Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Worms of the Earth”: Bending the rules of swords and sorcery

“Worms of the earth, back into your holes and burrows! Ye foul the air and leave on the clean earth the slime of the serpents ye have become! Gonar was right—there are shapes too foul to use even against Rome!”

–Robert E. Howard, “Worms of the Earth”

Robert E. Howard has received his fair share of criticism over the years, including the accusation that he wrote shallow, muscle-bound characters that cut their way out of every situation. Violence by strong, self-sufficient swordsmen is the end game for solving all problems in REH’s stories, his detractors argue, not wits or guile or diplomacy. For example, in his audio book survey of fantasy literature Rings, Swords, and Monsters, author Michael Drout declares Conan an uninteresting character who simply “smashes everything in his path.” L. Sprague De Camp, who penned the introductions to the famous (infamous?) Lancer Conan reprints of the 1960s and 70s, wrote that Howard’s heroes are “men of mighty thews, hot passions, and indomitable will, who easily dominate the stories through which they stride.” Howard wrote escape fiction, De Camp continued, wherein “all men are strong…” and “all problems simple.”

These generalizations lead casual readers to conclude that Howard considered violence to be the answer to all of life’s problems. They reduce Howard’s stories to brutish pulp escapism and denude them of subtlety or complexity. Sword and sorcery and its fans are painted with the same broad, clumsy brush by association. “Sword and sorcery novels and stories are tales of power for the powerless,” wrote Stephen King in his overview of horror and fantasy Danse Macabre (1981). “The fellow who is afraid of being rousted by those young punks who hang around his bus stop can go home at night and imagine himself wielding a sword, his pot belly miraculously gone.”

These criticisms aren’t entirely groundless. It’s rather easy to find examples of Howardian heroes hacking their way through a problem. Kull of Valusia butchering a horde of Serpent Men in an orgiastic, cathartic red fury in “The Shadow Kingdom” springs immediately to mind, for instance. Howard was in many ways bound by the conventions of the pulps in which he made his living as a writer. But there are an equal number of examples of Conan using his wits to extricate himself from situations when brute force won’t suffice, his reaver’s instinct restrained by sovereign responsibility. And of course, Howard penned many more characters than his famous Cimmerian.

Howard’s 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” features the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn on an ill-advised mission to enlist supernatural aid to defeat an invading force of Romans. In it Howard substitutes complexity and compromise for crashing swordplay and victory in arms. While “Worms” is a tale of vengeance, it’s of a rather hollow, unfulfilling sort.

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David J. West said...

Great post Brian.

Comments like King's only show the shortsightedness of his, and other critic's real delving into Howards work.
It's a shame that REH gets lumped with the weak pastiche and or imitators. It dumbfounds me how a seemingly intelligent man like DeCamp never understood the mantle he picked up beyond the dollar signs. (or is he just that evil?)

Back on track- Worm's of the Earth is an epic-one of Howards absolute best because of the storytelling variety and depth.

Trey said...

Good post. Worms of the Earth is indeed one of Howard's most accomplished stories.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Love that last line, Brian.

Conan is frequently called upon to use brains rather than brawn, and though I haven't read Worms (yet) it seems a complex and morally ambigious tale. Can't wait.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the nice comments, all.

David: In the end DeCamp never really understood Howard, it seems. DeCamp always considered himself purely a commercial writer and he assumed Howard was the same, thus he never took his work seriously. He admired Howard's talent for action and story but not his artistry or deeper themes. That's the impression I got from Dark Valley Destiny. Others who have read DeCamp's biography have corroborated that statement.

Miguel Martins said...

Nice post, Brian.

Brian, David; here are a few words from LSdC's correspondence.

Letter to Chet Clingan dated August 25, 1977: "These fans belong to a group that regard Howard’s writings as a kind of holy writ, not to be tampered with or added to by lesser mortals. They are entitled to their opinion; but, having read a good deal in the course of my life, from Homer to Saul Bellow, I can’t take Howard’s writings quite so seriously as all that. Good entertainment, sure, but Tolstoy and Hemingway have nothing to worry about."

Letter to E. Hoffmann Price, Nov. 27, 1977: “We threw a big bash at the Merion Golf Club — black ties and all…it went off so well that, if the Conan money keeps coming, we might make it an annual affair. Yes, I had really rather write noble tomes on the causes and curses of civilization; but Conan is where the money is….”

De Camp saw Howard as "entertainment" and -ultimately- as a cash-cow.

(anti-de Campista)

David J. West said...

Thanks Miguel and Brian, it does show Decamp never understood the world beneath his feet.

Brian Murphy said...

Nice references, Miguel. What publication are those from? Does DeCamp have a collected letters?

Lagomorph Rex said...

Excellent article as always, but I personally find it difficult to condemn DeCamp for seeing a good thing and running with it to make a quick buck.

As I've said whenever anyone asks me why I don't seriously write a novel, Instead of just toying with the idea.. I simply ask if they can guarantee me a book deal?

I'm personally not interested in expending the time or emotional energy necessary to write a book.. if it is just going to sit in my "Documents" folder for the next 50 years and never make me any money.. Some people are artists and the money means nothing to them, and some people enjoy eating. I'm one of the ones who enjoys eating, and it seems DeCamp was as well.

Some people however get to be lucky and be both.. but the numbers of them are extremely rare.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Lagomorph, I know you mean, and I also happen to agree that good writing should be published (and therefore, purchased). There's no shame in making a living, even a good living, off of writing. Howard loved seeing the checks roll in too and was proud to be able to support himself financially as a writer.

But writing can be both commercially and artistically successful. DeCamp viewed Howard almost entirely as a cash cow and devalued his artistry and writing genius so much that it's taken decades to rehabilitate Howard's image.

Lagomorph Rex said...

oh absolutely, you get no arguments from me. I think what he did was objectionable in the extreme, but I was just saying I understood why he did it.

Scott said...


Great post! One of my favorite REH tales. Good assessment of DeCamp, too, if a bit diplomatic for my taste ( I may do a post titled 'Fuck You DeCamp' one of these days). :)

-p.s.- I finally got my copy of the new Blind Guardian-good stuff!

Brian Murphy said...

Scott, got any favorites so far from the new Blind Guardian?