Click to Subscribe
'The Ferocity of a Tiger'
The Totemic Imagery of Robert E. Howard
© 2016 James LaFond
Formerly published as ‘A Rare Hunt,’ revised and expanded
“…the suppleness of a panther”
“…the ferocity of a tiger”
“…giving tongue” or “dogging trails” “like wolves”
“…like a blood-mad wolf”
“…leap among them and die as a wounded lion”
“…with the tenacity of a dying wolf”
The fiction of Robert E. Howard is loaded with such totemic allusions to animal powers, which is one of the author’s keys in capturing the spirit of the reader. He does not get bogged down in body mechanics and positioning of fighting men often, but communicates as a primitive would, the actions of his heroes on the animal scale—in the language of the primal world. Likewise, his supernatural horrors are often described by way of animal characteristics, such as the “ophidian” crawler in Red Nails. No author of horror uses the snake or reptilian creature is a symbol of evil more than Howard. N doing this he crosses his raw primalism [and primal societies generally revere the snake] with the biblical detachment from the natural world and the specific warning against the duplicity of the snake implicit in the story of Adam and Eve. Howard had a strong sense of the biblical as evidenced in his Solomon Kane stories. What is not generally understood by those who enjoy his Conan, Kull and Mak Morn sagas is how he so deftly interweaves very protestant Old Testament sensibilities into his explicitly pagan settings, utilizing quite blasphemous totemic imagery toward this end.
His greatest fictional creation, Conan, is the character whose action is most often described in animal terms, such as these passages from Beyond the Black River:
“He dived like a hunting wolf into the leafy wall.”
Concerning Conan’s relationship with the civilized world, “A wolf was no less a wolf because a whim of circumstance caused him to run with the watch-dogs…”
The use of wolves and dogs in the Conan stories is often a way of comparing barbarians to civilized men, with the appellation “dog” Conan’s most consistent insult to lesser men.
Using animal imagery lends itself to describing the supernatural, as our base primate fears are rooted in the fear of snakes, canines and felines.
“…flitting like a phantom between the trees” [Interspersing such spectral language in between totemic inferences lends the tales a haunting quality.]
Likewise, supernatural enemies are described in animal terms, “…sinister as the pad of a leopard’s foot.”
The leopard, as the individual killer par excellence in the animal kingdom, gets top billing among totemic attributes for imparting menace in both heroes and villains. In this Howard taps into the natural fear of man’s most ancient enemy, the great cat who specializes in hunting primates.
“As silently as a great panther Conan slid…”
Concerning a band of woodsmen led by Conan, “They were wolves, but he was a tiger.”
The tiger, rather than the lion, is the animal most often used to describe Conan, even though his black enemies name him “Amra” meaning “The Lion.”
In Howard’s brand of fiction what the other characters call Conan is less important than how he is described to the reader by the narrator, lending an intimacy that is important in achieving suspension of disbelief in a fantastic setting when the vehicle for its exploration is a man of outrageous abilities.
The overall effect of Howard’s use of totemic imagery in relating the character and actions of his protagonists is to place them in the realm of the monstrous, beings equally as dangerous as the horrors that prowl his nightmare worlds, but different, for they live by a code that serves as a link to the human reader and the ordinary human companion that is often placed beside them in these fantastic stories.
Paleface Sunset: A Guide to Cultural Resistance in the Age of Felonious
Ebon Throne
a well of heroes
Twelve Tears for the Goddess
winter of a fighting life
broken dance
book of nightmares
america the brutal
let the world fend for itself
song of the secret gardener
  Add a new comment below: