Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Of Wolf Larsen and embracing the Howardian hero

“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying. “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten. A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man. Why was he beaten out of heaven? Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring? No! A thousand times no! God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater. But Lucifer was a free spirit. To serve was to suffocate. He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility. He did not care to serve God. He cared to serve nothing. He was no figure-head. He stood on his own legs. He was an individual.”

—Jack London, The Sea Wolf

Occasionally when I read Robert E. Howard I wonder: What is it that attracts me to his writing? Is it his great, galloping storytelling? Yes—if pressed, I would say that this is Howard’s finest trait as a writer. Is it the swords and sorcery trappings of Howard’s Conan and Kull stories? Yes—I’ve always felt an attraction to arms and armor, lost civilizations, and monsters and magic, which is probably why I favor these characters above Howard’s others. Is it is his disdain for civilization? Yes, this too—as an office worker in 21st century America, I have my frustrating, bad days where I feel an apathy or outright disgust for “the system.”

But do I also read Robert E. Howard for wish-fulfillment, for the vicarious thrill of stepping into the personas of Howard’s self-sufficient, strong, warlike heroes? Yes, I do. When reading stories like “The Shadow Kingdom” or “The Phoenix on the Sword,” I admit to imagining myself as a larger-than-life barbarian-king from an impossibly ancient era, living by the simple, violent code, “By this axe, I rule.”

I actually arrived at this realization not while reading Howard, but while re-reading one of his favorite authors and literary influences—Jack London, and specifically London’s The Sea Wolf. In this book we’re introduced to Wolf Larsen, the brutal, iron fisted captain of the sealing schooner Ghost. London spends considerable pages trying to convince the reader of Larsen’s despicable nature. Larsen is more beast than man: He rules with an iron fist, crushing his crew brutally underfoot, particularly those who dare to exhibit a will of their own. He doesn’t truck with weakness, or morality (in Larsen’s eyes, these qualities are one and the same). He forbids his crew to go to the aid of a young crewmate, frozen with fear in the rigging (“The man’s mine, and I’ll make soup of him and eat it if I want to,” Larsen says). He scoffs at the idea of an immortal soul.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

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