Robert E. Howard’s Historical Sense

Nobody who follows this weblog at all will be likely to dispute that Robert E. Howard had few equals when it came to writing a fast-paced, gripping story with passion and energy that drew the reader along from beginning to end. He could also evoke a scene so vividly that you could see it and hear it. This blogger is about to consider his work from a different angle; his passion for history.

He displayed it even in his out-and-out fantasies, most of all the Conan stories. For those he devised a prehistoric world on a bigger, more colorful scale than ours and wrote a carefully thought out, crafted essay describing its history, catastrophes and migrations, so that he’d be able to keep the background consistent. He even had the scruples to explain in writing that he wasn’t putting forward any theories in opposition to accepted anthropology or archaeology; he was just creating a fictional background for some fiction yarns.

Conan’s world is a bigger-than-life stage with bigger-than-life versions of ancient and medieval countries. The readers find them familiar enough to enter with no trouble, but the writer has none of the restrictions imposed by known history. The nation of Aquilonia is England of the High Middle Ages, basically, with armored knights and a lion battle-standard, though the names are Latin. The Bossonian Marches, with their tough peasants skilled in archery, are the Welsh Marches. The province of Poitain, with its “beautiful women and ferocious warriors,” filled with “hot southern blood” and “quick jealous pride,” is medieval Gascony (in the fourteenth century subject to England), with touches of the U.S.A.’s southern states. And Poitain, significantly, was once an independent realm.

Zingara is medieval Spain. Stygia is ancient Egypt with snake worship and evil magic added. Turan would appear to be the Ottoman Turkish Empire with a dash of Sassanid Persia. The long-lasting conflict between Aquilonia and its neighbor kingdom, Nemedia, might as well be the Hundred Years’ War. The Cimmerians – of course – are prehistoric Irish Gaels.

Howard wrote quite a number of stories with a background of our world’s actual history, though. They featured his heroes Solomon Kane, Turlogh O’Brien, Dark Agnes and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey – and the fifth-century Gaelic pirate Cormac Mac Art, for that matter. Others were not part of any series, like “Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture.”

With regard to “Sowers of the Thunder,” he wrote to Wilfred Talman in April of 1931:

That reminds me; I just recently got a letter from Farnsworth who’s just read Lamb’s book on the later crusades, and wants me to write a tale dealing with Baibars the Panther; do you know anything about him? I’ll conceal my ignorance with a flare of action, as usual. Just in case you ever want to write to me, send it to my usual address. I wont be here long.

REH was a decided fan of Harold Lamb’s writing, wild adventure with sword-swinging heroes, Cossacks, Crusaders and the like. Lamb also wrote a two-volume history of the Crusades that REH would almost certainly have read, and a biography of Genghis Khan. Howard’s “ignorance” wasn’t nearly as great as he said, though he was well aware that he didn’t live at the scholarly hub of the nation. Circa January 1932 he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft, “Understand, my historical readings in my childhood were scattered and sketchy, owing to the fact that I lived in the country where such books were scarce.”

I know how he felt. This blogger lived in Tasmania as a kid, and the history we were taught in high school was practically blank between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance. The Byzantine Empire? The one that bridged the gap between the Western Empire and the Renaissance, lasted a thousand years, and gave Imperial Russia its religion? Didn’t exist. The only mention of it I heard in high school was in English classes; Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Crusades got a passing mention, but other than that the brilliant human story was more than sketchy. Japan? Central America? Africa? Forget it. The only references to Africa were made in connection with explorers and missionaries like Livingstone, Mungo Park and Mary Kingsley. The most vivid accounts of history I read were in books like The Three Musketeers.

REH early became an avid reader of what history he could find, however. And he filled in the gaps splendidly from his imagination and story-teller’s instinct, as when he produced the story about Baibars he mentions to Talman, above – “Sowers of the Thunder.” Baibars was a thirteenth-century mamluk, a slave-soldier of Turkish origin, who rose to become Sultan of Egypt and ruled from 1260 to 1277. A warrior of iron toughness, he’s said to have swum the Nile daily in full armor to stay fit. Just REH’s type of character.

