own early life-would persist in chronicling, often in passages redolent of the
bleakest of Norse fatalism, such appalling destruction across the mythic ages.
— W. A. Senior, "Loss Eternal in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth"
he popular name for a certain subgenre of modern fantasy has been showing up in reviews of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers:
The Two Towers is medieval sword-and-sorcery filtered through the sensibility of a brilliant visceral-
horror maven. (David Edelstein, "Force of Hobbit," Slate, Dec. 18, 2002)
These Tolkien films have a weight and seriousness that very few sword-and-sorcery pictures
of the last thirty years have attained. (Philip French, "That’s another Fine Myth·", The Observer, Dec. 15, 2002)
As swift as an arrow launched by an elfin archer, a year has sped by since The Fellowship of the Ring,
the first of three epic films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic The Lord of the Rings, cast its
sword-and-sorcery spell upon the worldwide box office. (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today, Dec. 12, 2002)
Of course, what sword-and-sorcery film would be complete without pulse-pounding battle sequences?
(Eric Moro, " The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," Cinescape, Dec. 14, 2001)
Many of those who take it upon themselves to map fantasy’s fiefdoms and freeholds would place the better part of a world of difference between sword-and-sorcery and Tolkien-style epic or "high" fantasy. Michael Swanwick, who gave the genre a swift kick in the complacencies with his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, once wrote an essay called "In The Tradition·" that brings Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age into playful propinquity so as to gibe at that infamous blurb of yesteryear "In the tradition of Robert E. Howard & J.R.R. Tolkien":
At the time I thought this the single worst description of a book ever attempted. Howard’s and Tolkien’s universes are, to understate the obvious, mutually exclusive. The image of that mighty-thewed barbarian, Conan, sometime yclept the Warrior, the Avenger, the Buccaneer, and the Conqueror, striding through the Shire to crush the settees and jeweled umbrella stands of the Sackville-Bagginses under his sandaled feet seemed to me irresistibly comic, the stuff of a Monty Python routine. But age softens the hasty judgments of youth. A quarter-century later, I’ve come around to the side of that anonymous editorial drudge and decided he was right after all, that all my favorite works of fantasy are indeed In The Tradition of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien. Which is to say that they are each no more like the other than Gandalf the Grey is akin to Red Sonja.
This is almost as unfair as it is funny. First of all, Howard was responsible neither for Red Sonja nor the titles of the Lancer Conan volumes. And by singling out not only the Shire but the Sackville-Bagginses within the Shire, Swanwick juxtaposes Howard’s barbarian of barbarians to the nouveau riche relations of Bilbo and Frodo, comic relief at a point in The Fellowship of the Ring where many readers desire only relief from the comedy. Even Tolkien’s staunchest defender Tom Shippey deplores the Sackville-Bagginses as "an anomaly in Middle-earth and a failure of tone." Howard at his strongest versus Tolkien at his weakest is hardly an alluring pay-per-view event. No, Swanwick is overstating the not-so-obvious in this passage; Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
To suggest that Howard and Tolkien are the Twin Towers of 20th century fantasy, alike in their toplofty aspiration, is a minority opinion. A leading Howard scholar recently argued that "Tolkien, too, represents an invalid comparison, as Howard did not write, and did not attempt to write, "epic fantasy" of the same type, nor did he deal with the same kinds of concerns in his fiction. They are pears and bananas." (Rusty Burke, in Seanchai #103, REHupa Mailing #178/December 2002). Yet pears and bananas have in common the fact that they are types of fruit; can it not be said that a pear of surpassing excellence and a similarly exceptional banana belong in the same category, that of unmistakably superior pieces of fruit?
Gene Wolfe thinks so. In his remarkable essay "The Best Introduction to the Mountains," the author of The Book of the New Sun recalls having reached for the words of Robert E. Howard to express the wonder he felt upon finishing The Return of the King (he had earlier inscribed an apposite quotation from Thoreau on the half-title page of The Fellowship of the Ring and one from Conrad Aiken on the same page of The Two Towers):
The quotation I inscribed on [The Return of the King’s] half-title is from Robert E. Howard. You have my leave to quarrel with me, but I think it the finest of the three, indeed one of the finest things I have ever read:
Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack-
Follow the ships that come not back.
If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today.
What are the links between Howard and Tolkien that Wolfe intuited, but other commentators have professed not to see? Let us begin by returning to Conan and the Sackville-Bagginses. Bilbo’s covetous relatives would have locked up their best stolen silverware upon the Cimmerian’s arrival, but elsewhere in Middle-earth he would be able to name his price. Wiping out nests of orcs one cave at a time in the Misty Mountains might be too much like real work, but as did Valannus in "Beyond the Black River," the Stewards of Gondor would have known he was "of more use ranging the river than cooped up in any fort," and encouraged him to do his work in the woods east of Anduin, as a forayer like the Rangers of Ithilien captained by Faramir in The Two Towers. In fact, there is a certain similarity between one of Conan’s fondest memories and Aragorn’s final exploit when he fought for Gondor under the nom de guerre Thorongil (the Eagle of the Star)
"I’ve made them howl," said Conan carelessly, turning from the window. "In my galley manned by black corsairs I crept to the very bastions of the sea-washed castles of black-walled Khemi by night, and burned the galleons anchored there..." (The Hour of the Dragon)
At last he got leave of the Steward and gathered a small fleet, and he came to Umbar unlooked-for by night, and there burned a great part of the ships of the Corsairs. He himself overthrew the Captain of the Haven in battle upon the quays, and then he withdrew his fleet with small loss. (The Return of the King)
Yes, of course it is significant that what Conan does with corsairs to an ancient civilization, Aragorn does to Corsairs in defense of an ancient civilization. And yes, given sufficient incentive Conan might have gone over to the other side and done at least at as well for himself in Umbar ("at war with Gondor for many lives of men, a threat to its coastlands and to all traffic on the sea") as in Tortage.
