The Iron Men Ride: Swords From the West


Adventure was considered the most prestigious pulp magazine in America. It was the very best that the pulps had to offer. And the very best author in Adventure was Harold Lamb.

Robert Weinberg, excerpted from his introduction to Swords From the West

I have been waiting for Swords From the West (or something very like it) for a long time. A massive book (over six hundred pages) bursting at the bindings with tales of conflict and courage, all sprung from the masterful pen of Harold Lamb.

The common thread which connects all the stories in this volume is that each one of the main protagonists are of European extraction. Sometimes their foes are fellow Europeans, other times the antagonists hail from points further East. As series editor, Howard Andrew Jones *, notes in his foreword:

What may be surprising is Lamb’s unprejudiced eye when portraying non-Western peoples. Lamb’s Mongolians and Arabs are painted with the same insight into motivation as his Western protagonists. He takes no shortcuts via stereotype: foreign does not necessarily equate with evil and villains can be found on either side of the cultural divide.

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I’m glad Bates is abandoning the restrictions against atmosphere stories. In a letter to me, some months ago, he said they preferred stories with a good plot and about three climaxes, I believe it was. Of course, he knows what the readers want, and I don’t blame him for trying to supply the demand. But as far as I’m concerned, a plot is about the least important element in a weird story. — Robert E Howard, Complete Letters Volume 2, page 230

I was kind of startled to see that admission. Howard critics, including some of his editors, have remarked on weak plotting, often over-ridden with coincidence, as one of his faults as a writer. Maybe, I thought, he only put plot on the back seat in case of the weird tale, when atmosphere and character might be more important. Not so.

Several pages later, Howard adds, speaking of “Lord of Samarcand/The Lame Man”:

But it’s the sort of thing I like to write — no plot construction, no hero or heroine, no climax in the accepted sense of the word, all the characters complete scoundrels, and everybody double-crossing everybody else.

I must admit that I missed that the first time I read it — being more focused on what it said about the characters Howard liked to use — but it again emphasizes his dislike of plotting. No wonder he preferred as is noted here and elsewhere, rewriting history in the guise of fiction. Here is a splendid example, again taken from Complete Letters Volume 2:

Relatives of mine were in Galveston when it was washed away in 1900, but fortunately all were saved, though many of their friends were drowned. One of their friends, having been out of the city at the time, hastened back to find that his whole family had perished. He fell like a dead man and when he recovered consciousness, days later, his hair was white as snow. Aye, men’s hair turned white then, and the hair of young men and the soft locks of girls. And then was a woman who walked across an ironing board from one crumbling building to another, stronger one, with a child in her arms, and the black night howling over her and the screams of the dying in her ears — the black waves foaming and lashing under her feet and the corpses wallowing and bumping against her feet. And just as she stepped into the comparative safety of the other building, the walls she had left collapsed and thundered into the raving waters and [she heard the] screams of her friends [as they] were drowned — with hundreds of others, [and] their bodies were never found. [..]
God, what black horror must have gripped the hearts of the people, when the doom of winds and waves struck them in the night — when they rushed from their houses with the thunder of the crumbling sea-wall in their ears, and were caught in the black madness that thundered over the doomed city — that shattered their walls, broke their roofs, swept their houses away like straw and strewed dead bodies for a hundred miles along the marshes.
[. . .]
Trains, halted by the rising water on the mainland, were deserted by their frenzied passengers — and these passengers told tales of corpses floated up to the windows that seemed to fumbles at the panes with dead fingers.
— Robert E Howard, Complete Letters Volume 2, page 321-2

I’m not sure how much of that is fact, how much is urban legend, and how much is purely Howard’s imagination, but it sure is a hell of a piece of story-telling, set free from any need of plot construction. It’s kind of a shame not much of that found its way into the finale of “Marchers of Valhalla,” but that story seems to be one of those that becomes hardly more than an outline as it reaches its end.

