Saturday 14 February 2015

Howardian Valentines

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to Novalyne Price, 14th February, 1936

I haven't shied away from being very personal on my blog, but there are some places I wouldn't go. I wouldn't discuss politics or religion, and I'd now decided to add racism, sexism and other "isms" to that lot - not because I don't deem them worthy of discussion, far from it, but because they are so potent and emotive that I simply cannot maintain any degree of impartiality or fairness when I feel my guts twisting in anger, pain or frustration.  There was a time I could discuss those subjects with passion but without too much emotion, but not any more.  Enraged histrionics are funny in parodies or satire, but when someone is truly compromised by their own emotional reaction to something, then it's no use for anyone involved for the affected to continue participating. Perhaps sometime in the future I'll revisit them.

That doesn't mean I've gone soft, of course, or that I subjects I do talk about don't affect me emotionally. War, poverty, love, adventure, injustice, charity - things that tug or tear my heartstrings affect me just as strongly, but for whatever reason, my sense of reasoning and logic are enough to balance that passion into an articulate manner. In addition, if ever someone talks about something they know nothing about, it's very easy to see - and dismiss. So since I'm no expert on world religions, gender mores and whatnot, I decided "you know what? Why should I talk about these things I barely understand?"

But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to get very personal with one story this Valentine's Day, and how I think it may have helped heal a broken heart.

St. Valentine is something of a mystery, even as saints go. Indeed, there were at least three individuals with the name, all martyrs, all linked to the 14th of February. There are multiple vitae and hagiographies which ascribed many different miracles and adventures, but there are a few common threads: martyrdom, of course, being the main one. Most, like J.C. Cooper's Dictionary of Christianity, seem to agree that Valentine, whoever this person was, became a martyr as a result of offering succour to persecuted Christians.

The romantic associations of St. Valentine's Day on the 14th of February go back to the Middle Ages: as with many Christian days of observation, it was intertwined with the natural world. The ancient Romans' Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated during Juno Februa, for example. In St. Valentine's case, during the 14th Century, birds were believed to pair during the middle of the second month of the year. It was only natural that humans followed suit, and started to view the middle of February as a particularly appropriate time to begin courtship rituals. Chaucer's Parliament of Foules says as such ("For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.")

One popular legend regarding St. Valentine regards the Roman Emperor of the time, Claudius II.

The Barbarian Emperor & the Roman Martyr

This story says that Valentine was a priest during the reign of Claudius Gothicus, who was Roman Emperor from 268 to 270 AD. Claudius was a particularly Conan-esque figure - much like the Giant of Thrace, Maximinus Thrax, he was not born of any of the Roman gens aristocracy, but was a barbarian. Specifically, he was an Illyrian - infamous reavers of the Adriatic Sea, who only half a century earlier terrorised Rome under the pirate queen Teuta of the Ardiaei. He served in the Roman army for decades, gaining a reputation for ferocity and enormous physical strength - he was claimed to have punched a horse with such strength that he knocked out its teeth. Sound familiar?

Claudius came to power during a time of crisis within the empire, starting in the year 260. The (allegedly) Batavian general Postumus formed a Gallic Empire by wresting all lands northwest of the Alps from then-emperor Gallienus' control; the provinces of Hispania and Britannia loosely allied with the new empire. In 268, things weren't much better in the East, as all the Roman provinces from Egypt to Asia Minor were on the brink of forming a Palmyrene Empire ruled by Queen Zenobia. Combined with multiple incursions from the Scythians, Herulians and other barbarian tribes, the empire was facing collapse.

Gellienus' days were numbered, and in the summer of 268 he was slain amid conspiracy and betrayal, as was the style of Roman succession during times of existential crisis. Claudius was declared the new emperor at Milan. Claudius' rule was short and brutal: he drove a massive horde of Goths back across the Rhine at the Battle of Naissus, ending threats of Gothic incursion for almost a century. The Alamanni were no more successful, and were routed back over the Alps at the battle of Lake Benacus. Claudius also made considerable progress in reconquering lands lost to the Gallic Empire before he finally fell to the Plague of Syprian.