All of which is merely to say that when one John Goldthwaite, in his 1996 The Natural History of Make Believe: A Guide to the Principal Works of Britain, Europe, and America sneers that The Lord of the Rings is "Faerie-land’s answer to Conan the Barbarian," he shoots not altogether wide of the mark, or the Mark, the land of the Horse-lords of Rohan, once defended by the rather Howardian Helm Hammerhand:
Helm grew fierce and gaunt for famine and grief; and the dread of him alone was worth many men in the defence of the Burg. He would go out by himself, clad in white, and stalk like a snow-troll into the camps of his enemies, and slay many men with his hands.
Tolkien did not confine himself to heroic fantasy of the sort associated with Howard, Fritz Leiber, or now David Gemmell, but his creativity contained a heroic fantasist who sometimes slipped his chains. To put it another way, as an archer he sometimes reached for the blood-red heroic fantasy shaft in his quiver, as here in a passage from 1980’s Unfinished Tales:
Then Turin laughed. "You will get no ransom from me," he said, " an outcast and an outlaw. You may search me when I am dead, but it will cost you dearly to prove my words true. "
Nevertheless his death seemed near, for many arrows were notched to the string, waiting for the word of the captain; and none of his enemies stood within reach of a leap with drawn sword. But Turin, seeing some stones at the stream’s edge before his feet, stooped suddenly; and in that instant one of the men, angered by his words, let fly a shaft. But it passed over Turin, and he springing up cast a stone at the bowman with great force and true aim; and he fell to the ground with broken skull.
"I might be of more service to you alive, in the place of that luckless man," said Turin, and turning to Forweg he said:"If you are the captain here, you should not allow your men to shoot without command."
"I do not," said Forweg,"but he has been rebuked swiftly enough."
Within two pages Forweg is dead (no doubt commiserating with Sergius of Khrosha, Zaporavo of the Wastrel, and at least one hetman of the kozaki) and Turin is inquiring as to what the other wolfsheads plan to do about it: "I will govern this fellowship now, or leave it. But if you wish to kill me, set to! I will fight you all until I am dead-or you." Howard would have written the scene differently, but it would have been a similar scene written differently. The following tableaus are within spurting distance of each other:
Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried:"Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!" Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms...("Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad," in The Silmarillion)
The clangor of steel rose deafeningly; the black-mailed figure of the western king loomed among his swarming foes, dealing blows like a butcher wielding a great cleaver. Riderless horses raced down the field; about his iron-clad feet grew a ring of mangled corpses. His attackers drew back from his desperate savagery, panting and livid. ("The Scarlet Citadel")
But what about the hobbits? We don’t need Michael Swanwick to tell us that they are the deal-breaker in selling most Howard-oriented hardcases on The Lord of the Rings. And others besides, such as The New York Review of Books Janet Adam Smith:
With their tobacco and ale, their platters and leather jerkins, their wholesome tastes and deep, fruity laughs, their pipe-smoking male coziness and jolly-good fellowship, hobbits can be as phony as a Christmas card with stagecoaches and lighted inns. ("Does Frodo Live?" December 14, 1972)
Frodo himself anticipates such reactions to the Shire when he confides to Gandalf that "There have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them." The Lord of the Rings bears him out. It should be stressed that the book is something of a literary changeling; it was conceived as a cute-’n’-cuddly sequel to The Hobbit, but as early as December 1937, Tolkien was already leaving the door open for a swap to be made:
I don’t much approve of The Hobbit myself, preferring my own mythology (which is just touched on) with its consistent nomenclature-Elrond, Gondolin, and Esgaroth have escaped out of it-and organized history-to this rabble of Eddaic-named dwarves out of Voluspa, newfangled hobbits and gollums (invented in an idle hour) and Anglo-Saxon runes.
And five days later:
Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it-so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental.
As it turned out, what hobbits could do was make suburbanites feel temporarily right at home; cozen through their very coziness a vast readership ordinarily careful to keep at least one Enlightenment between itself and heroic fantasy at all times.
Even peskier than the halfwitted halflings of too much high fantasy are its Hildebrandts. In his otherwise deeply respectful Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry, John Clute suggests that Tolkien may have gotten the trivializers he somehow deserved:
[Tolkien’s] influence on fantasy and sf has been not only profound but also demeaning. It is his work which has given licence to the fairies, elves, orcs, cuddly dwarfs, loquacious plants, singing barmen, etc. who inhabit FANTASYLAND, which itself constitutes a direct thinning of JRRT’s constantly evolving secondary world.
