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Of A Scribe
On Reviewing Heroic Fiction


Conceptually speaking, much of my review work has been of epics written by an unnamed hand. However, in terms of volume I have looked longer and harder into the works of Robert E. Howard than of all of the other authors of heroic tales combined. This is not an attempt to produce an authoritative work on Howard or even on the chronological composition or intended fictional chronologies of his work but as an exercise in the exploration of the themes of heroic fiction, of which Howard is certainly the modern master, with no three authors matching his impact.

I have recently tapped into—for the third time—the two related pieces of Howard's work involving woods, werewolves, wolfish characteristics in men, barbarism, night, civilization as a flickering candle of an outpost in a sea of savagery, race, an affinity for sword-heavy warrior technology and of early Modern France and Africa as settings for weird adventures. In presenting my impressions of these lesser and greater elements that reoccur to lesser and greater degrees in his other works I am not attempting a chronology of his writing development or of tracking any fictional chronology he might have had in his outlines or in his head, but simply marking these two tales as a confluence of weird artifice and deep metaphor at this writer's hand.

It may seem odd to the attribution-obsessed mind of our literary era—in which I make certain to claim credit for my work, good and bad—that the identity of a story teller or story maker was once unimportant, and became increasingly less so as his work persisted.

As I finish up my impressions of our oldest surviving tale, Gilgamesh, I search for the ego trace of the unnamed scribe.

As I revisit the Iliad for the fifth time—marking me as a relative stranger to the text—I am reminded that we know so very little about Homer, that he may or may not have been blind and that he may or may not of also written the Odyssey and that there is a possibility that he was simply the best or most conveniently placed teller of a tale woven by many other minds down through the ages. Some scholars belief that "his" sequel, the Odyssey, was written by a woman, possibly his daughter.

Then, many hundreds of years later, another anonymous author recited and/or wrote Beowulf, an outwardly Christian epic with inwardly pagan messages. Like the Iliad, Beowulf lauds the king and undermines him in the face of the hero, glories warriors and bemoans war. Such tales can be read on two opposing levels. Were they intended to be read as one or the other? Or as both by two different readers? Or as one by a youth and then as another by the youth grown to manhood?

We cannot know if the scribe who carved Gilgamesh into clay also baked the tablets in the library ovens, if he hated or loved his master or felt both emotions swirl within.

We cannot know if Homer was blind, who plucked the lyre as he recited, if Achilles was based on an ancestor or a neighbor boy who stood up to their gymnastics instructor or if he was a singer, who "stitched his songs" in public, or a reclusive bibliophile who combined many competing epics into one authoritative work.

We know virtually nothing about the men who told our most enduring tales.

Suppose, ten thousand years from now, after one of the world-rending upheavals that Howard seemed to fancy had shaped the human condition, and the race wars he assured his readers time and again were the natural tides of history, that one of his tales was discovered as a voice recording [as ironic that we know Homer from print but that his tale lived upon the voice of song stitchers in his time] and all the reviewer of the future knows about the author is his name, what could he make of such a tale as The Tower of the Elephant? Was it preserved for posterity by dumb luck or for its significance? What are the meanings embedded in the subtext?

Was the subtext deliberately subversive to the text?

Was there even an intended subtext?

If not, in the case of many a writer, was their an unintentional subtext imbedded that might shed light on the culture this author was raised in?

Despite these concerns, what meaning does the text and the subtext have to the person reading it, 10,000 years from now?

That's what a writer of fiction unconfined to his own narrow sphere of time wants to know, what will people think of my work ages from now? If I am among the lucky whose word-borne ideas survive, what will it mean to the reader 10,000 years from now?

As a writer, even a low rent survival writer—the lowest in temporal, materialistic, self-help genres—it is a humbling thing to receive a letter, an email or a phone call and have a reader tell you that your writing meant much more to them than you intended, indeed more than it meant to you, trying to finish your product and get your sale, sometimes trying to make it as meaningless as possible in order to appeal to the widest readership. Such encounters have suggested to this writer that a writer is not a creator, but a conduit of long-held word-passed ideas of men who he cannot have known, other than foggily in a dream.

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