The Swords of Robert E. Howard, Part 3

The Swordsmanship of Robert E. Howard

Just as in medieval times most men carried swords but the majority were neither duelists nor skilled fencers. (CL2.103)

Given Robert E. Howard’s lack of access to fencing instructors (CL3.242), never having entered the military or other occupation where he could receive weapons training, and the general absence of military manuals of the sword or treatises on historical European martial arts, most of his ideas about how swords were used would have come from his reading in history and adventure fiction, his limited practical exercise with the swords he collected, and of course the cinema.

I got a big kick out of going through the place — it looks just like scenes from swash-buckling movies. I wouldn’t be surprized to see Douglas Fairbanks came bounding into the patio with his rapier and jack-boots. (CL2.189)

Douglas Fairbanks was the star of cinematic fencing in the early days of Hollywood, leaving his mark in films like The Mask of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), Son of Zorro (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), and The Iron Mask (1929); other stars of the period include Errol Flynn, whose swashbuckling start was Captain Blood (1935), and Lloyd Ingraham in Scaramouche (1923)—and we know Howard was a fan of these films, and mentions many of them in his letters.

Based loosely on classical fencing, fight choreography of the period emphasized spectacle over form: the actors kept their distance, and blades made the maximum contact with each other, frequently clashing with an audible ting. “Flynning” made for exciting cinema, and left their mark on the Texan’s imagination, just as reading about sword-fights in fiction provided him with some of the basic terminology:

You ought to re-read Dumas and crash the historical one — the ad says the tales should generally feature the Anglo-Saxon but that the gallant Frenchman and dashing Spaniard will have their place. I see where I dress Solomon Kane up in a nom de plume and let him thrust, parry and riposte for eighteen chapters. (CL2.195)

The spectacle of fighting in the movies often eschewed weapons like polearms and defensive advantages like shields, which featured heavily in historical combat. For example, the historical “swashbuckler” was called called that because of the use of bucklers, a small shield that was carried in the off-hand, in combination with a side-sword (a relatively light, short, double-bladed straight sword); this was combat in a civilian context, not on a battlefield, and these were the arms and armors that were convenient to carry in daily life. Film swashbucklers, however, frequently left out the buckler, fighting with swords alone—and often substituting a rapier or other blade for a small-sword—and so too do most of Howard’s heroes, as he adopted the spectacle of fencing while applying his own sanguinary ideas about swordplay.

For instance, in “Swords of the Hills” Howard talks about how “Yard-long Khyber knives clanged and ground against the curved swords of the Attalans.” (EB 25)—a very cinematic image, as in real combat swordsman generally try to avoid such contact with the edges of the blades, which will often damage and notch the cutting edge. Despite such touches, fencing, even cinematic and literary fencing, wasn’t quite what he was looking for:

I doubt, though, if fencing could ever have interested me like boxing, since it is, apparently, founded on finesse, and gives little opportunity for the exercise of ruggedness and sheer physical power. (CL3.242)

This emphasis on strength, rather than speed or technique, may also have been inspired by family tales of combat in war or the settling of the west:

My grandfather George Ervin was accounted the strongest man in his regiment and one of the strongest men in Forrest’s command. He could cleave a man from shoulder to waist with a single stroke of his saber. (CL2.265)

This is certainly true of Howard’s fiction, where blows tend to be mighty and it is not uncommon for a stroke of a sword to cleave a skull or pierce through the body of an opponent. The Texan was not unaware of the importance of speed, reach, footing, or form in a fight—they were common elements in boxing, after all—but in fiction his fight scenes tend to be quick, evocative, and light on technical details; less a ringside blow-by-blow commentary and more a vivid prelude to a bloody end. A good example is a passage in “Swords in the Hills”:

He was taller, had the longer reach again and again his blade whispered at Gordon’s throat. Once it touched his arm, and a trickle of crimson began. There was no sound except the rasp of feet on the sward, the rapid whisper of the blades, the deep panting of the men. (EB 26)

Despite his lack of direct experience or training, and a tendency for spectacle, Robert E. Howard’s fictional swordplay shouldn’t be mistaken for pure fantasy. Howard also evinced a certain quality of realism in his fictional swordfights. For example, in his fiction set after the invention of firearms, Howard appears cognizant of the fact that the sword was primarily a sidearm, and in that it largely gave way as technology progressed, this can be seen in “The Land of Mystery” El Borak, where fires his rifle and pistol at the oncoming foes before resorting to his sword as they close in. (EEB 160)

For the most part Howard seems to have avoided the issue of swords in modern war. Even when he does express an opinion on swords in warfare, it is not the reality of trench warfare:

What do we know of Oriental warfare? If a regiment was to meet the charge of a horde of wild Tatars, fanatic Ghazi Afghans, or sword-wielding Mongols, what orders would the officers give? Nine times out of ten, “close ranks and receive with bayonets”. And it has been proven again and again that a man with a bayonet on a rifle is no match for a man with a sword. Unless he can use the rifle as it should be used, not as a pike. The superiority of the sword has been proven at Bannockburn, at Sebastopol, at Kabul. If men are to meet steel with steel, they should be adequately armed. Long spears and short swords to meet a charge of long swords. If you don’t believe that, read the chronicles of Rome and Macedonia. (CL1.19)

This was not a dispute about modern war; this was a view of war that saw bodies of men moving in formation on open fields, when the cavalry charge was still a viable tactic—before the advent of machine guns and repeating rifles. Howard’s criticism of the bayonet is grounded in long-ago battles rather than contemporary conditions of warfare, because modern war with its airplanes and submarines, artillery and poison gas, trenches and flamethrowers had grown impersonal, away from the conditions where the sword was a useful weapon—and that was what Howard was interested in.

I wish warfare was on its older, simpler base. Though I’m far from war-like, yet I’ve always felt that with the proper training, I could learn to be fairly annoying to the enemy with a bayonet or rifle butt, but this new-fangled chemical warfare would make me a total loss. What’s the glory in pushing a button and slaughtering men fifty miles away, or flying over a city and spraying the noncombatants with liquid hell? When they traded the warhorse for a submarine, they ruined the blasted business as far as I’m concerned. (CL2.289-290)

Bibliography
CCC The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2002)
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007 – 2015)
CLIMH Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard (REH Foundation, 2011)
CS Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (Del Rey, 2007)
DVS Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, Bluejay Books)
EB El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (Del Rey, 2010)
EEB The Early Adventures of El Borak (REH Foundation, 2010)
LC The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard (Berkeley, 1976)
RWM Report of a Writing Man & Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard (Necronomicon Press, 1991)

Read Part 1, Part 2

Conan painting by Doug Wheatley