The court artists of Clute’s Fantasyland tirelessly and talentlessly foster the misimpression that Tolkien-style fantasy is all Darrell K. Sweetness-and-light, the brushstroke babytalk of greeting cards, the rapt insipidity of devotional art in God-fearing homes. Even the best Tolkien illustrators emphasize the shimmer over the shiver; what has been lacking is what the writer Louis Menand calls "the heroic and rather grim realism of the N.C. Wyeth drawings for books like Kidnapped and The White Company"-exactly the tradition into which Gary Gianni tapped for his work on The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. Where is Tolkien’s Gianni? His Roy Krenkel? His John and Marie Severin? His Barry Windsor-Smith? We do at least know where his Frank Frazetta is. As is documented in the 2001 volume Testament: A Celebration of the Life and Art of Frank Frazetta, in the Seventies the great man produced an ill-starred LOTR portfolio for the "short-lived Denver, Colorado publisher Middle Earth" that featured a gulp-inducingly cheeky Eowyn at bay against the Witch-king’s reptilian steed. Tolkien’s monsters and battles would have benefited from more of Frazetta’s oomph; Howard has been better-served on canvas to the extent that there is a belated justice to the fact that the situation is reversed on celluloid.
In an effort to back Gene Wolfe up, in an effort to show that LotR was in part a sword-and-sorcery classic waiting for Peter Jackson to come along, this essay will now attempt a non-invidious comparison of Tolkien and Howard as kingmakers and world-builders.
1. "Whose Realms Are Gulfs and Shadows"
Tolkien is often caricatured as plus royaliste que le roi , as tinted if not tainted by medievalist hieraticism as a cathedral’s rose window. Not someone to be trusted alone in a room with the Magna Carta, a pair of scissors, and a supply of White-Out, he stands, or rather bends the knee, in obvious contrast to Robert E. Howard. George Knight says of critics apparently on elven-payrolls that:
They applaud the notion of a character such as Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings overcoming great hardships to regain the crown of kingship that is his right by heritage, but they damn the Howardian barbarian such as Conan or Kull for deposing corrupt monarchs and tearing the crown from their heads with their own blood-covered hands. ("Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist")
Although Rusty Burke was actually thinking of Jeffery Farnol’s Beltane rather than Aragorn during the following exchange with Novalyne Price in Day of the Stranger: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard, the long Numenorean shadow of Isildur’s heir falls across his words:
Burke: ...instead of the traditional fantasy questing hero, a lost prince, a person of the royal blood who’s been exiled and returns triumphantly, they were simple barbarians...
Ellis: Oh, yes.
Burke: They were savages who rose and took the kingship themselves, when decadence and decay had undermined the hereditary kingship.
And in his Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, Richard Mathews refers to the irrelevance of "the traditional hierarchical valuation of kingship based on lineage and virtue" in Howard’s fantasy. There is no denying that said traditional hierarchical valuation is roughly handled in the Kull and Conan stories-witness the dead bodies of Borna, Numedides, Strabonus and Amalrus-but let’s linger over Knight’s phrase "overcoming great hardships to regain the crown of kingship that is his right by heritage." Is there no Howard hero who comes to mind? Nary a trace of the scent of heather?
Both Aragorn and Bran Mak Morn are forced to earn what is already theirs by primordial primogeniture. Both boast genealogies that make Amaterasu’s little rays of sunshine the Yamato emperors seem like parvenus. Their unimaginably ancient lineages stretch back past foundered island-realms into antediluvian worlds. Both men are the last best hopes of their peoples; as a child, Aragorn is known as Estel, "hope." Both of those peoples have been hunted into the northern woods and hills, but their origins lie in another direction entirely:
"...My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West." (Gandalf, in The Fellowship of the Ring)
"They say a mighty one has arisen among the Western Men." (Gonar, in "Men of the Shadows")
Out of the West, but into tenebrousness; "Men of the Shadows" would also work as the title of a story about Aragorn’s kinfolk:
When the kingdom ended the Dunedain passed into the shadows and became a secret and wandering people, and their deeds and labours were seldom sung or recorded.
"The line of chiefs has kept its blood pure through the ages...I am what the race once was," states Bran; and Aragorn too is a throwback. Elrond tells him that:
A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin.
Howard’s words suit the situations of both men:
The vast age of his race was borne upon him; where now he walked an outlaw and an alien, dark-eyed kings in whose mold he was cast had reigned in old times.
As The Lord of the Rings gathers momentum, Aragorn gathers gravitas even as he makes his way up to Bran’s lonely eminence:
It was as though from the heights of self-conquest he looked down upon men, brooding, inscrutable, fraught with the ages’ knowledge, somber with the ages’ wisdom. ("Men of the Shadows"
Of course there is a risk of altitude sickness associated with the heights of self-conquest; both men are beset by doubts that stab like orcs or Roman legionaries. For through both shall everything old be made new again:
Cormac knew how Bran, rising by his own efforts from the negligent position of the son of a Wolf clan chief, had to an extent united the tribes of the heather and now claimed kingship over all Caledon. He was the first acknowledged king in five hundred years-the beginning of a new dynasty-no, a revival of an ancient dynasty under a new name.
