Charles Siringo

“Where did you get the Siringo book, and how much did it cost? If not too much, I think I’ll get a copy.”

– Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, April 1932

Many critics have drawn a straight line from the frontier hero to the detective hero, marking the transition from the wild frontier of the 19th Century to the urban jungle of the 20th Century. Charles Angelo Siringo lived the transition. A Texas trail driver, he became an operative for the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, putting his range savvy to use in pursuing, among many others, the cowboy outlaws of the Wild Bunch. As the wild days of free ranging horseback outlaws faded into history and legend, he shifted his attentions to infiltrating labor organizations that were embroiled in out-and-out warfare with mine owners across the West.

Charles_A_SiringoCharlie Siringo was born in Matagorda, Texas, in 1855, to an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian immigrant father. In other words, he was the quintessential 19th Century American. At age 15 he started working as a cowboy on local ranches, and in 1876 he hit the Old Chisolm Trail, driving 2,500 head of longhorn cattle to Kansas. He rode up the trail again in ’77.

He witnessed Clay Allison hoorawing Dodge City — and gave the lie to Wyatt Earp’s claim that Earp faced Allison down. According to Charlie, it was a couple of storekeepers who talked the mercurial, alcoholic Texan down.

Siringo signed on with an outfit in Dodge that penetrated the Texas panhandle, newly opened up with the demise of Quanah Parker’s final Comanche resistance. He was part of the contingent of cowboys who rode for the legendary LX Ranch. The LX was a target for rustlers, including Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Charlie knew the Kid and rode with a posse that tried unsuccessfully to hunt the young outlaw down.

Cowboying was a young single man’s game, and when Siringo married Mamie Lloyd in 1884, he hung up his spurs and opened a cigar store/oyster bar in Caldwell, Kansas. He didn’t like the staid work, staving off boredom by turning his memories into memoirs — “A Texas Cowboy — Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.” It’s a fine memoir, and it sold well, but Charlie Siringo wasn’t ready to consign himself to the quiet life of a storekeeper. A blind phrenologist had run his hands over his skull and told him he’d make a good detective — and that sounded right to Charlie. He migrated with his wife and daughter to Chicago, where he signed on with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the Eye that Never Sleeps.

Picture-6In the late 19th Century, there was no federal law enforcement. Those with a need for law enforcement investigation and action across state lines had to hire their own. The Pinkertons were the preeminent investigatory outfit in the country, despite a high-profile failure to bring the James-Younger Gang to heel.

Siringo became a kind of specialist — a Cowboy Detective. From Alaska to Mexico, he infiltrated gangs of robbers and rustlers, relying on range skills, nerve, bluff and a natural capacity for acting to keep himself alive and get the goods on the criminal element.

He was no tigerish Howardian hero; he stood about five-foot-eight and was whipcord lean. He was, however, range toughened and as hardy as they come.

“He is as tough as a pine knot,” said William Pinkerton, heir to the detective dynasty. “I have never known a man of his size who can endure as much hardship as he does.”

Charlie’s wife died in 1890, leaving him a widower and single father of a young daughter. He remarried in 1896, but that marriage failed quickly and ended in divorce. Charlie Siringo did not domesticate well.

Driven to expand, the Pinkerton Agency opened an office in Denver, headed by the legendary James McParland, who made his bones by infiltrating and breaking up the Mollie Maguires, a secret organization of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Siringo would become McParland’s top operative.

charlie_Gem_ID-1899Infiltration of radical labor organizations was becoming a specialty of the Pinkerton Agency — along with violent strikebreaking. Charlie was sent up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to infiltrate miners whose strike against corporate mine owners was little short of low-intensity warfare. Union men and scabs were exchanging pot shots at each other on the forest-clad slopes around the mines, and union strikers dynamited a sluice, killing one man.

This kind of work suited Siringo just fine. He hated the kind of radicalism that was sweeping the nation, and Europe as well, in the late 19th Century He had no problem lying and deceiving in the cause of defeating rampant “anarchism.” The purpose of such infiltration was multifold: to build criminal cases against union leadership — if possible, for conspiracy to commit violence; and to provide intelligence to the Pinkertons’ mine-owner clients to keep them a move ahead in the chess match of labor warfare.

The Pinkertons weren’t above acting as agents provocateur, either. And the mere possibility of infiltration sowed distrust and paranoia among the miners.

As C. Leon Allison, Charlie hired on as a mucker in Finch’s Gem mine. He hung around in the local saloons and stood men to drinks — always an excellent way to make yourself popular. It wasn’t long before he was considered a right kind of fellow. He insinuated his way to the inside of the miners’ union and got elected recording secretary. He and his shift boss arranged for him to be “fired” from his mine job, which gave him plenty of time to gather intelligence and write reports.

Bad luck struck when a man named Black Jack Griffin, whom Siringo had known in Nevada, recognized him and called him out. Charlie did some fast talking that allayed suspicions, but only for the moment. When two miners were savagely beaten in town, the strikers’ mood turned ugly, and they turned on Siringo. He escaped buy hiding under a boardwalk.

A firefight broke out between strikers in the hills and scabs forted up at the mine’s mill. The scabs got the worst of it, and Siringo had to make a run for it, escaping into the pine forest.

charlie_cassidy7Eventually, infiltrating miners’ unions and chasing Wild Bunch Bandits wore ol’ Charlie out. He retired and wrote another memoir. The Pinkertons, whom he had served so well, did not like accounts of their doings that they did not control. They quashed the book, which Charlie ended up publishing as “A Cowboy Detective,” using a fake name for the agency and doctoring the facts to avoid the wrath of the Eye. He came to despise “Pinkertonism” just as much as he did anarchism.

In his retirement, he wrote a second cowboy memoir, titled “A Lone Star Cowboy,” and in 1928 condensed both cowboy books into “Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger” — the book that would wind up on Robert E. Howard’s shelf.

The late, great Howard scholar Steve Tompkins* cast a jaundiced eye on the cowboy detective, calling him “half centaur, half weasel, a cowboy, an agent provocateur, and the man who gave Pinkertons’ unsleeping orb a bad case of pinkeye…” whose work was devoted to “making the world safe for plutocracy.” And, indeed, there is something unsavory about Siringo’s kind of undercover work — winning men’s trust with the intent of betraying them, on behalf of rich men who valued their profits far more than they valued men’s lives.

Howard said that he did not much like detective fiction. Perhaps the tinge of sleaziness that attaches to it was the reason why. Surely Howard found “Riata and Spurs” a fine read. Given everything we know about the Texan’s sympathies, it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought much of Charlie Siringo’s detective work. He wasn’t a Howard kind of hero.

* “After The Gold Rush: From Whapeton to Poisonville” by Steve Tompkins — Vision, Gryphons, Nothing and the Night, A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association, Issue no. 3, Summer Solstice 2002

Be sure and check out Jim’s excellent Western themed blog, Frontier Partisans.

