How Many Yar Alis? – Part One

It’s common knowledge that Robert E. Howard used the same names over and over in many of his pulp stories. Amalric, for instance. In our history he was a ruler of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, between 1163 and 1174 CE.  He appears in REH’s historical adventure, “Gates of Empire.” (Another Amalric was the king of both Cyprus and Jerusalem between 1194 and 1205.)

REH recycled the name for his Conan yarn, “Black Colossus,” in which Amalric is the mercenary general Conan serves as a captain of spearmen. “The most turbulent of all my rogues,” Amalric gripes. “I’d have hanged him long ago, were he not the best swordsman who ever donned hauberk … ”  In “The Hour of the Dragon” a character named Amalric appears as one of the conspirators who raise an ancient wizard from the dead, to depose Conan from the throne of Aquilonia. This Amalric is a wealthy Nemedian baron. A further story, unpublished in REH’s lifetime, never got further at his typewriter than an outline and a rough draft of the first half. L. Sprague de Camp finished it and published it as “Drums of Tombalku.” A main character in that one is yet another Amalric. REH used the slight variation “Almuric” a couple of times, too. It was the name of the alien world in his one interplanetary novel.

“Valerius” became a staple name in Howard’s writing as well. He was one of the conspirators in “The Hour of the Dragon,” and a stalwart, loyal young soldier of Khauran in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” The feminine form Valeria was given to the she-pirate in “Red Nails.”

Then, in REH’s Oriental and desert adventure stories set in the modern world and in his poetry too, we have a Pathan warrior (perhaps more than one) by the name of Yar Ali.

The best known of them appears as an associate of El Borak. He has the honorific “Khan” attached to his name. In modern Afghanistan it meant something like “sir” or “chief.” For the most part REH’s Francis X. Gordon adventures are set in a milieu that predates World War One, often in Afghanistan near the North West frontier of British India. “Son of the White Wolf” is an exception. That is assigned specifically to the summer of 1917, with Gordon an associate of T.E. Lawrence. Spoiler follows: one of the characters is an English secret agent, Gloria Willoughby, posing as a German, Olga von Bruckmann.

I’m inclined to think she may be a niece or even daughter of Geoffrey Willoughby of Suffolk. This man appears as an important character in “Hawk of the Hills,” a story in which he seeks to use and is in turn used by El Borak, though both men wish to defuse a dangerous situation and El Borak, in the end, brings about the resolution which Willoughby desires. Both Willoughbys are resourceful agents of their country.

That’s by the way. Yar Ali Khan doesn’t appear in “Son of the White Wolf,” but he takes a part in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’s a distinct character in the adventure “Three-Bladed Doom,” which is clearly set before World War One. The cult of murderers featured in that story are said to have struck at “the Sultan of Turkey … the Shah of Persia … the Nizam of Hyderabad,” before they make an attempt on the Amir of Afghanistan. Now, in the story all these potentates are said to be allies or at least friendly towards the British.  The Amir in the story, supposing he’s meant to be a real person at all, could only have been Habibollah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan as its Amir from 1901 to 1919. He really was friendly to the British and cordially disposed toward British India – for a yearly subsidy of 160,000 quid sterling. He also tried to keep his country politically moderate and introduce reforms. That didn’t please some of his people, and in actual history he was assassinated in the end, while on a hunting trip. An unsuccessful attempt on his life could have been made earlier.

The other potentates the frightened Amir mentions are said in the story to have been successfully killed with a three-bladed dagger, and in the real world that didn’t happen. No Sultan of Turkey was assassinated in the early 20th century, though Sultan Abdul Hamid was deposed in 1909. The incompetent and corrupt Shah of Persia, Mozaffar od-Din, sick and ailing, was forced to grant a new model constitution in 1906 and died of a heart attack in 1907. (Maybe REH assumed for story purposes that the cause of his cardiac arrest was a three-bladed dagger.)  The second last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, who was believed by his people to possess mystical powers of healing, particularly against snakebite, died in 1911. The Nizam assassinated in REH’s story is not mentioned by name. Neither is the Sultan or the Shah. But where they are concerned, the story at least touches reality to the extent that the reigns of all three ended by death or overthrow within the same half-decade.