Aragorn, too, is Janus-faced: both beginning and revival, the son of a landless, soon-slain Ranger captain but also a direct descendant of Elendil who from the wreck of Numenor was borne upon wings of storm to Middle-earth. He has united the wandering Dunedain of the North and claims kingship over the Numenorean realms of Arnor and Gondor. In The Return of the King, that claim is the torch he bears against the murk of the underworld where desperation takes him:
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him,
He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
Theoden’s words in The Return of the King apply to both Aragorn and Bran: "It is your doom, maybe, to tread strange paths that others dare not." Bran treads his appointed path, his self-appointed path, to Dagon’s Barrow, the Door to the Black Stone. Aragorn’s path leads to another Black Stone and a parley of his own:"The terror of the Sleepless Dead lies about the Hill of Erech and all places where that people lingered." The door to these unquiet oathbreakers is one that Robert E. Howard would have recognized instantly:
In the wall the dark Door gaped before them like the mouth of night. Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch, too dim to read, and fear flowed from it like a grey vapour.
Aragorn never damns himself by saying "There is no weapon I would not use against Mordor." In fact he makes use of the prior damnation of the Sleepless Dead, as Gimli notes:
Strange and wonderful I thought it that the designs of Mordor should be overthrown by such wraiths of fear and darkness. By its own weapons was it worsted!
Where Bran’s need drives him to a pact that vitiates his authority, Aragorn’s need drives him to invoke an existing pact that confirms his authority. The weapon Bran uses against Rome turns in his hand; the weapon Aragorn turns on Mordor does not turn in his. A preference for the darker Howard story is understandable; ignoring the Tolkien episode altogether is not.
2. E PUR SI MUOVE
But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lorien. Horsemen were galloping on the plains of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains.
Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The rumors came into the fertile uplands where stately cities rose above blue lakes and rivers: the rumors marched along the broad white roads thronged with ox-wains, with lowing herds, with rich merchants, knights in steel, archers and priests.
They were rumors from the desert that lies east of Stygia, far south of the Kothian hills. A new prophet had risen among the nomads. Men spoke of tribal war, of a gathering of vultures in the southeast, and a terrible leader who led his swiftly increasing hordes to victory. The Stygians, ever a menace to the northern nations, were apparently not connected with this movement, for they were massing armies on their eastern borders and their priests were making magic to fight that of the desert sorcerer, whom men called Natohk, the Veiled One; for his features were always masked. But the tide swept northeastward, and the blue-bearded kings died before the altars of their pot-bellied gods, and their squat-walled cities were drenched in blood.
Howard, "Black Colossus"
It is easy to enter Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age- both are fully armchair-accessible, and only the imaginatively-challenged will be stymied. But leaving is another matter; both subcreations remain with us, by insisting that parts of ourselves remain within their borders.
Their demiurgic gifts as world-builders separate Tolkien and Howard from other fantasists; Zothique for example is done largely with smoke and mirrors, although the hallucinations induced by the former and the distorted reflections of the latter are nonpareil. Karl Edward Wagner’s abilities as a destroyer perhaps overshadow his talent for subcreation; Kane witnesses all the rises and falls of the ages he outlives for himself, and often engineers them. A case could be made that Kane is "The Hyborian Age" written into the actual stories as a character, an essay on two legs, a foregrounded backdrop.
Unfortunately, Howard’s world-building is dogged by accusations of slipshod construction with cheapjack materials:
He did not bother to rationalize or disguise the different lands and cultures of his Hyperborean world. Anachronisms are so many they can begin to form the main appeal of the stories. If Scott could make errors involving a few years or a couple of hundred miles, Howard’s hero spanned several thousand years of history and thousands of miles. It is as if Conan is trapped in a movie studio, or a movie library of old clips, shifting from 17th-century Russia, to Rome in the first century B.C., to 19th-century Afghanistan, to the Spanish Main of the 18th-century, to the Court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, all the way back to the Stone Age. This melange of influences was scarcely digested before Howard was, as it were, pouring it back on to the page.
(Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance)
If the history propounded doesn’t agree with what you know of history-if the ethnology is remarkable and the geology more so-don’t let it worry you. (from John D. Clark’s introduction to the Gnome Press Conan the Conqueror)
He was not a very good creator of imaginary places. History he could handle; customs, culture, geography, religion, he couldn’t. The Hyborian Age is simply a mishmash of various historical and quasi-historical (i.e. history considerably distorted) places and eras, to the point that if you know where a character is heading, you know what to expect even before he gets there. (Darrell Schweitzer, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard)
Here it may be noted that the imaginary world tradition, unimportant to Howard’s achievement, is quite important to Tolkien’s...And where most Fantasy critics rightly applaud Tolkien’s creation of a secondary world, a work of invention spanning decades, they typically sneer at Howard’s Hyborian Age with its jumble of historic names and periods, thrown together in the four years that Howard wrote of Conan for Weird Tales. (Don Herron, "The Dark Barbarian")
Don Herron’s essay is a landmark, an eidolon, in the secondary literature about Robert E. Howard. But in the passage just cited he is too quick to give away the farm-and the entire Thurian continent. H.P. Lovecraft, himself no slouch at bewailing Howard’s nomina dubia, knew better:
The elaborate extent and accurate self-consisting with which Mr. Howard developed this world of Conan in his later stories is well known to all fantasy readers. For his own guidance he prepared a detailed quasi-historical sketch of infinite cleverness and imaginative fertility.
