Echoes of Boealf
Volume One - Issue Two - for R.E.Heapa: Volume 1, Issue 4 of December 2001
This is an Electronic Fanzine for the R.E.Heapa by Benjamin Szumskyj Ų Copyright © 2001. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction or republication in any form or any medium is prohibited without express permission from the author.
[Note: American and Australian spelling may differ]
"I remember the first story I ever wrote Ų at the age of about nine or ten Ų dealt with the adventures of one Boealf, a young Dane Viking. Racial loyalties struggled in me when I chronicled his ravages. Celtic patriotism prevented him from winning all his battles; the Gales dealt him particular hell and the Welsh held him to a draw. But I turned him loose on the Saxons with gusto and the way he plundered them was a caution; I finally left him safely ensconced at the court of Canute, one of my childhood heroes"
[Excerpt from a Robert E. Howard letter, Borrowed from "The Last Celt", page 49.]
Greetings again. Nothing much to say, this time around. I will showcase an essay that appeared in the most recent mailing of the R.E.Hupa # 172 (December 2001). The essay, titled "Was Conan the Right Character Grow?" is not of the highest academic merit as one would like it to be, by any means, but it is the type of question that makes you think, more than educate. Perhaps, at a later date, such an essay could be revise for serious consideration. For now, enjoy a thought that came too me one night, whilst reading a Conan yarn. Cheers!
Was Conan the right character to grow ?
by Ben Szumskyj
Conan of Cimmeria built his empire of popularity from twenty-six stories, whether completed, a fragment, synopsis or draft. Whatever stage they were, it matters not as each were of great importance and had planted the seed for the genre of sword and sorcery as well as becoming one of the greatest characters to walk down the hall of literature.
Conan has bore many titles, everything from a barbarian to a king, and has found sanctuary in comic books, television, cinema, magazines and so many other forms. His name, whether associated with Robert E. Howard or not, is known instantly world-wide.
Conan‚s Hyborian Age is a world and time, painted with mythology and history. While being detailed and differed with finishing strokes only Howard could produce.
Yet the ghostly question that lingers above the Cimmerian‚s winning streak is "Was Conan the right character to grow?" That is, was this character, out of all Robert E. Howard‚s characters the one that should have received such significant coverage and stardom?
Most would say őyes‚, but there may be enough reasons to say őno‚.
First we must consider which of Howard‚s characters can be considered worthy of being put under the spotlight. Each character must be fantasy orientated (or laced with historical adventure) and have several stories under their belt (so to speak). Chosen are:
First off, is King Kull. Known as Howard‚s second most popular őbarbarian‚ (if you will) often deemed as living in the shadow of his Cimmerian counterpart, Kull is in fact a unique character himself. He was given life by the mind of Howard before that of Conan (Kull was first conceived in the story "Exile of Atlantis" in 1925, while Conan was done so in 1932), followed by the fact Kull was published professionally in September 1927 ("The Shadow Kingdom") while Conan saw print in December of 1932 ("The Phoenix on the Sword") and lastly, that Kull‚s time is set centuries before that of Conan, in what is referred to as antediluvian Valusia (at the time of the legendary Atlantis). Off these points, it first appears as if Conan is losing the popularity battle. The only place in which Conan exceeds is that he has appeared in more stories (and has a larger word-count. There are enough Conan stories to fill the equivalent of five two hundred and thirty-page paperbacks, none of Howard‚s other series come close to this.). Kull has only appeared in fourteen tales (again, either completed, a fragment, synopsis or draft), to Conan‚s twenty-six. Almost double. Both climbed the ladder of civilisation, yet Kull appears to have a clearer saga. And this is (surprisingly) where he loses that number one spot. Kull‚s destiny was a clear one, in which readers could simply see, as it was never indicated that a new door would open and lead his goal in another direction. However, Conan is full of these un-expecting doors and therefore was able to expand to greater lengths. This can be seen by the countless stories written by pastiche writers. Kull may have if only Howard had given such an impression. One must also consider that after the popularity of Conan, Kull is Howard‚s second most well known character.
