Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures
Reviewed by Brian Murphy
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:10 (#351) in October 2011.]
There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction … a single paragraph may be packed with action and drama enough to fill a whole volume of fiction. —Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard (1906–1936), whose pre-cataclysmic barbarians Conan the Cimmerian and Kull the Conqueror appeared in the pulp magazine pages of Weird Tales, was also a lover and a student of history. Arguably it was his chief passion in life, and for a while Howard tried to make a career as a writer of historical fiction. Unfortunately the exigencies of the pulp fiction market and his publish or die plight (Howard made his living as a writer in Depression-era Texas) did not allow him to perform the kind of careful research that was needed to write in the field, and so he returned to tales of swords and sorcery, the sub-genre of fantasy of which he is generally regarded as the progenitor.
But throughout his life, and particularly from 1930 to 1933 Howard penned a series of colorful historical fiction tales set in some of the most fertile periods of martial history. The Crusades, the Viking Age, the Roman Empire, and 16th-century France provided the backdrop for some of Howard’s most memorable stories. A handful were published in Howard’s lifetime in magazines like Oriental Stories and The Magic Carpet Magazine; most languished, unpublished, until the “Howard boom” of the 1960s and 1970s.
Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, the eleventh volume of Howard’s works published by Del Rey, collects much of Howard’s historical fiction and poetry. The Del Reys are a grail for the serious Howard fan. For years, about the only Howard fiction one could easily buy was the Lancer/Ace paperbacks, the editors of which engaged in some ill-advised and heavy-handed editing Howard’s texts and placed them alongside pastiches of questionable quality. The
Del Reys restore Howard’s original, unaltered prose to its full glory and adorn them with wonderful black and white interior illustrations and informative introductions and afterwords by Howard scholars.
Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures continues this tradition of Del Rey quality. It includes 16 stories, a handful of poems, and some gorgeous interior art by John Watkiss. Historical fiction author Scott Oden (Men of Bronze, The Lion of Cairo) provides the introduction, and author/editor Howard Andrew Jones adds an exhaustive concluding essay, “Howard’s Journey: Historical Influences to Historical Triumphs.” Sword Woman also includes several untitled fragments and notes on Howard’s original texts.
What makes Howard such a great and enduring writer? First and foremost, his ability to write gripping, colorful, blood-drenched, action-packed scenes that draw the reader in effortlessly. For example, witness this passage from The Road of Azrael, a story that includes a glorious mish-mash of Moslems, Crusaders, and Vikings, and even an appearance by Harold, King of the Saxons, who in Howard’s universe survived an arrow to the eye at Hastings and lived for years among the Danes, fighting one-eyed in the shield wall:
I had thought the Crusaders mighty fighters, but never had I seen such warriors as these, who never tired, whose light eyes blazed with strange madness, and who chanted wild songs as they smote. Aye, they dealt great blows! I saw Skel Thorwald’s son hew a Kurd through the hips so the legs fell one way and the torso another. I saw King Harold deal a Turk such a blow that the head flew ten paces from the body. I saw Hrothgar hew off a Persian’s leg at the thigh, though the leg was cased in heavy mail.
Sword Woman also demonstrates Howard’s talent for writing colorful, memorable characters. These include warriors like Cormac FitzGeoffrey, a half-Irish, half Norman with enormous strength who fights with a terrible ferocity, and Diego de Guzman, a Spaniard who visits Cairo in the guise of a Muslim on a message on revenge. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Giles Hobson, the rotund vagabond protagonist of Gates of Empire, one of the gems of the collection. Gates opens with a drunken jest Hobson plays on Sir Guiscard de Chastillon, an irritable, humorless knight just back from crusading in the holy land. Hobson flees one step ahead of the enraged Guiscard, and with impeccable comedic timing the two run into each other again and again throughout the tale, typically in the midst of life and death situations in which Guiscard’s desire for vengeance threatens to overcome his own self-preservation. Howard was, to borrow a phrase he used to describe his most famous creation Conan, a man of gigantic melancholies and a gigantic mirth.
As the title of the collection implies, Sword Woman also includes warriors of the female persuasion. Some critics have accused Howard of misogyny, and certainly there are maidens who wind up across the bow of the saddle of Howard’s heroes as they ride off into the sunset. But Howard also penned some incredibly strong and unforgettable female warriors capable of holding their own against any man. The eponymous Sword Woman from which this collection takes its name contains one of his most vivid female creations, Agnes de Chastillon. Agnes is headstrong, proud, vicious fighter who shuns marriage for the perils and adventure of the open road. Sword Woman opens with Agnes driving a dagger into the breast of her would-be husband, a marriage of interest arranged against her will by her overbearing ogre of a father. When Agnes awakes the next day in her torn wedding dress, she has discovered a buried life within, women’s liberation born in blood:
I sat up, wondering for an instant at the strangeness of it all, then sight of my torn wedding robes and the blood-crusted dagger in my girdle brought it all back. And I laughed again as I remembered Francois’ expression as he fell, and a wild surge of freedom flooded me, so I felt like dancing and singing like a mad woman.
In addition to his characterization and ability to write headlong action, Howard was a writer of surprising depths. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Howard expressed a heavy melancholy for that which has been lost in the marches of time, casting a sad glance over his shoulder at receding history and the glories of wilder, freer times. Read enough Howard and you encounter a sense of foreboding and doom, the call of the abyss. One of Howard’s deepest beliefs, expressed in his
fiction and in his personal letters, was that barbarism was the natural state of mankind. The longer cities remain civilized, the more they drift from their strong beginnings carved out by the sword-arm, and the more corrupt they become. Warriors must remain in motion lest their sword-edge — and their killer’s edge — grow rusty and dull from disuse. This sentiment reaches its fruition in “Beyond the Black River,” arguably his finest Conan story, but we see it expressed in his historical fiction and his poetry, too, as in “The Outgoing of Sigurd the Jerusalem-Farer.”