Historical fiction of Robert E. Howard

I've already covered some of Robert E. Howard's historical fiction stories. El Borak was one of his characters, who lacked all notions of magic or mysterious monsters, flavoured with genuine historical locations. But they still were, more or less, adventure stories, that just happened to take place in the real world.

Howard was also interested in actual historical events, which he dabbled deeper with his stories set in the holy lands, during, in between and after the crusades. His interest in the subject might be a no-brainer, in the end, as this allowed him to create stories which blend fact and fiction to his savage and brutal action sequences.

As a note, I do think these stories might provide an idea of what kind of a writer Howard could have turned into had he not killed himself. He was clearly interested in the historical events and it's in the realms of possibility, that he could have written much deeper stories within this genre.

Red Blades of Black Cathay

This particular story was written by Howard together with Tavis Clyde Smith. It tells a tale of a crusader Godric de Villehard, who ends up battling against the mighty Genghis Khan after he's wounded and nursed back to life by the medics of the empire of Black Cathay (China, as far I know). This because he, unknowingly, saved their princess Yulita.

Godric is at first planning to leave the people who nursed him to health, as he doesn't see that his place is there. Just as he's planning to disembark and actually sell himself as a hired sword for the Khan, the attack happens.

Red Blades is a decent enough adventure story. Nothing about it strikes as overly novel and as a whole, I'd even claim it to be a relatively forgettable piece that runs its course pretty much as you'd imagine an adventure like this to run.

Lord of Samarcand or The Lame Man

The tale of Donal MacDeesa, a grim, fierce knight, begins when Ak Boga witnesses the giant warrior killing a baron on the battlefield he believed to be the reason for a lost battle. From here begins a friendship of two very different men and how the morose Scotsman entered to the service of a Turkish Mongolian conqueror Timour (Timur) the Lame.

More than a story of Donal, Lord of Samarcand is a narration of sorts on the life of Timour whereas Donal is only his spear and in the end, the cause of death. Donal is a man Timour sends out to highrisk missions, as he is a good fighter, but also a disposable weapon if he'd happen to die in the process. This is in large because of the personality of the man that can be kept in check by constant combat.

The reason of why Donal becomes Timours death is more of a romantic notion rather than historical fact. It's a woman, obviously. Not that Timour seduces a woman Donal loves, but because he sends a woman Donal loves to be executed because of treason on her part. And as kings are busy with more important things, the fact that she was important to his dangerous weapon slipped from his mind.

After dying Donal is brought before his liege, the only thing he wants to see is Zuleika, but she's dead and Timour tells him in passing that it was by his orders. At this moment his death sentence is signed when Donal shoots him. And there died the king and his spear. In reality, Timour apparently died of an illness during his last military campaign.

Lord of Samarcand is a great piece of historical fiction. Not only does it revolve around real events, and narrate them interestingly, it also has some uncharacteristic things for a Howard novel. Despite Donal would feel at home in Howard's fantasy-oriented stories, there's a lot of emphases given the fact that he is a surly and miserable man who can't find joy from living. And he ends up dying in the end, which is a rare thing for Howard heroes.

The sowers of the Thunder

Cahal O'Donnell is a fictional deposed king of Ireland in this tale set during the siege of Jerusalem in 1244, placing the story between 7th and the 6th crusade. Cahal himself is on a pilgrimage and ends up carrying a message from the frontier about a closing attack that ends up with Baibars destroying over 5000 crusaders in La Forbie after the capture of Jerusalem. 

The Sowers of the Thunder is another strong story from Howard. Again, it blends facts with fiction, giving his fictitious king a pivotal role in the events and even having Cahal blind one eye from Baibars before his death after the desperate battle.

More than a story of Cahal, the Sowers of Thunder is a narration on the politics and happenings of what was happening in the area before all hell broke loose. In many ways, Baibars, a sultan of Egypt,  doesn't come out as an antagonist but as a protagonist alongside Cahal. 

All said this is a story well worth a read. Even Cahal, who begins as a stereotypical Howard hero manages to have more personality in the end. It is a well-written story that flows with ease.     