Next is Solomon Kane. Thirteen stories and a few poems, Kane is half the success Conan‚s stories tallied. Yet Kane‚s edge is that he was created ten years before Conan by the mind of a young a curious boy bewildered by the era Kane was to be born within. And Kane was a character who was one-in-a-million. That is to say, Conan can be considered realistic and even normal next to Kane. Both are human, granted, but it is what makes them what they are that I can state such a comment. For Kane has a power behind him that can give any story a powerful impact in literature. Religion. More to the point, Puritanism. The presence of this aspect of culture projects more of an interest and turning of heads, then say an alternate pagan religion. Such is a powerful tool in society, throughout history. There were not that many other monotheistic based stories and characters in that era, so Solomon Kane was truly, one of a kind. It should also be noted that Howard created Solomon Kane at the age of sixteen. Conan came to life in his year of twenty-six. (This also indicates a mature look at religion in adolescence). March 1928 is when Solomon Kane first saw the light of publishing in a magazine. Yet, Kane easily loses out to Conan for first place. One reason being is that religion is such a touchy subject and some can easily label the adventures of Solomon Kane (especially in Howard‚s era) as blasphemous and dangerous territory to tread on. The second reason is an issue that has even resulted in some companies editing it from their publications. Race. For there are some descriptive racial terms that occur within the Kane stories that would not sit well with some. It is not a case of his own beliefs coming through onto the paper, but a case of what would have been said in the era he was writing for. This is not at all a flaw, but for argument sake, if Solomon Kane did become famous, many would find problems with the content of some of the stories. As we know, some of the Conan stories faced similar problems, but not on the scale Kane seemed to have received.
Of all characters, El Borak is the closest in reaching Conan‚s story count (even though several are fragmented Ų it is the potential that counts). His first published adventure was "The Daughter of Erlik Khan" in December 1934, written two years after the first Conan story. El Borak has been identified as the closest image to Howard himself, while Conan was the face of several different men (whether good or bad in a student‚s eye) formed into a singular body. Yet, one may look down upon the fact Howard wrote a good portion of his El Borak stories in his younger years, labelled őjuvenilia‚, therefore not having reached the literal level he had when he was writing Conan. But this can also be looked at in a positive way, as this was not only the first character Howard ever created (when he was ten years of age), but the character and his stories had extended over a good portion of his writing life. The older Howard became and wrote El Borak, the greater the stories became and the character more well-rounded. This surely shows the character had potential.
Steve Harrison was one of the first supernatural/paranormal investigators. There had been nine stories written about him (plus an additional two Ų one being a synopsis and the other a fragment), and his first published story was in 1934. Truly a fish out of water amongst the listed characters, his choice was made as his type of character is often seen in today‚s literature field. A dark, cloaked, brooding man who goes places men dare not go. His law is his weapon. Compared to Conan, Harrison is the most realistic. And at times, the reader enjoys a character they want to be like, or could easily exist in the real world. Yet, at a time when realism was a painful truth, readers would have preferred a character that would be removed from the real world. To read stories that escaped reality. Howard had completed all but one of his Harrison stories, yet must of felt fulfilled in the amount of stories he had written for the character. It appears though, Howard had no real intention of writing anymore Steve Harrison yarns for he must have had such a distaste for the genre, or more to the point, what he had written for the genre and felt his stories contributed nothing to the field and were poor in quality.
