“Barbarism must always ultimately triumph” — Part Three

You have built a world of paper and wood,
Culture and craft and lies;
Has the cobra altered beneath his hood,
Or the fire in the tiger’s eyes?

[…]

You boast you have stilled the lustful call
Of the black ancestral ape,
But life, the tigress that bore you all,
Has never changed her shape.

Robert E. Howard, Untitled

The conflict between civilization and barbarism was a very old theme before REH approached it – or Burroughs, Jack London, Rider Haggard, or Kipling. It’s present and powerful in the Gilgamesh Epic from ancient Sumer. Gilgamesh, lord of the city of Erech (Uruk) rules over it “like a great wild bull.” He’s strong and arrogant beyond the power of anybody, even the gods, to master. He offends the pride of the goddess Ishtar by turning down her sexual advances, and then adding insult to injury by listing her many treacheries and “abominable deeds” towards her former lovers. She asks her father Anu, the sky-god, to send his servant the “Bull of Heaven” to devastate Gilgamesh’s city – but the invincible Gilgamesh kills the heaven-bull instead. (Well, he’s part man and part god himself.)

Roy Thomas borrowed the Bull of Heaven for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic. “Beware the Wrath of Anu” came just before the issue that adapted “Rogues in the House”, and featured a gigantic Minotaur-like supernatural beast, the “avenger the god Anu sends”. In REH’s original story, the scoundrelly priest, both fence of stolen articles and spy for the police, who “worked a thriving trade both ways” was indeed a votary of the god Anu. Thomas tied the heaven-bull from the ancient epic in with Conan very neatly and produced a damned good story too – expanded from a single paragraph in “Rogues in the House”, sticking scrupulously to the spirit of REH. And Barry Windsor-Smith’s topnotch art complemented the script superbly.

Okay. Maybe I’m being fulsome here. But there has been so much complete garbage produced in the way of REH pastiches … it’s nice to remember the better stuff.

The gods decided to produce a match for Gilgamesh, to humble his inordinate pride. Aruru, goddess of creation, forms a being from clay and saliva – the wild man Enkidu. His whole body was shaggy with hair, and –

He knew neither people nor settled living,
but wore a garment like Sumukan.
He ate grasses with the gazelles,
and jostled at the watering hole with the animals;
as with animals, his thirst was slaked with (mere) water.

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet I

Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet in an epic wrestling match. They become friends and comrades, and travel together to the great cedar forest, where they overcome and kill the monstrous guardian of the cedars, Humbaba. But then Enkidu sickens and dies, which plunges Gilgamesh into melancholy fear of death; after all, if the only equal he has ever met has now perished like an ordinary man, it means Gilgamesh’s fate will be the same.

Gilgamesh is the archetypal mighty man of the city, Enkidu the mighty man of the wilderness – a mythic version of the nomad chieftains who live with their flocks of animals and drink water like them, having no settled homes. Akkadian literature from the time of the Ur III kingdom speaks of the Amorite tribesmen in the region of Syria and Canaan in similar terms. The tone is disparaging, to say the least.

The MAR.TU who know no grain… The MAR.TU who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains … The MAR.TU who digs up truffles … who does not bend his knees (to cultivate the land), who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after death …

Doubtless the Amorites were just as scornful of soft, corrupt city men.

REH probably had read the Epic of Gilgamesh – or at least knew of its content. He mentioned a crooked “priest of Anu” in “Rogues in the House”, and he set a story in ancient Sumer – “The House of Arabu”, originally published as “The Witch From Hell’s Kitchen”. It featured a western barbarian fighting for a Sumerian city-state as a mercenary captain.

Philip Jose Farmer created a “clash of the titans” which may have been partly inspired by the Gilgamesh Epic, in his novels A Feast Unknown, The Mad Goblin, and Lord of the Trees. Doc Caliban (Doc Savage), the super-hero of the metropolis, is pitted against and then allied with his equal, Lord Grandrith (Tarzan) the super-hero of the wilderness. Clearly, it’s an ancient, powerful theme, and one which can always be reworked and presented again.

REH had certainly read the early Tarzan novels. And it’s well known that he admired and was influenced by Jack London’s work. I’m with him there, too. Who isn’t? Migawd, but that man could write!

Jack London’s novel The Star Rover has a theme of reincarnation, and in certain of its chapters there are episodes that may have inspired some of REH’s stories. The novel as a whole had to be one of the sources of Howard’s James Allison tales. London’s protagonist, Professor Darrell Standing, learns to relive his former incarnations while being “jacketed” in the dungeons of San Quentin, where he is doing life for murder. “ … I killed my fellow professor,” Standing says. “The court records show that I did; and for once I agree with the court records.” REH’s James Allison lives a life (in his present body) nearly as restricted as solitary in prison, due to constant illness. But in past lives he has been a mighty Nordic warrior again and again.

So has Darrell Standing. In Chapter Twenty-One of The Star Rover, London wrote: “And on the great drift, southward and eastward under the burning sun that perished all descendants of the houses of Asgard and Vanaheim that took part in it, I have been a king in Ceylon, a builder of Aryan monuments under Aryan kings in old Java and old Sumatra …

Oh, I do see myself today that one man who appeared in the elder world, blond, ferocious, a killer and a lover … who, club in hand, through millenniums of years, wandered the world around seeking meat to devour and sheltered nests for his younglings and sucklings.

In the same chapter Professor Standing remembers that “Sabre-Tooth, long-fanged and long-haired, was the chiefest peril to us of the squatting place.” In “The Valley of the Worm” REH describes how his primordial warrior Niord was almost ripped apart in a battle with Sabre-Tooth, but killed the terrible feline and then recovered from his wounds. London wrote how his hero made “a snare and a pit with a pointed stake upthrust in the middle” to take Sabre-Tooth. REH’s Niord makes a similar trap for the terrible giant serpent, Satha, who “like old Sabre-Tooth … was too terrible to exist.” (“The Valley of the Worm”.)

