Sunday, January 19, 2020

‘No Where On the Waking Earth’

The Rending of the Veil: Chapter 7 of Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon
Reading from pages 131-140 of the DelRey edition

The illustration of the scowling Conan sweating on a bench, holding a bucket-sized drinking mug and giving a surly ear to the wiry and tall wise woman hunched on her stool with her great wolf yawning behind at her side, forms a stark picture of many an Aryan hero depicted throughout epic poetry, from Enkidu to Odysseus. 

The Rending of the Veil reveals Howard’s conception of folk magic as very similar to that of J. R. R. Tolkien, with a practitioner of dark sorcery using ravens to track the fugitive Conan and a homegrown, rustic witch employing a great wolf and a mighty eagle to foil the dark occult powers of civilization as Conan seeks the succor of the wild lands.

Keeping in mind that this tale predates The Lord of the Rings and that it was published in England, one wonders if Tolkien was inspired by it. However, the connection seems to have been deeper, that Howard utilized some of the same root folk sources as understood in more ancient form [possibly from primary sources] by Tolkien.
This scene also seems to have been the inspiration of the witch scene in the movie Conan the Barbarian, in which the powerful female reads Conan’s fate cryptically. The battle scene in which Conan takes on four witch burners is very well done, with the witch’s rescue preceded by a note on the barbarian’s resolve in the face of steep odds and couched in terms of Conan’s Western agency, that: “…he was no son of the Orient to yield passively to what seemed inevitable.”

When Conan realizes that he is in his own kingdom and that one of his subjects is being set upon, his lion-like belligerence returns, with him truculently accepting the witch as a soothsayer. Zeleta, like many of Howard’s female characters, expresses a keen understanding of human nature, which includes her positive measure of the masculine:

“…the people of your capital have forfeited the freedom you won for them by sweat and blood; they have sold themselves to the salvers and the butchers. They have shown that they do not trust their destiny.”

She compliments him on his stubbornness, usually the point at which a male protagonist is invalidated in most western forms of literature. Howard works his understanding of the European mass’s slavish and self-negating social gravity through the wise woman, hinting to the reader that Western Civilization is nothing without the individual hero and that the true Western king is a father to his people, more than a brother to the nobility.

Howard’s depiction of malevolent forces separated from the waking world by a veil conforms to much of modern paranormal theory as does Gianni’s thematic closing illustration, in which Conan fences in his mind against a skeletal sword lich holding a shield with a dragon emblazoned upon it.

Diction of Note
Swale: a low lying, marshy area

(c) 2020 James LaFond

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