This entry filed under Howard's Texas, Tevis Clyde Smith.

barbarian-logo-no-date

From the Cross Plains Chamber of Commerce:

Please Share information from the Barbarian Festival!

We are sad to announce that this year’s Barbarian Festival has been cancelled.

Several weeks ago, heavy rains came. Cross Plains and Treadway Park, where the festival is held each year, was flooded. Even though it has been two weeks, the much of the parking area at the festival grounds is still under water. The ground at the park is saturated and more rain is expected in the coming weeks leading up to the festival.

Never in the 18 years of the festival, have we had this situation. After exploring alternate locations and trying to come up with a plan, the only solution was to cancel the festival and the car show. Our hearts are heavy. We love doing this festival and enjoy seeing all you.

Our Festival Parade, scheduled for Thursday, June 9, at 6 p.m. will go on as planned. We hope to see you downtown for the parade and at the Cross Plains Senior Center for their Fish Fry that same evening from 5 until 7 p.m.

If you are a sponsor, we hope to roll your sponsorship over for the next year’s festival, which will be held on June 10, 2017. No t-shirts or advertisements have been printed this year.

If you are a vendor, you will be receiving a refund in the mail from us. We hope to see you next year!

Note: The flooding issues at Treadway park will not affect the Howard Days activities.
This entry filed under Howard Days, News.

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noun

  1. Lotuses are five species of water lilies, three in the genus Nymphaea and two in Nelumbo. Growing from the mud at the bottom of ponds and streams, the exquisite Lotus flower rises above the water and is usually white or pink with fifteen or more oval, spreading petals, and a peculiar, flat seedcase at its center.

The lotus has appeared in legends originating from ancient Egypt and played an important part in ancient Egyptian religion. For thousands of years it has also symbolized spiritual enlightenment. The Nymphaea lotus, the Egyptian white lotus, is believed to be the original sacred lotus of ancient Egypt. Along with the Egyptian blue lotus, N. caerulea, it was often pictured in ancient Egyptian art.  The white lotus opens at dusk and blooms at night while the blue water lotus blooms during the day.

Recent, studies have shown that the blue lotus has mild psycho-active properties and can act as a mild sedative. It may have been used as a sacrament in ancient Egypt and certain ancient South American cultures.

The lotus with properties similar to that of the blue lotus also appears in Ancient Greek mythology. According to legend, the Lotophagi, or lotus eaters, were a race of people who lived on an island near Northern Africa. Their diet consisted mostly of the lotus plant and its flowers. The narcotic effect caused the people to sleep in peaceful apathy.  In the Odyssey, some of Odysseus’ men go ashore on this island and eat of the lotus food. They forget about their homeland forcing Odysseus to drive them aboard the ship.

[origin: ca 1541; Latin & Greek; Latin lotus, from Greek lotos]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

My beard is white and dim my sight and I would fain be gone.
Speak without guile: where lies the isle of mystic Avalon?”

“A league behind the western wind, a mile beyond the moon,
Where the dim seas roar on an unknown shore and the drifting stars lie strewn:
The lotus buds there scent the woods where the quiet rivers gleam,
And king and knight in the mystic light the ages drowse and dream.”
With sudden bound Falume wheeled round, he fled through the flying wrack
Till he came again to the land of Spain with the sunset at his back.
“No dreams for me, but living free, red wine and battle’s roar;
I breast the gales and I ride the trails until I ride no more.”

[from “The Ride of Falume”; to read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 11 and Always Comes Evening, p. 25]

Black Lotus painting by Karl Smink
This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

CONAN-Road-of-Kings

The Swordsmanship of Robert E. Howard

Just as in medieval times most men carried swords but the majority were neither duelists nor skilled fencers. (CL2.103)

Given Robert E. Howard’s lack of access to fencing instructors (CL3.242), never having entered the military or other occupation where he could receive weapons training, and the general absence of military manuals of the sword or treatises on historical European martial arts, most of his ideas about how swords were used would have come from his reading in history and adventure fiction, his limited practical exercise with the swords he collected, and of course the cinema.

I got a big kick out of going through the place — it looks just like scenes from swash-buckling movies. I wouldn’t be surprized to see Douglas Fairbanks came bounding into the patio with his rapier and jack-boots. (CL2.189)

Douglas Fairbanks was the star of cinematic fencing in the early days of Hollywood, leaving his mark in films like The Mask of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), Son of Zorro (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), and The Iron Mask (1929); other stars of the period include Errol Flynn, whose swashbuckling start was Captain Blood (1935), and Lloyd Ingraham in Scaramouche (1923)—and we know Howard was a fan of these films, and mentions many of them in his letters.

Based loosely on classical fencing, fight choreography of the period emphasized spectacle over form: the actors kept their distance, and blades made the maximum contact with each other, frequently clashing with an audible ting. “Flynning” made for exciting cinema, and left their mark on the Texan’s imagination, just as reading about sword-fights in fiction provided him with some of the basic terminology:

You ought to re-read Dumas and crash the historical one — the ad says the tales should generally feature the Anglo-Saxon but that the gallant Frenchman and dashing Spaniard will have their place. I see where I dress Solomon Kane up in a nom de plume and let him thrust, parry and riposte for eighteen chapters. (CL2.195)

captain-BloodThe spectacle of fighting in the movies often eschewed weapons like polearms and defensive advantages like shields, which featured heavily in historical combat. For example, the historical “swashbuckler” was called called that because of the use of bucklers, a small shield that was carried in the off-hand, in combination with a side-sword (a relatively light, short, double-bladed straight sword); this was combat in a civilian context, not on a battlefield, and these were the arms and armors that were convenient to carry in daily life. Film swashbucklers, however, frequently left out the buckler, fighting with swords alone—and often substituting a rapier or other blade for a small-sword—and so too do most of Howard’s heroes, as he adopted the spectacle of fencing while applying his own sanguinary ideas about swordplay.

For instance, in “Swords of the Hills” Howard talks about how “Yard-long Khyber knives clanged and ground against the curved swords of the Attalans.” (EB 25)—a very cinematic image, as in real combat swordsman generally try to avoid such contact with the edges of the blades, which will often damage and notch the cutting edge. Despite such touches, fencing, even cinematic and literary fencing, wasn’t quite what he was looking for:

I doubt, though, if fencing could ever have interested me like boxing, since it is, apparently, founded on finesse, and gives little opportunity for the exercise of ruggedness and sheer physical power. (CL3.242)

This emphasis on strength, rather than speed or technique, may also have been inspired by family tales of combat in war or the settling of the west:

My grandfather George Ervin was accounted the strongest man in his regiment and one of the strongest men in Forrest’s command. He could cleave a man from shoulder to waist with a single stroke of his saber. (CL2.265)