The reference to Asgard and Vanaheim doesn’t have to be labored for any Howard fan. But the James Allison stories, and “Marchers of Valhalla” more than the others, deal with the theme of barbarism versus civilization, and the decay the latter brings to those who become its addicts. The Nordic protagonist of this story was originally named Niord, like the hero of “Valley of the Worm”, but when the late Glenn Lord edited “MoV” he changed the name to Hialmar to avoid confusion. (In “VotW” Howard gave the names Allison had borne in several former lives, and Hialmar was among them.)

“Marchers of Valhalla” is the story in which crippled twentieth-century Texan James Allison discovers he has lived before, informed of it by Ishtar herself. As Hialmar, he actually came to prehistoric Texas with a roving band of Aesir who had crossed what appears to be the Bering Straits, trashed some early Inuit and then continued all the way to Texas, which was then one great plateau. Like Niord, Hialmar has a Pictish friend, this one named Kelka. The leader of the band, Asgrimm, is a ferocious, loveless old one-eyed devil, a fitting human stand-in for Odin., whom I think owes something to Earl Ogier in Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse” also.

In ancient Texas these Aesir, with their “yellow hair and cold blue eyes” clad in “scale-mail corselets and horned helmets” find a “great black cyclopean city” called Khemu, inhabited by a civilized folk who seem not unlike the city-dwelling Toltecs of a later age. Shakkaru, their priest, is “a hawk-faced man in a mantle of bright-hued feathers.” Unlike the Aesir, but like civilized peoples everywhere, they cultivate the land. Outside the city walls are “orchards, fields and vineyards.” These walls are huge; “eighty feet in height and forty feet at the base.”

Hialmar’s Aesir at first fight for the people of Khemu, against a horde of savages led by a crazed red-haired Vanir who has travelled as far as they have. But they finish by fighting against their former hosts. Howard writes one of the most definite declarations that barbarians can beat effete civilized men no matter what, in this context. Allison, remembering the battle in which he fought as Hialmar, asks rhetorically:

Who said the ordered discipline of a degenerate civilization can match the sheer ferocity of barbarism? They strove to fight as a unit; we fought as individuals, rushing headlong against their spears, hacking like madmen. Their entire first rank went down beneath our whistling swords, and the ranks behind crushed back and wavered as the warriors felt the brute impact of our incredible strength.

Robert E. Howard, “Marchers of Valhalla”

It sounds great. But in reality “ordered discipline” is always a match, and more, for “the sheer ferocity of barbarism”. The Mongols conquered an empire vaster than Rome’s partly because of their amazing toughness and fighting spirit, but also because they had superb military organization and discipline to go with it! Their planning and intelligence work was first rate as well. Not even the Assassins could resist the meticulous, relentless onslaught of the Mongols when Hulagu Khan decided to make an end of them in the thirteenth century, though they were entrenched in about a hundred mountain citadels.

This reality is reflected in REH’s poem, “The Gold and the Grey”. It describes the Cimbri’s onslaught against Rome and their defeat by Marius and his legions. That, of course, is history, and “Marchers of Valhalla” is not. The narrator of “The Gold and the Grey” might even be James Allison again, telling of another former life – in which, as in “The Valley of the Worm” and “Marchers of Valhalla”, he dies at the end.

Saddle to saddle we chained our ranks for nothing of war we knew
But to charge in the wild old Celtic way – and die, or slash right through.
We left red ruin in our wake, dead men in ghastly ranks,
When fresh, unwearied Roman arms smote hard upon our flanks.

Baffled and weary, red with wounds, leaguered on every side,
Chained to our doom we smote in vain, slaughtered and sank and died.
Writhing among the horses’ hoofs, torn and slashed and gored,
Gripping still with a bloody hand a notched and broken sword,

I heard the war-cry growing faint, drowned by the trumpet’s call,
And the roar of “Marius! Marius!” triumphant over all.

He lives long enough to see the woman he loves fighting at the barricade of wagons. She kills herself with her own dagger rather than be taken and enslaved. The warrior’s last memory is that “ … the dagger fell and the skies fell too and the mists closed over me.”

The joke on the Romans was that the victory of Marius marked the beginning of the end for the Republic. The Cimbri and Teutones didn’t conquer them, but the general, as Poul Anderson tells us in his story, “Marius”, went into politics afterwards. “His intentions were noble, he had the prestige of his victory behind him … but he did not understand politics. There followed a witch’s dance of corruption and murder that lasted fifty years and put an end to the Republic. Caesarism only gave a name to what had already been accomplished.”

Maybe that’s the lesson. The barbarians outside may not bring us down, but the barbarians among us always can, once they rise to power. It’s most likely of all when we shut our eyes and deny they’re even present. Jack London wrote of civilized people in his essay “The Somnambulists”:

Touch his silly vanity, which he exalts into high-sounding pride — call him a liar, and behold the red animal in him that makes a hand clutching that is quick like the tensing of a tiger’s claw, or an eagle’s talon, incarnate with desire to rip and tear.

It is not necessary to call him a liar to touch his vanity. Tell a plains Indian that he has failed to steal horses from the neighboring tribe, or tell a man living in bourgeois society that he has failed to pay his bills at the neighboring grocer’s, and the results are the same. Each, plains Indian and bourgeois, is smeared with a slightly different veneer, that is all. It requires a slightly different stick to scrape it off. The raw animals beneath are identical.

Read Part One, Part Two