Monday, May 5, 2014
Son of the White Wolf by Robert E. Howard
Sand, swords, and severed heads
While much of the globe was engaged in the First World War, another conflict was raging in the Middle East. Arabs, aided by the British (including the famous Lawrence of Arabia), were revolting against the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Germans. During this war-torn period a band of renegade Turks, fed up with doing the bidding of their Ottoman and German masters, breaks off and forms their own independent tribe. Under the leadership of the fierce warrior Osman, they repudiate the Muslim faith and return to worshipping the pagan gods of their ancestors, exchanging their crescent flag for the banner of the white wolf. Osman and his band sweep across the desert in a rampage of pillaging and plundering. Along the way they capture a beautiful German agent named Olga. Her situation is hopeless, until a lone man comes riding out of the desert, an American gunfighter known to locals only by the name of El Borak.
All of the above is fictitious, of course, except for the first sentence. El Borak, born Francis Xavier Gordon, is a recurring character in the tales of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, better known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane. His novelette Son of the White Wolf was first published in the December 1936 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures.
Like many pulp-era adventure stories, this one is somewhat formulaic and predictable, but within the expected formula Howard pushes the boundaries as much as possible and injects enough surprises to elevate this piece well above the norm of its genre. Of all those writers who filled the pages of the vintage pulp magazines, Howard is perhaps the one who best appeals to today’s audience because he was the one who took things the farthest. Despite being written in the 1920s and ‘30s, his work is just as violent, gory, and nihilistic as the action movies being made in the 21st century. Nevertheless, he still manages to maintain some of the romantic spirit of a bygone age that one finds in the classic writings of Sir Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas. The Middle Eastern and Central Asian setting of the El Borak stories is not what Howard is known for. This subject matter is more typical of the writings of another famous pulp writer, Harold Lamb, who specialized in tales of this region. Yet Lamb’s writing is much tamer by comparison. Lamb could never let go of the ideals of chivalry and honor long enough to indulge himself in scenes that are violent enough to be scary. Howard, on the other hand, is not afraid to cross the line into brutality. Severed heads are the norm. Beyond providing gratuitous gore, such no-holds-barred violence actually creates a more historically accurate tone, as it seems history has proven that those engaged in warfare or torture in past centuries would have been more likely to employ unscrupulous cruelty rather than mercifully conform to some romantic code of ethics. In the heat of battle they wouldn’t have relented, so neither does Howard.
Obviously you’ve got to be in the mood for this sort of thing. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it sure is fun. I was unfamiliar with El Borak before reading this story, but if they’re all as well-done as Son of the Wolf, I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his adventures.
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