In “Sowers of the Thunder,” he meets his dangerous equal in Red Cahal O’Donnell, a failed Irish king. Cahal is fictional; Baibars al-Bunduqdari isn’t. In REH’s story, Cahal and Baibars first meet (in spring of 1243) while the latter is disguised as a common traveler, and then at the fearful sack of Jerusalem by Khawarezmi Turks in 1244. This wouldn’t seem to be historical, since Baibars was most likely born around 1223. He was twenty-one, and a member of the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt’s bodyguard, at the most, in 1244 – not a general of mamluks. That Sultan, As-Salih Ayyub, really did call upon a great host of Khawarezmians to retake Jerusalem for him from his Abbasid rivals, but he couldn’t control them and the savages carried out a hideous sack of the Holy City which REH describes. The one real discrepancy in this yarn is that REH makes Baibars about a decade older than he was, and that may not have been REH’s mistake. There might have been no definite knowledge of Baibars’ birth year in the 1930s.In REH’s story, too, Baibars claims to be “a son of Subotai, who was right hand to Genghis Khan.” Well, Subotai, the greatest and most innovative of the Khan’s generals, would have been an appropriate father for Baibars, but to the best of my knowledge Baibars was a Kipchak Turk enslaved and sold by the Mongols as a child. Of course, since Subotai had crushed a combined Russian and Kipchak army in 1223, on the Don, he might have casually sired Baibars on a Kipchak woman before he rejoined Genghis Khan, and never known she was pregnant. No reason at all why not.

REH’s letters show an intense interest in the background to his stories, and a concern for correctness. In his January 1932 letter to Lovecraft he said of his boyhood interests, “I was an enthusiast of Scottish history, such as I could obtain, feeling a kinship with the kilted clansmen because of the Scottish strain in my own blood. In the brief and condensed histories I read, the Picts were given only bare mention, as when they clashed with, and were defeated by, the Scotch.” Later he comments, “Then when I was about twelve I spent a short time in New Orleans and found in a Canal Street library, a book detailing the pageant of British history, from prehistoric times up to – I believe – the Norman Conquest. It was written for schoolboys and told in an interesting and romantic style, probably with many historical inaccuracies.”

He was frustratingly aware of how damned difficult it is to get all your background facts right, too. In another letter to Lovecraft, of August 9th, 1932, he said:

The writing of historical stories is hell in a way, though intensely interesting. It is so easy to make mistakes. For instance, I noted in his book of travels, Bayard Taylor, when speaking of his explorations in Vienna, mentioned Count Stahremberg as commanding Vienna in 1529, when, he said, Sobiesky rescued the city from the siege of the Turks under the Grand Vizier Muhammad. Staheremberg hadn’t been born in 1529. Count Salm commanded then, and beat off, not Muhammad, who, with Sobiesky, was still in the womb of the unborn, but Suleyman the Magnificent. It was in 1683 that the others played their part. And the Vizier was not Muhammad but Kara Mustafa.

“The Shadow of the Vulture,” set in Vienna during the siege of 1529, was the story that introduced Red Sonya to the world. Red Sonya, the drunken former Knight of St. John, von Kalmbach, and the cruel villain Mikhal Oglu, commander of the sultan’s Akinji* corps, are all fiction. But the 1529 siege of Vienna is described with great accuracy. Writing “Shadow,” REH tried to discover in what year precisely the Danube Canal running through the city was constructed – or whether it was “a natural arm of the river.” He lamented, “I’ve ransacked all the reference books in this part of Texas and can’t find out.”

He appreciated fully the need, when writing a historical, to read the sagas, poetry, political reports, letters, religious tracts and stories, not to mention biographies where available, of the actual times. When you immerse yourself in them as fully as you can, you get the flavor and the thinking of the times, and it carries over into the writing even if you never actually mention any of it. On June 1, 1931 he wrote to Clayton Publications editor Harry Bates:

I’m hoping you can use this tale – ‘Spears of Clontarf’, which I am enclosing. It deals with a phase in history too much neglected by writers – that of the Dano-Irish wars which culminated in the final shattering of the Viking power at the battle of Clontarf. Those days of war and rapine represent an age crammed with vital drama, enough to supply a hundred thrilling volumes.

In writing this tale, I have dipped deeply into both history and legendry, striving to interweave historical facts and folk-lore myths in a realistic and logical manner. It is my belief that practically all legends have some solid foundation of fact, though they may be so changed and distorted as to be unrecognizable. Thus, in the case of Dunlang O’Hartigan, and his sweetheart, Eevin of Craglea, the guardian fairy-spirit of the O’Briens, I honestly believe the legend had some such basis of fact as I have presented in this story. As you know, the legend represents Eevin as presenting her lover with a magic mantle making him invisible; he threw it off in the heat of battle, Murrogh crying out to him, and was instantly slain as she had predicted. It is my honest belief that the girl, who later became the wife of Craglea in the legends, persuaded Dunlang to wear some sort of armor – the Irish of that day generally wore none at all – and in the legends that sprang up about the great battle, that armor became a ‘mantle of darkness.’

