What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child

Mark’s post about the new Batman film from a Howardist’s perspective was one of the better contributions to the long Dark Knight of the soul that’s fallen on the blogosphere, arguably a wee bit more plausible than the following Andrew Klavan assertion in The Wall Street Journal: “There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand.” Artist Drew Friedman begs to differ. And Cheney, the No. 2 who tries harder? Is he maybe Harvey Dent? Or remember the online debates when 300 was released? Was Bush Leonidas, or was he Xerxes? And who was Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith? Back when Viggo Mortensen was capturing so many imaginations in 2002 and 2003, a REHupan proudly reprinted a letter he’d sent to his local newspaper that anointed Bush the American Aragorn, the hero-king who was defending the West against the Evil gathering in the East.

Was there ever a time when popular culture did not lend itself to this sort of game, one that the left-handed and the right-handed both line up to play? The concept of a Manchurian candidate long ago escaped the control of Richard Condon or John Frankenheimer. High Noon, Rio Bravo, and High Plains Drifter have been arguing among themselves for decades (in his Playboy interview John Wayne labeled High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life”. Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America is a book I dote on (and may well have quoted from more than from Howard’s own works during my REHupa years), and yet once in a great while a mulish part of me wonders, can every single Western between 1962 and 1976 really have been about Vietnam?

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After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar: Sword-and-Sorcery Since the 1980s

[When Howard Andrew Jones writes about sword-and-sorcery and the desirability of “putting a new edge on an old blade,” it behooves those of us as protective of the subgenre as he is to pay attention, and perhaps pay him the compliment of trying to put our own thoughts in order. To that end, and with a bemused glance at a June 22 post by Gary Romeo, who never loses an opportunity to generalize about Howard purists even if he did lose the chance to celebrate the centennial of his nearest and dearest, I’m rolling out the following article, originally written in 2006 for an anthology that apparently could not be more snake-bitten were it to traipse barefoot through Stygia]

The subgenre of modern fantasy with which Robert E. Howard is nearly synonymous died down in the mid-1980s but did not die out. Far from it; sword-and-sorcery proved to be as difficult to kill as many of its protagonists. But before we can celebrate Howard’s legacy by following the subgenre’s fortunes for the last several decades, we need to establish what we mean by sword-and-sorcery. For starters, what is meant at least for the purposes of this article is an approach to heroic fantasy that became aware of itself when Howard decisively expanded on the promise and premise of Lord Dunsany’s 1908 story “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” with “The Shadow Kingdom” in 1929.

The verb “expanded” is chosen with no disrespect whatsoever intended toward Dunsany’s story; it is possible that during his much-debated involvement with sword-and-sorcery, L. Sprague de Camp never did the subgenre more of a favor than when he selected “The Fortress” for his anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967).

(Here, on the other hand, Leo argues that the only place for poor old “Sacnoth” in an S & S muscle car is: the ejector seat)

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Pan Versus Peter Pan; Or, Can’t We Have Some Adult Fantasy to Go with the Adulterated Fantasy?

Beginning in December of 2003 and continuing through 2004’s Oscar season, The Return of the King shook the earth like a mûmakil charge. Peter Jackson’s LOTR films served up something for almost everyone not named Grin: halflings, Howard Shore, monsters, Orlando Bloom for the maenads-in-training-bras, the Shakespearean dynastic/familial crises of the House of Eorl or Denethor and his sons, a cinematic siege with a fuse as slow-burning as that of Zulu, clashes between combatants in their thousands and tens of thousands that could hold their armored heads up in the company of Chimes at Midnight, Kagemusha, and Ran (the edged weapons became even edgier on the Extended Edition DVDs), and the realization that Frodo not only fails in, but is maimed by, his mission. So why have so many fantasy films since then settled for being merely a kindergarten of unearthly delights? The most “mature” spectacle to result from the Rings phenomenon has been the paroxysm of litigation pitting Jackson against New Line Cinema and the Tolkien estate against New Line’s corporate successors.

I have no quarrel with the Harry Potter films, at least not after the helm was relinquished by a Columbus who discovered only mediocrity. In fact Alfonso Cuaròn’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ranks with The Two Towers and Pan’s Labyrinth as the finest film fantasy of this decade — interesting that it took a Mexican director to relocate Hogwarts from an amusement park in Crassville to Gothic highlands atmospherically patrolled by the spirits of George MacDonald and Isak Dinesen as well as the Dementors.

