Saturday, 3 July 2010

Just in case you think I'm being overly negative...

I came across a really cool blog, by one J.P. Walter.  He's an English teacher who thinks Howard is a worthwhile subject for literary study.

Hell yes.

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.


  1. The claim that Tolkien read, let alone liked, Howard is one I've never seen any corroboration for. I'd always assumed it was based on a series of misapprehensions and urban legends. Am I wrong on this score?

  2. Misapprehensions and urban legends?

    So speaketh the de Camp, in 1983...

    " 1967, J.R.R. Tolkien, though inclined to be sharply critical of most other fantasists, admitted to the senior author of this book that he "rather liked" the Conan stories."
    --from Dark Valley Destiny, page 286 (for those who want to look.)

    I cross-referenced this with Scull and Hammond's J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology. On page 688, we find that LSdC visited Tolkien in early February 1967. The majority of the 9-line segment comes from a letter to the editor de Camp wrote to Anduril #1 (in April 1972.)

    But, while there is proof that they met, there is no mention of Robert E. Howard, or Conan, at all.

    Sooo, we have only LSdC's word to go by that Tolkien even knew what a Conan was.

    I will leave it to you to decide the validity of this, but Mr. Walter's mention of it sounds like yet another bit of “The Taint of DVD” contaminating someone who doesn't know any better.


    Al, this is your cue to take the academic to school.

    (who obviously has waaay too much free time on his hands, wot wif all dis here looking up stuff jazz)

    PS--I have never seen, anywhere, that Tolkien “said so in writing” he “liked Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.” Perhaps, if you get to corresponding with him, Mr. Walter can provide the source for his information (though I think we can take a good guess at the ultimate source of this.)

  3. James, here's an excerpt from a 1983 letter from L. Sprague de Camp to John Ratecliff:

    "During our conversation, I said something casual to Tolkien about my involvement with Howard's Conan stories, and he said he 'rather liked them.' That was all: we went on to other subjects. I know he had read Swords and Sorcery because I had sent him a copy. I don't know if he had read any other Conan besides "Shadows in the Moonlight," but I rather doubt it."

    This appears to be corroborated with Tex's examples. While I'm sure you all know how one should take anything De Camp says with a grain of salt, the fact that De Camp had an INCREDIBLE opportunity to quiz one of the masters of fantasy about what he thought of them - what did he like about them, what stories did he read - and yet squandered it in favour of whatever HE wanted to talk about is thoroughly De Campian. Instead of seizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we'll never get again, he "went on to other subjects."

    I believe De Camp, personally: not necessarily because Tolkien reading Howard is a wonderful thing, but because it's so typical of De Camp to drop the ball so epically. The fact that he chose not to make this revelation more public makes me wonder if he realised this after the fact.

    Tex, you're right in that I don't recall Tolkien ever saying "in writing." De Camp seems to be the only source for it.

  4. J.P. makes a hell of a lot of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors for an English teacher...

  5. I guess spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and poor grammar is "kinky" for English teachers. Forbidden fruit and all that. ;)

  6. You know, maybe I'm going more nuts than usual, but I could've sworn I'd read something somewhere about there being a couple of books with REH's stories in them in Tolkien's personal effects. If I'm not getting that factoid mixed up with something else, it could support De Camp's claim.

  7. T, you're correct: there is at least one book containing a Howard story in Tolkien's library:

    Unfortunately, it's "Shadows in the Moonlight" ("Iron Shadows in the Moon") which I consider it one of the very worst Conan stories. Still, the worst Conan stories still have a lot going for them (except "Man-Eaters of Zamboula," which, outside of the fantastic Baal-pteor confrontation, is the one Conan story I really don't like at all).

    It also has a lengthy critique on a Dunsany story, showing he at least read that tale: don't see why he couldn't have read them all. There is a lot to like in "Iron Shadows": the ape-beast, Conan's parlay with the pirates, the weird element of the statues, the absolutely horrific opening scene...

  8. curiously the worst stories of Conan for anglosaxons and french scholars, those with a half naked young girl in danger, are the favourites of one of the better, maybe the best, Spanish scholars Javier Martin Lalanda, I'm talking about of Shadows in the moonlight, Pool of the black one, Vale of lost women... ehem I must say that I prefer those stories better than Tower of the elephant, The god in the bowl or Rogues in the house...

