REH Words of the Week: stylus and papyrus



1. an instrument for writing, marking or incising.

[Origin: from the Latin stylus, “a pointed instrument” ]


1. a writing material made of strips of the pith of the papyrus plant laid evenly across similar strips in thin layers, the whole being soaked and then dried under pressure; used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

[Origin: from the Greek papyros, “reed” ]


Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him.

[from “The Phoenix on the Sword”]

It seems seldom recognized or appreciated by many Conan fans (especially those who “live by the Lancers”), that in the first scene Robert E. Howard ever wrote featuring the redoubtable Cimmerian, Conan is wielding a writing utensil, not a sword. “The Phoenix on the Sword” was the first Conan tale ever written, though it takes place late in his career (and near the end of the Lancer series), shortly after he became king. The readers of the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales first saw Conan the Cimmerian at a writing-table, using a stylus to incise a sheet of waxed papyrus.

(Continue reading this post)

Conan Agonistes


“Conan in agony, helpless, close to death –crushing the vulture’s neck in his teeth-enduring the ordeal of the felling of the cross –impatiently ripping the nails out of his feet with his mangled hands –holding onto the saddle on a frenzied mount… the episode dominates the story and the series. Better than any other scene, it underscores Conan’s barbaric vitality and indomitable soul. The scene overshadows the remainder of the story — and “A Witch Shall Be Born” is an excellent story. It is Conan at his best — defeated and condemned to a hideous death, fighting back through his barbaric strength and iron-willed determination, ultimately triumphant in the final battle, dooming his enemies to a just vengeance.”

Karl Edward Wagner, “Afterward,” The People of the Black Circle

While not every critic agrees that the story is excellent, all seem to agree that the crucifixion scene is hard to forget. In the same piece, Wagner remarks that even after forty years, Manly Wade Wellman recalled the scene vividly.

This seems an apt day to revisit Conan’s crucifixion. By the time Howard wrote the story, Wright had recognized the growing popularity of Conan by putting him on the cover spot with “Queen of the Black Coast,” “The Devil in Iron” and “The People of the Black Circle” and had now run out of stories to run. Howard could start to experiment a little, and he did.

The first thing that is different is that Conan only appears in a few key scenes. Much of the story is epistolary, that is, told by other observers, in letters and oral accounts, something Howard used occasionally elsewhere (like in “The Dead Remember” and “The Riot at Bucksnort” but not in a fantasy with a main character like Conan. It keeps the story short where it could have been a lengthy novella.
(Continue reading this post)

“Who’s a Kurgan?”


Such is the title of this most interesting blog post from John Sweat’s site, The Anthropogene.

As can be seen from the epigram that Sweat chose for his essay, the man is a Robert E. Howard fan. I am fairly certain that REH would be a fan of The Anthropogene as well, this blog post in particular. Howard was deeply interested in the expansion of the proto-Indo-Europeans/”Aryans” out of their homeland on the Eurasian steppes. He mentions their “epic treks” in numerous yarns. In addition, he had his primitive Hyborians (and Nordheimr) recapitulate (“precapitulate”?) the cultural ontogeny of the Indo-Europeans (as he saw it), right down to the wolf-skins and horse-hide tents.

For further reading on the proto-Indo-Europeans, I recommend any of J.P. Mallory’s books on the subject. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is flawed, but still worth a read, in my opinion.

John Sweat’s fascination with catastrophism and lost civilizations parallels that of Robert E. Howard, so I’ll very likely revisit The Anthropogene’s treasure trove of essays for another blog, someday.

*Art by Jeffrey Jones

Of Celts and Nameless Cults: The (Irish) Nemedian Chronicles


Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of… (…) Hither came Conan the Cimmerian… “

– The Nemedian Chronicles

In December, 1932, the words above first introduced Conan the Cimmerian and his Hyborian Age to twentieth century America. Readers from every generation since have been intrigued by that heading from Chapter I of “The Phoenix on the Sword.” In a previous post, I discussed just what Robert E. Howard might have meant by “the sons of Aryas.” Why would a ‘Nemedian chronicler’ from Hyborian Age Nemedia speak of the Hyborian Age as “an Age undreamed of”?