This is certainly true of Howard’s fiction, where blows tend to be mighty and it is not uncommon for a stroke of a sword to cleave a skull or pierce through the body of an opponent. The Texan was not unaware of the importance of speed, reach, footing, or form in a fight—they were common elements in boxing, after all—but in fiction his fight scenes tend to be quick, evocative, and light on technical details; less a ringside blow-by-blow commentary and more a vivid prelude to a bloody end. A good example is a passage in “Swords in the Hills”:

He was taller, had the longer reach again and again his blade whispered at Gordon’s throat. Once it touched his arm, and a trickle of crimson began. There was no sound except the rasp of feet on the sward, the rapid whisper of the blades, the deep panting of the men. (EB 26)

Despite his lack of direct experience or training, and a tendency for spectacle, Robert E. Howard’s fictional swordplay shouldn’t be mistaken for pure fantasy. Howard also evinced a certain quality of realism in his fictional swordfights. For example, in his fiction set after the invention of firearms, Howard appears cognizant of the fact that the sword was primarily a sidearm, and in that it largely gave way as technology progressed, this can be seen in “The Land of Mystery” El Borak, where fires his rifle and pistol at the oncoming foes before resorting to his sword as they close in. (EEB 160)

For the most part Howard seems to have avoided the issue of swords in modern war. Even when he does express an opinion on swords in warfare, it is not the reality of trench warfare:

What do we know of Oriental warfare? If a regiment was to meet the charge of a horde of wild Tatars, fanatic Ghazi Afghans, or sword-wielding Mongols, what orders would the officers give? Nine times out of ten, “close ranks and receive with bayonets”. And it has been proven again and again that a man with a bayonet on a rifle is no match for a man with a sword. Unless he can use the rifle as it should be used, not as a pike. The superiority of the sword has been proven at Bannockburn, at Sebastopol, at Kabul. If men are to meet steel with steel, they should be adequately armed. Long spears and short swords to meet a charge of long swords. If you don’t believe that, read the chronicles of Rome and Macedonia. (CL1.19)

This was not a dispute about modern war; this was a view of war that saw bodies of men moving in formation on open fields, when the cavalry charge was still a viable tactic—before the advent of machine guns and repeating rifles. Howard’s criticism of the bayonet is grounded in long-ago battles rather than contemporary conditions of warfare, because modern war with its airplanes and submarines, artillery and poison gas, trenches and flamethrowers had grown impersonal, away from the conditions where the sword was a useful weapon—and that was what Howard was interested in.

I wish warfare was on its older, simpler base. Though I’m far from war-like, yet I’ve always felt that with the proper training, I could learn to be fairly annoying to the enemy with a bayonet or rifle butt, but this new-fangled chemical warfare would make me a total loss. What’s the glory in pushing a button and slaughtering men fifty miles away, or flying over a city and spraying the noncombatants with liquid hell? When they traded the warhorse for a submarine, they ruined the blasted business as far as I’m concerned. (CL2.289-290)

Bibliography
CCC The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2002)
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007 – 2015)
CLIMH Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard (REH Foundation, 2011)
CS Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (Del Rey, 2007)
DVS Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, Bluejay Books)
EB El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (Del Rey, 2010)
EEB The Early Adventures of El Borak (REH Foundation, 2010)
LC The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard (Berkeley, 1976)
RWM Report of a Writing Man & Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard (Necronomicon Press, 1991)

Read Part 1, Part 2

Conan painting by Doug Wheatley
This entry filed under El Borak, Howard's Fiction.

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adjective

  1. not the usual custom or use; unlikely

[origin: ca. 15th century; Middle English, past participle of wonen, to be used to, dwell]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

They hanged John Farrel in the dawn amid the market-place;
At dusk came Adam Brand to him and spat upon his face.
“Ho neighbors all,” spake Adam Brand, “see ye John Farrel’s fate!
’Tis proven here a hempen noose is stronger than man’s hate!

For heard ye not John Farrel’s vow to be avenged on me
Come life or death? See how he hangs high on the gallows tree!”
Yet never a word the people spake, in fear and wild surprize—
For the grisly corpse raised up its head and stared with sightless eyes,

And with strange motions, slow and stiff, pointed at Adam Brand
And clambered down the gibbet tree, the noose within its hand.
With gaping mouth stood Adam Brand like a statue carved of stone,
Till the dead man laid a clammy hand hard on his shoulder-bone.

Then Adam shrieked like a soul in hell; the red blood left his face
And he reeled away in a drunken run through the screaming market-place;
And close behind, the dead man came with face like a mummy’s mask,
And the dead joints cracked and the stiff legs creaked with their unwonted task.

[from “Dead Man’s Hate”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 186 and Always Comes Evening, p. 24]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

Author-1Robert-E-Howard-Home-Cross-Plains-Texas-June-2012-008-e1463067774688

From Bill Cavalier:

With June 10th being four weeks from today, it might be time to work on our Howard Days checklists.

First on the list should be: Registration for Howard Days. Now, you don’t have to register to attend the House Tours, Bus Tour, panels, activities or BBQ, but your $15.00 registration fee will get you a seat at the Friday night Banquet at the Community Center. As seating is limited to around 120, you want make sure there’s some chicken fried steak with your name on it – plus you’ll be on site to bid on all the great Howard collectibles in the Silent Auction there! If you’re not already registered, don’t wait until the last minute! Thanks!

Secondly, this is a perfect time to support the aforementioned Silent Auction by making a donation of Howard items (books, magazines, fanzines, 2D and 3D art, comics, etc.) There’s time for you to ship these items to: Project Pride Howard Days Auction, POB 534, Cross Plains, TX 76443. 100% of the proceeds from this auction goes to the upkeep of the House Museum by Project Pride.

You also might want to gather up a few other items to sell or trade in the Swap Meet at the Pavilion. Table space is somewhat limited but there’s enough for you share with other traders. We ask that the items be directly related to or by Robert E. Howard and that you donate 10% of your earnings to Project Pride. (Thanks.)

And while there’s no planning for some extemporaneous events that always pop up at Howard Days, we can tell you about several of them.

STOP THE PRESSES! (That’s newspaper jargon for ‘pay attention’…) While we know the Howard House is open on Thursday June 9th from 2-4 pm, let it be known the fine folks at The Cross Plains Review are also opening their doors at the same time for a tour for any early visitors to Howard Days. Their building is now a designated Historical Site and contains most of the same old-time newspaper printing equipment that was there when REH lived in Cross Plains. So pass through their threshold and step back to a time when newspapers were the #1 for of communication. The CP Review is looking forward to seeing you.

There will be a Launch Party in the Pavilion for the brand new Howard pro-zine: SKELOS #1 – The Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy. This beautiful new vehicle for fantasy stories and art (plus some never-before published REH) will no doubt set the Howard fans and collectors abuzz – and you’ll be able to get first crack at it ONLY at Howard Days. Their Kickstarter is currently ongoing and they’ve got a Facebook page too, so check it out!

