Conan's Brethren and Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures by Robert E. Howard
Reviewed by William Mingin
28 November 2011
When Robert E. Howard died by his own hand at a mere 30 years of age, the world lost not only an intensely imaginative fantasist, practically the creator of an entire sub-genre (sword and sorcery), but also an adept writer of historical fiction, in the same highly-colored, highly-charged mode as his fantasy. Two recent collections make available this lesser-known side of his work.
Conan's Brethren, at probably well over 300,000 words, provides, in addition to historical fiction, a large selection of Howard's non-Conan fantasy (Conan is covered by a companion volume, The Complete Chronicles of Conan (2009)). Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures includes no fantasy, but contains fourteen good-sized stories, four poems, and nine fragments and other miscellanea, some of it significant. This, too, is a hefty collection, at perhaps 250,000 words. Both volumes are illustrated, with full and half-page art, Sword Woman by John Watkiss and Brethren by Les Edwards. The art in each case is at the level of good comic book art, fun, and a reminder, if it's needed, that the purpose of these stories is to entertain.
There's far too much in even one of these volumes to examine in detail, but we can give a brief overview of Conan's Brethren. Here each of Howard's better-known fantasy heroes (minus Conan) gets a section: Solomon Kane, his Puritan adventurer; King Kull, in many ways Conan's precursor; and Bran Mak Morn, the "Pictish" king from Roman times. The editor, Stephen Jones, seems to favor stories published during Howard's lifetime, which slights both Kull and Bran Mak Morn, though we do get three long Bran stories. There is rather more of Kane, who came earlier in Howard's career.
The Kane stories, about a dour fanatic driven to right the world's wrongs, are entertaining and imaginative but lack the sure hand and seeming ease of some of the later work. What Howard did he mastered early, but not quite yet. By the time of the Kull stories, he's moved on, and it shows in "The Shadow Kingdom," a classic, and even more so in "Kings in the Night," a fine story of battle between barbarians and Romans that unites Kull and Bran Mak Morn through time-defying wizardry.
The book’s fourth section, "Savages, Swordsmen, and Sorcerers," gives us a sizeable sampling of Howard's historical fiction—six long stories—as well as five fantasies, the posthumous short novel Almuric (a planetary romance), and a poem. One of the fantasy stories, "Fang and Spear," is juvenilia, but the others are intriguing. The novel, Almuric, is an enjoyable enough pulp fiction, its hero, Esau Cairn, a sort of Conan trapped in the wrong age—the twentieth century—too vital, too violent, too strong to fit in. But it's derivative of E. R. Burroughs's work in a number of ways and not as imaginative. The people Cairn meets on Almuric resemble the inhabitants of Burroughs's lost city of Opar. The flying race they suffer under brings to mind the Mahars, the evil oppressors of Pellucidar. The entire setup is familiar from Burroughs's Martian novels (though Cairn is clearly a Howard hero, and no John Carter).
Almuric is also derivative of Howard's own work, reusing several ideas from other stories, such as a corrupt, cruel, winged race of villains, found in "The Garden of Fear" and "Wings in the Night" (both included). Almuric gives the sense of someone writing too much, who is tired and/or not entirely interested, but it may suffer by not having been completely finished and revised before Howard's death.
The historical fiction that makes up a bit over a quarter of Brethren and all of Sword Woman may be new even to Howard readers, if they've been limited to his better-known fantasy. As all six of the historical fictions in Brethren are included in Sword Woman, it's best to take up the stories in that volume, where they're contextualized in two different ways. First, they're presented in the order in which their events take place, starting in 1014 AD with the Battle of Clontarf and ending among the Cossacks in 1595. It's a sensible arrangement, one frequently used in collections of historical fictions.
