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Most Howard scholars could probably write an entire treatise on the things they wish they had related to Robert E. Howard’s work, starting with more of everything from a gifted author who died too young.
In amongst all those predictable wishes I could name is a minor but nagging one – that we had more information about his composition of the story Gates of Empire. Surviving correspondence discusses many of his historicals, but little related to this one has come down to us, and that’s a shame, because there’s nothing quite like it in the entire Robert E. Howard canon.
It’s a historical, but while it has detailed and thrilling action, it’s not grim and moody. It’s humorous, but its tone has scant in common with Howard’s Western tales, which are so exaggerated that they clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously, or even his humorous boxing stories, which, while not quite as embellished as the western yarns, still are many more steps removed from reality. Gates of Empire is both an action adventure and a comic send-up, and it’s a marvelous little tale.
It stands alone, a class by itself in Howard’s work, showing us another kind of tale Howard might have succeeded in, had he the interest, the time, and the market.
The story might very well have come off as grim and relentless as Howard’s more famous historicals, the famous four adventures that immediately preceded it in composition: “The Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture.” But with its witty, bumbling ne’er do well protagonist, Giles Hobson, in the driver’s seat, it becomes an entirely different sort of adventure almost from the very start.
And much as hubris destroys many of the central figures of those four stories, its Giles’s own actions that launch him into adventure, misfortune, and the occasional turn of luck.
A Howard tale often beings in the midst of deadly action, or the plotting of same. Gates of Empire, though, opens with a discussion shared by inebriated servants who’ve invited themselves to the wine in their master’s wine vault. Giles, who’s more clever than his fellows, does lead the others in a plot, but it’s neither meant to unseat a ruler nor obtain riches – it’s a jest meant to get two aristocratic lords fighting each other for no other goal than sheer amusement.
Giles may be clever, but he can’t see too much further than the end of his nose, even when sober. Once discovered as the author of the prank he’s forced to flee for his life, and when we see him next he’s been found as an inebriated stowaway aboard a merchant vessel on its way towards the holy land. Once again we find Giles’ planning short sighted, for the owner of the wine he’s been tapping is ready to have him heaved overside.
Fortunately for Giles, the ship soon comes under attack. As arrows fly, mayhem erupts, and men fall to left and right as the Moslem galley closes the distance. The carnage is almost exactly what we’d see in any other Robert E. Howard story, except that we’re getting something of a backstage view. Howard’s not focused on the lone hero or stalwart band who’s readying the defense or the attack. Instead, the camera follows a fellow we might normally have seen simply as a background characters. Arrows miss when Giles bends at just the right moment. He evades getting skewered when he trips and his vast bulk takes down Emir Shirkuh, who mistakes his opponent for a mighty warrior owing to Giles’s vice like hug, desperately thrown about Shirkuh so the redoubtable warrior cannot swing his own blade.
In perhaps this one way Giles could be said to resemble other Howardian heroes, for his strength is remarkable, even if its never used to succeed in bold exploits.
It’s Giles’ tongue that’s his greatest gift, another characteristic uncommon among Robert E. Howard’s characters. Giles may not be adept at long term strategy, but he’s a master of improvisation, soon convincing Shirkuh that he’s a relative of none other than the King of England, a lie that would have proved problematic for other mortals once he’s again with Franks, but Giles passes his first lie off as an exaggeration of his enemies, claiming instead that he’s merely the younger son of a Scottish Baron.
He’s adept at navigating changing circumstance as well, such as when he first wishes to avoid the company of an army riding to war by travelling to Acre until he learns that the lord he’d wronged, Guiscard de Chastillon, commands the city. He quickly claims that “duty calls, and what are weary limbs and an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in Egypt!”
I enjoy this story well enough that I’ve written of it before, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a favorite scene that I already covered: the moment Giles is lured from his friends by a lovely dancing girl.
It’s the ideal demonstration of another difference between how Howard presents Giles and how he writes about his other protagonists. For instance, Conan is often a step ahead of us, his readers, whether it be smashing a giant spider with a quickly flung chest or out-thinking a swordsman in the midst of a fight. We’re not sure how Conan will get through, but know that he will, and wait to see how he’ll manage this time. The dangers that come at him are frequently surprises.
Giles, on the other hand, walks into dangers he himself has often created, and that we the readers can see coming a mile away. It’s impossible to imagine Conan unwarily following a woman down a dark hidden passage without suspicion, but Giles does, and we know full well she’s up to no good. He can’t overcome his situations with martial prowess and is unlikely to do so with brawn, so either dumb luck or inspired lying is his only real chance, and it’s a pleasure distinctly different to see how he gets through each challenge.
Howard maneuvers the elements of this story like a master cardsharp, keeping us so busy focused upon other things that each time Guiscard de Chastillon reappears it comes as another shock. The first time Giles encounters him after fleeing, it’s just another challenge amongst all those he’s suffering on the sea seems like it might be the last. The second “encounter” is a mere mention when Giles is offered the sanctuary of Acre, and comes as merely a humorous aside.
When Giles becomes swept up into a great battle, there’s so much going on around him that Guiscard’s sudden appearance is almost as alarming to the reader as to Giles, and timed to perfection, leading to a climactic moment in the story that may be full of battle, but not owing to a protagonist’s heroic plan or charge! And it’s the enmity between Guiscard and Giles that lies behind a famed charge that ruined a battle and put Shirkuh on his throne, an event lost to history but rendered entirely plausible, as is Shirkuh’s good humored response when he encounters Giles on the battlefield shortly after the victory.
To me it’s always seemed that Howard had mastered the heroic historical fiction story in the preceding four tales and that with Gates he began to experiment with the form to amuse himself. He happened to have amused most readers who’ve chanced upon the story, as well. Unlike other writers who experimented a little with a different style, Howard’s work was a wonderful success. I can only wish that there were a few more just like it. But perhaps its solitary existence is remarkable, and entertaining, enough.