Close Shaves

This is bit of a lightweight post. It does address a point that arose – not too seriously, and not for the first time ever – on the Robert E. Howard Readers Facebook group, though. And REH seems to have considered it himself in a couple of his stories, at any rate to the point of trying to make it more plausible. Why are pulp heroes, including REH’s barbarians and fierce Irish Gaels, always impeccably shaved?

It was a strong convention of the time (the 1930s) to be sure, in pulp literature and outside it. Decent stalwart English and American lads always planed themselves off. Anarchists, Bolsheviks and Arabs, stock villains, wore beards. Suave sneering bad men who menaced the pure Anglo-Saxon heroine were often identified as wrong ‘uns from the word go, by their moustaches. It was okay for an Englishman to have a facial mattress if he was disguised as an Afghan to play the Great Game or otherwise outwit the heavies. The attitudes of the day seemed to find something faintly indecent about it in other circumstances.

Even Tarzan. (It’s relevant; Howard liked ERB’s work and was certainly acquainted with the Tarzan novels that were published in his day.) Growing up in the jungle among apes, young Lord Greystoke was about twenty when he met Jane, yet he was as smooth as an Aqua Velva commercial. According to Burroughs, in Tarzan of the Apes, after he realized he was a man and not and ape, he began shaving with his father’s hunting knife to remove that apish facial hair. Philip Jose Farmer took the view that as a member of the families inheriting the Wold Newton mutations caused by the meteorite that fell there, Tarzan didn’t grow much facial hair until his mid-twenties anyway. Farmer corrected a number of Burroughs’ other “mistakes” too.

Robert E. Howard followed that pulp convention. He never offered any explanation as far as Conan was concerned. (Or I never noticed if he did.) Howard’s stories didn’t say this, but some of the pulp illustrations for his character, from Weird Tales to early covers of Amra to the cover painting for the old ACE novel Conan the Conqueror, had Conan looking decidedly Roman as far as his haircut and shave were concerned. Of course he’d settled down in Aquilonia as its king by the time of the latter, but even before that, no matter if he was staggering through a scorching desert as the last survivor of a defeated army, he was never described as bearded, or even stubbly.

Where other characters were concerned, within the centuries of our known history, REH did offer an explanation for a couple of his Gaelic heroes being meticulously shaven. The fifth-century pirate Cormac mac Art seems to have carried a razor, never losing it. In one story (“Tigers of the Sea”) he does grow a beard — as a disguise for a spying errand. He asks his Danish comrade Wulfhere what he thinks of it. Wulfhere, a brawny giant with an immense red beard of his own, as befits a Viking, answers:

I never saw you so unkempt before … except when we had fought or fled for days so that you could not be hacking at your face with a razor.

Now, Cormac is the scourge of the seas around post-Roman Britain. He appears to have been influenced early by what Roman culture still remains in those parts. He is described by the British minstrel Donal as a superb swordsman. “ … he favors the point. In a world where the skill of the old-time Roman legionaries is all but forgotten, Cormac mac Art is well-nigh invincible.”

More significantly still, Cormac is literate. He describes REH’s version of King Arthur as “pure Celt” and “a shock-headed savage.” He adds, rather disparagingly, “He can neither read nor write.” He’d hardly mention that in a way that implies he sees it as a lack, unless he could read and write himself. In another exchange with Wulfhere, in “The Temple of Abomination”, it’s made clear that Cormac knows very little about Christians; nothing from personal experience, certainly. Thus he cannot have been taught by monks. It follows that he must have lived with Romano-Britons of some culture who were not Christians, but rather throwbacks to pagan times, holdouts against the new official religion of the Empire.

Cormac may have been fostered to such a family as a youth. On the other hand, the Irish then were pirates who raided Britain a good deal, and he too was a pirate in his later years. He may have been a hostage for a lengthy period as a boy, even though well treated. It’s possible he formed the habit of shaving then.

The matter of shaving is discussed in another story of post-Roman Britain and King Arthur, though the writer called him “Artos the Bear” – Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel Sword at Sunset. It’s excellent – in my view the definitive novel of Arthur-as-post-Roman-Britain’s-war-leader – and this although some other damned good writers have taken their hacks at it. It impressed this blogger so much that it influenced my choice of post-Roman Britain as a setting for my own Felimid the Bard stories, with a picked band of heavy cavalry led by “Count Artorius” resisting the Saxons and Jutes.

In Sword at Sunset Artos called a travelling trader in, hoping the fellow would have some of the pumice stone Artos used to remove his beard. Fighting for the last dying lights of civilization in the island, he was strong on Roman customs, even though he was Celtic on his mother’s side. When he couldn’t get pumice, as he said, it meant “the butchery of goose-grease and razor, and left me thanking the gods that at least I was not a black-bearded man.”

Something similar is implied in the case of Turlogh Dubh O’Brien. Like most of REH’s heroes, Turlogh is “a black-bearded man”. This grim (with a streak of madness, REH tells us) Irish outlaw roved and fought from his homeland to Spain and east to Russia, in the years after the battle of Clontarf. That was about half a century before the Normans conquered England, At the beginning of the well-known Turlogh yarn, “The Dark Man”, a fisherman on the remote west coast of Ireland recognizes him because he’s “clean shaven and close cropped in the Norman fashion.” Also like the Normans, and unlike most of his countrymen, he wears full mail in battle.

