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‘Whispered a Dark Wind’
Gulfs: A Mythic Dimension


“He stole through the house of a god and fear held him in its bony hand.”

-Of Amalric the Aquilonian, from an untitled fragment

The signature dimension of Robert E. Howard, that set him apart from such other masculine adventure writers as London, Burroughs and Norman, was what we might call “the Lovecraftian dimension” made famous by Howard’s contemporary colleague and correspondent, H. P. Lovecraft. What is so unique about Howard’s application of the ideal that gulfs of emotional, spatial, dimensional and mental distance separated Man from the great powers of the universe, was his melding of it in action adventure, rather than in passive horror. This earned him the title of father of a genre—Swords and Sorcery, which was the trademark of his most successful fictional vehicle, the Conan the Barbarian stories.

To set the mythic theme of gulfs—firmly linked to the concept of cataclysmic earth changes in Howard’s fiction—in a broader literary perspective, let us consider the genre wherein Howard’s work has ever been slotted in the book store: science-fiction, in which all is explained and understood even as it is discovered. Though outlying authors such as Dick and Wolfe might play more subtly and realistically with the unknown, most of the science-fiction genre introduces a horror and then explains it as a fact, stripping it of its spine-tingling threat. The science-fiction reader tends to have a limited tolerance for realistic levels of ignorance among the characters of a story in that genre.

On the other side of the weird fiction spectrum is the classic Tolkien-type, fairytale-based fantasy, in which all things of menace are understood for what they are and for which a mechanism for mending the world is central to the quest-based plot. As often as not, Howard’s protagonists are drawn or plunge into an adventure in a realistic state of ignorance, without the benefit of an elder wizard to explain all over biscuits and tea.

The world-mending or progressive element of fantasy fiction in Western Literature, as it exists in modern form, represents a Middle Eastern, Judeo-Christian influence [1], which has submerged the cataclysmic, world-ending mythic strand of heathen European myth, which hangs on only in horror and in such odd cases as Howard’s “sword and sorcery” type adventure fiction.

This leads science-fiction and classic fantasy readers to look at Howard’s fiction as adolescent, in that there is little of the progressive, world-mending of fantasy or the redemptive enlightenment of science-fiction to couch the tale in a comfortable psychological niche. Rather, a Howard tale, though almost always ending in victory of the hero over evil, never leaves the reader with the sense that the hero healed the world, but that he barely kept the forces of darkness at bay for another moment in Time’s leviathan crawl down through the grinding Gulf of Ages.

Rather than the edification of classic fantasy, where the hero stands shimmering at the end of his sanctified quest, or the sense of enlightenment, understanding and calculable hope typified by the surviving protagonist of a science-fiction tale [best done in Greg Bear’s novel, Hegira], at the close of a Howard tale, the reader is left with the perspective of a small, adventure-grimed, bloody-handed survivor standing at the edge of the yawning abyss that awaits to devour that generation of a race that fails to bring forth a hero.

Note

1. Tikkun olam, literally, "repair of the world," alternatively,"construction for eternity," is a concept in Judaism, and a subject of much debate, which I am not qualified to expand on, other than to note that the introduction of Christian and Judaic traditions into Europe pre-dates world-saving myth, where cataclysmic earth-change and even deity-exterminating final battles formerly typified the heathen myths of Europe. Interpreted by strict constructionalists of Orthodox Judaism as the prospect of wiping out idolatry and being interpreted by modern Judaism as a commandment for people to behave and act constructively and beneficially, this reader suspects that such an outlook on the part of literate people in Medieval Europe—all of whom where Christian or Jewish in a Christendom living under Islamic threat—had a “save the world” effect on subsequent major works of fiction, to which Howard stands as a heretic of tragically heroic proportions, serving notice that the concept of the hero was originally a tragic one. In this light one might consider Howard as sketching protagonists who stand midway between the image of the cataclysmic barbarian hero [Achilles] and the civilized Christian soldier such as Sergeant Alvin York, a real hero of Howard’s day, a man of mountains and forests, who shared many of the ethnic and social characteristics of Howard’s Celtic and proto-Celtic heroes.

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