Howard’s world-building is elaborate, it is consistent unto itself, and its detailed quasi-historical sketchwork is of such cleverness and imaginative fertility as to have attracted more imitators than Tolkien’s philologically-engenderred deep structures. Tom Shippey only refers to Howard once in The Road to Middle-earth:
The evidence suggests...that the difference between Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, say, or E.R. Eddison or James Branch Cabell, lies precisely in his intense and brooding systematisation.
"Intense and brooding systematisation" pays no bills, and Tolkien was careful not to quit his day job during the decades he tinkered with The Lord of the Rings and what would become The Silmarillion. Writing, and selling what he wrote, was Howard’s day job, but he did take the time to write "The Hyborian Age," to sell himself on what he hoped to sell to Farnsworth Wright?. Many would-be fantasists have rightly concluded that they could never match Tolkien’s rigor, and have wrongly concluded that they could match Howard’s vigor. But with no "Hyborian Age" to fall back on, they frequently fall on their faces instead. Malcolm Edwards and Robert Holdstock discern the essay’s foundational function in their Realms of Fantasy:
Howard built the worldscape across which Conan moves, working out the prehistoric landscape in great detail...It’s a pseudo-history that must have given the author a great deal of pleasure to work out,and its supposition that long before recorded history there existed a complex civilization of knights and magic, upon our own European landscape, is very appealing.
A great deal of pleasure, very appealing; the subcreations of Howard and Tolkien work because they represent adult play at its finest. In his 1997 Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry emphasizes the it-ain’t-necessarily-so-factor, where the subjunctive and the subversive withhold consent from consensual reality:
A growing contemporary sense, represented in postmodernism, of history’s sheer contingency: a liberating perception that things might have been different, and therefore could be different now. It suggests that just as there was life before modernity, so there can be after it.
Subcreation as recreation also crops up early in John Clute’s Tolkien entry (capitalized cross-references retained):
JRRT, through precept and example, gave final definitive legitimacy to the use of an internally coherent and autonomous LAND OF FAERIE as a venue for the play of the human imagination. For the sf/fantasy writers who followed JRRT, this affirmation of autonomy was of very great importance. LOTR marked the end of apology. No longer was it necessary for fantasy writers to "normalize" their secondary worlds by framing them as TRAVELLERS’ TALES, or DREAMS (entered via PORTALS) which prove exiguous at dawn, or TIMESLIP tales, or as BEAST-FABLES. Though each of these forms continues to be used, fantasy writers after about 1955 would invoke them as a matter of aesthetic choice. JRRT gave fantasy a domain; it is of course another question as to whether his bequest has been properly honoured: countless purveyors of GENRE FANTASY have reduced the secondary world to the Identikit FANTASYLAND.
As Howard loyalists it behooves us to suggest a revision of this declaration: it was "The Shadow Kingdom" and "The Phoenix on the Sword" that marked the beginning of the end of apology. Howard got to the Hyborian Age by way of "The Hyborian Age;" as Edwards and Holdstock emphasize, "The whole essay is reminiscent-a sort of "pre-echo"-of the account of the history of Middle-Earth compiled by J.R.R. Tolkien at the end of The Lord of the Rings."
Clute’s autonomy was there for the affirming during the years 1928-1935 rather than "after about 1955." As Darell Schweitzer notes approvingly of "The Phoenix on the Sword":
It feels like an ancient kingdom all the way through. There is also a detailed background implied.
There is no Connecticut Yankee (or Virginia Cavalier) in King Kull’s court, or King Conan’s. There is not even a James Allison. Instead, what we might call Allisonism is diffused throughout Howard’s subcreation, sprinkled like fairy dust.
In his Encyclopedia of Fantasy piece Clute moves on to the concept of secondary belief, "the intense form of readerly acceptance required for proper belief in an autonomous subcreation," and proceeds to discuss "the deliberate application of techniques necessary to bring the vital secondary belief into being, techniques which almost secretly transform readers from secular appreciators of a text into something like parishioners." For the WEIRD TALES readers about to become parishioners in 1932, the door to the Hyborian Age was ÎThe Phoenix on the Sword," and the inscription on the lintel consisted of we-all-know-which lines from the Nemedian Chronicles, too few but more than enough. Poetry can go places that prose cannot: to shining kingdoms spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars, for instance.
