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‘The Smiter’
An Untitled Fragment by Robert E. Howard
First published in the Road of Azrael, 1979, a mass market paperback which I read as a boy, with this reading coming from the 2011 Del Rey collection, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures.
Roger De Cogan is an escaped Norman crusader of remarkable physical prowess, who was a galley slave on a Muslim pirate ship, who broke his chains and killed the captain. Cogan is one of three Howard characters who suffered, Ben Hur-like, as galley slaves in the Mediterranean. Howard did, as a young man, promote a reverend’s talk on Ben Hur, the book upon which the Charleton Heston movie was based. However, this reader thinks that Howard’s use of the escaped galley slave as a protagonist serves more primal purpose for him as an author. For all three of Howard’s galley slave characters emerge from their experience physically more robust than they entered it.
This theme was tapped into by movie director, John Milus, who inserted the coming-of-age scene in the movie, Conan the Barbarian, in which the boy, Conan, is set among many others, to pushing a giant millstone wheel, and many years later, is the only one pushing the wheel as the figure of the overdeveloped actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the adult Conan. Like the Conan character, Roger De Cogan is a famed fighting man named by his enemies, The Smiter, indicating the author’s fascination with the possibility that surviving the worst civilization has to throw at you could make a man a better barbarian. Indeed, De Cogan, as a character, has definite feral aspects. He is abrasive and prone to taking excessive risks.
Across the 15 pages of the story, the action does not slacken. The protagonist, De Cogan, was among the few knights who made up the vanguard of Peter the Hermit’s doomed peasant crusade into Turkey, in which most of the peasants were enslaved or killed by the Turks. Upon making his escape and being accused of not being a Christian, De Cogan reacts savagely:
“Rage at the unprovoked waked the killing lust in his brain.”
The story is not all action, though. Howard remains handy with the atmospherics:
“As the moon glided from behind a mass of fleecy clouds, etching the shadows of the woods in a silvery glow, the man sprang into a dark clump of bushes, like a hunted thing that fears the disclosing light.”
Later, in the way of etching the civilized presence in this story that takes place alongside allied Turkish barbarians, there was a galley chase with the protagonist forcing a gang of galley slaves to row him to safety, which evoked the opening scene in the Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast. In this scene, the barbarian fleeing the corrupt hand of his civilized enemies, uses force to gain the assistance of the very slaves of that which he is fleeing from. This is an aspect of Howard’s recurring theme of barbarism versus civilization, which in this story, sees Roger, The Smiter, riding as a companion alongside an erstwhile enemy, Ortuk Khan, Rider of the Wind, as they test each other’s vanity in the face of a common enemy.
This is another one of Howard’s many fragments which might have made a dynamic novelette.
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