With all this battling and campaigning within the space of a mere two years, you'd wonder where Claudius had the time to persecute Christians! Yet with significant volumes of contemporary records destroyed during the Diocletianic Persecution thirty years later, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction not just in regards to St. Valentine, but Claudius too. Certainly the unrest at the time may well have contributed to anti-Christian sentiment, with any elements seen as subversive or disloyal to the empire treated with suspicion and antipathy.

Here's where St. Valentine comes into the story. The exact circumstances vary according to the source, but one of the most famous happens to be the earliest known visual representation of St. Valentine. This was in The Nuremburg Chronicle, printed in 1493, which provides a woodcut of St. Valentine (pictured above). In this account, St Valentine was Valentinus, a Roman priest.

As outlined above, Claudius' reign was extremely tense: invasions were happening right and left, entire pieces of the Empire breaking into rival factions, and even holding the sprawling empire together was testing the fasces' integrity to breaking point. Naturally, all these military campaigns necessitated a significant recruitment drive, and the men of Rome were reluctant to fight. Claudius' interpretation was that the men did not wish to leave their families, especially with the threat of barbarian invasions. Claudius' solution was nothing if not novel: stop young men from starting families altogether.

Valentinus was already treading lightly as a Christian priest, but he soon started marrying young couples in direct contravention of the Emperor's edict. Eventually he was discovered, and arrested. Some sources say Claudius took a liking to the priest (the "broad tolerance of the barbarian?") until Valentinus made the extreme diplomatic error of trying to convert the Barbarian Emperor to Christianity, at which point the relationship sharply soured. Other sources depict Claudius "the Cruel" as a ruthless, merciless persecutor who took particular delight in his oppression of the new faith. Whichever was the case, the result was the same: Valentinus was sentenced to death by beating and stoning on the 14th of February, and eventually beheaded.

While the tale of St. Valentine is gruesome and ultimately tragic, it's easy to see how he became a romantic icon. Many romances start off with obstacles put in the lovers' way, and sometimes the hero is the person who facilitates the two lovers' union in the face of adversity. This is a surprisingly common theme in Robert E. Howard's fiction.

Love & Sorcery

One of my favourite shots from Spartacus, which - as ever - is loaded with symbolism. I personally imagine Conan and Belit's dialogue about life and love to be a bit like this scene, with both wrapped up in Conan's scarlet cloak.
Howard doesn't exactly have a reputation as a writer of romances. Yet romances are there, and like everything Howard wrote, they are brash and loud and elemental: the alien love in Almuric, and of course the tragic story of Conan and Belit in "Queen of the Black Coast."

Given Conan's reputation as a ladies' man (and the rather unkind caricature as Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment), it can be surprising to learn that a few of the stories involving romance don't feature him as the main love interest. "The People of the Black Circle" obviously has the belligerent relationship between Conan and Yasmina centre stage, but it eventually comes to a mutual respect rather than partnership - the real romance is the tragic tale of Khemsa and Gitara. "A Witch Shall Be Born" features Valerius expressing his love for his Queen in an outpouring of chivalric duty mixed with a more personal affection; "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" is all about Conan trying to save the life of the lead female's man; the Tombalku fragment is very clearly going to be about Alaric and Lissa, with Conan playing at most the hypotenuse in a love triangle.

It isn't just Conan, of course: one of Kull's most frequent battles is not against the Serpent Men or eldritch horrors, but common marriage law or diplomatic issues preventing lovers from consolidating their partnership. This is most notable in "By This Axe, I Rule!" where he enthusiastically changes Valusian law in order to allow a young couple to marry; this happens again in "Delcardes' Cat," where Delcardes petitions the king to permit her to marry a foreigner - again, forbidden by Valusian law; the River Stagus Fragment goes into even more detail, with Lala-ah and Felgar's elopement being the main plot thread. I have to wonder if Howard was working some things out in his head at this time...