“…with bright-gold helmet, breastplate and ring…” (Tollers would have loved this…)

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made on British soil was announced this week. The news? An amateur treasure-hunter in western Staffordshire recently discovered an Anglo-Saxon hoard of unprecedented size and richness. The location of the “Staffordshire hoard” (dated to the half-century betwixt 675 and 725AD) places it within the north-western boundaries of the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply interested in the history of Mercia. He traced his maternal (and much of his paternal) line back to that realm. Tolkien spent almost all of his childhood within the bounds of the now-vanished kingdom. He is known to have stated that he felt a sense of instant familiarity and kinship with the distinctive Mercian dialect of Old English when he first encountered it, early on in his philological studies. A good deal of The Book of Lost Tales was localized within what was Mercian territory. He even seems to have believed that Beowulf, possibly the one work of literature closest to his heart, was composed in Mercia at roughly the time that the “Staffordshire hoard” seems to have been inhumed.

Mercia itself ought to be known in some degree by anyone who is familiar with Tolkien’s legendarium. It can be seen, in a very fantasticated form (in much the same way that REH’s envisioning of medieval Ireland resembles Hyborian Age Cimmeria) in The Lord of the Rings. Namely, Rohan; or, as the Eorlingas themselves called it: the Riddermark. Riddermark. “The ‘Mark’ of the Horsemen.” The word “mark” in this instance is derived by JRRT from the Anglo-Saxon word “mearc” (the basis, ultimately, for the name, “Mercia”) which is itself sprung from an even older term for “line or boundary.” By linguistic extension, that noun in Anglo-Saxon came to mean “border” or “frontier” (though only its more common and primal sense survived into modern English). Words such as “marquis,” “Denmark” and “march” (as in the sense of a “Bossonian March”) fossilize this archaic meaning like ancient beasts in amber.


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Conan’s helmet

When Karl Edward Wagner got “The Hour of the Dragon” into print sans editorial amendments, I was curious about the three terms for helmet that Howard had used, apparently not realizing, according to some, that they defined “three specific and different” styles.

When Conan dons the helmet, it’s a “plain morion”. Later, it’s a “basinet” and later still it is a “burganet.”
Researching this in my “Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons,” I quickly found that these are actually not very specific terms, but describe evolving trends, many of which are quite different from their predecessors. And rather than being distinct from each other, the burgonet and the morion merge in a hybrid known aptly as the burgonet-morion.

The basinet, which is commonly associated with jousting knights, actually started off as a simple cap with an attached coif, rather like Barry Smith’s depiction of Turanian helmets. It then evolved into the great bellows-visored helmet worn by knights in tourneys. A basinet offers good protection to the neck. The morion is associated with the Spanish conquistadors. Most were made of two plates joined along the middle with a mohawk-like “comb” running from front to back, but some were made with only one piece, which would make them similar to basinets.
The same is true of the burgonet, as it could also be made with one piece.

I think it is totally possible, even likely, that Howard knew exactly what these words meant when he used them. The Nemedian smith who created this helmet knew nothing of burganets, basinets, or morions when he made it — they wouldn’t be invented until our own age. Yet what he made had some basic characteristics of all, and in trying to describe what is basically an alien artifact from another age Howard used terms that would let a reader imagine something along the lines of what it was; a single-plate cap with an aventail or coif to protect the neck, a fall or eyeshade to keep the eyes sheltered, and an openable visor.

New Harold Lamb Collections From Bison Books



Two new books collecting Harold Lamb’s pulp adventure fiction are on the horizon and I could not be happier. Swords From the West and Swords From the Desert are slated to thunder into bookstores this September, courtesy of the Bison Books imprint from the University of Nebraska Press. Scott Oden (who wrote the introduction for Swords From the Desert) and Morgan Holmes have both weighed in on their respective blogs. I thought I would toss in my two debased dinars.

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A Review of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13

My copy of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 came in the post on the same day that a long-awaited guest arrived. Due to previously scheduled essays, I’m only now getting around to singing this issue’s praises. Morgan Holmes has already weighed in on the REHupa site, but I hope that this review will complement his.

I must admit that I never read the earlier issues of “TGR” when they were published back in the 1970s. I was but a wee lad back then. However, I have perused the “Out of Print” section on Damon C. Sasser’s website. REH: Two-Gun Raconteur has always been a worthy publication, mixing real Howardian scholarship, quality art and fannish fun. That was definitely my impression when I bought the first “relaunch” issue in 2003.

REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 greets you with a full-color cover depicting Kull and Brule whaling away at serpent-men. Sasser went with color covers (one of the advancements of civilization we can all be thankful for) a while back. That move got my unequivocal support at the time, and this cover changes that opinion not one whit.


