Friday, August 3, 2018

‘This Impetuous Chieftain’

Could This Be the Man that Kull, Conan, El Borak and Black Vulmea Were Modeled Upon?

A recent reading of Bust Hell Wide Open: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, an excellent book by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., brought to mind two things, first, Howard’s literary depiction of the battlefield personae of such heroes as Kull, Vulmea, El Borak and most of all Conan. Secondly, it reminded me of a little known and touching tale by Howard, titled, For the Love of Barbra Allen, in which a Texas man recalled his experiences riding with Forrest in the Civil War.

Below are the unifying heroic threads that seem, to this writer, to suggest that Howard was deeply affected by the heroism of his conquered nation’s greatest hero.

Forest stood under enemy fire 179 times and was seriously wounded four times.

He had 34 horses shot from under him and was proud of having killed 35 enemy men in retribution.

The Texan Adam R. Johnson recounted Forrest saying to him, when frustrated over the loss of his horse staying his sword from Yankee throats, “Johnson, catch me a horse.”

Those who dismiss Howard’s fiction as pure fantasy on the level of human realism—which it is manifestly not—often point out that one man besting a gang of men in combat is unrealistic. Improbable, yes, unrealistic, hardly. I might recount dozens of tales of my friends and associates clearing out roomfulls of combatants by themselves but would be best served relying on “promiscuous saber slaughter” in Forrest’s first sword fight of the war, in which he personally slew nine men, one with a gunshot and the others with his sword. In the same melee he shot an officer and then trampled him with his horse and effected his capture, as he was engaged by this man and three others at sword’s reach upon the backs of their plunging horses.

Forrest having his men drive back a rioting mob with the flats of their swords, on page 43 of Bust Hell Wide Open is repeated by Kull and Conan in Howard’s fiction. During this affray he personally beat the piss out of a brawny Irishman who challenged his authority.

On pages 55-56, incidents are told, which would repeat throughout Forest’s career, of women appealing to his sense of chivalry to go punish the enemy for outrages or to save their men from torture and death, are found in the career of Conan numerous times, most stridently. Forrest, Kull, Solomon Kane and Conan had an overwhelming commitment to protect and avenge women, with no less than 21 slave girls, queens and princesses saved by Conan’s bloody hand.  Most graphically, in relation to Forrest, was Conan’s adventure Beyond the Black River, in which the women on the frontier ask the hero to save their men. Interestingly, Conan is seen from the vantage of a woman as often as from his own egocentric perspective. The Conan character—and Howard tested this with Kull—actually forms largely through his interaction with the frail sex, above even his interaction with the supernatural. This is reflected in Forrest’s abdication of moral authority in the presence of women of character in need and of his wife, publicly attaching his operant masculine authority to the cause of a wronged woman—which would, by definition, be any woman self-sacrificing enough to marry such a man as he. This crudely chivalric union is included in almost all the Conan stories.

Reminiscent of El Borak is Forrest, on page 58, coolly taking aim at a Negro teamster who was banging away at him with a firearm, and killing the man dead with one shot.

What those who knew Forrest said over and over again, was that he took on a frightening transformation when in battle and that his eyes could be baleful in the extreme. He was a kind of man that people quaked before when his ire was up. Howard repeats this in For the Love of Barbara Allen and throughout his fiction, particularly in his Conan yarns, where he concentrates on the hero’s character as reflected in his own eyes.

Below are some quotes from a much underrated story, The Pool of the Black One:

‘Are you a merman, that you rise up out of the sea?’ she asked, confused by the candor of his gaze…
Conan turned toward the others. But for a slumbering glitter in his eyes, his bearing was unchanged.
‘Are you mad, to ask?’ laughed Conan, coming swiftly toward his erstwhile chief. His lips smiled, and in his blue eyes danced a mad gleam.
…he faced his foes. The dancing recklessness was gone from his eyes. They blazed like blue bale-fire; his mane bristled, his thin lips snarled.

In the treatment of Conan as a blue-eyed, black-haired and bronzed-skinned man of ancient European type, Howard actually predicted what geneticists have discovered a century later, that such men stood as a prototype of Aryan and Amerindian races alike in the mists of deep antiquity.

The way he addresses this, and the inner character of the man, is to write in such a way as to convince the reader that at least a drop of Conan’s blood runs in our veins despite our domestication. Two of his tools are the totemic imagery of the face, thin lips and mane invoking an image of a wolf or great cat. Indeed the passage preceding the quote likens him so, “rebounding like a great cat.”
The eyes though, strike deeper. His heroes move like panthers, roar like lions, spring like a tiger or plunge into conflict like a wolf, but their eyes, and those of their arch enemies evoke the depths of the sea, the gulfs we fear, the setting sun, the deep night, the blue sky loved by free men and the many fires that stalk our puny lives, those of extinction, of creation and of transformation. The transformative glare of the last Aryan hero, Nathan Bedford Forrest, lives still in Howard’s unforgettable prose.

(c) 2018 James LaFond


  1. Lynn, thanks so much for selecting that particular picture of Forest. If you dropped a steel cap on his head and draped him in mail and furs, you'd have a perfect image of Cormac MacArt, McDeesa, or one of Howard's other fictional medieval chieftains.

  2. He's got ME convinced!