There are tons of these narratives. "Hawks of Outremer" has Cormac Fitzgoeffrey aiding the young Frank Michael de Blois with his Persian lover Yulala; "The Blue Flame of Vengeance" sees Solomon Kane assisting Jack Hollister in his quest to save Mary Garvin; ."The Hills of the Dead" features the young African couple Kran and Zunna assisting Solomon Kane; "Swords of the Northern Sea" joins Cormac with the sword-woman Tarala demanding to join her man Hakon in battle; the tragedy of Dunlang and Eevin of "Spears of Clontarf" / "The Grey God Passes." Spare a thought for poor Steve Costigan, who seems fated to never end up with the girl. And, of course, "People of the Dark."

Love, Fierce and Violent

The story was beautifully adapted in The Savage Sword of Conan by Roy Thomas and Alex Nino - albeit with alterations. Thanks to Roquefort Raider for the scans.

"People of the Dark" is most well-known as being the proto-Conan story, as in, it features a black-haired, blue-eyed swordsman with the name who swears by Crom in an adventure featuring supernatural horrors, which many would look on as one of the immediate predecessors to the Hyborian Conan stories.

And it starts in quintessential Howard fashion with a throat-grabbing opening sentence:

 I came to Dagon's Cave to kill Richard Brent.

Who is speaking? What is Dagon's Cave, and why did he come there in particular? Who is Richard Brent, and why did the narrator plan to kill him? Instant intrigue, and anyone with even the slightest grounding in Lovecraftian horror will appreciate the importance of the name Dagon - and even if they aren't the very name "Dagon's Cave" is weighted with mythological resonance. The reader doesn't have long to wait:

I am not by nature criminal. I was born and raised in a hard country, and have lived most of my life on the raw edges of the world, where a man took what he wanted, if he could, and mercy was a virtue little known. But it was a torment that racked me day and night that sent me out to take the life of Richard Brent. I have lived hard, and violently, perhaps. When love overtook me, it also was fierce and violent. Perhaps I was not wholly sane, what with my love for Eleanor Bland and my hatred for Richard Brent. Under any other circumstances, I would have been glad to call him friend--a fine, rangy, upstanding young fellow, clear-eyed and strong. But he stood in the way of my desire and he must die.

A love triangle? Given I don't think even Howard's time would've been entirely ready for the Gold-Tree Silver-Tree solution, and the author's propensity for literary violence, it looks like we're going to have a violent showdown between the two suitors for Eleanor. Like a Jane Austen novel, only with a wee bit more unspeakable horror. Yet even for Howard, the narrator (John O'Brien) is not particularly sympathetic - indeed, that last sentence, where Richard must die even when the John says he would have been glad to call him friend, paints him as a villainous protagonist.

Naturally, since Roy Thomas was all about turning non-Conan stories into Conan stories, the story is altered to take place in the Hyborian Age, with the co-protagonists Aquilonians instead of Britons. Quite what this makes The Little People here is up to conjecture...

Of course, things become somewhat complicated when John's mind is mysteriously cast back to pre-Roman Britain, when he was known as Conan of the Reavers, and his subsequent adventures with Vertorix-who-was-Richard and Tamera-who-was-Eleanor in the realm of the Little People. Anyone who's read a James Allison story will know the deal. Back before the Dark Ages, Conan-who-was-John was in a very similar predicament to his later incarnation, only this time it was the young Briton Vertorix who stood in the way of Conan and Tamera - and unlike Eleanor, it's pretty clear the feelings Conan has are not mutual with Tamera:

But I had followed, for there was a girl of my foes whom I desired with a burning passion, a lithe, slim young creature with wavy golden hair and deep gray eyes, changing and mystic as the sea. Her name was Tamera--well I knew it, for there was trade between the races as well as war, and I had been in the villages of the Britons as a peaceful visitor, in times of rare truce.

I saw her white half-clad body flickering among the trees as she ran with the swiftness of a doe, and I followed, panting with fierce eagerness. Under the dark shadows of the gnarled oaks she fled, with me in close pursuit, while far away behind us died out the shouts of slaughter and the clashing of swords. Then we ran in silence, save for her quick labored panting, and I was so close behind her as we emerged into a narrow glade before a somber-mouthed cavern, that I caught her flying golden tresses with one mighty hand. She sank down with a despairing wail, and even so, a shout echoed her cry and I wheeled quickly to face a rangy young Briton who sprang from among the trees, the light of desperation in his eyes.

