From "The Making of a Technorhetorician":
While the focus of this paper is Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and Terry Pratchett’s The Last Hero and their connections to the Victorian reception of Old Norse literature, Conan and his creator Robert E. Howard play a large role as well. Unlike the works of Robert E. Howard which I stopped reading in the early part of high school (because I’d read them all), I encountered Holt and Pratchett’s work while in graduate school. Holt specifically for his use of Old Norse material in two novels and Pratchett because, as my professor Tom Shippey puts it, “Everyone should read Terry Pratchett.” Both authors write what is best described as comedic fantasy, and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and The Last Hero both fall within the subgenre of heroic fantasy better known as sword and sorcery. In this presentation, I’m going to suggest that the sword and sorcery genre is deeply rooted in and reflects the Victorian reception of Old Norse literature, that both Holt and Pratchett consciously draw upon this tradition, and that Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories serve as an important bridge between Victorian medievalism and contemporary sword and sorcery.
I like this guy already!
And in case it needs mentioning, Tolkien liked Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. He even said so in writing.
Appeals to authority/popularity don't normally appeal to me (ho ho) but sometimes they work.
From "Chaucer's Blog and Medievalism":
While Howard often seems to toss various “barbarian” cultures, from Native Americans to Vikings to Mongols into a blender, I found more subtly to it. While Howard, and Conan, are most often associated with the Celts (Howard was a celtophile), I found in his letters and his early stories an equally strong interest in and knowledge of medieval Scandinavia, or at least a Victorian understanding of it...
Howard didn't "toss in" his barbarian cultures, naturally: anyone who's read "The Hyborian Age" will know just how much thought he put into it. I'd also say Howard's interest in Celtica far outstrips his interest and knowledge of medieval Scandinavia: Walter's going to have to provide some evidence here. That said, Howard clearly liked the Norse and Scandinavians, even if he had them cast as foes for his Irishmen more often than not.
In fact, Howard’s first two Conan stories are “The Pheonix and the Sword” and “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” the later set in Howard’s proto-Scandinavia and the former, set at the end of Conan’s career, has Conan telling one of his courtiers that he has much more in common with Æsir than his own Cimmerian kinsmen. Conan may have been a Cimmerian, a proto-Celt, by blood, he was a Æsir, a proto-Scandinavian, in spirit.
Astute, however, it's important to note that Conan was a proto-Gael, not merely proto-Celt. Howard's Celts, particularly his Gauls and Britons, are themselves from not just Cimmerian, but Æsir and Vanir ancestry. In addition, the Cimmerians contributed to certain Scandinavian tribes. To whit:
The blond Achaians, Gauls and Britons, for instance, were descendants of pure-blooded Æsir. The Nemedians of Irish legendry were the Nemedian Æsir. The Danes were descendants of pure-blooded Vanir; the Goths — ancestors of the other Scandinavian and Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons — were descendants of a mixed race whose elements contained Vanir, AEsir and Cimmerian strains. The Gaels, ancestors of the Irish and Highland Scotch, descended from pure-blooded Cimmerian clans. The Cymric tribes of Britain were a mixed Nordic-Cimmerian race which preceded the purely Nordic Britons into the isles, and thus gave rise to a legend of Gaelic priority. The Cimbri who fought Rome were of the same blood...
- "The Hyborian Age"
However, that's probably nitpicking. What Walter says next is a bit more troublesome:
While Howard didn’t invent the sword and sorcery genre, he popularized it shaped it in the same way that Tolkien popularized and shaped high fantasy. Who was the first sword and sorcery author, you ask? There’s some debate. Some name William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Rice Burrows, Abraham Merritt, E.R. Eddison, Talbot Mundy, or even Alexander Dumas, but the most likely candidate is H. Rider Haggard with his Viking-age novel written in the Icelandic saga style, Eric Brighteyes, a novel Haggard began on the boat voyage home from Iceland.
Huh. Well, given how fraught with subjectivity genre lines can be, I suppose I could see Walter's point. However, I'll have to disagree on a few points. Burroughs, Haggard & Dunsany I'd consider proto-Sword-and-Sorcery, if anything. Merritt & Morris are too broad to classify as anything more vague than "fantasy." Eddison I'm unsure of, but again, I'd go with proto-S&S. I'm not sure what Mundy or Dumas stories Walter would consider S&S, but I'd sure like to find out.