We’re going to have a second smaller Auction at the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon/evening (time TBA), but probably tied in with the BBQ) where we’ll have y’all bid on items like the Howard Days banners and a few other special items. One of those items is rumored to be a limited edition bottle of Robert E. Howard beer – a special import brew compliments of Patrice Louinet. Again, 100% of the proceeds go to the Robert E. Howard Museum.

And while not so extemporaneous this year, the REH Porchlight Poetry event will feature an encore presentation of the poem “Cimmeria” being read in SEVEN languages! Last year we just let it pop up at the Saturday night Porchlight Poetry and it was simply fantastic. Come hear one of Howard’s most powerful and endearing poems read in English, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Polish. It will be memorable.

Also, be sure to check out Cross Plains’ BARBARIAN FESTIVAL on Saturday from 10-4 in Treadway Park, 3 blocks west of the Howard House. It’s a great time at a good ol’ country fair with vendors, games, rides, activities and great food – family fun for all!

No doubt there will be additional surprises and special guests who show up at Howard Days – there always are – and it’s never too late to decide to come to Cross Plains for The Best Two Days in Howard Fandom. We certainly hope to see your smiling mug on June 10th & 11th – or even a day or two early.

HDs 2016 Banner Long_sm

Here is the schedule of panels and events for this year’s Howard Days to be held in Cross Plains, Texas on June 10th and 11th.

Thursday, June 9th

The Robert E. Howard Museum & Gift Shop will be open from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. The adjacent Alla Ray Morris Pavilion is available all day for Howard Fellowship.

Friday, June 10th

NOTE: All panels on Friday to be held in the Cross Plains High School Library

8:30 until gone: Coffee and donuts served in the Alla Ray Morris Pavilion, compliments of Project Pride.

9:00 am to 4:00 pm: The Robert E. Howard House & Museum and Gift Shop are open to the public for viewing and tours.

9:00 am to 4:00 pm: The Cross Plains Post Office is open for REH Postal Cancellation souvenirs. Note: Friday only for this event.

9:00 am to 11:00 am: Bus Tour of Cross Plains and Surrounding Areas. Bus leaves at 9:00 am sharp from the Pavilion. Note: Friday only for this event.

9:00 am to 5 pm: Pavilion available for REH Swap Meet.

10:00 am to 5 pm: Cross Plains Public Library open to view REH manuscript collection.

11:00 am: PANEL: 30 Years of Howard Days. The origins and history of Howard Days will be discussed, along with a showing of photos from over the years. Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier and Susan McNeel Childers of Cross Plains will tell their tales. Panel held at the Cross Plains High School Library.

12:00 Noon: Hot Dog Luncheon at the Pavilion. Sponsored by Project Pride.

1:30 pm PANEL: The Whole Wide World and One Who Walked Alone. Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers will discuss the movie, the book and Novalyne Price Ellis, as interviewed by Mark Finn. Panel held at the Cross Plains High School Library.

2:30 pm: PANEL: Presentation of the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards. Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier and a cast of several. 30 minutes. Panel held at the Cross Plains High School Library.

3:15 pm TO 5:15 pm: Presentation of the feature length movie The Whole Wide World at the Cross Plains High School Auditorium, with commentary by Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers.

5:30 pm to 6:30 pm: Silent Auctions items available for viewing and bidding at the Banquet site.

6:30 pm: The Robert E. Howard Celebration Banquet at the Cross Plains Community Center. The keynote speaker is Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers. The title of his speech is “From Memoir to Screen.”

9:00 pm: PANEL: Fists at the Ice House. Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, Jeff Shanks and Patrice Louinet will entertain you with a spirited discussion of the Pugilistic Bob Howard, complete with readings from Howard’s boxing tales. Held on the actual site of the Ice House where Howard boxed, which is outdoors now on the concrete slab behind the Texas Taxidermy shop on Main Street.

Around 10:00 pm: Robert E. Howard Porchlight Poetry. Direct from the porch of the house where he wrote them, we will have extemporaneous readings of REH poetry. This event will be highlighted by a reading of “Cimmeria,” where Howard’s famous poem will be read in multiple languages.

Howard Fellowship will continue into the late hours at the Pavilion.

Saturday, June 11th

All panels on Saturday to be held at the Cross Plains Senior Center

9:00 am to 4:00 pm: The Robert E. Howard House & Museum and Gift Shop are open to the public for viewing and tours.

9:00 am to 4 pm: Cross Plains Barbarian Festival in Treadway Park, 3 blocks west of the Howard House on Highway 36.

9:00 am to 5 pm: Pavilion available for REH Swap Meet.

10:00 am to 3:00 pm: Cross Plains Public Library open to view REH manuscript collection.

11:00 am PANEL: REH and FRAZETTA: Celebrating the Fifty Year Legacy of the Lancers. Come hear a lively discussion about this benchmark event in Howard Publishing along with the importance of Frank Frazetta’s iconic cover paintings for the series. Panelists to include: Gary Romeo, Special Guest Val Mayerik, Jeff Shanks and Rusty Burke (with an opening monologue by Bill Cavalier). Panel held at the Cross Plains Senior Center.

12:00 Noon: Lunch at the Barbarian Festival or any restaurant in Cross Plains.

1:30 pm PANEL: The Life of Robert E. Howard – A discussion of Howard’s life, his working habits, his mannerisms, his routines, his quirks, his interests. We’ll talk about Howard the Man as opposed to Howard the Writer and also show some rare Howard artifacts (typescripts, photos etc.). Panelists to include: Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, Chris Gruber and Paul Herman. Panel held at the Cross Plains Senior Center.

 2:30 pm PANEL: The First Annual Glenn Lord REH Symposium. A presentation by several REH scholars regarding Howard the Writer, with special essay readings by Daniel Look,  Jonas Prida, Todd Vick, Dierk Guenther. Moderator: Jeff Shanks. 90 minutes. Panel held at the Cross Plains Senior Center.

5:00 pm to 8 pm: Sunset Barbeque at the Pavilion. Hang out at the Howard House and enjoy a fully catered Texas BBQ dinner with all the fixins as part of your registration package.

Afterwards, we’ll  reflect on a wonderful weekend and enjoy our final Howard Fellowship time, which will include an encore presentation of a reading of “Cimmeria.”

For any changes or updates to the schedule, stay tuned to this blog, the Robert E. Howard Days Facebook page and the Robert E. Howard Days blog.

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In 1955, L. Sprague de Camp published a posthumous collaboration with Robert E. Howard, Tales of Conan, consisting of four non-Conan stories written by Howard that were rewritten by de Camp as Conan stories.  This was followed by Conan the Adventurer in 1966 which contained 3 stories by Howard (edited by de Camp) and 1 story started by Howard and finished by de Camp. This was to become the first (in order of publication) in a 12 volume series.  The remaining 11 books in this series contain a mixture of stories written by Howard and edited by de Camp started by Howard and finished by de Camp, written by Howard (as non-Conan stories) and adapted (to Conan stories) by de Camp, and written by de Camp and Lin Carter (with the exception of one story started by Howard and finished by Carter and a sole story written by Björn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp.)