"Vertorix!" the girl wailed, her voice breaking in a sob, and fiercer rage welled up in me, for I knew the lad was her lover.

Villain protagonist... at least, for now. We don't need to mince words about the horrendous realities of life for women in pre-modern times, suffice to acknowledge that we've thankfully come a long way since then. Faced with a blood-mad Gaelic reaver, Vertorix and Tamera choose to brave Dagon's Cave in their attempt to evade Conan - only for Conan to follow despite the stark supernatural dread permeating the black tunnel:

I stood there uncertainly, all the supernatural fears that are the heritage of the Gael rising in my primitive soul. I could turn and stride out of these accursed mazes, into the clear sunlight and down to the clean blue sea where my comrades, no doubt, impatiently awaited me after the routing of the Britons. Why should I risk my life among these grisly rat dens? I was eaten with curiosity to know what manner of beings haunted the cavern, and who were called the Children of the Night by the Britons, but in it was my love for the yellow-haired girl which drove me down that dark tunnel--and love her I did, in my way, and would have been kind to her, had I carried her away to my island haunt.

Indeed, faced with the nightmarish denizens of the cave, the three become allies by proxy as they seek to escape the underworld:

Two figures lay, bound with rawhide thongs, on the glowing black altar. One was Tamera; the other was Vertorix, bloodstained and disheveled... In desperate haste I cut Vertorix's bonds and dragged him to his feet. And I turned to Tamera, who in that dire extremity did not shrink from me, but looked up at me with pleading, terror-dilated eyes. Vertorix wasted no time in words, realizing chance had made allies of us.

The three rush through the subterranean maze, but it is useless. And Conan the Reaver does something amazing:

The tunnel slanted steeply upward, and suddenly ahead of us we saw a bar of gray light. But the next instant our cries of hope changed to curses of bitter disappointment. There was daylight, aye, drifting in through a cleft in the vaulted roof, but far, far above our reach. Behind us the pack gave tongue exultingly. And I halted.

"Save yourselves if you can," I growled. "Here I make my stand. They can see in the dark and I cannot. Here at least I can see them. Go!"

But Vertorix halted also. "Little use to be hunted like rats to our doom. There is no escape. Let us meet our fate like men."

Tamera cried out, wringing her hands, but she clung to her lover.

"Stand behind me with the girl," I grunted. "When I fall, dash out her brains with your ax lest they take her alive again. Then sell your own life as high as you may, for there is none to avenge us."

His keen eyes met mine squarely.

"We worship different gods, reaver," he said, "but all gods love brave men. Mayhap we shall meet again, beyond the Dark."

"Hail and farewell, Briton!" I growled, and our right hands gripped like steel.

"Hail and farewell, Gael!"

Earlier in the story, Conan was eager to take Tamera for himself, against her will. He chased her, grabbed her by the hair, then tried to kill her true love. He encapsulated the Dark Barbarian in his most brutal, unforgiving aspect: a plunderer, a despoiler, one who takes and destroys - takes a woman's person, and destroys a woman's freedom. And yet, faced with a horror beyond the ken of man, one that threatens to destroy not just the life but the very soul of the three, the bloodthirsty reaver chooses to sacrifice himself to give the two lovers a fighting chance.

Lovecraft made a living from showing how the revelation of the dark worlds unguessed by man can drive a rational being insane: Howard, instead, shows how stripping away the base and thoughtless desires of flesh and id reveal the common humanity which resides even in the most violent and savage of souls. "Break the skin of civilisation and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed"? Perhaps there's something past even the ape, that force which civilisation draws upon to build everything good and noble and heroic about mankind - break the skin of the ape, and you find the soul, which chooses life above all else?