But the historical order doesn't tell us anything about the quality of the stories or their place in Howard's oeuvre. Howard Andrew Jones, novelist and editor, provides an afterword in which he gives, as far as possible, the order the stories were written in, which can be revealing. With some exceptions, and not surprisingly, the quality and complexity of the stories increase over time; Howard's learning curve is phenomenally fast, but the change in sophistication and maturity, and his ability to move past pulp conventions to something a bit more ambiguous and demanding of the reader seems clear. We see a general increase in the complexity of plotting, in a sense of breadth, a sense of many forces working together, as one finds in actual history (as opposed to the strong-armed hero pushing the action in a straight line), as well as a modulation in the character of the protagonists. We start with Cormac FitzGeoffrey, a sort of Conan (and even more brutal). The FitzGeoffrey stories are entertaining enough, but he's the least interesting of the various protagonists. Perhaps Howard himself lost interest in him, or realized he could do something more; among the miscellanea is a FitzGeoffrey story left three-quarters done.
Of course, the heroes don't become complex in the modern literary sense, and these are not character studies. Most of the heroes don't deviate from their pulp/popular fiction template. But in two of the later stories the protagonist, while still physically powerful and a formidable fighter in the pulp mode, becomes a buffoon and a drunken lout, a Falstaffian figure. Giles Hobson in "Gates of Empire" is the least heroic, fleeing punishment and blundering his way into intrigue and warfare in Egypt. Gottfried von Kalmbach, in "The Shadow of the Vulture," while helping defend Europe from Turkish invasion at the siege of Vienna, remains drunk, and is shown up by Red Sonya, a woman warrior fiercer than he. These larger-than-life, brawling oafs remind us that Howard had a broadly comic streak, exhibited in his stories of Breckinridge Elkins (roughly 1934-36; in a sort of fix-up "novel" in 1975), a kind of Li'l Abner figure. They also indicate a movement past conventions of invincibility and the broodingly heroic into something demanding a more complicated sort of enjoyment than simple vicarious thrills.
At least as formidable as Red Sonya, and perhaps more bloodthirsty, is Agnes de Chastillon, or "Dark Agnes de la Fère," heroine of the title story, "Sword Woman," and of "Blades for France" (in Sword Woman only). These stories began a new series that never found a market in Howard's lifetime; as Jones notes in his afterword, they go in a different, pulpier direction than the main line of Howard's historicals, but with the notable difference of a heroine.
Agnes, a peasant slated for a miserable existence as some husband's slavey, is urged by her older sister, a woman broken by marriage, child-bearing, and poverty, to kill herself rather than marry a man she despises. Instead, she breaks free violently and sets off on a career bloody enough for Conan. She's just as indomitable and possibly fiercer but isn't just Conan in a dress; she's a conscious rebel, enraged at attempts to force her into a submissive role. When rejected by a band of mercenaries, and told to put her petticoats back on so that she can perhaps join them "in [her] proper place," this is her reaction:
Ripping out an oath that made him start, I sprang up, knocking my bench backward so it fell with a crash. I stood before him, clenching and unclenching my hands, seething with the rage that always rose quickly in me.
'Ever the man in men!' I said between my teeth. 'Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk and spin and sew and bake and bear children, nor look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord and master! Bah! I spit on you all! There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and before I die, I’ll prove it to the world. Women! Cows! Slaves! Whimpering, cringing serfs, crouching to blows, revenging themselves by—taking their own lives, as my sister urged me to do. Ha! You deny me a place among men? By God, I'll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I'm not fit to be a man's comrade, at least I'll be no man's mistress.' (p. 350)
While melodramatic and pulpish, it's a rant that could have been written for a like character fifty years later.
Agnes backs up her words with actions just as melodramatic, blasting skulls "into red ruin," splitting heads like melons, lopping off limbs, running a man through "with such ferocity that the cross-piece struck hard against his breast, and I pitched over him as he fell" (p. 353). It's all very much in the Howard vein, but there's no "allowance" made for Agnes being female.
So Howard was evidently not bound in any simple-minded way by the conventional thinking of his time, but there is certainly racism, stereotyping, and ethnic chauvinism in these stories, very much of his time and place, and sometimes wince-worthy for a modern reader. Howard subscribed to some of the "scientific" racial theories discredited so horribly by World War II. His indomitable heroes are "Aryan," not only white Europeans or of European descent (or the precursors of the same), but specifically northern European—Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians. Even when they're French, they tend to be Normans.