In this 12 volume series, L. Sprague de Camp provided a chronological ordering for these stories (which Howard did not do) beginning with a teenage Conan and ending with a Conan in his 60s. The publication order does not match de Camp’s in-story chronological ordering; volumes 1-10 and 12 were published by Lancer between 1966 and 1968 (the first book published being volume 3 in de Camp’s chronological ordering).  However, Lancer went out of business before publishing the final book, volume 11 in de Camp’s ordering.  This book, Conan of Aquilonia, was published in 1977 by Prestige.  Ace publications distributed and reprinted the entire 12 volume series.  As such, this series is often referred to as the Lancer-Ace series.

In the Blade of Conan de Camp stated that “In completing the unfinished Conan stories…I have tried to adhere to the style and spirit of Howard….readers may amuse themselves by guessing where, in stories like “Drums of Tombalku” and “Wolves Beyond the Border,” Howard left off and I began.”1 At this point we know don’t need to guess, as we have copies of Howard’s drafts, but I have done some work in the field of unsupervised authorship attribution and thought it would be interesting to see if I could determine where the split occurred using a slightly non-traditional method – namely, mathematics and statistics.

I can almost hear the clicking as people leave this page after that last line, so I want to give you my assurance that you will not need to understand (or even tolerate) any mathematical concepts to grok this post. I will leave the gritty details out, focusing on the results.

Robert-Galbraith-The-Cuckoos-CallingStylometry is the study, and often quantification, of stylistic differences in written language. Typically, stylometric analyses are used in conjunction with more traditional methods for determining style and authorship, such as literary critiques from individuals knowledgeable regarding works by the disputed authors. For example of recent usage, in 2013 stylometric techniques were used in the Sunday (UK) Times’s investigation of author Robert Galbraith, first-time novelist and author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. The paper had received an anonymous tip via Twitter that Robert Galibraith was really a pen name for J.K. Rowling, and stylometric analysis lent evidence supporting this claim. The analysis was included in the materials the Times sent to Rowling’s agent when they asked, directly, whether she was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. Less than a day later Rowling confirmed that she was the author.2

So how does stylometry do this? Well, writing contains a lot of choices. Some of these choices are intentional and some arise from dialects, but there are other choices that are subconscious and don’t have an obvious explanation. Some of these subconscious choices remain static across an author’s writings. If we have two possible authors for an unknown piece, we can compare prior writings by these authors to the unknown piece, looking at these subconscious choices. (As a side note, we can extend the concept of “author” beyond the person doing the writings. I have shown that stylometric techniques successfully distinguish Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories written in the ‘40s and ‘50s from those he wrote in the ‘80s and ‘90s using the same methods I will describe in a bit. So, here, the two authors are both Asimov.)

A couple of questions immediately arise. For example, what are the subconscious traits and how reliable are the results? This is actively being researched, but a common subconscious trait is the use of function words in writing. Function words are words with little lexical meaning, but instead serve as a type of glue for the other words. Examples are words like “of” and “the.” On their own they have little meaning, but they are used to form relationships among the other words in a sentence. Since these are often used without much thought, the idea is that they demonstrate subconscious writing trends. (Maybe one author uses “on the left” while another “to the left”.) If you look at the use of, say, the 75 most common function words and compare their uses among the contested piece and sample writings, you can make a case for authorship.

It would be easy to think that these common function words, often referred to as the Most Frequent Words (MFWs) is a terrible metric with little meaning in determining authorship, but they have been shown useful in this regard. It makes a kind of sense since these words are typically chosen with little thought and indicate trends in sentence structure.

It is important to remember that the methods I use will (pretty much) always indicate one author in a head-to-head contest over the other, regardless of whether either author is the true author. We are simply choosing a particular measurable object (function word usage) in writing and comparing the measurements for the unknown piece to the measurements in sample writings by potential authors. Whoever differs least, “wins.” (So, there are a lot of caveats: Does the “measurable thing” really distinguish authors? Do we know the authors we choose to compare are the only ones who could have written the piece?)

I’m going to brush all of those nasty little questions aside for now and just do some stuff.

Conan the Adventuer1To demonstrate the potential of this method, let’s examine an authorship question for which we already know the answer. This may seem like a waste of time…why do a metallurgical analysis of a penny and a nickel to tell them apart when we already know which is which? The reason is quite simple: If we want to use these methods on actual authorship questions, it is necessary to see if the methods have any merit.

This demonstration will involve the finished story “Drums of Tombalku,” with the goal of finding the “hand-off” spot in the story. This story makes an ideal example because Howard’s writing comprises the first part of the story with few changes by de Camp, while the second part of the story is the sole work of de Camp. An important initial question is whether this technique can distinguish the writing of de Camp and Carter from that of Howard. (I’ll address the issue of de Camp sans Carter in a bit.) Using the 75 MFWs a Hierarchical Tree Diagram was created.3 This diagram shows how the texts line up in terms of MFW usage. Here, a story by Howard is marked as H_Title and a story by de Camp and Carter is DC_Title. The diagram is fairly intuitive; similar stories are “closer” in the tree structure. Here, we clearly see two large “clusters” that do a solid job distinguishing Howard from de Camp and Carter. The one exception is The Thing in the Crypt, which shows up in the Howard clump. There are potential reasons for this, including the authorship, since this piece is based on a draft by Carter for his Thongor character. Discussing this one outlier could easily be its own blog post, so I’ll leave it alone.

Look_Figure 1

If we accept that these methods, for the most part, reliably distinguish Howard from de Camp/Carter, we can move on to the issue of finding the split in “Drums of Tombalku.” Those familiar with this piece may have already caught a potential snag – namely, that I’ve been comparing Howard to the combined authorship of de Camp/Carter, but Carter was not involved in finishing Drums. This means that we really need a sample of “pure” de Camp for comparison. Unfortunately, this is a bit difficult since I need the copy in digital format and the piece should be similar in terms of publishing date, genre, etc. I chose to use three pieces for comparison, each with faults and strengths:

1) Conan of the Isles – This is not ideal as it is de Camp and Carter.

2) Conan and the Spider God – This is credited as a solo de Camp piece (the only Conan story with this distinction), but it was written 14 years after Drums and some believe that de Camp’s wife, Catherine, helped with the writing of this book.

3) The Eye of Tandyla – This is not ideal as it is not a Conan story and was written over a decade before “Tombalku” saw publication, but it has been described as being “in the Conan tradition in every sense of the word”4 and is pure, uncut de Camp.

A stylometric procedure known as Rolling Delta is used to find authorship changes in a single text. Basically, it “rolls” through the text examining “chunks” to see which author is the most likely author for that “chunk”. As an example, if I choose to “roll” through my text with a sample size of 2000 and a step size of 100, we would compare words 1 through 2000 in Drums to samples by both authors to determine which author is closer in terms of MFW usage. Each author is assigned a number; I’ll skip explaining exactly what this number means, but it suffices to say that the author with the lower number is the most likely author (according to this method). Next, words 101 through 2100 would be examined and again the most likely author would be determined. We “roll” through the text until we reach the end. A visual is created that represents the results by plotting and connecting the output numbers, creating two “graphs”, one for each author. When the lines cross we have a switch in authorship.