In gathering material for this story I have drawn on such sources as Joyce’s ‘History of Gaelic Ireland’, ‘The Saga of Burnt Nial’ Spenser’s ‘View of the State of Ireland’, ‘The Wars of the Gaels with the Galls’ and other histories.

“Spears of Clontarf” was one of REH’s most effective stories, and it was also written (or rewritten) as “The Grey God Passes,” with a greater element of the supernatural.

“Lord of Samarcand” tied in with a number of historical events, beginning in Scotland and moving across the breadth of Europe into Central Asia. The revenge-passion of one of REH’s grim Celtic warriors, Donald MacDeesa, ends Lord Douglas’s life after the battle of Otterbourne. Having to flee the retribution of Douglas’s friends, Donald becomes part of the crusade of 1396 to thrust the Ottoman Turks out of the Balkans, which ended in disaster at the battle of Nicopolis. (For the details, you couldn’t do better than read the Nicopolis chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.) The forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Bayazid the Thunderer, cut the Christians to pieces. Donald MacDeesa, surviving, kills one of the fools he blames for the debacle, and then enlists with Bayazid’s enemy, the warlord Timour the Lame. As Timour’s agent, he brings about Bayazid’s downfall and capture, then sees the Sultan commit suicide at a victory celebration of Timour’s – but in the end he assassinates Timur too. Over a woman.

Howard took some deliberate liberties with history in writing that story, and he expected the readers to criticize them. As it turned out, though, they mainly took issue with an aspect of “Lord of Samarcand” that wasn’t an error or inaccuracy at all. In his August 9th, 1932 letter to Lovecraft, he wrote:

That reminds me – that business about Turanian drunkeness – some of the readers took exception to my making Tamerlane a drinking man. I expected to be attacked on other scores – on Bayazid’s suicide, which of course never took place – about my version of Timour’s death – more particular I expected to be denounced because of the weapon my character used in that slaying. There were firearms in the world then, and had been for some time, but they were of the matchlock order. I doubt if there were any flintlock weapons in Asia in 1405. But the readers pounced on to the point I least expected – the matter of Muhammadan drunkards. They maintained that according to the Koran, Moslems never drank. Wright admitted in the Souk that the Koran forbade liquor, but went on to quote a long extract from Clivijo’s memoirs to prove that Timour and his Tatars drank to excess.

“Wright” would have been Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales in the ‘thirties. He also edited Oriental Stories, a lesser known pulp magazine, between 1930 and 1934. I suppose the “Souk” Howard mentioned was the magazine’s letter column. (I’m no expert on pulp magazine history and only know that because I looked it up, but “Lord of Samarcand” was first published there in 1932.)

REH was dead right. If the readers had wanted to make factual criticisms (or pick nits) they could have pointed out that Sultan Bayazid didn’t die as Howard has him die, though some do maintain that he committed suicide after a year in captivity, humbled and degraded. Then there is the final scene in which Donald MacDeesa, learning that his girl has been strangled for carrying on intrigues beyond her wits or capacity, pulls out a pistol and shoots his master Timour.

Now, Timour did die in 1405 while planning to invade China, just as the story says, but of course there’s no record of his being shot by a servant, a Christian mercenary. Howard knew that, and for my money he handled the finish brilliantly. Timour, dying of the pistol shot, his plans to conquer China dying with him, rages that he should have conquered half the world only to come to his end “because of a cringing trull and a Caphar renegade!” Fighting for control and speaking clearly, he commands, “Let not the chronicles of the ages blazon the name of the wolf that slew a conqueror … write … that this day, by the hand of no man, but by the will of God, died Timour!”

And you buy it. You believe it completely. You can hear the arrogant slaughter-merchant saying it.

Farnsworth Wright was correct, too. The Tatars were mighty drinkers. Timour and his Samarcand warriors belonged to that very breed, and while nominally Moslems, remained about half pagan. Like Baibars, born a Kipchak on the lower Don, converted as an adult, they wouldn’t have been averse to a drinking session despite the Koran’s forbidding it. The readers had taken issue with the wrong aspect of Howard’s yarn. Reading the scene, you overlook the impossible existence of a flintlock weapon in that milieu, unless you’re a firearms history buff, I suppose.