Still, one could argue about this sort of thing until the cows come home. Here's soemthing we can all agree on:
But why should medievalists study and even teach this stuff? First, there’s the fact that these authors were serious in their engagement of our subject, and, like the Chaucer blog, their engagement with medieval literature and culture has a much broader impact on our culture, on our students, and on the public at large, than any paper we give or book we publish. They are medievalism — the representation and use of medieval culture in the post-medieval period — and while medieval studies is often considered the realm of arcane and overly bookish, representations and uses of medieval culture are all around us. That we can be a culture awash in medievalism while at the same time a culture that believes that medieval studies is old-fashioned and irrelevant is a serious failing on our part. It’s a paradox that we can’t afford to allow to continue for much longer. And then there’s the fact that fantasy, both of the Tolkienian and Howardian traditions, are a gateway to medieval studies itself. A student who’s going to be drawn into literary studies by Woolf or Eliot or Melville or Joyce is going to find their way to literary studies without our coaxing. But Tolkien and Le Guin and Pratchett and Gaiman and Kerr, and yes, even Howard, can draw in students who didn’t find their high school literature courses speaking to them, and we shouldn’t ignore this.
While I smart a little at putting Tolkien & Howard on the same echelon as Pratchett (even though I really like his work), Gaiman (ambivalent, but mostly like) and Le Guin (again, ambivalent) - to the point where he says "even Howard" - it's clear Walter's heart's in the right place. I think Tolkien & Howard are worthy of being considered along with Melville. But then, academic studies still have to catch up with the rest of us regarding Howard.
From "Barbarian Chic":
While Howard is usually connected with the Celts by the handful of scholars who study him, I kept finding Viking references in his letters and other writings. And, well, there’s “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” one of the earliest Conan stories, in which Conan tells his Aesir friend that he feels much more akin to the Aesir and Vanir (Howard’s Hyborian Age proto-Scandinavians) than he does to his own Cimmerian people (Howard’s Hyborian Age proto-Celts). Turns out, Howard plays with the Vikings nearly as much as the Celts, though most scholar’s haven’t picked up on that because Howard’s friends wrote about Howard as a Celtophile.
Oh come now, a handful? There are thirty members of REHupa alone. Howard probably has about as many scholars studying him as there are for Tolkien. Certainly the wealth of Howard scholarship speaks volumes.
I already mentioned how Howard's "Celts" owe more to the Æsir than to the Cimmerians. It's also kind of humourous that Walter subtly claims that the many dozens of Howard scholars have "missed" something as major as Howard writing "almost as much" about the Vikings as he does with the Celts. This is simply not borne out by analysis of the stories or the text. Sure, he writes more about the Vikings than he does about other barbarians - say - the Balts, or the Bantu, but to say he wrote an equal volume as he did on the Celts is... well, where's the evidence? When it comes to barbarians, I'd say Howard wrote far more about Native Americans and Mongolians than he did about the Vikings.
I’m not saying Howard is a literary great, but at his best, he’s damn good. At his worst, well, the man made a living, during the Depression, as a pulp fiction writer, churning out everything from boxing stories to erotica. And yes, he was a racist and a sexist.
If you have to mention Howard's racism (especially considering the sheer redundancy of pointing out that a white male Texan of the 1930s had views on race that are not similar to modern mores), at least have the sense not to mention it as somehow related to his literary merits. Also, no, Howard was not sexist. For the standards of the time - hell, for the standards of the 1970s - he was a raging feminist.
Still, not all bad:
Regardless of what one thinks of Howard, his writing, and his philosophy, only Tolkien has had as much influence on 20th Century fantasy. In fact, while Tolkien didn’t create “high” or “epic” fantasy and while Howard didn’t create sword and sorcery, the two subgenres were reshaped by them to such an extent that it’s fair to call them the two fathers of modern fantasy literature.
Too true, Mr Walter.
Man, how I wish Steve Tompkins was still with us. We need him leading the charge with his simply astounding knowledge of literature & mythology to champion Howard's literary merits. Leo, too. Well, we still have the old guard and new blood, but with erudite, intelligent folk like Walter, the Shieldwall is strong enough to weather the storm.