According to Herron: "A major part of Howard’s appeal is that he saw history as a wonderland-and set his Dark Barbarian swashbuckling his way through it. " Wonderland, yes, but also wonder-landmass. Middle-earth and the Hyborian world exemplify what we might term continental drift through time rather than space, and both are as cratered by the impact of epochal events as is the lunar surface from meteor showers. In an early but still-useful study of Tolkien (Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien), Paul Kocher identifies some of what readers identify with:
Just as Earth has seen wave after wave of tribal migrations into Europe from east and north, so on Middle-earth the elves, the Edain, the Rohirrim and the hobbits have drifted west at various periods from the same direction. Also, our Europe has warred from early times against Arabs from the south and Persians, Mongols, Turks from the near or far east. Similarly, Gondor resists Easterlings and Southrons, who have pressed against its borders for millennia and have become natural allies of Sauron. The Haradrim of the South even recall Saracens in their swarthy hue, weapons, and armor, and suggest other non-European armies in their use of elephant ancestors...
The cumulative weight of all of the Voelkerwanderungen and invasions in the pseudo-histories of Tolkien and Howard is not oppressive but impressive. Sense of place is strengthened by sense of loss; as is expected of all good things, Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age come to an end. Or rather come to one of the many ends that threaten throughout their existences. As W.A. Senior notes in his 1995 Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Variations on the Fantasy Tradition:
In most fantasies struggle is central and nothing comes easily, contrary to the pronouncements of fantasy’s disparagers. Day to day life is not a round of feasting and celebration but an attritional battle against the hostile forces of the world.
And hostile they are. Robley Evans in J.R.R. Tolkien (Warner Paperback Library, 1972) captures something of both Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age:
In the corners of the wilderness lie the bones of lost civilizations, cities buried and forgotten under the grass...the sunlit pastures and farmlands, the tapestry-hung castles and open roadways of romance give way to forests inhabited by trolls and monsters, perversions of nature, and to wooden halls that are essentially barracks for warriors whose fires shine for a time against dark enemies before they are extinguished.
One-time or no-time readers might be surprised at the extent to which Middle-earth is strewn with visual admonitions that those who beat their swords into plowshares will soon have nothing left to plow. It merits a State Department travel advisory every bit as much as does the Hyborian Age:
Beyond lay the wilderness of Dungortheb, where the sorcery of Sauron and the power of Melian came together, and horror and madness walked. There spiders of the fell race of Ungoliant abode, spinning their unseen webs in which all living things were snared; and monsters wandered there that were born in the long dark before the Sun, hunting silently with many eyes. No food for Elves or Men was there in that haunted land, but death only.
Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. Loathing, and loneliness, and madness; terror of wind, and tumult, and silence, and shadows where all hope is lost and all living shapes pass away. And many shores evil and strange it washes, and many islands of danger and fear infest it.
Howard devotees accustomed to thinking of Tolkien as Mr. Softee are actually duplicating the error of those residents of Middle-earth who close their eyes as something wicked their way comes. Tolkien’s malefic powers have all the time in the world, and if one Ragnarok does not get the job done, the next one will:
Thus Galadriel says of her life, "Through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat." Elrond agrees,"I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats and many fruitless victories.’ Later he queries his own adjective "fruitless," but still repeats that the victory long ago in which Sauron was overthrown but not destroyed Îdid not achieve its end." The whole history of Middle-earth seems to show that good is attained at vast expense while evil recuperates almost at will. Thangorodrim is broken without evil being at all "broken for ever,’ as the elves had thought. Numenor is drowned without getting rid of Sauron. Sauron is defeated and his Ring taken by Isildur, only to set in motion the crisis at the end of the Third Age. And even if that crisis is surmounted, it is made extremely clear that this success too will conform to the general pattern of "fruitlessness"-or maybe one should say that its fruit will be bitter... The collective opinion of Middle-earth is summed up in Gandalf’s aphoristic statement:"I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still." (Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth)
It is true that the Thurian-Hyborian continuum has no Dark Lord, except for Howard himself. And although both writers were world-breakers as well as world-builders, Tolkien’s cataclysms and catastrophes are doom-driven and wyrd-willed in a way that Howard’s are not.
The overweening Numenoreans deserve their drowning; when the oceans drink Atlantis and the gleaming cities, or a regional and racial reconfiguration makes pinioned demons out of winged gods in "Queen of the Black Coast," the events are simply apocalyptic happenstance. Unlike Tolkien’s Angband or Mordor, Howard’s Acheron falls not because it is evil but because it is in the way.
That having been said, the history of Elder Earth as recounted by Brule in "The Shadow Kingdom" is characterized by the recrudescence of the serpent-men as a kind of collective Sauron. "Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world." But all too soon "The Things returned in crafty guise as men grew soft and degenerate, forgetting ancient wars." There ensues another "grim and secret war," with no final victory: "Yet again the fiends came after the years of forgetfulness had gone by..." By now the ophidians are onto the fact that if you grab them by the prayer-beads, their hearts and minds will follow:
As priests they came, and for that men in their luxury and might had by then lost faith in the old religions and worships, the snake-men, in the guise of teachers of a new and truer cult, built a monstrous religion about the worship of the serpent god. Such is their power that it is now death to repeat the old legends of the snake-people, and people bow again to the serpent god in new form; and blind fools that they are, the great hosts of men see no connection between this power and the power men overthrew eons ago.