Howard’s letter makes it plain that he recognized the fact and had glossed over it on purpose – but also that it was of some concern to him. An avid reader, he did his research as thoroughly as he could, and more conscientiously than some so-called scholars of our day, especially considering that he wrote for the pulps and often in haste. My own biggest complaint about his work is that he didn’t write MORE historicals, at greater length. Some of his short stories, and for that matter the mere fragments and outlines, would have been good for full-length novels, even trilogies, if they’d only received the treatment they deserved.

He wrote ruefully in the same letter:

One problem in writing bloody literature is to present it in such a manner as to avoid a suggestion of cheap blood-and-thunder melodrama – which is what some people will always call action, regardless of how realistic and true it is … I’ve always held myself down in writing action-stories; I never let my stories be as bloody and brutal as the ages and incidents I was trying to depict actually were. I think sometimes I’ll let myself go – possibly in a yarn of the middle ages – and see if I can sell the thing. I don’t know how much slaughter and butchery the readers will endure.

This blogger can attest that he wasn’t prevaricating. Let anybody who doubts me simply check out the torture devices and methods of the Inquisition, or find in detail what breaking on the wheel or hanging, drawing and quartering involved. REH’s stories do abound in “butchery in the heat and fury of a battlefield,” but compared to the Bible or Shakespeare they’re actually tame. The scene in “King John” where Hubert tells young Prince Arthur he has been ordered to burn out the boy’s eyes, makes the blood refrigerate. Not to mention Henry V, with war accurately described as “all pity choked with custom of fell deeds,” and the king, in the battle, hearing that “the French have reinforc’d their scattered men,” barking, “Then every soldier kill his prisoners! Give the word through.” His captains approve when they hear; ruthlessness was then reckoned a virtue in war. “ … the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat,” chortles Gower. “O! ‘Tis a gallant king!”

Cruel Oriental despots are no figment of prejudiced nineteen-thirties imagination, either. Ottoman Turkish sultans were hardly sweethearts. In Dorothy Dunnett’s brilliant “Lymond” series, which isn’t even prejudiced against the Turks, and dryly points out through the mouth of the charismatic main character that “They hardly have the best of Christian examples before them,” Ottoman atrocities aren’t played down. A couple of nuns released from captivity describe “a man’s feet roasted black in his shoes … a friend flayed alive with such art that he took three hours dying … half a man cauterized on a red hot brass shield so that he lives a little time longer … ” (Pawn in Frankincense, Chapter 1.)

The blase Lymond responds, “Not a fashionable topic. Why not come back after dinner?”

It’s also made clear later in the book that in his palace the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent has “power of instant and hideous death.” And Dunnet as a writer is crisp, accurate and unsentimental. The Turkish Empire under Suleyman was a real and immense menace to Christian Europe. If he hadn’t had to deal with a major Muslim enemy in the person of the Grand Sophy, ruler of Persia, Suleyman might have conquered Austria, Italy and even France eventually. And the French crown would have asked for it. To gain advantages over rivals like the Holy Roman Empire (actually German), the King of France was kissing up to the Ottomans like a showgirl to a billionaire, even while their armies took Rhodes and marched against Vienna.

REH’s “The Shadow of the Vulture,” is set during that very siege. It features a drunken former Knight of St. John, Gottfried von Kalmbach, and Red Sonya of Rogatino. Of course she was reincarnated in Marvel Comics as Red Sonja and transferred to the age of Conan, but the original was a Russian girl with red-gold hair who claimed to be the sister of Roxelana, favorite wife of the sultan.

Roxelana came originally from the town of Rohatyn (or Rogatino) in the Ukraine. Born around the year 1506, she was captured by Tatar raiders from the Crimea and taken to Constantinople as a slave, where she was chosen for the great Sultan’s harem. She was known in the Ottoman Empire by the epithet Khurrem, Persian for “the merry one” or “the laughing one”. A landsknecht observes to Gottfried during the siege, “If the Tatars who grabbed Roxelana that night had got Sonya, by Saint Piotr! Suleyman would have had a handful!” If Sonya was indeed Roxelana’s sister – let’s say, older by two years – then she would have been twenty-five at the siege of Vienna.

She would also have been contemporary with that other red-haired female mercenary of REH’s, Agnes de Chastillon, protagonist of “Sword Woman” and “Blades for France.” Agnes must have been young when she was introduced in “Sword Woman.” She decamps from an undesired wedding as it begins, and girls in peasant villages back then married young. She probably wasn’t more than seventeen. She’s physically mature, though, and obviously strong; when Etienne Villiers asks her, “Can you work?” she answers matter-of-factly, “No man in La Fere can do more,” and Etienne, cynical rogue though he is, believes her.