Still, I don’t think he shares in the sometimes vicious racism of his period. I would rank Howard as roughly like Kipling. Both assume and argue for the superiority of their own race and ethnicity. But both are capable of seeing the value in other races and cultures, and especially the nobility of individuals from those races.
This is not to condone Howard's practice. His references to other races can range from tiresome to embarrassing to downright insulting. The bigotry is a bit more nuanced in the historical stories, but no less thoroughgoing. Beyond simple declarations of Aryan and Western superiority, there's a pattern, in the various plots, of foiling larger Arabic or Islamic interests, of thwarting efforts at conquest and colonization, Middle Eastern growth and expansion into other lands. Even when the West is defeated, it's at a cost high enough to deter the aggression of non-Westerners.
In "Hawks Over Egypt" (Sword Woman) Diego de Guzman, in the process of seeking revenge, takes an opportunity to thwart a renewed Muslim invasion of Spain and the destruction of his native Castile, one of the Iberian regions still in Christian hands (and later, a leader of the "Reconquista" of the Iberian Peninsula). In "The Road of Azrael" (Sword Woman), Sir Eric de Cogan, while rescuing a European woman from a Persian lord, also ruins his plans to take the Crusader city of Edessa, and perhaps Jerusalem. Something similar happens in story after story: plans for the conquest of "Frankistan" are foiled, the invasion of Europe by the Turks is turned back and revenged. Howard is fighting, in fictional form, in the "clash of cultures," and imagining the West triumphant.
Despite this chauvinism, I think the stories still work as stories. One notes it, of course, as a marker of the time, like characters in futuristic science fiction of the fifties smoking cigarettes over their steak dinners; but the reader can still enjoy the adventure, identify with the protagonist, even enter into his point of view; and then, on finishing, dismiss it like a dream on waking.
In other words, we have to be two-minded about this work, but that's equally true of much writing from the past. What else is there to do with our past and its literature? To simply abandon or dismiss it I find appalling, somehow. To intentionally limit what we can know about or even enjoy, to cut off knowledge (and appreciation) of the past, to dismiss or banish what is "other" from our beliefs, is to self-censor, to needlessly limit ourselves, to do to ourselves that which, if anyone else tried to do it, we would consider the worst sort of tyranny. Too much certainty about our own point of view smacks of arrogance and solipsism; but even when we're very sure (as I think we should be about bigotry), the need to affirm it by silencing even dead voices from the past seems to me more pathetic than admirable.
Still, I couldn't blame anyone who found the stories with racist elements too distasteful to enjoy, and younger readers, depending on age and experience, would at least need an explanation to go with the books.
Readers unaccustomed to adventure writing of the period, and pulp style and conventions, may also need to adjust their literary preconceptions. The heroes of these stories are violent in the over-the-top, hyperkinetic, brilliantly colored, and brutal manner of the action pulps. There's a formulaic quality to the violence, as gripping and fast-moving as it can be. A dime for every time someone was cloven through to the breast bone or "reduced to red ruin" would easily pay for the books. But the descriptions seem no worse than, say, the Iliad where, perhaps as a result of the oral-formulaic tradition, we find repetitions of heroes "biting the dust," or drumming the ground with their heels, where the progress of spear points is followed in detail, down to the scrambling of brains or the dislodging of a kidney. To object to the conventions Howard works in, once you've decided to read this kind of thing, is like objecting to the opera because everybody keeps singing.
But toward the end, Howard was reaching past pulp conventions, and within his brief career, he showed a talent that might have made him an American Dumas. He was often as good as Dumas, or better (granted that some "Dumas," whoever wrote it, is lackluster). He was a Dumas in straitened circumstances, his possibilities curtailed by the markets that shaped him (and even by his success in them), perhaps by his own limitations of vision, and then, of course, tragically, by his own cutting short of his promise.
Within his limits, he produced some splendid stuff, much of it available in these books. Modern readers of Howard may have to lay aside some of their critical discretion, political and ethical sensitivities, and at times, even their sense of the ridiculous, but they don't have to lay aside their discrimination about writing or, especially, storytelling.
Either (or even both) of these volumes—enormously generous collections of colorful, fast-moving, and well-written fantastic and historical fiction—are worthy choices for anyone who enjoys Howard's work.