Saturday 31 December 2011

Hyborian Musings: Aquiromian Holiday, Part One

"When I dream of Rome, I am always pitted against her, hating her with a ferocity that in my younger days persisted in my waking hours, so that I still remember, with some wonder, the savage pleasure with which I read, at the age of nine, the destruction of Rome by the Germanic barbarians. At the same time, reading of the conquest of Britain by those same races filled me with resentment. Somehow, I have never been able to conceive fully of a Latinized civilization in Britain; to me that struggle has always seemed mainly a war of British barbarians against Germanic barbarians, with my sympathies wholly with the Britons."
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to Lovecraft, ca. January 1931...
A wild Aquiromian appears!

One of my pet Hyborian peeves is the meme which dictates Aquilonia is modelled after the Roman Empire. If you've seen any representation of an Aquilonian in a visual medium, that individual is very likely to resemble a classical Roman. It's endemic in illustration, Marvel and Dark Horse comics, role playing games, video games, board games, even action figures. Aquilonian centurions, Aquilonian legionaries, Aquilonian senators, Aquilonian gladiators... All over the place. When King Conan is illustrated, he's often clad in highly Romanesque attire, be it - again - in books, comics, games, action figures, even films. The implication of Conan wearing Roman attire as king, then, supports the Aquilonia=Roman theme.

The problem is twofold: first, the Aquilonians are not described like Ancient Romans, and second, Robert E. Howard absolutely despised the Romans.

So why is this so prevalent, and why is it such a problem?

Sunday 25 December 2011

Another classic ruined by Al

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,
And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a steel battlesleigh, and eight giant reindeer,
Whose great grizzled driver stretched his neck with a crick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Thrasher, now! Crasher, now! Cancer and Hakon,
"On! Plummet, on! Cesspit, on! Thunder and Blacken;
"To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of death — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The thunder and rumbling of each monstrous hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of blades was flung on his back,
Axes and crossbows and swords in his sack:
His eyes burned with balefire, his teeth gleamed like ice,
His thews wrought of iron, his bones hewn from gneiss;
His great savage grin was taut, tight as a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a grim face, and a great barrel chest
That shook when he laugh'd at some grim pagan jest:
He was massive and strong, a vision from Hell,
And I scream'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had reason to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,
And clutching me by the crook of the throat,
He leapt up the chimney like a great mountain goat.
He sprung to his sleigh, and shot into the sky,
And dropped me to earth, to scream ere I die:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

(With profuse apologies to Clement Clark Moore.  I was compelled to put something up for Christmas, so here's another classic ruined by shameless editing. As ever, I wish all my readers and Howard fans a marvellous Mitramas, a super Set Sacrificial Festival, a solemn, cheerless Cromhain, and of course, a merry Christmas!)

Wednesday 21 December 2011

I truly wish I could enjoy this...

See, I loved The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when it came out. I was just so blown away to see an adaptation that actually stuck to the books to a degree most supposed adaptations dismiss as "unnecessary," "unfilmable" or otherwise "undesireable," that I ranted and raved about it for ages. Then The Two Towers came out, and I started to pick at the threads.  I started to become bothered by the changes. By the time of The Return of the King, most of my enthusiasm for the franchise was replaced with a nagging preoccupation with a little voice saying "no, this isn't the best possible adaptation of The Lord of the Rings we could hope for." Best we could get given Hollywood's boundless stupidity and soulless money-oriented goals?  Perhaps.  Best we could hope for, though?

So the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Two Parter hit the 'net, and the Tolkien fandom rejoiced.  And why not?  Everything I saw in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was plain in evidence, in all the good and bad it entails.  Lots of gorgeous scenery, astounding attention to detail in the costuming, props and sets, sweeping catchy orchestral score, the occasional direct quote from Tolkien that gets me grinning madly, tempered by maudlin melodrama like Galadriel brushing away Gandalf's hair, lots of cod-Bergman staring-into-the-middle-distance, and needless tie-ins to the previous films.

