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Literary Criticism

There have been enough times when the history of fantasy is given in association with Howard's name, and presumed to be a major influence on his work, that perhaps a recap is in order:

Heroic Fantasy (or, if you must, Sword & Sorcery) is a story of adventure and action laid in a (usually) imaginary world, where magic works and where modern technology-driven conveniences have not yet been developed. The setting may be a prehistoric Earth or this planet in the future after some cataclysm, or it may be another world or a different dimension.

This form of narrative goes all the way back to the myths, legends and epics of ancient times and primitive peoples. The basic narrative elements that make up Heroic Fantasy are as old as story-telling itself. It encompases Odysseus and Rustan and Sigurd and Cuchulain.

Homer told of isles of strange enchantment and captive beauties and gallant warriors all amid the unknown sea. The warrior-hero battling a supernatural foe is a story that can be dated back to the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, where that hero fought the ogre Grendel, or to the German epic, the Niebelungenleid, in which Siegfried slew Fafnir the dragon.

Heroic Fantasy was further developed by later writers such as Ovid, Firdauri, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Spenser, and James Stephens.

After being neglected for some time, fantasy re-entered the mainstream of western literature with oriental fantasy narratives such as The Arabian Nights and the Gothic novel of Germany as introduced into England in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764).

William Morris developed and pioneered Heroic Fantasy (with such works as The Well at Worlds End and others) in Great Britain in the 1880s. In the early years of this century, Lord Dunsany was a strong formative force. Eric R. Eddison continued in this vein with The Worm Ourboros.

Authors who could have influenced Howard as he later developed this field were Robert W. Chambers, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, Jack London, Sax Rohmar, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft.

A notable post-Howardian addition to Heroic Fantasy has been The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. As are the exemplar writings of Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner and Charles R. Saunders. A current author of interest is David Gemmell.

This history of fantasy, and of influences on Howard's work has appeared in many slightly different forms in many books and anthologies, the heritage laid out above is drawn primarily from the 12 volume Lancer/Prestige/Ace Conan volumes.

A second opinion, however, is now gaining prominence, and that is that even though Howard was aware of most of this tradition of fantasy -- what he, in reality, did was to combine the adventure story with the tale of supernatural horror. Certainly there was nothing quite like Howard's stories at the time he began his career.

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Those of us who remember the Howard boom of the seventies also painfully remember the sorry state of Howard scholarship of that time; which seemed to consist of "it's merely escapist entertainment" or "gosh! this is neat" or "it's only misplaced Teenage Rebellion" or, more painfully, "only someone as crazy as Howard could write this exciting of a story."

It wasn't until the fine book, The Dark Barbarian, and the journals, Cromlech and The Dark Man, that serious and literary appraisals of Howard's work began to appear.

Robert E. Howard was a natural poet, and an artist with words -- and you don't have to look far to see that he does discuss issues that were important to him:

Primary among these were Individual Freedom (which artificially sophisticated critics shrug off as Teenage Rebellion). This freedom was so important to Howard that it becomes an issue in many of his stories, and was certainly a creed that many of his protagonists lived by.

Another important theme is the artificiality of civilized life. The opening pages of "The Tower of the Elephant" discuss this, as does a large portion of the fine "The Thunder-Rider".

Many of his protagonists can also be seen to live by a creed of self-reliance, something particularly relevant in the light of the social and political changes in the America of the '90s.

Suicide as a logical conclussion to life is also sometimes discussed, and a quite frightening discussion it can be.

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There are many Howard stories in which a little something extra can be found. All his favorite themes and theories are there for those who choose to look for them, but other material is there to be reaped by the interested reader.

For instance, in "Dermod's Bane" the protagonist seems unduly upset about the death of his sister (though, of course, any normal person would be devastated, the sorrow that has permeated the soul of Michael Kirowan refuses to heal), the fact that Michael and Moira Kirowan were twins might explain this, as twins are supposed to be uncommonly close. However, the fact that Michael is completely devastated by his sister's death, and apparently for months on end, seems to allude to Robert E. Howard's own response to his Mother's illness. One would suspect that this story was begun after Hester Howard's illness first struck due to the intensity of the protagonist's Depression throughout the story. The grandmother's advice ("go to Ireland") might even be in regard to Howard's own grandmother, who had told young Robert a lot of old Gaelic folklore.

These parallels strike the reader rather strongly.

The question arises: Were the Howards aware of Mrs. Howard's illness as early as 1929, the year of probable composition for "Dermod's Bane"? The answer is yes!

Even though Dark Valley Destiny has proven untrustworthy when it sinks into idle speculation, most of the raw data presented in that volume can most likely be regarded as fact: (1) Mrs. Howard's tuberculosis became active when they moved to Burket (p. 93) and (2) that the house in Cross Plains was bought in 1919 [when Howard was 13, just as he was turning to a writing carreer] and modified to help Mrs. Howard (p. 97).

Therefore we can say, with at least some accuracy, that when Howard composed "Dermod's Bane", sometime in 1929, he was aware of his Mother's worsening health.

Here are lines written in regard to Michael Kirowan and his twin sister Moira, that causes us to wonder if they did not originally come to Howard as he contemplated the loss of his Mother, who was much more than just his #1 fan.

"...a wounded beast crawls back to his lair in the hills."

" aching heart ... died; her going was swift and unexpected. It seemed to my 'mazed agony that one moment she was laughing beside me with her cheery smile and bright gray irish eyes, and the next, the cold bitter grass was growing above her. Oh, my soul to God, not your Son alone endured crucifixion."

"my sorrow was dark on my heart."

These lines show a severity of loss that is real and personal, and not just that of a fictional construct, which is what leads us to the topic under discussion.

This is not to refute what I've said elsewhere about Howard's Depression leading to his own death, which is doubtless true. But his Mother had been his constant companion and supporter, and no one can argue that the two were not close.

There are other lines in "Dermod's Bane" that can be taken as illustrating symptoms of Howard's own Depression:

"...your heart is sick in your breast and a blind black curtain of sorrow is between you and your brain and eyes so that the very sunlight is pale and leprous..."

"A black cloud like a shroud locked about me and in the dim borderland of madness I sat alone, tearless and speechless.

"One night the old, sharp agony returned unbearably."

"My temples throbbed and there was an unbearable weight about my heart. My dumb frozen soul shrieked to God but I could not weep."

"At first I wanted to scream and howl and throw myself on the ground and tear the grass with my teeth,"

"...I wept and lying on my stomach with my face in my hands, poured my racked heart out in scalding, blinding and soul easing tears..."

This is Depression! Those who suffer from Depression have witnessed their own symptoms mirrored in Howard's writing; and it is here seen, in some of Howard's most realistic passages, that he too knew what Depression was, and the devastating effects that those who suffer from it experience.

Depression wasn't much encountered in Howard's time. Nowadays it is so commonplace that it isn't even considered a disease, but rather a condition of our overly-civilized society.

It would indeed be ironic if the very civilization that Howard railed against is what ultimately killed him.