Hearts In Mouths

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Reacting to Volume One of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, earlier this week Leo wrote “This is the kind of thing that tends to shake loose all kinds of scholarship that would otherwise never have been written.” Scholarly scholarship is beyond my reach even when I’m at my best, and I’m never ever at my best on a Friday afternoon, but I’d like to cheat by riffing on a passage from Howard’s August 9, 1932 letter to Lovecraft that will appear in the middle Collected Letters volume.

Most of us are familiar with Fritz Leiber’s observation that the Texan “knew the words and phrases of power and sought to use them as soon and as often as possible.” So, too, did he know the symbols and images of power — an excardiated heart, for example. The organ in question, even when divine or alien, might be a thuddingly, or throbbingly, obvious symbol, but we can all name authors who would do well to be less wary of the obvious and more wary of the obscure.

After his own heart is touched in “The Tower of the Elephant” by Yag-Kosha, it is Conan’s turn to handle and hand-deliver “something that he felt must be the strange being’s heart, though it differed curiously from any he had ever seen.” “Tower” was awaiting its Weird Tales berth in August of 1932, when Howard was moved to express regret to HPL that the “cold-blooded murderer” George Armstrong Custer went unscalped at Little Big Horn: “Long Hair, they called him, and his yellow locks fell to his shoulders. A few years hanging in the smoke of a filthy Sioux lodge would have tarnished that gleaming gold; would have more closely fitted the color of his soul.” Although his assessment of Custer’s brother Tom was less withering — “a brave man; none braver on all the frontier” — he would not have been Robert E. Howard had he not been fascinated by a promise made by the war-chief Rain-in-the-Face after he escaped custody: “He sent Tom Custer a bit of white buffalo hide, with a bloody heart drawn on it with the artistry of the Sioux. It was his way of saying he would eat the white man’s heart when next he met him.” Succinctly recreating for Lovecraft (who must have required a strong sedative after reading letters like this)) the “howling, blind, red frenzy” of the battle the victors called Greasy Grass, Howard zeroes in on the fulfillment of the white buffalo hide vow: “And out of the melee rode Rain-in-the-Face, holding a quivering dripping heart on high — blood trickling from the corner of his mouth — blood that was not his own.”

Did Howard, to whom poetry stuck as if superglued, know Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face”? He was partial to some of the New Englander’s work, although “The Song of Hiawatha” might well have provoked a grimace or guffaw. “The Revenge-of-Rain-in-the-Face” begins with the Sioux chiefs “[muttering] their woes and griefs/And the menace of their wrath” and continues with the vengeful warrior brandishing “Uplifted high in air/As a ghastly trophy” Custer’s “brave heart that beat no more.” Of course that didn’t suffice for Howard; in his livelier account the excised organ is still “quivering.”

The endorsement in the letter to HPL is unequivocal: “Whatever else they were or were not, the Indians weren’t fools enough to forgive a wrong, or what they considered a wrong. I’ve often thought of fictionalizing the incident just mentioned, transferring it to another race and age — having Bran Mak Morn eat the heart of a Roman governor, or Conan the Cimmerian that of a Hyborian king.” Howard never did Bran-ify or Conanize Tom Custer’s comeuppance, more’s the pity (although he did add a threat along those lines from the offstage Cormac of Connacht to the final draft of “Worms of the Earth” but hearts, when not worn on sleeves in his work, frequently escape from their chest cavities. He himself was capable of performing slightly less messy excardiations on his readers, and he loaned that power to Rinaldo in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” about whom Conan ruefully acknowledges “He has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me.”

In The Hour of the Dragon, only the Heart of Ahriman, “the red heart of the night,” a sojourner from “some far universe of flaming light,” is the last best hope of preventing Xaltotun of Acheron from turning back time and returning reality itself to some preferred page in the world’s history. “Strong to save or to damn,” the extraterrestrial jewel might be only metaphorically a heart, but elsewhere we find Howard literalizing the notion of taking the heart out of an enemy. Guignol is seldom as grand as when the Master of Yimsha says “I think I will take your heart, Kerim Shah!” in “The People of the Black Circle,” whereupon, with much splintering, rending, and snapping, “something red and dripping” flies obligingly into the his grasp. “Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father’s board!” Atali urges her boreal brothers in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” while “Marchers of Valhalla,” Howard’s tale of Nordic berserkers in prehistoric Texas, alludes to “the slaying-song of Niord who ate the red smoking heart of Heimdul.” With “Old Garfield’s Heart” we reach a much more recent Texas, in which the cardial metaphor is just what D. H. Lawrence might order — to last, to endure, and endure in, America, the white man needs a bigger heart

Talk of heartmeat-consumption leads us straight to the most significant such repast in the tales of the ancient North. “There sits Sigurd, roasting Fafnir’s heart. He should eat it himself, and then he’d be wiser than any man,” one of the birds whose speech the young Volsung can suddenly understand twitters. Howard knew the story, or cycle of stories, as is evidenced by offhand allusions in “The Lion of Tiberias” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” and I often wonder if he intended to show up Sigurd with the instinctive affinity between another dragonslayer, Conan the Cimmerian, and the ginormous saurian that “trees” him atop a crag in “Red Nails.” So attuned is the barbarian of an American rather than Germanic imagination to the children of the wilderness that to bite into a dragon-heart would be redundant. Interesting that this story followed “Beyond the Black River,” with its found myth of an Ursprache that permitted men and beasts to communicate.

Yep, the Collected Letters will be a headier brew than any downed in the Pavillion during Howard Days. . . And in closing, if we reflect that Conan is willing to ransom Tarascus, and takes Numedides’ life and crown with no anthropophagous aftermath, that hypothetical Hyborian king capable of driving him to heart-eating would have had to be a dastard of dastards.