Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cimmerian sightings: London calling

"I have carefully gone over, in my mind, the most powerful men – that is, in my opinion – in all of the world’s literature and here is my list: Jack London, Leonid Andreyev, Omar Khayyam, Eugene O’Neill, William Shakespeare. All these men, and especially London and Khayyam, to my mind stand out so far above the rest of the world that comparison is futile, a waste of time. Reading these men and appreciating them makes a man feel life is not altogether useless.” —Robert E. Howard, letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, 20 February 1928 

 It’s no secret that Robert E. Howard was a devotee of Jack London. In fact, Howard once referred to London, a spinner of rugged tales of the Klondike and the Yukon, as “this Texan’s favorite writer” (for more examples of the glowing praise Howard heaped on London, head on over as I did to the REHupa Web site). And yet, I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of London’s influence on the greatest swords-and-sorcery writer who ever lived until this week, when on my commute to work I listened to the audio version of my favorite London story, The Call of the Wild (1903). It was a startling reminder that Howard’s sensibilities are splashed across every page of this wonderful book. If you are a Howard fan frustrated by fruitless searches for like-minded literature, I recommend you turn your gaze backwards, to Howard’s influences, and London in particular. Don’t be turned off by the lack of traditional fantasy trappings in London; while you (unfortunately) won’t find swords, man-eating apes, and giant snakes in The Call of the Wild, there’s plenty here to satisfy lovers of pulp action and adventure, including epic dog duels, murdering Indians, and high-stakes wagers placed on improbable feats of strength. More to the point, there’s more of Howard—the dark philosophy that makes Howard uniquely and greatly Howard—to be found in The Call of the Wild than in most other sword-and-sorcery tales published since Howard’s death. London’s work certainly puts most of the pastiches to shame in this regard. 

The Call of the Wild is a hymn to the law of club and fang. The rule of might-makes-right is pounded into the reader in literal fashion by the unforgettable Man in the Red Sweater, who delivers a brutal lesson at the outset of the story. London’s disdain of civilized, city-bred types is readily apparent in his depiction of Hal, Charles, and Mercedes, a pathetic trio who are swallowed up by the unforgiving wilderness, a fate reserved for all the decadent cities and peoples of Howard’s Hyborian Age.

London’s book even features a Howard-like treasure-hunt, a perilous search for a lost mine rumored to be shrouded by some ancient, evil fear: “Many men had sought it; few had found it; and more than a few there were who had never returned from the quest . . . no living man had looted this treasure house, and the dead were dead,” London writes.

Even more than its Howardian themes and storylines, shades of Howard’s most famous creation stalk through the pages of The Call of the Wild. While some may find a comparison between Conan and a member of the canine species less than flattering, Howard appears to have derived at least some of his inspiration for the Cimmerian from Buck, the great St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd crossbreed and undisputed leader of the pack. Though he may lack the square-cut mane of black hair and sullen blue eyes, Buck is a testament to the superiority of the wild-hardened beast over the soft, civilized races.

Although Conan is a barbarian born, and Buck, at the outset of the story, is introduced as domesticated and city-bred, this civilized veneer is purely illusory. For within Buck’s powerful breast dwells “the dominant primordial beast,” the barbarian spirit. It was always there, lying dormant until the stark, unforgiving Yukon country brings it out:

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill — all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.

Like Conan, Buck has no physical equal among his own species. He’s a massive, powerful animal with lightning-quick reflexes who exhibits a terrible ferocity in combat. And like Conan, Buck is also smarter than his foes: On the few occasions when his might isn’t enough, Buck uses war-tricks and cunning to prevail over huskies, timber wolves, and occasional larger prey.

Buck even shares ancestral memories of a time very similar to Howard’s Hyborian Age. The subject of Howard’s poem “Cimmeria” reflects on an age of axes and flint-tipped spears, a heritage which leaves him wrapped “in the grey apparel of ghosts”; Buck’s dreams are haunted by a Neanderthal man from a remote and yet very real past, a barbaric time in which the law, down from the depths of time, was kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. Like Buck, Conan possesses a brooding savagery in every fiber of his being, an ancient trait passed down by generations of barbaric ancestors.

Yet for all this Buck is not a mere analogue of the Cimmerian. Early on Buck embraces a form of servitude, bending his might willingly to the honest toil of the sled traces. Conan would never stoop to working for another man. Also, Buck at story’s end heeds the call of the pack and melts into the wilderness to live among the wolves, while the latter eventually becomes a king, seizing the crown of Aquilonia. Buck arguably proves to be the greater savage of the two. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that Conan is an amalgamation of Buck and his companion, John Thornton. Though he’s a self-sufficient man of action, more at home in the rough Yukon than the sun-drenched Santa Clara Valley, Thornton, like Conan, recognizes the value of gold.

One other sequence from London’s book bears mentioning: Fans of the film Conan the Barbarian may be startled upon reading this passage from The Call of the Wild:

One day the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bed-rock three hundred below . . . A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the chasm. The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.

Shades of James Earl Jones/Thulsa Doom? Was this paragraph the predecessor to the “Come to me, my child” cliff-diving scene from Conan the Barbarian? Perhaps John Milius and Oliver Stone themselves drew from Howard’s source material when writing the screenplay for the film, and, like Howard, also recognized the powerful barbaric heritage of the Call.

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