As soon as Inklings were identified as golden egg-layers Andrew Adamson’s 2 Narnia adaptations, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) became inevitable (the more recent film has a severe case of Pelennor Fields envy, and its conquering Telmarines seem to have been airlifted straight from slaughtering the charges of eagle knights during la noche triste in Tenochtitlan).

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Milius Mentions Howard

Via Dirty Harry’s Place, which is far and away my favorite film blog, you can read a nice interview with Conan the Barbarian director John Milius. Deep into the discussion Milius mentions Conan and REH, an exchange which may be of interest to readers of The Cimmerian:

TG: At one point, there was going to be Conan sequel, “King Conan,” with Arnold returning and you writing the script.

MILIUS: Yeah, I did a script and the Wachowski Brothers were the producers. But they decided they were too cool for this world. That was a terrific script. We stole a lot of stuff out of it and put it in “Rome.”


TG: So what’s the project you’re going to make in China?

MILIUS: The movie I’m doing now is “Genghis Khan,” and I look back at how much Genghis Khan influenced me in doing the original “Conan.” There’s even quotes of Genghis Khan in there, “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women.”

TG: There’s also a great scene in “Conan” where his father hands the sword down to him as a young boy and tells him that man will betray you, woman will betray you, but the steel will not betray you.

MILIUS: That was sort of my interpretation of (Conan author) Robert E. Howard I guess. He talked all the time about trusting your sword or something, but I liked the idea of trusting steel. The steel itself was an enigma and a mystery; I always had that thing about the blade, and that comes from my other Samurai life. My wife is convinced I was a Kamikaze pilot.

TG: Maybe you were a Samurai in another life.

MILIUS: She was also convinced that I rode with Cortez!

Interesting that Milius shares REH’s more-than-superficial fascination with the possibility of reincarnation. The film Patton (which Milius touches on in the interview and admires) also delved into this subject. I read Milius’ Conan the King script a few years ago and did a (negative) review of it for REHupa, so now I’ll have to check out the now-defunct HBO series Rome to see what was cribbed for use in that series.

Even though Milius’ “Robert E. Howard the Shotgun-wielding nut” mythologizing bothered me a great deal on the Conan the Barbarian DVD documentary, I still respect the man enormously as a writer and filmmaker, and have always defended Conan the Barbarian as a fine film (albiet not a faithfully Howardian one). I’ve even had the honor of loaning my video camera and light kit to Ethan Nahté for his John Milius interview a few years back, when Ethan was in LA doing REH-related pickups for his as-yet-uncompleted documentary on the Texan. As I recall he also used my equipment to record the late, great composer Basil Poledouris, who remains one of my all-time faves.

Postcard From The Edge

Reuters reports that a man preparing a house for demolition in England has discovered a postcard hidden behind the fireplace address to J.R.R. Tolkien, who once lived there. The sender of the postcard? Apparently it’s none other than Howardom’s own resident whipping boy, Lin Carter.

The report goes on to mention that Carter is the writer of Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, a book that has as poor a reputation in Tolkien fandom as Carter’s Conan pastiches do in our neck of the woods. My favorite capsule dismissal of the book comes from Tom Shippey, who wrote in his masterful The Road to Middle Earth that Carter “prepared for his commentary on Tolkien by looking up ‘philology’ in ‘the dictionary’, to little profit — maybe it was the wrong dictionary.”

Reuters goes on to describe the postcard as perhaps being worth a “small fortune.” That’s going more than a bit too far, but it’s a cool find nevertheless. In REH’s case, I think we are far from exhausting the number of Howard items left to be unearthed in various people’s basements and garages. New pictures still crop up (witness the young Dr. Howard picture from The Cross Plains Review found in 2006), as well as new typescripts (as recently as last December, The Cimmerian presented a previously unknown version of Howard’s poem “Cimmeria”).

JJM on D&D

This morning Between the Covers host John J. Miller brings the Dungeons & Dragons True Word to the heathen masses of the Wall Street Journal, and includes several news tidbits that proved new to me. Check it out.