They don't make it. Vitorix and Tamera perish - but it is enough that they defied their fate, and chose to dash themselves against the rocks than allow the monstrous Children of the Night to dictate their end:

I saw Vertorix look up the sheer cliffs and then down, and shake his head in despair. Tamara put her arms about his neck, and though I could not hear their voices for the rush of the river, I saw them smile, and then they went together to the edge of the ledge. And out of the cleft swarmed a loathsome mob, as foul reptiles writhe up out of the darkness, and they stood blinking in the sunlight like the night-things they were. I gripped my sword-hilt in the agony of my helplessness until the blood trickled from under my fingernails. Why had not the pack followed me instead of my companions?
The ultimate fate of Conan of the Reavers is not explicated: as he stumbles through the dark in a daze, Conan-who-was-John travels back to the future, reconstructing the events of the distant past as he makes his way back to the entrance of Dagon's Cave. And when he emerges, he is not alone...
"I'm glad you decided to come with me. Who would have guessed there was anything to those old tales about hidden tunnels leading from the cavern? I wonder how that section of wall came to collapse? I thought I heard a crash just as we entered the outer cave. Do you suppose some beggar was in the cavern ahead of us, and broke it in?"
"I don't know," she answered. "I remember - oh, I don't know. It almost seems as if I'd been here before, or dreamed I had. I seem to faintly remember, like a far-off nightmare, running, running, running endlessly through these dark corridors with hideous creatures on my heels..." 
"Was I there?" jokingly asked Brent. 
"Yes, and John, too," she answered. "But you were not Richard Brent, and John was not John O'Brien. No, and I was not Eleanor Bland, either. Oh, it's so dim and far-off I can't describe it at all. It's hazy and misty and terrible."

It isn't a surprising revelation - there are many signposts, such as using similar descriptions for Eleanor and Tamera ("changing and mystic as the sea" being a favourite phrase) and showing how Conan and Vertorix would have called each other friend in different circumstances rather than deadly foes. Yet it is still poignant and touching to read John finally come to terms with the fact the woman he loves is - must be - with another:

"Eleanor, there's something I've wanted to ask you for a long time--well, I haven't the knack of putting things in an elegant way. I love you, Eleanor; always have. You know that. But if you don't love me, I'll take myself off and won't annoy you any more. Only please tell me one way or another, for I can't stand it any longer. Is it I or the American?"

"You, Dick," she answered, hiding her face on his shoulder. "It's always been you, though I didn't know it. I think a great deal of John O'Brien. I didn't know which of you I really loved. But today as we came through those terrible tunnels and climbed those fearful stairs, and just now, when I thought for some strange reason we were falling from the ledge, I realized it was you I loved--that I always loved you, through more lives than this one. Always!"

Their lips met and I saw her golden head cradled on his shoulder. My lips were dry, my heart cold, yet my soul was at peace. They belonged to each other. Eons ago they lived and loved, and because of that love they suffered and died. And I, Conan, had driven them to that doom.

John-who-was-Conan realises the place he has in what is ultimately a cosmic love story - of two souls who have crossed through time and space to be together. And he, as Conan, destroyed it by coming between them, and driving them to death in Dagon's Cave. Perhaps he realised, even as Conan, that he was responsible not only for the death of two lovers, but the separation of two souls - a crime against life and love itself. He offered, then, to give his own life to allow them a chance, but it was too late for Vertorix and Tamera. Conan had killed them and severed them, perhaps for generations.

But it was not too late for Richard and Eleanor.

Brent had thrust Eleanor behind him and stood, face ashy, to guard her as best he could. And I gave thanks silently that I, John O'Brien, could pay the debt I, Conan the reaver, owed these lovers since long ago.

Conan the reaver did not acknowledge the beauty, the love, which Vertorix and Tamera had for each other, a communion of souls beyond earthly lusts or social mores - a love that broke beyond the bonds of the mortal realm, where the two souls would find each other again and again. And realising this as John, he took the shot. John O'Brien came to Dagon's Cave to kill Richard Brent: he instead saved his life. And in saving life, he saved love.