Even as Tolkien’s Numenoreans, "in their luxury and might," fail to perceive the continuity between Sauron and Morgoth the overthrown First Enemy:
We had no temples. But now the Mountain is despoiled. Its trees are felled, and it stands naked; and upon its summit there is a Temple. It is marble, and of gold, and of glass and steel, and is wonderful, but terrible. No man prayeth there. It waiteth. For long Sauron did not name his master by the name that from old is accursed here. He spoke at first of the Strong One, of the Eldest Power, of the Master. But now he speaketh openly of Alkar, of Morgoth. He hath prophesied his return. The temple is to be his house. Numenor is to be the seat of the world’s dominion. Meanwhile Sauron dwelleth there. (from The Lost Road)
"For all the differences, there are also similarities and fantasy as it exists today has the blood of both Tolkien and Howard in its veins," Malcolm Edwards and Robert Holdstock affirm.
Some readers who arrive at "The Phoenix on the Sword" by way of Tolkien have experienced déjà vu when they read of Thoth-Amon’s reunion with what it is tempting to call his "precious":
Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidity.
"My ring!" he whispered in terrible exultation. "My power!"
How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian knew.
We would do well to proceed with caution here, and recall Tolkien’s withering rejoinder when he was forced in 1961 to contend with one Dr. Ake Ohlmarks’ fanciful introduction to the Swedish translation of LOTR. Ohlmarks opined that the Ring of Sauron was "in a certain way" that of the Nibelungs. "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases," was the only response.
But there are other comparisons to be made-fruitful ones, we might say, harking back to Rusty Burke’s "pears and bananas" dictum. The Old Forest of The Fellowship of the Ring, its thoughts "often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers" is anticipated by the deep-rooted revanchism of Howard’s "The King and the Oak":
And through the tossing, monstrous trees there sang a dim refrain
Fraught deep with a million years of evil, hate and pain:
"We were the lords ere man came and shall be lords again."
Both writers placed wizards in towers to memorable effect, although we should not forget that Dunsany’s Gaznak, sitting pretty in his Fortress Unvanquishable, preceded Yara and Saruman by decades. Both struck blows on behalf of proto-feminism, Tolkien with Eowyn and Howard with Valeria and Dark Agnes. Both deployed outsized spiders that enmeshed their readers in cobwebs of arachnophobia. Both knew that fabulous jewels give off a very cold light indeed, one that often concentrates rather than disperses darkness. The Silmarils, in which "the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air" are locked, are not only Feanor’s doing but also his undoing and that of many subsequent beholders, and wherever Howard’s Heart of Ahriman "gleams, blood is spilt and kingdoms totter, and the forces of nature are put in turmoil."
There are manly Howard-men who are careful never to admit that Tolkien was capable of unleashing moodstorms like Eomer’s in The Return of the King:
. . . for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last king of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising
I come singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people.
Howard boosters have also been known to reject Tolkien’s fantasy as Christian rather than pagan, although only one of the two wrote heroic priests into his stories, and it wasn’t Tolkien. The most successful current sword-and-sorcery writer, David Gemmell, whose debt to Howard is clear, nevertheless reworks the Christian motifs of expiation and redemption in every novel. And there are those who sneer at the very idea of Elves and deny that Howard’s realms ever border on Faerie. They overlook the Elder Race, possessors of strangely slanted violet eyes and more-than-human gifts, whose presence runs like a golden skein through the Pre-Cataclysmic tapestry and who wait to settle their score with Man in settings like this:
Wide and blue stretched the waters of the lake, and many a fine palace rose upon its banks; many swan-winged pleasure boats drifted lazily upon its hazy surface and evermore there came the sound of soft music. ("The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune")
If we turn to "The Grey God Passes," we find Eeevin of "a fading mystic race" that is "kin to the faeries," Eevin who seeks to lure her mortal lover Dunlang to far places where "the years seem as hours, drifting forever." Her troth-plighted plight is as poignant a rendering of the irreconcilable differences that separate the Fair Folk from Men the aftercomers as Tolkien’s stories of Beren and Luthien or Aragorn and Arwen:
"I love and I have lost. My sight is a far sight which sees through the veil and the mists of life, behind the past and beyond the future. You will go into battle and the harps will keen for you; and Eevin of Craglea will weep until she melts in tears and the salt tears mingle with the cold salt sea."
The painful passion of those who abide for those who depart is echoed from the human side of the great divide in Tolkien’s "The Debate of Finrod and Andreth," a startling work the existence of which was unsuspected until Christopher Tolkien made it available in Morgoth’s Ring, Volume X of The History of Middle-earth. To consider the major themes of modern fantasy is to discover just how early and how often Robert E. Howard got to them all by his lonesome.
