Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hyborian Sketches

Both fans and scholars of Robert E. Howard will find two documents of interest:  Etchings in Ivory (1928) and The Hyborian Age (1936).  Howard may not originally have intended to publish the first of these; it appeared posthumously in 1968 in the form of a slim booklet, of which only 268 were produced.  The second appeared in Phantagraph as a three part serial, apparently forwarded to that publication by none other than Howard’s epistolary friend, H.P. Lovecraft.  In a letter accompanying the submission, Lovecraft praised Howard, saying

…Howard has the most magnificent sense of the drama of “History” of anyone I know.  He possesses a panoramic vision which takes in the evolution and interaction of races and nations over vast periods of time…

Etchings in Ivory and The Hyborian Age provide fascinating insight into the author’s creation of characters and settings that appeared in his horror fiction and fantasy.  The earlier text is a series of sketches framed as a dream or series of dreams.  There is a single narrator, but he—and she at one point—take different points of view as settings and situations change.  The device strongly implies a kind of reincarnation of heroic individuals throughout history, a theme that occurs in many of Howard’s stories, (see for example A Subterranean Déjà vu and Blood Will Out).  Nearly all of the vignettes involve the experience of death, depicted as a kind of relaxation into a colorful and sensual oblivion.

Etchings in Ivory opens with a disclaimer:

Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned…and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.

Five sections follow, entitled “Flaming Marble”, “Skulls and Orchids”, “Medallions in the Moon”, “The Gods that Men Forget”, and “Bloodstones and Ebony”.  There is a preoccupation in all of these with marble, stone, gemstones and semi-precious stones, as if Howard was constructing a world out of its most valuable natural resources.  Glenn Lord, in his interesting two volume anthology The Book of Robert E. Howard (1976) notes that Etchings in Ivory was written at time in Howard’s career when he was experimenting with different forms of fiction.   

The first two sections contain the germs of two stories.  In “Flaming Marble”, a Conan-like barbarian makes violently passionate love—it amounts to a rape—to his upper class mistress, but then is immediately assassinated. “Skulls and Orchids” depicts a love triangle resulting in two violent deaths, as told by the female victim just before she dies.  The remaining sections more closely resemble prose poems; “The Gods that Men Forget” in particular seems strongly influenced by the early work of Lord Dunsany.

“Skulls and Orchids” is especially interesting, since its content is remarkably transgressive for the time period.  Set in “decadent Athens”, it involves a female narrator named Astaihh, an Athenian noble woman who has given up her citizenship and reputation to become the consort of a Spartan, the treacherous Demetrius, whom she adores.  Pleading for his attention, she criticizes Demetrius and his fellow Spartans:

So the Spartan in his barren land persuades himself that he is exalted above all men in his stupid self-denial, rejoices in his slaying prowess only, and boasts of the slavery he names freedom!  But let him taste the joys of other, brighter, and more cultured lands, and he forswears all the trials of the camp for the silken couch and the wine—and even forswears natural delights.  [Emphasis mine.]

Regrettably, Demetrius adores his young male lover, and kisses him in front of Astaihh.  While Demetrius is out of the room, she stabs him to death.  Enraged, Demetrius kills her—she dies in the arms of the man who really did love her, the Greek comedic dramatist Menander.  I do not know if this vignette eventually appeared in any of the work Howard published in his lifetime—I have not yet read much of his historical fiction—but the content and female point of view seem pretty daring relative to the work of Howard’s contemporaries.

The Hyborian Age is Howard’s working out of the history and geographical settings of his sword-and-sorcery tales.  In his opening remarks he states that developed this piece when he began writing the Conan stories “in order to lend him and his sagas a greater aspect of realness.”  Howard followed the historical text he had developed “as closely as the historical-fiction writer follows the lines of actual history.”  Much of it is tedious inventorying of various barbarian struggles to control land areas, and the progress of numerous nascent civilizations before the beginning of history as we know it:

Five hundred years later the kingdoms of the world are clearly defined.  The kingdoms of the Hyborians—Aquilonia, Nemedia, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Koth, Ophir—dominate the western world…Far to the south sleeps Stygia, untouched by foreign invasion, but the peoples of Shem have exchanged the Stygian yoke for the less galling one of Koth…North of Aquilonia, the westernmost Hyborian kingdom are the Cimmerians, ferocious savages, untamed by the invaders but advancing rapidly…

And so on for several pages.  However, there is an interesting germ of a story about midway through this historical survey.  Arus, a Nemedian priest, attempts to convert the vulgar Picts to the teachings of Mitra, (that is Mithra, an actual historical precursor to Christianity), but with unforeseen consequences.  H.P. Lovecraft was critical of Howard for melding actual ancient history with his fictional creations, an “incurable tendency to devise names too closely resembling actual names of ancient history—names which, for us, have a very different set of associations.” 

However, on occasion Howard was very effective in doing just this, connecting his prehistoric fantasies with our understanding of ancient history.  (See for example “…do not offend the djinn!” )  What is striking about The Hyborian Age is its preoccupation with racial and ethnic differences, and the consequences of intermingling these for the growth of culture and civilization.  In his broad and fatalistic view of human history, Howard seems to see only the likelihood of endless violent struggle, involving the reincarnation of heroic figures in every age.

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