Turlogh in his boyhood must have come under strong foreign influence to endure the discomfort of regularly removing a stiff black beard with the razors of the time. The fisherman who lends him a boat thinks it was Norman. He might well know about the Normans. The story makes it clear that although a common fisherman, he’s sailed far in his small boat, often just for fun and adventure. “Do you think it’s only you chiefs that take sport in risking your hides?” he asks.

Now, in the first decade of the eleventh century CE, Turlogh would have had to go to the Normans’ homeland in northern France to be influenced by them. They had not begun to appear in England much, nor were they found in southern Italy yet except as mercenaries. But it’s quite possible that Turlogh had been to Normandy. He’d been around on the western seaways, even before Clontarf. “The Dark Man” takes place only a few years after that battle, and the author tells us that “[Turlogh] had sailed [these seas] as a raider and as an avenger and once he had sailed them as a captive lashed to the deck of a Danish dragon ship.” He was to have that experience again, too, at the beginning of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”.

Thus it’s possible that he was shipwrecked on the coasts of Normandy, or sold to a Norman lord by the Danes who had captured him. The Normans were descended from pagan Vikings who settled lands in France, which is how they got their name – from “northman”. Their antecedents showed in their behavior! Those days weren’t so far behind them at the start of the eleventh century, either. Turlogh might have been held captive until he could be ransomed by his clan, a matter of a year or so, and like Cormac mac Art in a similar hypothetical situation, not badly treated. He could have fought his host’s enemies, thus adding to his combat experience and training among the Normans, as well as learning to appreciate the worth of protective mail. As a small additional matter, he might have formed the habit of shaving.

The O’Briens would have raised the price of his freedom. He was a near relative of Brian Boru. He hadn’t as yet become tainted with an accusation of treacherous dealings with the Danes, either. They would not have known where he was at once, though. Nor would they have been able to raise the kind of ransom rapacious Normans wanted in a month. Brian Boru had many pressing concerns circa 1010 CE.

REH, then, did ‘explain’ at least two of his Gaelic heroes’ improbably shaven faces as being due to foreign influence early in their careers. Whether it convinces is another matter. But he did it.

His dour Puritan adventurer, Solomon Kane, frequently fighting at sea or wandering alone through the depths of Africa, also seems to shave scrupulously, no matter what betide. But that’s a little different. Kane is a Puritan, and a fanatic withal. He might well be obsessive about planing off. He might have regarded a smooth chin as more godly than a beard. Under the African sun it would certainly be more comfortable and hygienic. Besides, they had better razors in Elizabethan times than in Cormac or Black Turlogh’s day.

Out of Howard’s wild Gaelic (or proto-Gaelic) heroes, the most implausible to be constantly shaven was Conan himself. I’d expect him, with his temperament, living as he did, to be heavily bearded much of the time, even if he trimmed it roughly. However, as stated at the beginning, in the 1930s it was a pulp convention. Any bearded man was likely to be the hero in disguise, or suspect at once as a wrongo. Conan, even fleeing through the Pictish Wilderness for hundreds of miles with a war-party of Picts chasing him like “human wolves”, in “The Black Stranger”, is apparently still unbearded. Of course REH might not have mentioned his facial fungus at that point, and when he discovered the cache of clothes and weapons Bloody Tranicos left in the cave with his treasure, Conan might have shaved as well as outfitting himself in hundred-year-old pirate finery before swaggering into Count Valenso’s stockade. But that wouldn’t apply in “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, and he doesn’t seem to have so much as a five o’clock shadow there, either.

One instance of that ideology, which I encountered long after the thirties, was as silly as it was unforgettable. Garner Ted Armstrong, fundamentalist preacher and creator of “The World Tomorrow”, printed it in one of his magazines. Armstrong didn’t care for bearded, long-haired hippies, and was made uncomfortable by depictions of Jesus as long-haired and bearded, even in illustrated Bibles. (That Jesus was invariably depicted as fair-skinned and blue-eyed, also, didn’t seem to trouble him.) Armstrong sought to “prove” that Jesus had shaved and cut his hair. That would have flouted Jewish sacred law, but Armstrong, ignorant as he was narrow-minded, quite possibly didn’t know that.

His argument was that Jesus lived under the Roman Empire’s rule. Romans cut their hair short and went clean-shaven. (Armstrong showed a bust of Julius Caesar to demonstrate this.) Then he contended that since Jesus was a young man on his way up in the Empire, and since he had said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, he too would have removed his beard and trimmed his locks.

Comment on that reasoning seems superfluous. But it does show how desperate we can be over trifles, especially when they go against our ideologies. Or just our notions of a proper appearance.

Art credits: Conan the Conqueror by Frank Frazetta, Cormac mac Art and Wulfhere by Tikos & Vass, Turlogh O’Brien and Solomon Kane by Gary Gianni