Perhaps we should paraphrase Malcolm Edwards and Robert Holdstock by saying that the genre has the blood of both Tolkien and Howard seeping from its wounds. They are the genre’s Fisher Kings, and from their wounds flow the sense of loss, the flavor of regret, the pervasive displacement, dislocation, and disinheritance which in turn wound us. What the two men most have in common is what they deemed themselves to have lost: their birthrights. Howard saw his being taken away every day:
I resent the forcing of alien culture and habits on my native state, even if that culture is superior. The Texas people have been as ruthlessly exploited as if they were painted savages. (From a September 1932 letter to Lovecraft) Every corporation that has ever come into the Southwest bent solely on looting the region’s people and resources has waved a banner of "progress and civilization." ...Because we were tired of seeing corporations located in other sections grab huge monopolies on resources which they sucked dry and departed with bulging money-bags, leaving a devastated land behind them...That the capitalist looters should throw a smoke-screen of claims for progress and civilization and advancement is not surprizing; as with profes- sional soldiers, dictators and imperialists, it is their favorite slogan. (from a December 1935 letter to Lovecraft)
Tolkien for his part was disinherited not only through the early loss of father and mother but also long before he was born, beginning in 1066. In The Road to Middle-earth Tom Shippey describes the will-o’-the-wisp of an English "which had defied conquest and the Conqueror," and in a way both of Tolkien’s careers were acts of defiance against the Normans and what they wrought after Hastings (Which, in a neat twist of fate, is now the home base of David Gemmell). Americans, who until a few decades ago were wont to use "Anglo-Saxons" when they meant "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants with the most guns and the biggest navies," generally do not grasp the thoroughness with which what Patrick Curry terms "a foreign and highly centralized ruling class, including secular, ecclesiastical, and educational elites," set about weeding out everything English. Tolkien took it upon himself to pick up where Harold Godwinsson, Hereward the Wake and perhaps Robin of the greenwood had left off; as Howard has Hrothgar say in "The Road of Azrael": "Norsemen, Danes, Saxons who would not bide under the Norman heel-we are Harold’s kingdom." That same story offers one of the most Tolkienesque figures in Howard’s work in the form of the last Saxon king:
...and again awe came over me to see him so, with his sword across his knees and his white elflocks flying in the rising wind, and his strange aspect, like a grey and ancient king of some immemorial legend.
Tolkien was of course first and foremost a philologist, for whom ghost-words flitted through the haunted halls of lost languages. Howard was better at borrowing than begetting names, and he came by his lexical lore far from the groves of academia. Still, in the Selected Letters we encounter him lecturing Harold Preece on the origins of the word "Welsh" and the Gaelic alphabet, or discoursing on the pretentious post-Conquest use of the word "pork":
Had it been the custom for the barons to eat their vassals I suppose the luckless Saxon would have been served under some fancy Latin-French designation: Ho, Athelred, thou whoreson varlet, pass me a dish of genus hominus; a slice off the haunch, there. (From a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, March 1930)
And Howard’s celebrated correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft began because of a historical-linguistic quibble occasioned by "The Rats in the Walls." So Tolkien and Howard might have had much to discuss, and that is another reason why it is worth discussing them together.
It is possible that later fantasists have not been able to compete with these Two Towers because their cultural loss has not been their artistic gain:
"Yet is it not a pity that the beauty and glory of men should fade like smoke on a summer sea?’ (Kull of Atlantis, in "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune")
...For however the fortunes of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-earth?"(Theoden, in The Two Towers)
Anyone who is familiar with the anecdotes about Howard’s eccentricities in public will experience a shock of recognition upon reading in Michael White’s 2001 Tolkien: A Biography that "More than once [Tolkien] took delight in alarming his neighbours by charging down the street dressed as an axe-wielding Viking." Which should serve as a reminder that another thing Howard and Tolkien have in common is their enemies. Both have been and will continue to be pilloried as escapist, racist, reactionary, phallocratic, juvenile, and even fascistic.
They remain two very different writers. Few Howard characters other than Gerinth in "Tigers of the Sea" would agree with the words of Faramir:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend..
And REHeapa is certainly an appropriate site at which to maintain that Howard’s instincts, what we might call his fast buck artistry, sometimes surpassed Tolkien’s aesthetically. The adrenaline-aftermath victory celebration on the field of Tanasul, with its sword slapped home in scabbard and the brilliant touch of a warrior-king’s blood- stained fingers in his own hair, "as if feeling there his re-won crown," has it all over the sugar shock of the field of Cormallen in The Return of the King, with its heraldic eagles bursting into song as if to compensate for the fact that John Williams is not available to tell us how to feel.
Hobbits are hobbits and barbarians are barbarians and seldom the twain shall meet, but the boreal breath of the frost giants can be felt in the work of both Howard and Tolkien (which is why, perhaps, that other mid-century contribution to "the Northern thing," Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, sometimes seems to split the difference between them).
That was a grim meeting. At last Fingon stood alone with his guard dead about him; and he fought with Gothmog, until another Balrog came behind and cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven. Thus fell the High King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood. (The Silmarillion)
Not to beat the subject, like Fingon, to death, but neither writer is trod into the mire by a comparison to the other. The shortest distance between these two towers is the straight line they draw and defend against what John Clute has memorably dubbed "the dehydrations of secularization," against disensoulment, commodification, and the slow death of imagination denied.