I just feel like such a Grinch, you know? So many people are looking forward to this, and I'm almost positive that those people are not going to be disappointed. Everything from the Jackson trilogy is probably going to be in this, and while everyone dismisses the stupid alterations and redundant additions as "necessary to the process of adaptation" while they enjoy themselves, I'm just going to be stuck in a huff.  There are few upcoming films I wish I could be excited about.  I wish I could watch a trailer for The freaking Hobbit and feel the same convulsions of joy I did on seeing, say, the trailer for Jurassic Park. But I can't.

To be frank, I'm feeling something of a malaise.  I haven't seen a single trailer that engenders any degree of enthusiasm or excitement in me for any upcoming film, be it anticipated blockbusters like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, appeals to my Scottish sensibilities like Brave, or pleasant surprises like The Wicker Tree. Even the initial "that doesn't actually look that bad" optimism from John Carter and Wrath of the Titans (I'm surprised as you are) is dampened by cynicism.  Have I truly become a cynical old grump at last? Did Conan the Barbarian break something in my brain, shorting the Optimism fuse for ever?  Or will the anticipated Prometheus trailer restore some sense of excitement?

Oh well.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Hyborian Musings: Mappa Mundi

A quickly-rendered composite utilizing the two maps included in Del Rey's Conan collections

The subject of maps for the Encyclopaedia.  On the one hand, I'd really like to have a big grand map of the Hyborian Age just to show the breadth and depth of Howard's creation, based upon the best suggestions, ideas and hypotheses.  On the other, it seems contradictory to try to separate pastiche from Howard, only to introduce my own theories in the process, muddying the waters.

From a strict "REH-only, nowt but" perspective, the only satisfying answer would be to just use Howard's own maps.  The problem is... well, they aren't very detailed, or photogenic.  They weren't intended to be either.  Howard's maps were his own sketches, drawn in his own time, so he could get a feel for the Hyborian Kingdoms' geopolitical structure while writing the stories.  In this, they obviously succeeded - but they weren't intended for publication by Howard himself, since they're just a series of lines overlaid on a map of Europe.  Many landmarks, cities, rivers, mountains, and other features are missing, and a good portion of the landmass is left off in the south and east.

Part of me wants to honour Howard's desire to keep the Black Kingdoms and the Blue East vague, mysterious and unknown to the reader.  However, another part feels that any future pasticheurs may feel that the lack of a map, even a speculative one, of any given area gives them carte blanche to do whatever they like. So in leaving out any depictions of Vendhya, Hyrkania, Zembabwei, Khemu and beyond, a future comic or book author might get the impression "well, that means I can just stick in a super-advanced kingdom the size of Aquilonia ruled by dragonfly-riding people in the middle of the Black Kingdoms - after all, there's nothing to say there couldn't be such a place, right?"

Thus the dilemma.

I think the best solution is to do both: provide a map based only on Howard's documents, and an expanded map based on current theories - and make sure it's delineated as such.  The map based on REH's map is described as being based on REH's map, and thus set in stone, as it were.  The map based on various theories, such as the outstanding work by Dale Rippke in the Blue East and Black Kingdoms, however, has a bit of leeway, within reason, and is defined as theoretical.  I might have fun with the literary agent hypothesis here.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Hyborian Musings: The Conan Calendar

I've been wrestling with dates in regards to the Encyclopedia. "Three thousand years before the time of Conan," "nine hundred years before Conan's time," and whatnot.  While correct enough, it also seemed a bit clumsy and redundant.  But what could replace it?  Initially I was wanting to knock out a hard timeline, where every major event of the Hyborian Age was listed and put in context, like this one for the Cthulhu Mythos, or this for Tolkien's mythos.  My initial thought for the reckoning was using the Cataclysm: after all, what more profound and earth-shattering event could one choose for the timeline than the one which rocked the foundations of the earth?  Unfortunately, "The Hyborian Age" has proven immensely difficult to work with due to later stories' contradictions.  Published stories take precedents over private notes, true, but so much Hyborian history is found in the essay, one wonders what to do with it.

Then it hit me: I was using the wrong reckoning.  Instead of using the cataclysm, why not use the one element which is most constantly used as a marker between events of the Hyborian past and present?

