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Trails
A Mythic Dimension in Fiction


“His skin was burned dark by the sun and winds of many dim trails, and from under the broad rim of his hat, his eyes glinted grey as chilled steel.”

-Knife, Bullet and Noose

Above is a sentence from one of Howard’s western yarns featuring the Sonora Kid, Steve Allison, a man on whom the environment has worked violently to forge someone tougher than the ordinary. The sun and wind have burned him, not bestowed a golden tan. As with all of Howard’s heroes, there is something in the eyes that tells of a will beyond the norm. Taken together with such fantasy figures as a character like Conan, whose skin was “burned bronze by the sun,” who regarded the world with “smoldering eyes” lit by a “somber fire,” the reader of a Howard tale is immediately—in most cases—treated to the view of a man apart whose will has been honed to a steely edge through emersion in a hostile environment.

Not all of Howard’s protagonists are heroes. However, most are, driven by a combination of convictions, fate, ancestry and unfathomable circumstance into a test of character—a character that has always been honed in some rugged circumstance.

The environmentally chiseled character of Howard’s protagonists—and many supporting characters as well—grants a constant tension between his narrative vision and the genre’s he wrote in.

In the classic fantasy setting a protagonist is a mere archetype, characterized by caste as warrior, wizard etc.

In modern fantasy the protagonist is a feminine or feminized person obsessed with doubt and oppressed by circumstance.

In the various sub-genres of science-fiction we have characters ranging from willful adventurers, such as Heinlein’s libertarian patriots, down to Dick’s masterfully muddled everymen who acutely observe all but themselves. In science-fiction the character is such a vehicle for discovery in the hands of the author we are granted few glimpses of an environmentally-forged person, with the notable exception of the Riddick character played by Vin Diesel in the recent science-fiction movie saga. Even Wolfe—who is a master of first-person exposition—does not carve his protagonist with an environmental hand in the way Howard did.

As for westerns, the focus of such in the hands of writers committed to that genre, is the exposition of the environment directly, marking the rider as a small thing in its expanse, where, with Howard, we see the elemental forces of the earth reflected first in the face, eyes, and bearing of the person produced by it.

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