Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Conan the Chestertonian?

I was flipping through The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard (partially in anticipation of the Solomon Kane movie due out in October) when I noticed something that had never caught my attention before. Heading some of the sections of the longish story Moon of Skulls were verses quoted from G. K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. I was astounded. If there were any two authors I would never have linked together, it would be these
two; I mean, Chesterton would have probably enjoyed Howard's adventure tales, but that the two-fisted Texan should have appreciated the jolly journalist is rather unexpected. But when you compare the two's poetry, you can see how Howard and Chesterton both utilize strong rhythms, alliteration, and gorgeous imagery. The appendices of the book includes "A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard", by Rusty Burke, where I learned more on the connection.
After quoting a letter of REH's to H. P. Lovecraft where Howard includes GKC on the list of poets he reads, Burke goes on to say:
"The same weekend he met Harold Preece in Austin, Howard had bought a copy of G. K. Chesterton's book-length epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, which brings together Celts, Romanized Britons, and Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred in a battle of Christians against the heathen Danish and Norse invaders of the 9th century. Howard enthusiastically praised the poem in a letter to Clyde Smith, sharing lengthy passages. It apparently inspired him to begin work on 'The Ballad of King Geraint,' in which he brings together representatives of various Celtic peoples of early Britain in a valiant 'last stand' against the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Chesterton's idea of 'telescoping history,' that 'it is the chief value of legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment.' must have appealed to Howard greatly, for this is precisely what he did in many of his fantasy adventures, particularly in the creation of Conan's Hyborian Age, in which we find many different historical eras and cultures, from medieval Europe (Aquilonia and Poitan) to the American frontier (the Pictish Wilderness and its borderlands), from Cossacks (the Kozaki) to Elizabethan pirates (the Free Brotherhood). Howard 'mix(ed) up the centuries while preserving the sentiment'; this 'telescoping' allowed him to portray what he saw as universal elements of human nature and historical patterns, as well as giving him virtually all of human history for a playground.'
To read the rest of Burke's entertaining and informative biography online, go to http://www.rehupa.com/short_bio.htm .

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