Here are the results using three Howard stories to represent Howard’s writing (Tower of the Elephant, People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails) and one book to represent de Camp’s style, with that book being Conan of the Isles, Conan and the Spider God, or The Eye of Tandyla.

Look_Figure 2

Look_Figure 3

Look_Figure 4

When looking at these graphs it is important to realize that we have great samples of Howard writing, but the samples used for de Camp are shaky. This means that rolling delta should do a pretty good job of identifying the pieces where Howard is the main author, but when de Camp is the main author, rolling delta may struggle a bit to classify the authorship. However, that is not a problem since we are mainly interested in seeing if we can identify the split. When compared to Conan of the Isles the split occurs a bit before the 10,000-word mark while for Conan and the Spider God and The Eye of Tandyla the split is a bit after the 10,000-word mark. Given the scale, it would seem that the split occurs between the 9,500- and 10,500-word mark. (In all three something appears to be happening a bit before the 10,000-word mark, even if the actual crossing occurs a bit later.)

We have copies of the manuscripts and know where the split actually occurs: Howard’s original draft is roughly 9826 words. With de Camp’s editing, it ends up being 9,888 words in the finished piece.5

So what does this all mean? Well, I’d argue that this supplies some evidence that unsupervised methods can distinguish de Camp from Howard. If we didn’t know where the split occurred, this would give a nice starting point for investigation. And the amazing thing is that this is only using one very simple measure, the MFW count. Those innocuous little words that we pay little attention to actually say a lot about how we write.

  1. de Camp, L. Sprague. “Editing Conan.” The Blade of Conan. Ed. L. Sprague de Camp. New York: ACE Books, 1979. p.120
  1. For those interested, a brief write-up of this can be found here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Professor-Who-Declared/140595/
  1. The statistics were conducted and images produced using Stylo, a free software package for the R statistical programming language.
  1. As cited in “Galaxy’s 5 Star Shelf”, Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1954, p.122
  1. These word counts are from my digital copies; if there are any transcription errors the counts could be off by a few words.

288

adjective

  1. to become split; crack

[origin: ca. 14th century; Middle English, from Old Norse rifa; akin to Greek ereipein to tear down]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

The gulls carved white in the blasting blue,
Their wings are silver and snow;
They hear the great tides thunder through
To beat on the beach below—
They hear waves hammer on sands below,
The clash and the clamor, the flee and the flow,
The magic and wonder of reef riven thunder,
The sands going under the spray white as snow.
The sunset is calling,
The dawn’s on the lea;
The silence is falling
Across the white sea.

[from “Renunciation”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 267]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

conan2320-bws-e11461952865252

The Sword-Lore of Robert E. Howard

Mighty-thewed mape-limbed, in the world-dawn haze
For I was a sword-smith in those old, gold days,
Early in the morning, how my sledge would clang!
Through the sapphire evening how the red sparks sprang!
How my hammer boomed on bronze hilt and shaft!
How the anvil clashed, and the forge, how it laughed.
Glowing through the dusk of the whispering night,
Beating up the morning with its rose-red light!
But Zeus! How I labored! And Jove! How I sweat!
And I grumbled o’er my anvil with a fume and a fret.
For I rose at the dawn and I labored like a slave
For nobles that cursed me for a fool and a knave;
Until late at night and to my hut I’d gone,
To rise again, to toil again with the coming of the dawn.

— Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL1.108)

There are no books specifically on swords, the history of weapons, fencing or military manuals in Bob Howard’s library, nor does he mention any in his letters or fiction. Most of the Texan’s knowledge of the history and development of weapons would appear to come from general history texts, and for all of his keen interest he seems to have had somewhat sketchy and patchwork technical knowledge. An essay, “The Sword” published in Howard’s amateur magazine The Golden Caliph (1923), collects many of his early thoughts on the subject, and begins with a brief statement on the development of the weapon:

The term “sword”, is about as general as the term “gun”. When one says “sword”, one may mean a rapier, a saber, a broad-sword, a cutlass, a scimetar [sic.], anything with a long blade and a hilt.

The sword has been man’s favorite weapon. I tis a natural production of evolution, combining dagger and spear. Man’s first cutting and thrusting weapon was, of course, the knife. Almost simultaneously came the spear. Man saw the disadvantage of a knife in fighting. He was forced to get too close to his enemy in order to use a dagger. And if the enemy had talons or even another knife, he found himself on equal footing with his antagonist. And mans natural inclination is to gain an advantage over his foe, whoever or whatever tha [sic.] foe might be. Thus, the spear. But the spear is a clumsy weapon at close-quarters and if the point is broken it becomes no more than a stick. Hence the idea of lenthening [sic.] the dagger into spear-lenth [sic.]. (LC 378)

Howard’s reasoning is basically correct, in that the dagger and spear preceded the creation of the sword, and the sword developed out of the dagger, though he misses both the general techniques of fighting with a spear and the technical developments in metal-working that led to the development of longer blades, with larger daggers eventually becoming short swords in the Bronze Age. That swords were once made of bronze and later of iron and steel, Howard was at least aware:

[…] Caesar found the Britons still using swords of copper and bronze. If, as some historians maintain, bronze using Gaels preceded and fled before Brythons wielding iron swords, it seems to me that the Britons should have opposed the Romans with weapons of the latter metal. (CL2.52)

He also seemed to be aware of the reputation of Toledo steel. (CL2.417) The form of a sword is a product of its historical context, with specific forms evolving as both technology and method of use change, and certain forms became associated with different cultures. This, Howard recognized very well:

There are almost as many kinds of swords as there are tribes of men.

One rule had held through the ages. The West has always used a straight, thrusting sword, and the East has always used a curved, slashing sword.