The Lion of Tiberias

While John Norwald is the typical Howard hero character, in this story he's is hardly the main character. His role is played in the beginning, when he witnesses the death of a young prince Achmet at the hands of a cruel conqueror prince Zenghi (Imad ad-Din Zengi). John wows revenge, be it a year or twenty from now before he's sold as a galley slave. After that, he's seen at the end of the tale, when Zenghi finally dies by his hands.  Interestingly enough, the real Zengi was assassinated by a Frankish slave, so Howard did include more historical facts within this tale, albeit altering them towards Norwald.

The Lion of Tiberias revolves more around Zenghi and his political ambitions rather than anything else. John Norwald is very much just a plot device so that there would be some sort of a connection towards the end of the character who kills Zenghi. It is actually relatively interesting take from Howard to throw away his trademark hero for the main duration of the story, only to bring him back decades later as an old, gnarly slave, who throttles the conqueror midst his plans.

While the story itself is interesting, I do think it could have been much better if given more length. It is relatively ambitious in the way it relates the history of Zneghi, but therein is the weakness of the story as well. It's easy to see how the Lion of Tiberias could have become a much larger historical novel in the hands of Howard had he just lived long enough.

The Shadow of the Vulture

It is very likely, that the most notable thing sprung from the Shadow of the Vulture is a Conan character Red Sonja, who in this tale about the siege of Vienna in 1529 is called Red Sonya. While she's very different from her Hyborian counterpart that was devised by Roy Thomas for Marvel comics, this is where she comes from.

The male protagonist of the story is a German knight Gottfried Von Kalmbach, a man who likes his drink and revelry. He's also the man, who managed to draw blood of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent during the battle of Mohacs. As the sultans don't have enough blood to spill all over, he tasks his vizier to bring him the head of Von Kalmbach. This task the vizier forwards to Mikhal Oglu, who travels the lands with vulture wings strapped on his back.

The main event of the story is the siege of Vienna. Suleiman has decided that the city is the gateway to the heart of Christendom, so it has to be captured at any cost. But the battle campaign ends up more taxing than he imagined as the Viennese managed to hold the Ottomans at bay until the winter came to drive the enemy away defeated.

What really makes the story work is the description of weariness of the situation in the sieged city. The knights and soldiers are tired but determined to keep the Ottomans away despite they are greatly outnumbered. Howard describes nicely on the nervewracking exhaustion that takes its toll even on the usually combat revelling characters of Sonya and Gottfried.

The Shadow of the Vulture is a well written albeit not nearly as well known story as it should be. It is a tightly written tale, that shows Howard was growing as a writer and hadn't yet reached his peak.

Gates of Empire or The Road of the Mountain Lion

In a way Gates of Empire feels more like a satire or even farce rather than a story Howard meant to be serious. This is mainly because of the main character Giles Hobson, a fat, booze-loving teller of tall tales, who, because of his lies, ends up in the middle of a power struggle between Emir Shirkuh, vizier Shawar and king Amalric of Jerusalem.  Giles jumps from one side to another, lying and drinking himself to a favour of one liege or other.

As such, Gates of Empire is an okay rascal story, definitely a kind of a story Howard didn't do that often. He did do comedic stories, like his sailor Steven Costigan tales, but this kind of a satiric take is, as far I know, more obscure among his works.

Other than that, I don't really have much else to say about the story. It does, in a way, feel more like a first draft rather than a finished piece. There is a solid story there and the character of Giles is a welcome change on Howard's standard foray, but the structure of it feels a bit clunky I couldn't help but think that there was something missing.


  1. These are fascinating pieces of fiction as I have read many of his fantasy stories and have general interest in historical literature. Probably they haven't been translated in Finnish and perhaps never will be so I should try them some day in original language.

  2. I do believe that had he not killed himself, he would have written a larger historical novel at some point in his career. Many of these short stories have the feel on them that he could have intended fleshing them out further the same way he did with a couple of his Conan stories.


Post a Comment