James Allison. There has been seven stories written about this reincarnated soul of a warrior, almost half being unfinished. Of all Howard‚s characters, this one had unlimited potential. Being able to set a story in any year, any century, Allison could have been reincarnated over and over again, spawning several more tales of interest. One must remember, that the character is a direct antecedent of Jack London‚s "The Star Rover" which is considered to be a fine piece of literature, including Howard himself. The first published story was in February 1934 ("The Valley of the Worm"). While Conan climbed the ladder to become King, Allison‚s was to be whatever the next life gave him. For arguments sake, if Howard had completed the stories started and begun to write (say) a dozen more, Allison, like many of Howard‚s characters, had the greatest potential ever. More so than Conan. Unfortunately, from what we have got, it is not enough to label Howard‚s most well known character. Also, those written were not a success in the reader‚s eyes and did not receive the same marketing as such characters as "Conan".
Finally, Bran Mak Morn. The first story to be published on him was in November 1930 ("Kings of the Night" Ų also featuring "Kull"). All in all, there have been five stories solely revolving and staring Mak Morn. But here is the interesting part. What also should be considered a Bran Mak Morn story, are ones that involve the Pictish race in it. Not as far to include those in the Hyborian Age, but to include "The Lost Race", "Children of the Night", "The Little People", "Bran Mak Morn: A Play" and the untitled synopsis. Not to mention the poetry. Therefore, ten stories all in all. Also to be considered (and like El Borak), Mak Morn was a character that grew from a young Howard‚s mind and continued to his last years. Yet what should be also noted, is that his earlier work in his youth is not considered őjuvenilia‚, because it was perfected from the start. To add to this, "Worms of the Earth" is considered one of the greatest tales he ever wrote. What made Bran Mak Morn and his Picts so intriguing and important, is that Howard had become their scribe. And though it is not included as one of his tales, the Pictish race can be seen through out his other works. Lost race themes bloomed in fantasy, yet Howard seemed to have set the standard or goal if you like, to reach and accomplish. Conan clones and pastiches have come and gone, but this had been done, as he was a type of character that could be so easily written (despite whether succeeding or not). Discarding the minor tampering of Bran Mak Morn, it is overall much harder to do so with him and his race. For this is what made him special.
One of the oddest things, is that Howard‚s earliest characters are asexual and highly moral, such as Kull and Solomon Kane (notice that both are of high rank); while his later characters, such as Conan and Wild Bill Clanton, are amoral and have repeated sexual adventures!
I believe the creation of Conan was a commercial act. Howard fabricated a character to appeal to the reading public, and he drew inspiration from an array of rogues and scoundrels that he personally knew or knew of. However, I believe a large part of Conan‚s popularity is that he IS a őbad boy‚. He is somewhat dangerous himself and to whomever he encounters, and I think that draws the reader in, intriguing the reader, and exciting the reader∑and leaves them asking for more. The reason Conan became so popular is that he sold well to F. Wright (editor of "Weird Tales"), and because the readers of that pulp magazine clamoured for more. This simply didn‚t happen with Kull or Kane, at least not to the same degree. Was it not Howard‚s Conan who appeared on the covers of Weird Tales the most, above his other characters?
However too make the statement that őthe only reason Conan was Howard‚s most popular character (out of all his characters in general), was because he wrote the most amount of stories on him‚, you would be terribly mistaken. If that were true, you would have to change genres to that of boxing. Here you will find őSailor Steve Costigan‚ and there you shall find thirty stories, plus the ten that were originally Costigan stories but were rewritten by Howard to create a new character (Sailor Dennis Dorgan) and handful of stories for submission to another pulp magazine.
Therefore, concluding this under the scope of Howard‚s characters most worthy of popularity, it seems the answer of whether Conan was the right character to grow or not, the answer is yes∑and no. Conan and Bran Mak Morn arrive at first base. Story count may be far and apart, but it is the soul of the character and content of their stories give them that number one title. Bran Mak Morn should be considered more of a worthy character of popularity. El Borak would of come close behind, but Conan the Cimmerian screams sword and sorcery (or heroic fantasy, take your pick) while Bran Mak Morn could come close to Heroic (almost Arthurian-like) Fantasy as well as embody the Lost Race genre. Both are evenly matched, as each were written and built from an inner calling, love and insight. The typewriter of Robert E Howard had sowed their destinies.