There are some clues to the year of Agnes’ “origin” story. In his article “The Sword Woman” Gary Romeo observes, “In 1515 Francis I won the battle of Marignano and in 1516 the Treaty of Noyon was signed. Spain guaranteed France’s possession of Milan. Charles V refused to recognize the agreement. In the story, Guiscard mentions to Agnes that ‘the Emperor is trying to sweep de Lautrec out of Milan.’ Vicomte de Lautrec was driven from Milan in 1521. So ‘Sword Woman’ takes place shortly before that event.”

There’s also the fact that Etienne Villiers is being hunted by the Duc d’Alencon’s paid killers. The Counts of Alencon were raised to Dukes in 1414, and the last of that line was Charles IV, who succeeded his father in 1492. As the king’s brother-in-law he was First Prince of the Blood. He died in 1525 and the duchy reverted to the crown. It wasn’t granted again until 1566. Thus the “Duc d’Alencon” who wants Etienne’s mouth shut permanently must be Charles IV – not to be confused with the Duc de Bourbon, another Charles. And the story must take place before 1525.

“Blades for France” contains more than just clues. Francoise de Foix, the king’s mistress, Charles III, Duc de Bourbon, and the English statesman Cardinal Wolsey, all make appearances, while the king’s mother, Louise of Savoy, is prominently mentioned. Wolsey was the young King Henry VIII’s chief political hatchet man, and he fell from power in 1529. Francoise de Foix did not become the French king’s mistress until after 1518. As for the Duc de Bourbon, slighted, robbed of his inheritance, with the king’s mother for an unrelenting enemy, he left France and took service with the Emperor Charles V, fighting on his side in Italy in 1524, against the French king – so “Blades for France” is set before that year. We have a mere six-year window left, with 1521 as the median date, and the reference to de Lautrec and Milan cited by Gary Romeo settles it. Granting that “Sword Woman” and the immediate sequel, “Blades for France,” take place then, and Agnes is seventeen, she was born in 1504 – as was Red Sonya, by this writer’s estimate.

Like other short stories and fragments of REH’s, “Blades for France” could easily have made a full-length novel. Despite lots of skullduggery and coincidence, some of the more gaudy aspects aren’t as far-fetched as they first appear. It seems unlikely, for instance, that Cardinal Wolsey would cross the Channel in person on a clandestine mission. He wouldn’t do so unless to meet – or supervise the abduction of — someone equal in stature, such as the Duc de Bourbon, but in the story that’s just what Wolsey’s purpose is.

Francoise de Foix tells Etienne and Agnes that she became the king’s mistress because Louise of Savoy compelled her to. The idea was to influence her son through Francoise. Historically, Louise neither liked nor trusted the de Foix family. (She was a great woman for holding grudges. She hated the Duc de Bourbon too.) But precisely because of that, Francoise would have been the perfect tool for Louise, so long as Louise held utter control over her. Nobody would suspect that Francoise was her puppet. Louise would make her “disapproval” plain, and the king would take satisfaction from having defied his dominating mama, not guessing that in fact she was pulling the strings – again.

The most – apparently – outrageous notion I found in REH’s writing, as far as probability goes, was a voyage all around Africa and across the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Cambay, in an undecked Saxon longship. That occurs in the fragment “The King’s Service.” My own reaction was “Impossible!” Then I thought about Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki and Ra voyages, not to mention Tim Severin’s Brendan expedition in a leather boat. For detailed expositions on “The King’s Service,” see the website The Cimmerian, closed since June 11th, 2010 but still available. The posts are “Donn Othna: From Chalons to the Gulf of Cambay,” of 3rd April, 2010, and “REH’s Lost Kingdom of Nagdragore” of 10th April 2010. There is also a post concerning Cormac Mac Art, his Danish sword-brother Wulfhere, and the possible dates of the earliest Viking activity. It was posted on Saturday, April 24th, 2010.

Apart from plugging my own articles, the above has the more important function of stressing that even when REH appeared to have it wrong historically, his research had invariably been as thorough as he could make it in the days before the Internet – hell, before World War II! And that his instinct for what might have happened, his feeling for what worked, was sounder than that of most writers since. I’m more than a bit fanatical about historical accuracy, and I admire his abilities in that direction. This comes from one whose standards of historical writing were formed by Samuel Shellabarger, Cecelia Holland, Mary Renault, Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O’Brien, Frank Yerby and Sharon Penman.

And that’s damned hard company to live up to.