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A French REH book gets an English translation


French Howard fan Simon Sanahujas writes in:

Last year, in February, I made a road trip in Texas with a photographer ( Gwenn Dubourthoumieu). Our purpose was to follow Howard’s trail and try to find the landscapes and places which inspired him for Conan and the Hyborian Age. Last year we published in France an art book about that, called Conan le Texan, and now it’s translated and available in English. It’s eighty pages with more than sixty color pictures.

Here is the page on the publisher’s website. And the link where it can be ordered.

And here is the entire design from the French edition (very large page, you’ll have to scroll it on the right).

Best Regards,

Simon Sanahujas

The book looks quite nice, with some very professional pictures, layout, and design. If you are interested in Texas from a Howardian perspective, check it out.

A Rumble of Hooves in Spanish Pictdom

“Bullfighting is indeed a reversion to Roman amphitheater days. I have an idea that the Mediterranean peoples have practiced it in some form or other every since the days of Crete, where it flourished, according to vases and the like.”

Robert E. Howard to HP Lovecraft, ca. January 1931


The bulls are running again in Pamplona, once the heart of medieval Vasconia, and what is now known as the Basque Country. The Feast of St. Fermin is an ancient one, with records attesting the encierro going back at least eight centuries. There are some indications that its roots extend much further. (Continue reading this post)

Tennessee Springtime


It is springtime in East Tennessee. Sometimes the spring seems to turn to summer in a matter of weeks, but this time round it’s been pretty and spring-like through most of March, all of April (while we were hearing of major snowstorms in the Northwest), and so far into May. We have been getting a lot of rain, and everything green is growing as fast as it can. While the dogwoods are no longer blooming, a lot of other things are, and it’s constantly showing me why this is my favorite time of year here. This time of year I often think about this passage from “For the Love of Barbara Allen”:

“It was mornin’ in the mountains and they were both young. You never saw a mornin’ in the spring, in the Cumberlands?”
“I never was in Tennessee,” I answered.
“No, you don’t know anything about it,” he retorted, in the half humerous, half petulant mood of the old. “You’re a post-oak gopher. You never saw anything but sand drifts and dry shinnery ridges. What do you know about mountain sides covered with birch and laurel, and cold clear streams windin’ through the cool shadows and tinklin’ over the rocks? What do you know about upland forests with the blue haze of the Cumberlands hangin’ over them?”
“Nothing,” I answered, yet even as I spoke, there leaped crystal clear into my mind with startling clarity the very image of the things of which he spoke, so vivid that my external faculties seemed almost to sense it — I could almost smell the dogwood blossoms and the cool lush of the deep woods, and hear the tinkle of hidden streams over the stones.

The Cumberland Mountains are somewhat north and west of here, maybe two or three hours drive. The Cumberland River, of which Howard also speaks, winds through them from Kentucky into Nashville. The foothills area where I live has very similar topography, climate and flora to that region. I sometimes wonder how Howard was able to describe a Tennessee mountain spring so well. Surely the reference books of the day could have provided the basic facts, but this almost reads as though Howard had talked to someone who, like the fictional grandfather, actually remembered it. By 1930, the Civil War was only 65 years in the past, and Howard could have found an old-timer who had been part of the large Tennessee to Texas exodus that followed, perhaps part of the last wave. Maybe some of that vivid description could have come from family stories handed down from ancestors who had lived in the Southeast. I can only hope that when I finally make my way through the complete letters, I will perhaps find a clue.

From Venarium to Ymir’s Mountains

“Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Æsir…”

Robert E. Howard in a letter to P. Schuyler Miller.


“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is well-beloved by Conan fans, with good reason. While containing moments of true poetry, it still packs wain-loads of bloody action into a few short pages. Some have theorized that this yarn is the very first adventure in the Cimmerian’s career, chronologically. Such would seem to be indicated by Robert E. Howard’s 1936 letter to P. Schuyler Miller.

While I have a few niggling doubts as to that placement (such doubts to be addressed at a later time), that doesn’t stop me extrapolating therefrom. If “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is a chronicle from that period of “some months” when Conan first ventured out of Cimmeria into Nordheim (as Howard wrote to Miller), then clues within that tale possibly cast light on the Cimmerian murkiness of Conan’s years immediately prior to his bidding farewell to his homeland.

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