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Savage Protagonists
A Roll Call of Robert E. Howard's Heroes: Well of Heroes Epilogue 3
Amra was in many ways the barbarian hero prototype of Howard. A character by that name is the protagonist in Howard's most mythic tale, Gods of the North, which would be rewritten [or perhaps had been rewritten from] the Conan story The Frost Giant's Daughter, the tale that places Conan at his youngest.
Kull, Atlantean barbarian mercenary turned king of decadent Valusia, is the obvious Conan prototype. The character however, is much more in line with the high ideals of a man in his twenties. Kull has a fatherly character where the character most clearly patterned on him in terms of plot placement and racial juxtaposition, Conan, is brutal and roguish. The story By This Axe I Rule! is the first draft of the Breakout Conan story The Phoenix on the Sword. For readers interested in Howard's use of the alienated actionist in the form of the barbarian and how it evolved away from ideology and towards realism of character development, a comparative reading of these two stories is advisable.
Bran Mak Morn is Howard's most unique character, a doubly alienated actonist, a barbarian king trying to save his primitive folk from Rome. He is yet of a different racial stock than his brutish people. Worms of the Earth is the best Mak Morn story and may be Howard's best tale over all.
Solomon Kane was certainly based on Howard's own father, and in my estimation, is actually an undead character representing pure rightful will and retribution. The body of work is of high even quality compared to the Kull and Mak Morn series. Howard's best long poems, The One Black Stain, and The Homecoming of Solomon Kane, and his most intense horrors in numerous shorts and short novels make Kane arguably his most powerful character, and certainly his most unique. Kane was based somewhat on Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame.
Conn the Thrall, from Spears of Clontarff, rewritten as the Grey God Passes. But I can't recall their names. Conn one remembers,a simple, one-syllable soul.
Howard wrote numerous tales of heroes that were Dark Age psychopaths, raging protagonists who could find little hope of popularity among Americans, but whose brooding darkness was vested in Kull, Mak Morn, Kane and Conan as an ethnic subtext. These characters continue to connect to readers who have been the subject of modernity's great deracination crusade. Conn is the lowest ranking of these and Howard's second best working class character.
Cormac Mac Art is Howard's most reasoned and intelligent hero and is paired with one of Howard's three side hero companions. Where Kane has a witch doctor ally and Kull has Brule the pictish side kick, Cormac is second man and advisor to Wulfere the Skull-Splitter, the lone Gael among a viking crew of Danes. If the Conan properties people cared about licensing a quality adventure movie, Cormac and Wulfere would be the smart bet for something that could be done well at Hollywood's infantile writing standard.
Xavier Gordon is one of Howard's three or four occidental heroes in the world of Islam and towers over the others to the point where I can never remember their names. An American Lawrence of Arabia in Central Asia, Gordon could be plaid by numerous American action heroes. Robert Conrad in the 1970s would have been the perfect fit. In many ways Gordon seems a way of taking the heroic interloper character into a more marketable context.
Kirby Buckner, hero of Pigeons from Hell and Black Canaan, was really Howard's only major, standard American hero and is a character that stands the test of time well and offers the reader a glimpse of what kind of work Howard might have done had he lived into middle age.
Steve Costigan is Howard's most likable character and it is a shame that a TV series or cartoon was not made for boys and girls about the brawling boxing champion of the tramp steamer Sea Girl, who had a loyal pet dog.
Conan the Barbarian is the protagonist which permitted Howard's strands of heroic vision to be drawn together into one outrageously believable character. Conan was based on Confederate bad-ass military genius and the most successful individual American military combatant of the 19th century, Nathan Bedford Forest. Howard's uncle had served with Forest as recalled in the touching story For the Love of Barbara Allen.
In order to make Conan likable, Howard took away the genius aspect of Forest, actually making him less intelligent than most of his wizardly antagonists and letting himself be played for a sucker by a slut, a poet, a priest and two kings! This was pure writing genius, as it made Conan—who was obviously the prime physical specimen of his age—the underdog in all but one story. In The Black Stranger, which Howard failed to sell, Conan is just one step from kingship and still dealing with pirates and petty strongmen and lords it over these lesser players like Donald Trump as Tarzan.
The aspect that makes Conan the well-rounded action hero that passing critics familiar with movies and comics decry as a cartoonish sexist, is that over half of the exposition of him is from the vantage of a woman or other low-agency character perspective. The fact that Conan is a criminal in fully half of the stories, and a successful politician in three, does more than any other fact to demonstrate that Robert E. Howard wrote the most realistic heroic characters in fiction.
Black Vulmea is Irish Conan in the 1600s, a total advertisement that the English gentry had good reason for genociding the Irish! Black Vulmea has two stories, with one a rewritten Conan story in which he is only saved by his thick Irish skull. A cycle of Black Vulmea pirate tales could have provided Howard, in middle age, with a property that might have rivaled Ian Flemming's 007 in terms of movie adaptation.
Essau Cairn, of the novel Almuric, was Howard's second most unique character behind Kane. The name means hairy in Hebrew followed by monument in Gaelic. Essau Cairn is Howard's most alienated hero, a genetic freak incompatible with degenerate humanity to the point where he cannot be permitted to play professional sports. In other words. He was to America what Herakles, Achilles and Odysseus were to the men of Homer's age. Essau is Howard's most emotional character, the only major protagonist who really falls for a woman.
As for quality of literature, I would have to rate Howard's top 7 tales:
-7. Black Canaan, Kirby Buckner
-6. Red Shadows, Solomon Kane
-5. The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan
-4. The Black Stranger, Conan
-3. Worms of the Earth, Bran Mak Morn
-2. Tower of the Elephant, Conan
-1. People of the Black Circle, Conan
In terms of page-turning pulp intensity 7 stand out:
-7. The Daughter of Erlik Khan, Gordon
-6. The Scarlet Citadel, Conan
-5. The Devil in Iron, Conan
-4. Beyond the Black River, Conan
-3. Queen of the Black Coast, Conan
-2. The Frost Giant's Daughter, Conan
-1. The Vale of Lost Women, Conan
The uniting theme of six of the last seven are women in peril, in 1 and 2 in danger of rape by Conan himself and in 5 being used as bait to trap him. In 6 his slave girls are going to be skinned alive and turned into spell book parchment by a sorcerer. In 4 he is trying to save racial cousins from racial enemies—although what matters to him most is settling a personal score.
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