Wednesday, February 27, 2019

‘Death Stalked Grinning’

James LaFond's Impressions of A Black Wind Blows, Chapter 2, Robert E. Howard’s Hour of the Dragon, reading from pages 91-98 of the DelRey edition

The lead illustration is a large, powerful portrait of Conan, seated naked and brooding, one hand under chin the other on his sword as his attendant stands behind him at tensely troubled attention.

“The Year of the Dragon had birth in war pestilence and unrest,” begins Howard masterfully.

As with the advent of the quest of Enkidu, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, mankind cried out to the heavens for relief.

Conan wakes from a nightmare in his royal pavilion under the lion banner of his adopted nation, troubled by a dream that recounted his life in ghostly wise, seeing the battlefield on which he was born, the steps of grim attainment on his ascent to greatness. Haunted by his own likeness stalking across terrible scenes of carnage and of wielding petty power, the barbarian usurper was shaken that much deeper to his core by that which shadowed the procession of his grisly achievements, “…strange, veiled figures and ghostly shadows,” and a faraway vice of mockery.

Throughout Howard’s horror and fantasy fiction mockery as a concept is more thoroughly employed by he than any other author this reader has read, indeed more than all combined authors of all genres I have read in roughly a thousand works of fiction and myth.

Conan confides in his general that the plague that felled the Nemedian King, an ally and predecessor of the king that now arrayed his host across the valley, was a work of sorcery. Then, having been sent to bring his squires for his the king’s arming, the general hears a cry and heavy fall from King Conan’s tent and returns to find the giant barbarian in a paralysis, beaded in sweat as he eyes the shadows within his tent like a poisoned wolf trying to quantify the evil of Man. Conan’s eyes burning with “bitter rage” over the invisible shackles that held him, he hears the pledge of a captain whose stature matches his own who is to bear his armor for the battle. It becomes clear that Howard’s vision of pre-cataclysmic Hyborea is akin to Europe of the High Middle Ages, the end times of chivalry, in the late 1300s and early 1400s, based on his description of the king’s armor.

As his valiant body double swears to honor his harness or die in the attempt Conan makes a savage oath, which Howard quantifies like so:

“In the stress of his anguish Conan’s veneer of civilization had fallen from him. His eyes flamed, he ground his teeth in fury and blood-lust, as barbaric as any tribesman in the Cimmerian hills.”

In that closing passage, Howard makes the point behind both his Kull and Conan hero king sagas, that a powerful and decadent nation which has worn thin its vital essence would be best served by elevating any man—even of an enemy race to kingship—if that man possessed the vitality of its ancestral founders, a lesson he seems to have gleaned from his reading of Roman history, tellingly reflected in his horror story of Hannibal’s ghost in Delenda Est.

(c) 2019 James LaFond

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