Howard is rightly famous for his tales of action, horror, mystery, and pure pulp excitement. But the love stories which he wrote within those two-fisted tales of high adventure are not to be dismissed lightly, for they are as full of energy, emotion, and complexity as anything else he wrote. Perhaps they were not as tender as Pasternak, or as wittily observant as Brontë's, or as intricate as Margaret Mitchell's - but they have plenty to admire about them. "People of the Dark" embraces its speculative elements in a story about humanity as surely as Bradbury or Matheson, and as bittersweet as the tale of St. Valentine. Love and martyrdom, fierce and violent.

As saints go, St. Valentine was pretty darn Howardian.

I'm always eager not to bring other people onto the blog without their permission, nor do I have any interest in making this one of those confessional blogs. However, I've found in the past that I simply can't avoid it: no matter how hard I try to give the impression of cool professionalism, sometimes my love, contempt, admiration or desire burns through. So, while I shan't give any details for the gossip-mongers (I'm sure there's one of you out there), I really want to share this story not just because of personal vanity, but because it ties into how Robert E. Howard has affected me so profoundly, and continues to do so.

From the beginning: much like I suspect many a lad, I fell in love once or twice. A terrible affliction, so I'm told: this lass was everything I could have wished for. Unlike the stereotype applied to many men, I'm not looking for casual flings or carnal tension release, but for a soulmate with whom I can share my deepest desires, darkest fears, blackest secrets, and bitterest regrets. Who looks like a Frazetta girl, but I digress: let's talk about one in particular.  This woman utterly intoxicated me: she was intelligent, witty, sensitive, soulful, creative.  And what's more, she was similarly attracted to me, which was (I had initially thought) a first: for most of my life I was somewhat asexual and uninterested in women until fairly late into my teens. More Kull than Conan. It's only later I realised that some girls I knew in school were interested in more than just talking, but that's another tangent.

It gave me a tremendous boost to know that someone out there could look at me in this way: not as the sensitive friend who's like a brother, not as someone they might just hang out with, but as a potential mate. I had figured such a wondrous creature to be a myth, a cryptid, if you will, but here in front of me was evidence to the contrary. Sure, I had loved and been infatuated before, but it was either never reciprocated, could never be reciprocated due to various circumstances, or I completely failed to see that it was, in fact, mutual.  But this wasn't just me loving at someone: this was me loving with someone.

However, things fell apart. I didn't know how to treat her - I neglected her, rarely called or visited, which I did because I was afraid of smothering her - and it turns out someone else did. That someone else knew how to treat her well, and when it came to the crunch, there was only one choice for her - and, even then, I knew she had made the right choice. My heart was utterly broken, but curiously, I held no resentment or anger whatsover: just happiness that she was happy. Surely such emotion is counterproductive, or delusional denial, or some sort of slip into madness?  By all rights, so I thought, I should want to rip the she-devil's heart out and beat her lover to a pulp with the quivering, beating lump. Yet I didn't, and for the life of me, I couldn't understand why that was.

We remain friends to this day even though I'm positive she's currently with the love of her life, and I truly feel no resentment, be it towards her for "betraying" me (she didn't), or the other party for "stealing" her (they didn't). Perhaps I knew it wasn't going to work in that way, perhaps I wasn't ready. I've met others since that devastating phrase "I've been seeing someone" crashed my world into smithereens... yet I floated serenely in the white void that remained, ere my new world's awakening.

How does all this tie into Howard? Well, at this point I had gone beyond just Almuric and the Conan stories, and started reading the other stories. And when I read "People of the Dark," I finally think I understood why I was so at peace with all this.

St Valentine's Day has been very bittersweet for me. All those of you with your other, have a lovely day. Maybe one day I'll be so lucky, maybe I won't. Big sap that I am, I'm just happy there's love in the world at all.


  1. An interesting and unexpectedly touching piece. I'm glad you let your professionalism slip for just a moment.

  2. Good to see you back blogging your thoughts and Conan/REH stuff.Where I come from Valentine's Day is not a significant day although it is marked on a calendar.
    Btw, wasn't it Amalric and not Alaric in the Conan fragment?