(Continue reading this post)

“Know, oh prince…”: The “Nemedian” Chronicles?

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of…”


That lead-in sentence from “The Phoenix on the Sword” is very easily one of the most memorable in the whole Conan canon. The entire paragraph that it initiates wouldn’t even exist without Farnsworth Wright’s editorial interference. Wright asked Robert E. Howard to take out much of the geo-political information contained in Chapter II of the “submitted draft” that was sent to Weird Tales. REH encapsulated that data (along with additional facts) in the “Nemedian Chronicles” epigraph for the first chapter of “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Robert E. Howard seems to have put more into that first sentence than might be apparent upon first glance…

(Continue reading this post)

Mystic Chords of Memory and the Melancholy Tune Thereof


Mary Emmaline Reed is sharing her childhood memories of Alabama around 1865 with her granddaughter’s new swain, specifically the depredations of the locust-outdoing “riff-raff” that showed up soon after the Union Army:

Bob lunged forward in his chair. He’d hung on every word, and now he reacted physically. It is one thing to read history, but it’s altogether different to talk with someone who remembered. “And there was nothing you could do about it?” His voice was venomous against the injustice.

“Well,” Mammy mused, “yes and no. There was a little bit of help.”

“Help?” Bob picked up the word quickly. And though I’d heard the story many times, tonight, it was new again. Bob’s interest, his emotion, his deepest attention to Mammy while she talked, made me participate in the story.

(Continue reading this post)

A Farewell to Armistice Day: “What Hellish Seed…?”

It’s been ninety years since “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 on the Western Front, and very soon now recalled or recollected history will give way entirely to history that is merely recorded. My thoughts never require much encouragement to run to World War One, and this morning two “holiday”-themed pieces got me musing about remembrance and the conflict that murdered illusions and mothered ironies, the distant Armageddon of Robert E. Howard’s childhood. In “Photographer Races Clock to Honor Last Few World War I Vets” Mark Bixier and Paula Hancocks describe the commemorative efforts of one David De Jonge, who’s driven by his awareness of “the last breaths of the last souls who witnessed one of the most horrific wars this world has ever seen.” By his painstakingly researched count, only ten veterans — of any Great War army — still survive:

Four live in Britain, two in Australia, two in France and two in the United States: Buckles and 108-year-old John Babcock of Spokane, Washington, who served with Canadian forces during World War I, DeJonge said.

Each week or month that passes, it seems, brings news of an aging veteran succumbing before DeJonge can find the time and money to photograph him.

Not long ago, he said, two Jamaicans who fought with the British during World War I died. The last known German, French and Austro-Hungarian veterans died in the last year as well.

“These are the last of the last,” he said.

(Continue reading this post)

Howard Gets Philosophical

Roderick T. Long, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University and a self-described Aristotelean/Wittgensteinian, left-libertarian market anarchist, has penned a thoughtful essay on Howard’s Pictish tales. Long sees Howard’s racism and racialism as part of a complex cultural, historical, and artistic dynamic, one potent enough to transcend garden variety prejudice and attain a genuine artistry reminiscent of Kipling. A follow-up post, meanwhile, meditated on Howard and feminism.

There is much within these two posts for Howardists to debate, but agree or disagree they are fine examples of the sort of serious critical writing Howard deserves, writing originating from well outside the incestuous Howardian tribe. Professor Long does Howard’s shade the favor of taking him seriously, judging and criticizing his stories as literature and not mere pulp hackwork, and that is very nice to see.

Contra “Hyboria”; Or, Convenience Isn’t Everything

Readers who have shipped with Ahab on his voyage-of-the-damned pursuit of the great white whale might remember that Herman Melville has this to say of master harpooner Queequeg’s natal site: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I’m here today to inveigh against a false place that has elbowed its way onto maps and into gaming paraphernalia and goes unchallenged in a dismaying number of articles, reviews, and blog or forum posts: “Hyboria.”