At least, the Orient has always used swords that would hack better than they would thrust. The swords have not always been curved.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Tauregs [sic.] use straight-bladed swords, supposedly having adopted them from the Crusaders. (LC 378)

spada2When parsed, Howard is essentially asserting that form follows function, with European swords primarily intended to thrust, while Asian swords were intended primarily to cut (although he points out the Tuareg takoba as an exception). This is not attested to historically—swords in all parts of the world, and in all periods, have seen different abilities to both cut and thrust, with some blades being more specialized in one aspect than another. What Howard recognized is that blades designed primarily for the thrust are straight, to put the power of the blow into the point, and in cases like the United States M1913 cavalry sword, are specialized to the point that cutting ability is compromised. Similarly, more curved blades are generally more specialized for cutting, such as the US M1860 cavalry saber, which concentrates the blow on the edge to bite and slice into the target, but is less effective at thrusting, since the force cannot travel in a straight line to the point. Howard would later expand on this idea in a letter to Lovecraft:

Speaking of the contrast between Nordic and Latin knifeplay: I don’t know whether the slashing habit is an Indian or a Spanish instinct. If Spanish, it may be a survival of Moorish influence. As of course you know, the Oriental nations favor curved blades, and generally slash instead of thrusting. The early Nordic warriors hacked too, but they used straight swords, depending on the weight of the blade and the force of the blow, whereas the Orientals curved the blade to gain the effect. But the early Greeks and the Romans understood the art of thrusting, as witness their short swords. And the rapier was created in the West. I am not prepared to say whether the Spaniards borrowed any ideas or weapons and their use from the Moors, but I will say that Mexican swords are generally more curved than those used by Americans. I noted this recently during a trip to the battlefield of Goliad where Fannin and his men were trapped by the Mexican army. I saw two sabers — a Mexican arm and an American — both of which were used in that battle. The Mexican sword was curved far more than the Texan weapon — in fact, it would be almost impossible to thrust effectively with it. Blade, hilt and guard were all made in one piece of steel, and I could hardly get my hand inside the guard to clutch the hilt; some grandee wielded it, no doubt, some proud don with blue blood and small aristocratic hands — well, I hope he got his before Fannin surrendered, and gasped his life out in the mud of Perdido with a Texas rifle-ball through him. (CL2.234-235, cf.217)

Museums such as the one at Goliad would have provided Howard with some of his best opportunities to see weapons with his own eyes, and to understand them in something of their original context. The comparison of Mexican and American sabers from the Goliad Campaign (1836) is fairly accurate; the Mexican officer’s saber of the army of Santa Anna was heavy curved, based on the then-fashionable “mameluke” style swords of Europe which flourished after the French invasion of Egypt, particularly in hussar (light cavalry) regiments, and were styled after the Mamluks scimitars (sometimes scimetar or simitar in older sources, Howard uses all three spellings).

It’s notable that Howard was able to distinguish “blade, hilt, and guard”—the basic elements of the sword—although he was almost certainly incorrect that they were “all made in one piece of steel,” the guard and knucklebow of the Mexican officer’s saber is of one piece and connects with the pommel, and could have been made of steel, so might have given the Texan that impression. Howard expands on the parts of the sword in discussing European weapons:

The West has always been partial to straight-swords. Witness the Roman swords, the broad-sword and the rapier. Even the Scottish claymore, which was probably used more for cutting and hacking than any other Western sword, was straight. It was double-edged, with a heavy guard and, contrary to public notions, did not have a basket hilt.

The cutlass, a rather clumsy weapon, was broad-bladed and curved, and of late years the nation of the West have adopted a slightly curved sabre for cavalry use. It is straight enough to thrust with, but it is self-evident that a curved weapon is better for cavalry use. (LC 378)

The ancient Roman gladius is usually depicted as primarily a stabbing weapon, which was relatively short (50-60 cm/19.5-23.5 in) with a long tapering point, and used very effectively with a shield in tight formation. It gave way in the 1st century AD to the spatha, which was longer and with a shorter point, more specialized for slashing and cutting; Howard is apparently thinking of the gladius.

The term broad-sword has been applied to many styles of blade, but in this context appears to refer to wide-bladed, double-edged swords which developed in the Middle Ages, the “knightly sword” with its crossguard and pommel, straight and tapering to a point.

The rapier is a specialized dueling weapon that developed in the 1400s, and the blade became longer and narrower (and thus, more suitable for thrusting) as it developed, with a more elaborate guard and hilt. Howard would go on to say of the rapier:

For duels and many fights, the rapier was the most effective weapon ever invented, a sword with a long, slim blade, sometimes with no edge at all, sometimes with one, two, three, or even four edges. But in battles, where the fighting is hand to hand, the rapier yeilds [sic.] place to the broad-sword or scimetar [sic.]. (LC 378-379)

The “one, two, three, or even four edges” refers to both the sharpening of the blade and its cross-section (i.e. if you slice a blade in half, the shape of the blade section thus revealed). Single-edged and double-edged blades are fairly self-explanatory, as a typical sword is a bar sharpened on one or both sides. “Three” and “four” edges refers to blades of a very different cross-section—triangular and diamond-shaped, respectively. Such blades are difficult to sharpen, and more often than not remain unsharpened; they are characteristic of thrusting weapons, since being unable to cut effectively, they encourage the user to thrust, and offer considerable stiffness and strength to prevent the sword from bowing if it encounters an obstacle. It is interesting that Howard knew about such blades, but not that they were not usually sharpened.

cccc2z3kkembgpcavwiwThe Scottish claymore (from claidheamh mor) of the 1500s was initially a double-edged broadsword of the type described by Howard, but eventually developed an elaborate and distinctive basket hilt, which begat the “public notions” he mentions.

The term cutlass refers to a variety of different weapons adopted specifically for naval use; initially European militaries used the same weapons as land-based armies, but at the close quarters and with the rigging of wooden sailing ships, around the 18th century nations began to adopt and standardize on one-handed short swords, often single-edged and developing a bowl-guard and a slight curve. Howard’s image of the cutlass might have been fixed by the final cutlass adopted by the U.S. Navy, the Model 1917, which had a distinct clipped point.

The sabre or saber is a curved sword, usually single-edged, typically designated for cavalry use. Cavalry were still in use in the early 20th century, although the cavalry charge as a tactic largely died out during World War I. Howard’s comments on the suitability of a curved saber as opposed to a straight thrusting sword for cavalry are enlightening in showing his general ignorance of modern (and largely final) developments in cavalry swords. The final combat issue sword of the U.S. Army was the Model 1913 Cavalry Sword (designed by Lt. George S. Patton), and was a specialized thrusting weapon—or, as E. Hoffmann Price would put it “a blundering straight bladed thing for thrusting, pike-wise, not for sabre-slashing.” (CLIMH 313) The Patton sword (and similar dedicated thrusting cavalry swords, like the Spanish M1907 and the British P1908) helped transfer the momentum of horse and rider into the thrust, but were not primarily designed for melee or cutting.

On non-European swords, Howard appears to rely more heavily on history and fiction:

For the last century, the East, excepting the Mongols, has used rather light, curved weapons, often with basket-hilts, with one-hand-hilts. But in past ages many Orientals used heavy, cumbersome swords, two handed and double edged, often without a point.

Plutarch remarks that Artaxerzes ordered his Persian armies to discard their heavy, cumbersome weapons and adopt the Roman short-sword.

I quote Harold Lamb, in “The Three Palladins”, “Mukuli Khan’s sword was a two-handed affair, a hundred pounds in weight.”