My proposal is to organise everything around Conan.  Of course, I thought, it's so simple!  We could even include the traditional B.C. to serve as the "ancient time," and the succeeding period starting with A:

B.C. = Before Conan
A.C. = After Conan

The next question is shrinking it down: what time in Conan's life should serve as the reckoning?  The traditional Gregorian calendar immediately made me think of using Conan's birth, but many cultures use the start of a ruler's reign.  Conan is clearly one of the most important historical figures of the Hyborian Age, if not quite the religious figure Jesus turned out to be, but in any case, it's the perfect marriage of accessibility and simplicity.  So perhaps...

B.C. =  Before (the reign of) Conan
A.C. = Age of Conan

Using this system, we can then say (for example):

  • 10,000 BC Birth of Akivasha
  • 3,000 BC   Fall of Acheron
                      Fall of Kuthchemes
                      Foundation of Khorshemish
  • 1,500 BC   Death of Epemitreus the Sage
  • 1,000 BC   Bossonian Marches first established
  • 900 BC      Death of Epeus of Aquilonia
                      Gazali migrate from Koth
  • 500 BC      First of five-hundred-year period of intermittent war between Aquilonia and Nemedia
  • 300 BC      Yara captures and enslaves Yogah
  • 100 BC      Bloody Tranicos disappears
  • 40 BC        Birth of Conan
  • 26 BC        Battle of Venarium
  • 23 BC        Disappearance of Yara and destruction of the Elephant's Tower
  • 10 BC        War of the Barons in Aquilonia
  • 0 AC          Age of Conan begins
  • 5 AC          Aquilonian-Nemedian War
  • 500 AC      Pictish Empire destroys Aquilonia

By Crom, I think this could work.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Comparing "Queen of the Black Coast" Adaptations

Charles over at Singular Points wanted to compare and contrast Clood's take on "Queen of the Black Coast" by posting Buscomas' version, while JainkhulTamhair at the Robert E. Howard Forums provided the Savage Sword incarnation (also Buscomas, but in black & white).

Well, I figure I may as well up the ante by providing Petri Hiltunen's marvellous adaptation too, with an English translation provided by Cromsblood, with REH for reference, and Google translate to assist.*

Monday 5 December 2011

Mark Finn's gearing up: "Southwestern Discomfit" and Blood & Thunder 2.0

A couple of Mark Finn-related links I wanted to share.

First is something I find to be of tremendous importance: "Southwestern Discomfit," a response to Gary Romeo's "Southern Discomfort."  The interests of impartiality on the REHupa website have meant that the latter essay, despite a few considerable issues (which Mark discusses), is widely available to anyone who comes on the site. Unfortunately, the lack of any counterpoint to the essay means that some have taken this as the Party Line on REH and race, which is certainly not the case.

Bothered by this phenomenon in recent times, Mark decided to offer that counterpoint:

REHupa #173 was a watershed mailing, way back in February 2002, for a number of reasons. Significantly, it was the mailing that featured Gary Romeo's article, "Southern Discomfort." As I read the article, I immediately noticed that Gary, in constructing his argument, was so interested in trawling the bottom that he willfully overlooked so much better stuff closer to the surface.  It made me angry, and it made me instantly defensive.  What I wanted to do was first ask Gary: what was your point in writing the article? Who is the target audience for it? And then I wanted to take it apart, piece by piece in my next mailing.

But I didn't. I was new, and I didn't want to rock the boat, or make any enemies right away. So I held my tongue. Besides, I wondered, I had no idea what my fellow REHupans thought about any of this. Maybe they agreed with Gary.

As it turned out, they did not. In the subsequent mailings, several of the older and more experienced REHupa members took Gary to task, and took a number of calculated swings at his essay, his methodology, and even his intent. I felt a lot better about my involvement in REHupa, but I regretted never having a chance to tee off on the topic.