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a Cynara to whom Roy Thomas, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan all sought to be faithful in their fashion. Not one of them ever resorted to the ersatz term “Hyboria,” but recently this un-Howardian usage has been spreading like the invasive kudzu in Wagner’s Knoxville horror story “Where the Summer Ends.” Google “Hyboria” and it comes a-choogling at us with “Kings of Hyboria,” “Gods of Hyboria,” “Welcome to Hyboria,” “Living Hyboria,” “Images of Hyboria,” “Cities of Hyboria,” “The Women of Hyboria,” exhortations to “strap on your sword, it’s time to explore Hyboria,” and the especially irksome “Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.” I don’t believe that either Kurt Busiek or Tim Truman has slipped and referred to “Hyboria” in one of their scripts for a Conan comic, but reams of Dark Horse promotional copy has demonstrated no such taste and discernment. The term is creeping into submissions to The Dark Man, and Richard Tierney, as well-versed in Howard as he is well-equipped to write weird verse, dignified it with title-status in his “The Doom of Hyboria” cycle for TC. On May 16 of this year the Entertainment Weekly website offered a slideshow of “18 Awesome Imaginary Worlds” and added Austrian-accented insult to injury by not only listing “Hyboria” but illustrating said “world” with a still of Arnold the Isshurian looking particularly learning-disabled.

Why is this happening? I haven’t seen anyone champion the rightness or needfulness of “Hyboria” yet; maybe this post will provoke some such defense. My suspicion is that the spurious term is flourishing out of a vague sense that the Hyborian Age, Howard’s formulation, doesn’t work due to being by definition a when rather than a where, a time rather than a place. So a perceived necessity is the mother of this misbegotten invention: we have to call Conan’s world, the kingdoms that dominate human history from the fall of Acheron to the equally uncushioned fall of imperial Aquilonia, something, don’t we? “Hyboria” is. . .convenient, almost like an abbreviation or acronym in that respect, and why shouldn’t authorial intentions join so much else as burnt offerings on the altar of our modern Moloch Convenience? Thus the Entertainment Weekly feature lumps ‘Hyboria” (described as “vaguely Eurasian,” like some Macao chanteuse seducing sailors in a pulp story) in with Narnia, Oz, Terabithia, and, amusingly, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV.

(Continue reading this post)

This Happy Breed of Men, This Little World/This Precious Stone Set In A Silver Sea

Most of us will recognize the following:

There is not one foot of British ground, not one handsbreadth of soil in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales that has not been drenched with blood — my own blood — the same that courses through my veins. In every war, I have had kin on both sides.

All over the Isles they have marched and countermarched, fought, bled and died, or conquered — men whose blood is in me: Gael, Briton, Saxon, Dane, Norman; Irishmen, Scotchmen, Englishmen.

Along comes an Oxford geneticist, Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, to assert that all of the Britannia-bloodying tribes and peoples Howard listed were in fact “immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers who first ventured into the chilly, empty lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets.” His article “Myths of British Ancestry” serves as a calling card for his 2006 book The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story , which occasioned a New York Times article this week, “A United Kingdom? Maybe” by Nicholas Wade.

For Oppenheimer, author of the earlier Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, the British Isles are “a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age.” He regards the notion of “a grand iron-age Celtic culture in the center of the continent, which shrank to a Western rump” once the legions marched north and westward, as hopelessly outmoded, and drop-kicks “migrationism,” that war-fueled motor of “The Hyborian Age,” on the basis of fact-gathering employing Y chromosomes and maternally bequeathed mitochondrial DNA. Prior to its repopulation by far-striding Iberians, Oppenheimer posits an unpeopled Britain “wiped clean of people by glaciers that had smothered northern Europe for about 4,000 years.” (But can we be sure? What about the ancestors of the Worms of the Earth?) He speculates that the possibly non-Celtic Belgae who straddled the Channel may have been responsible for English as “a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion,” and draws upon the work of Dr. Peter Forster of Anglia Ruskin University, who, as the NYT article puts it, sees “the Angles and the Saxons [as] both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule.” Ahem–score one for Robert E. Howard!

(Continue reading this post)