To this day the Mongols cling to the two handed sword of their ancestors, more so than any other tribe in Asia. (LC 379)

Howard’s sweeping comments on the arsenal east—all two sentences of it—of course gives little to work with, except to show that he was, in 1922-1923, aware that Asia had different types of swords, but didn’t have many specifics to offer. The “heavy, cumbersome swords, two-handed and double-edged, often without point” however might refer to something like the Chinese dadao, a two-handed, single-edged blade designed primarily for chopping (and, indeed, is infamous for its use in executions), or the Indian khanda, which varied considerably but often had a rounded point and was double- or single-edged, and many had a pommel-spike believed to be used for two-handed strikes. Either of these might have featured in the kind of adventure-fiction Howard read.

Howard’s reference to Plutarch provides a good basis for the kind of historical work he might reference in shaping his knowledge of swords and their use. The actual incident that Howard refers to from Plutarch’s Lives was not Artaxerxes but Mithridates:

Mithridates, boastful and pompous at the outset, like most of the Sophists, had first opposed the Romans with forces which were really unsubstantial, though brilliant and ostentatious to look upon. With these he had made a ridiculous fiasco and learned a salutary lesson. When therefore, he thought to go to war the second time, he organized his forces into a genuinely effective armament. He did away with Barbarous hordes from every clime, and all their discordant and threatening cries; he provided no more armour inlaid with gold and set with precious stones, for he saw that these made rich booty for the victors, but gave no strength whatever to their wearers; instead, he had swords forged in the Roman fashion, and heavy shields welded […] (Lives)

Harold Lamb, meanwhile, is very much the type of writer-historian that Howard was drawn to for details on Asian and Crusader weapons. “The Three Palladins” was such a tale, originally published as a three-part serial in Adventure magazine from July-August 1923, and focused on the Mongols—which may go some way to explaining Howard’s enthusiasm for Mongol weaponry in his short essay, and without doubt was his primary source for his thoughts regarding their weapons and usage. (cf. CL1.31)

KyberElsewhere in his letters, poetry, and fiction, Robert E. Howard makes reference to a few other specific types of blade, many of which are discussed by Barbara Bartlett in “Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector and His Poetry.” For example, the glaive, which appears in “The Ballad of King Geraint” is an archaic word for “sword,” referring to a broad-sword, although it eventually became the specific name for a type of polearm. The references to hangers, tulwars, Khyber knives (CL1.7, 14), Rajput and Mongol swords and the like can be attributed to Howard’s continued reading and weapons. A particular example is “The Iron Terror,” where El Borak is quizzed about a collection of weapons from around the world, in addition to the regular rapier, tulwar, and Bowie knife a cheray, parang-parang, misericorde, anlace, schiavona, Maharati gauntlet-sword, and “a samurai sword of old Japan.”

Perhaps more interesting, given Howard’s position as an early innovator of “Sword & Sorcery,” mythical and magic swords are largely absent from much of his work. King Arthur’s Excalibur, the French Durendal, and the Irish Caladbolg don’t merit mention, nor Lord Dunsany’s eponymous mystic blade from “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth,” although it’s not sure Howard ever read this story. However, Howard did refer to enchanted blades in some of his fiction and poetry. The most famous such weapon is in the Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”:

[“]Hold out your sword.”

Wondering, Conan did so, and on the great blade, close to the heavy silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol that glowed like white fire in the shadows. And on the instant crypt, tomb and ancient vanished, and Conan, bewildered, sprang from his couch in the great golden-domed chamber. And as he stood, bewildered at the strangeness of his dream, he realized that he was gripping his sword in his hand. And his hair prickled at the nape of his neck, for on the broad blade was carven a symbol – the outline of a phoenix. (CCC 18-19)

The idea of a magic sigil carved or marked on a sword also appeared in an untitled poem: “And ancient sword hilts carved with scroll and rune” (CL1.281), and in “The Madness of Cormac” he wrote:

Draw your sword, the grey sword, the sword of Fin, the fey sword,
Carved with a nameless rune. (CL3.501)

The only other magical blades in Howard’s corpus appear in “The Black Stone,” where Howard wrote: “ancient steel blessed in old times by Muhammad, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young.” (CS 135) and in “The Devil in Iron,” where a “curious dagger with a jeweled pommel, a shagreen-bound hilt, and a broad, crescent blade.” which was forged from a meteor, and against which the magic of the demon Khosatral Khel is powerless.

Lorange_1889_TabIAlthough it’s not quite clear where exactly Howard got his ideas for magic swords, he was working within fairly established traditions. Inscriptions on the blade or hilt of swords are attested to in the historical and archaeological record, particularly the medieval +VLFBERHT+ swords of. Likewise, meteorites were known as a source of iron since antiquity, and the concept of “starmetal” blades were not unknown. Howard also largely avoided the use of “fantasy” weapons, like the triple-bitted axe which featured so prominently in the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film; the only weapon he “invented” was the three-bladed dagger of “Three-Bladed Doom,” which has its historical analogues such as the main-gauche, and the “scissor” style of katar, so while it might be ahistorical isn’t improbable.

Perhaps more interesting in the discussion of the dagger which was the bane of Kohsatral Khel is its jewelled pommel and sharkskin-covered hilt, which suggests a weapon of status—and as with magic swords, jewelled blades with hilts and guards of precious metal are relatively scarce in his fiction. The vast majority of swords in Howard’s fiction, as in his life, were practical weapons of war, not meant merely for ornament or ceremony, but to be used. Where weapons do appear that are decorated with jewels or precious metals, or are described as works of great artistry, they are still practical weapons, not mere displays of wealth. For example, in the unfinished “The Land of Mystery,” Howard writes:

The blade was long, straight and slim with two edges and of fine blue steel, on the surface of which were engraved faint lines of what seemed to be writing. There was a gold-inlaid steel guard and the hilt was of silver worked and inlaid with gold. Small stones that were undoubtedly diamonds and rubies were set in the hilt and a large one formed the pommel. On one side of the hilt was a small gold plate and on it was carved a lion with the most consummate skill. Tiny rubies were set for the lion’s eyes. (EEB 151)

“Bluing” was a technique where a steel object is treated to obtain a blue-black finish, either by reheating or via a chemical process; the resulting iron oxide layer lends a distinctive appearance to the metal and helps protect against corrosion, and was sometimes applied to more expensive sword blades, even into the modern period, as well as firearms, where Howard is most likely to have been familiar with it. Note how he describes the weapon: it’s shape, it’s cutting edges, the details of blade, guard, hilt, and pommel. These details show how Howard could apply his knowledge of weapons, when he chose to elaborate on them.

“And bronze for a warrior where the broadswords sing!
“Golden hafted, brazen shafted, ho! A kingly sword!
“Fit for a knight to make a stand with such brand in his hand
“Gainst a horde!
“Then ho and ho again! for the anvils roar!
“For the clamor of the hammer and the metal-workers lore!
“A helmet for a chief and a cuirass for a lord!
“For a king’s own hand, a golden hilted sword!
—Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL.108-109)

Cover painting for Conan the Barbarian #20 by Barry Windsor Smith

Read Part 1, Part 3