  9. I have noticed there's a slight cultural difference in what Conan tales are the "best". There's an REH Forum member called Fernando that just eats that "damsel in distress" stuff up.

    That said, I'd take "Tower," "Bowl" and "Rogues" over those three, but I still like "Pool," and think "Vale" gets a bad rap sometimes. I just don't like "Iron Shadows" or "Zamboula" that much personally.

  10. @James, While others have addressed the Howard-Tolkien connection, noted Tolkien scholar, T.A. Shippey aka Tom Shippey, a former professors of mine who has had extensive contact with Christopher Tolkien, has told me that Christopher told them J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed reading Robert E. Howard.

  11. Part I

    Thanks for the commentary. A few thoughts to help contextualize what I wrote:

    *The posts from which you quote cover a few years time over which I was reacquainting myself with REH and starting to delve into his work from an academic perspective. I'm certainly no REH expert.

    *The "even Howard" comment and others like it exist largely because I was writing to an audience that is not necessarily open, some even hostile, to REH as a subject for academic study. I believe REH is worth studying and I would not use such language were I writing to an audience such as those who read this blog.

    *The "handful of scholars" is a subjective comment and refers to the amount of scholarship published by professional academic journals and presses. The sheer amount of Tolkien scholarship of this sort compared to the REH scholarship is vast. This comment was, again, written for a particular academic audience. There is no intent or desire to demean or discount the REHupa and other such entities. My primary audience makes a distinction between professional academic and an amateur press association and, therefore, I made the same distinction in that context. :)

    The "yes Howard was a racist" comment came from writing for the same audience. Personally, I'm don't discount a writer or the quality of their writing simply because they are a product of their culture.

    The sexist comment also needs to be taken in this context. While Howard was progressive for his time, his fiction is ripe for feminist critique. I was acknowledging that in order to push the discussion *away* from such critiques because that's not my interest. Again, conventions of academic writing. :)

    *I'm not saying I'm the first person to discover REH's interest in the Vikings. That said, that Howard created such a connection is news to much of the casual fan set, including many who were reviewing the then new Ballantine/Del Rey collections.

    My "almost as much" comment, as you note, isn't warranted. A poor choice of hyperbole in an informal, off the cuff, post, as opposed to the more thoughtfully and carefully written academic paper I quote from in the Making of a Technorhetorican post you quote.

    What I should have said is that Howard clearly connected Conan to the Vikings—his Æsir and Vanir—from the beginning. (As I'm sure you're aware, there is debate over whether "The Frost Giant's Daughter" was Howard's first or second Conan story.) Howard clearly was a celtophile and that interest is well known, even by casual fans.

  12. Part II

    *While REH did give much thought in placing his fiction into our pre-history, it doesn't mean that he various peoples and stories function much closer to "historical mashups" drawing from various elements.

    *My discussion on the origins of sword and sorcery is not an accurate reflection of my own belie-particularly Mundy or Dumas-but an acknowledgment of the larger discussion on the topic. (See, for instance, John Clute et. al.'s *The Encyclopedia of Fantasy*.)

    *Regarding the whole issue of literary merit, I'll admit I'm an English professor who isn't all too concerned with the question. Emerging from the belles lettres movement, traditional notions of literary taste belong to the Mathew Arnold/T.S. Eliot/F.R. Levis school of thought used privileged specific authors and themes. To paraphrase such people, good taste is what those with good taste say it is and you learn it from those with good taste. From that emerge "standards" of quality that they apply when it serves their purpose and ignore when they don't. I bring the subject up in this context because I am in the minority to which my primary audience does not belong.

    *Yes, many of my blog posts contain mistakes both grammatical and orthographic. For me, good writing comes from extensive revision and editing. (First drafts, as Anne Anne Lamott has noted, are shitty.) In an ideal world, each and every post I write would go through extensive revision and editing. Moreover, I'd have a professional editor as well. It's not an ideal world and I don't have the time or an editor. Does this get counted against me at times? Yes. It's a choice I make. And, besides, it gives people like Anonymous something upon which to focus. ;)

    Again, thanks for the discussion. I've learned some things here. Cheers!

  13. Very grand of you to wander by, John!

    You've made a lot of good points, and it's good to know many of my worries were unwarranted. Thanks for coming by to address my queries.