REH’s character, the redoubtable El Borak, steps in to finish the murderous cult. He’s aided by his big Afridi henchman, Yar Ali Khan. (The Afridis were a major Pathan tribe of the North West frontier district, around the Khyber Pass.)  This big truculent roughneck, in REH’s phrase, “Might have been a gaunt old wolfhound growling at his master for patting another dog.”  “Lean” and “gaunt” he’s also tall, with “gigantic shoulders.” He’s prone to “berserk fury” in a fight, and shows “wolfish wariness” at other times. “The berserk rage of Yar Ali Khan” is spoken of again, later in the story: “Chapter IX – The Red Orchard.” He’s also described as a “giant,” but in spite of his gruffness and berserk rages, when he believes Gordon to have been fatally wounded, he dissolves into a blubbering mass of sentiment.

Again, in “Hawk of the Hills” (Chapter V) Yar Ali Khan, when he gets the idea that others have abandoned Gordon to danger, lets out a “blood-curdling yell” and seems “transformed into a maniac.” “Dogs!” he raves. “You left him to die!  Accursed ones!  Forgotten of God!”  Despite his loyalty, not the most emotionally stable fellow. It’s a typical pulp fiction stereotype of an Oriental, of course. But here again, there is mention of “tales told of this gaunt giant and his berserk rages.”  He’s also compared to “a gaunt gray wolf.” Yar Ali Khan also appears at the end of “Sons of the Hawk” with last-minute reinforcements to save the day. There, he’s described as a “tall Afridi” and nothing else is added.

The comparison to an “old wolfhound” and the adjective “gray” at least suggests that Yar Ali Khan of the El Borak stories is quite a few years senior to Gordon. And he combines savagery with almost maudlin sentimentality as old men sometimes do. As for Gordon, in “Hawk of the Hills” Geoffrey Willoughby muses that from what he has heard, Gordon “grew up on the southwestern frontier of the United States” and had a “formidable reputation” as a fast man with a gun “before he ever drifted east.”  It’s probable from that hint that Gordon was born around 1875, and left home aged twenty because he saw the wild days of the west fading and possessed a nature that couldn’t make peace with the advance of civilization. After drifting to Arabia and Afghanistan, he plunges into “native feuds and brawls” which must have reminded him of the bloody feuds of his native Texas. Willoughby feels that this was “the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment.” Gordon may be thirty or a little older in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’d necessarily have had to live in that part of the world long enough to be fluent in some of its languages, like Arabic and Pashto, and to know the ways of its people well enough to pass for one, as he frequently does. His comrade Yar Ali Khan may be fifteen or even twenty years his senior.

That would make him fully old enough to have fought against the British in the North West frontier rising of 1897. Being a member of the Afridi tribe, he probably did. Gordon, a U.S. citizen with no particular love for the British Empire, would hardly hold that against him. Yar Ali Khan may even – as a youngster — have been a combatant in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the conflict in which Sherlock Holmes’s pal Dr. Watson stopped the “jezail bullet” wound which still bothered him when he first met Holmes. (For all we know Yar Ali Khan may have been the one who fired the shot.)

There we have the first, but in all probability not the only, Yar Ali. Grey, grizzled, huge and gaunt, he’s characterized by ferocity, sentimentality, absolute loyalty to El Borak, and occasionally by what resembles a touch of hysteria. We may suppose that as a young man he was a real Khyber badmash (that is, bandit ruffian), a border robber, feudist, cattle-lifter, horse-thief, rebel, and generally a type who would have been congenial to John Wesley Hardin or Bad Bill Longley. This means he also had the qualities that would make him congenial to REH’s fictional Francis Xavier Gordon.

Next post we’ll take a look at the other possible Yar Alis, including the ones who appear in REH’s poetry.

Read Part Two