Thursday, 2 April 2009

6. Robert E. Howard - 'The Phoenix of the Sword' (1932)

'But this one is a different,
He knows the pinches of an older hunger,
A greater storm than yours
In his heart rages'
(Jake Thackray, 'The Rain on the Mountainside', 1976)
'the lack of any clear political direction - and who could expect that? - prevents the ballad-outlaw from being a revolutionary; he remains simply a champion of insubordination, and that is already much.'
(A.L. Lloyd, Folk Song in England, Panther Arts, 1967, p.150)

'[...] to drown in the yellow wells of cosmic horror which glimmered spectrally in the formless chaos that was growing about him and engulfing all life and sanity.' (Robert E. Howard, The Complete Chronicles of Conan: Centenary Edition, Gollancz, 2006, p.40)

As his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft states in the inner cover of the leatherbound hardback edition, Howard's stories are 'pure adventure yarns with a touch of weirdness'. This proves to be an intriguing combination, with Howard creating an engaging, semi-Dark Ages world, based around a Europe from time immemorial, establishing political intrigues and rival power centres - and injecting moments of much more inexplicable oddity. Where Atwood's elderly protagonist mirrors nature in his decay, Howard's Conan is instead akin to nature as life-force: 'He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands.' (p.27) He uncomfortable dealing with 'statecraft'.

There is an interesting reflection upon Conan being at ease battling to gain power, but being almost at a loss now that he has it, installed as King of Aquilonia; a theme that resonates with many leaders past and present in our reality. Conan is not cut out for the machinations and subtleties that go with wielding power, and is an easy target for enemy plotters, as the story relates; for example, the dissident minstrel, Rinaldo in 'jester's garb'. This motleyed japester may not be any different from Conan in being an idealist who dislikes the compromises of the present: 'Poets always hate those in power [...] They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.' (p.25) There is an astuteness also in how the dead King Namedides, defeated by Conan, hardly beloved during his actual reign, is now a rallying point for many on the fringes of Aquilonia.

The key passage which takes this tale into the realms of the Weird is on p.39 where, after the fairly prosaic dispatching of southern dissidents, Conan (and before him his rival Ascalante) is confronted by an unspeakable 'thing', a more physical manifestation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror - although it its form is flexible and hardly solid: 'he twisted his head about and stared into the face of Nightmare and lunacy. Upon him crouched a great black thing which he knew was born in no sane or human world.' This thing is beyond the bestial, and leaves a much more unsettling undercurrent behind at the end of the story than I was expecting.

Conan is strongly drawn as a formidable 'primordial', his great reserves and limitations drawn from his barbarian background. He comes from 'reaver' stock, clearly drawn from the northern border country, along whose borders there was 'continual war' - Howard clearly making some associations with the lawless Northumbrian border reivers, as depicted in the Border Ballads. (p.28)* There is a hint of the Viking and a British northern kind in these decriptions of the northmen: 'They are wayward and fierce. They fight all day and drink ale and roar their wild songs all night.' Geographically, they are shaped: 'A gloomier land never was - all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys. / 'Little wonder men grow moody there'. (p.29)

'The Phoenix...' does not allow me to draw specific political links with 1932 , but, like a strong seventies Dr Who story (penned by Robert Holmes, say) the internal politics are concisely, entertainingly conceived and achieve a simplicity in their complexity, if such a thing can be envisaged. I cannot help but bring to mind Holmes's medieval robber baron Irongron (David Daker) and Bloodaxe (John J. Carney) from 1974's The Time Warrior - real blood and thunder types, melodramatic but played with real feeling and intensity. That sense is evoked by this story; some of the happenings and the descriptions ratchet things up to a nearly absurd level, but you are carried along by the conviction and verve of REH's style: 'The red ax lurched up and crashed down and a crimson caricature of a man catapulted back against the legs of the attackers.' (p.39)

There are no female characters who play any significant part in the Conan saga at this early stage; this story seems to share this gender imbalance with the M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft I have read - no sense of The New Woman, or indeed, women at all for the most part. It will be interesting to see how further tales in this lineage, from the nineteenth-century to the present-day project women. One certainly imagines the New Wave (Moorcock, Le Guin etc.) of Science Fiction will redress this.

Notwithstanding this, 'The Phoenix of the Sword' is a pleasing mix of what was old and new; from archaism - 'quoth Prospero' indeed - and Border Ballads to the Lovecraftian abyss, befitting its inclusion in the pages of the pulp magazine, Weird Tales.



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