When the REHupa website started up, it was determined that more recent, more approachable articles could also be listed on the site, if any member so wanted. Gary was one of the few people who stepped up to the plate and actually handed out articles to post. Along with his other Pro-de Camp essays was "Southern Discomfort." I watched it go up, go live, and bit my tongue. After all, I thought, who was I to say that Gary could list all the rest of his articles, except that one? That's when I got the idea of first doing a counterpoint article, just to balance out Gary's essay, especially now that it was devoid of its context within the REHupa mailings and commentary structure. But at the time, I was working on what would become Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, and so, I thought, I had bigger fish to fry.

Now it's 2011. I've been a member in REHupa for nearly ten years now. And it's high time I took a whacking stick to "Southern Discomfort" publically. It has needed it for a long time, particularly since it's one of the most popular things accessed on the REHupa website. The number of links to it from external blogs, websites, and citations used to indicate that yes, Robert E. Howard was indeed a racist, because look, right here, this guy says so on the experts' website, are too numerous to count. That's the problem with Internet research: it's grab and go, and no effort is made to fact-check it.

Well, you may consider this the official fact-check. This article assumes that someone has already read "Southern Discomfort" and want to know more about whether or not Robert E. Howard was a racist or not.

I don't doubt that the issue of Howard and race is something that will be a subject of discussion for as long as Howard himself is, but the more approaches we have to the argument, the more fulfilling and satisfying those discussions may be.

The second piece of news is on the new edition of Mark's outstanding Blood & Thunder: The Life And Art of Robert E. Howard. He made a tantalizing mention that an announcement will be made on Monday, but to tide us over, he revealed the cover for B&T 2.0, courtesy of the indefatigably talented Keegan duo:

I liked the cover for B&T 1.0, but I like this a lot better. Why? Because it has Robert E. Howard on it! That's always good. Plus, while the previous cover had the requisite sanguinary & brontological elements, Conan hacking lumps out of a giant snake isn't representative of Howard's vast library - something Mark himself keenly notes frequently - so rather than pick one aspect of Howard's work, why not pick a quintessential image of Howard which tells you everything you need to know about the man in a single shot?  Better than the studio photo, certainly.

Friday 2 December 2011

Hyborian Musings: Yes, We Have No Dragons

Yes, I've been playing Skyrim.  No, it hasn't conquered my life, though it isn't for want of trying: I just don't really have the energy or interest for marathon gaming sessions any more. The quests have been dull and lifeless compared to the best stories in Morrowind and Oblivion, the glitches are bad even for Bethesda, and I cannot understand why they don't go the Bioware/Obsidian approach to character animation - but I don't care, because the realm of Skyrim itself, the game world, makes up for it in every way.  The scenery, by Crom! The creatures!  The dungeons, mountains, forests, skies!  I spend most of my time in Skyrim simply wandering about the lovely landscape, watching the sabertooths prowl after elk, giants herding mammoths, the occasional dragon soar overhead, waiting for the Northern Lights to ripple across the night sky, Tamriel's twin moons looming above.  But in a way, it helps, since so much of Skyrim is influenced by the "Northern Thing" as Tolkien liked to call it, which naturally led me to consider those elements in REH, and so, the Encyclopedia.  Thinking about the dragons in the game led me to ponder dragons in Conan.

Dragons in Howard are a wide subject that warrants further study, but dragons of the Hyborian Age are naturally something I've been delving into for the Encyclopedia. While dragons rarely make an on-stage appearance in the Conan stories - only "The Scarlet Citadel" and "Red Nails" have living, breathing ones drop by - thematic and symbolic dragons are all over the place, be they dragons in heraldry, or colourful metaphors for characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in the singular Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon.

It has been remarked upon that P.S. Miller changing The Hour of the Dragon to Conan the Conqueror for the tale's single-volume publication debut was, in diplomatic terms, a blasted stupid idea. Like the esteemed Mr Rippke, I think The Hour of the Dragon is a strong, poetic, evocative title heaving with mythic resonance and symbolism. Conan the Conqueror may have alliteration on its side, but it's painfully dull in comparison - not to mention misleading in itself, since Conan doesn't conquer so much as regain what was already his. The reason behind  this change, of course, was that the man thought the title was misleading due to the lack of dragons in the text.

Confucius, he say: Whaaaaa?