Written in October 1931, reading from lord of Samarcand, Bison books, 2005, pages 129-64
"The warm wind blows through the waving grain—
Where are the glories of Tamerlane?
The nations stood up, ripe and tall—
He was the sickle that reaped them all.
But the sickle shatters and leaves no trace—
And the grain rows green on the desert's face."
-Robert E. Howard, Timur-Lang
It seems that Howard was inspired to write Lord of Samarcand based on a reading of Harold Lamb's The Wolf Chaser, and rivaled the old master of historical fiction in shorter form, crafting his most intense and savage tale of revenge in the belly of a world weighted heavily towards the interaction of heroes with the dark fatalism of the cosmos. Howard, based on his content and the poetic touches that head each of the seven chapters which follow the abrupt first chapter, with Six and Seven headed by lines from Poe's epic Tamerlane, seems to have been atmospherically influenced by that American Poet.
The overarching theme of Lord of Samarcand is cataclysmic, with the titanic conqueror, Tamerlane—perhaps the greatest pure conqueror in history—depicted in prose as he is in Howard's short verse above, as a reaping force of nature, a person so terrible that he is an agent for the gravitational shift of history. If one views history as a river, Howard's depiction of Tamerlane is of the warrior who redirects the river to flood an enemy territory. But in the end, the river will return to its natural course due to the shape of the earth and the actions of the heavens...
No Howard tale is so intense, so brutal, and so wanting of kindness, so barren of civilization, of comfort, reflection and of higher purpose. His heroes are stark, cruel and dark, the worst of the lot being the protagonist Donald MacDeesa, a Scottish Highlander "...strong as a bear, swift as a wolf, cruel as a falcon..."
Donald knows at least three towering masters, epic in their powerlust and harsh cruelty, and he shocks even these into amazement that there rages beneath their elevated station such a man as they could not stand before if they found themselves in the ranks upon which their power is teeteringly contrived. The cruel lords of MacDeesa's world are real, vibrant beings, more than just power vectors. MacDeesa knows only two comforts, the companionship of a brutal but loyal warrior named Ak Boga and the fleeting ministrations of a conniving slavegirl—a man to stand beside in trying times and a woman to lay with between trials.
Over and over again, his adopted Lord Timour, afraid of his own human "caphar" attack dog hurls him Solomon-like at his enemies, half-hoping that his human "lance" would finally shatter and fail to make its troubling return. But the murderer of nations, the man that made half the world cringe and the other half cower, cannot, in the end, be relieved of his savage pet, a brooding, alien figure who knows only one unquenchable thirst—vengeance, the remorseless drive to repay betrayal that is more than a driving demon, but the very god of his pagan heart.
Lord of Samarcand is Howard's most intense tale, a story of sweeping scope, dwarfed by its towering villains, monstrous men above men who, in the end, are dwarfed by the very dogs of war that they set upon the trembling world of 1400s Asia.
Links to historical battles and figures intrinsic to Lord of Samarcand are found below: