Hot on the heels of a discussion of various ‘planetary romances’ set on Mars, I turned to Robert E. Howard’s own take on said romances: the tale of the savage world of Almuric:
I have to admit, Howard fan that I am, that I was completely unaware of this novel before the Planet Stories edition, especially embarrassing because it is one of Howard’s very few novels!
The book is a mixture of the planetary romance of Burroughs and the barbarian saga which was pure Howard. It is perhaps one of Howard’s least successful adventure stories, but seems in many ways to be the ‘ultimate’ Robert E. Howard story, as it combines many of his themes (and pet peeves) into one fantasy world…
Almuric is the story of Esau Cairn, an untamed man from the southwest who, fleeing from the law, manages to get himself transported across the cosmos to a primeval planet. Cairn arrives, naked and alone, in a hostile wilderness of unearthly, vicious beasts and must learn to survive as a savage. Eventually, having eked out an existence as a wild man, Esau seeks out and eventually joins a tribe of primitive men known as the Guras. Things really take off, however, when Esau falls in love with Altha, a princess of the Guras. Altha is kidnapped by a vicious race of winged demons, and Esau must rally an army and travel into the forbidden reaches of Almuric to rescue her.
The creatures and humanlike races on Almuric are legion. Esau faces off against disturbingly prehensile hyena-like creatures, vicious creatures which look like a cross between a hyena and a bear, sabretooth leopards, moose-like creatures with alligator-like tusks, and monstrously huge predators which stalk unseen through the darkness.
Among the humanlike races, Esau meets and first hooks up with the Guras. The men of the Guras are big, brutish, and apelike, while the women are soft, gentle, and stunningly beautiful. The Guras are divided into isolated city-states which are hostile to each other and occasionally wage war. Gura society is based on strength: the right to be a member of the tribe is based on one’s ability to fight, and arguments are immediately solved through violence, and never through political intrigue.
The other race which plays a major role in Almuric is the race of ebon-skinned, winged and demonic Yagas, who terrorize the other races from a whispered-of citadel in the south. A few other humanlike races, including yellow-skinned, copper-skinned, and blue-skinned humanoids, are seen briefly and are assumed to come from beyond “The Girdle”, a massive wall which encircles the waist of the planet and across which no races typically pass.
Almuric is definitely inspired by Burroughs’ Martian fantasies. Just as Burroughs introduces the tale of Carter through a manuscript supposedly entrusted to his care, Howard introduces the tale of Cairn via ‘ghostly whisperings’ across the cosmos to the scientist who first sent him to Almuric. Also present are the savage, almost amoral tribes who must be united by the hero’s example, as well as the obligatory lovely princess! Howard takes the story in a different direction, though: Esau’s tale is almost literally the story of Esau’s “single-handed” evolution from savage to barbarian to tribal leader. He arrives on Almuric naked and defenseless, learns to eke out an existence as a hunter-gatherer, and then joins a tribe. In Howard’s own words, “I who had begun my life as a naked savage, now took the next step on the ladder of evolution and became a barbarian.” By the end of Almuric, Howard has loosely joined together several tribes; were it not for his unfortunate suicide, one suspects that he might have continued the Almuric series to describe the transition of Esau and the planet’s inhabitants to higher forms of society.
Unlike his more famous characters and worlds, the tale of Esau in Almuric seems somewhat undeveloped. The world is nowhere nearly as well flesh-out as Conan’s world of the Hyborian Age. Aside from the above-mentioned information, we learn relatively little about the world and its peoples, except for the information mentioned above and tantalizing hints of other lost civilizations. The writing is also nowhere nearly as elegant as Howard’s other works, which has led some to speculate that the work was in fact written by Howard’s agent.
This position is the minority view, however, and for good reason. The writing is simpler and less eloquent than the Conan series, but it encompasses most of the themes that Howard expounded upon and believed in during his life.
I’ve been meaning to write more about themes of Howard’s work, and will hopefully get back to a more detailed discussion in a later post. The one prevailing theme that carries throughout most of his work, from Conan to Kull to Kane to Cairn, is an admiration for the open and honest conflict of barbarian peoples and a disdain for supposedly more ‘civilized’ peoples. For instance, from Howard’s own writing (letter to HPL, 2 Nov 1932),
He had neither stability nor undue dignity. He was ferocious, brutal and frequently squalid. He was haunted by dim and shadowy fears; he committed horrible crimes for strange monstrous reasons… But he was lithe and strong as a panther, and the full joy of strenuous physical exertion was his. The day and the night were his book, wherein he read of all things that run or walk or crawl or fly… Often he starved, but when he feasted, it was with a mighty gusto, and the juices of food and strong drink were stinging wine to his palate… I would not choose to plunge into such a life now; it would be the sheerest of hells to me, unfitted as I am for such an existence. But I do say that if I had the choice of another existence, to be born into it and raised in it, knowing no other, I’d choose such an existence as I’ve just sought to depict.
Howard specifically denies a dislike of civilization; only that he felt that people are not as civilized as they pretended to be, and often masked their horrifying behaviors under the guise of “progress” and “law”. Howard grew up in Texas during the era of the robber barons, and observed first-hand a corrupt legal system that rewarded bad behavior and punished the innocent. From Howard’s letters (to HPL, 5 December 1935),
You will probably take all this a direct attack on civilization. It isn’t intended as such. I’m only replying to your comment that you were surprised that I should say that civilized men justified their thieveries and butcheries by asserting motives of progress.
You don’t have to go to war to find this hypocrisy. Every corporation that has ever come into the Southwest bent solely on looting the region’s people and resources has waved a banner of “progress and civilization”! A few years ago we, the native element, kicked out the rottenest, most cynical and most corrupt administration that had been inflicted on the State since carpet-bag days. And what a howl went up from the outside interests that supported it and were fed by it in turn! And what was the burden of their squawk? Mainly that we had “turned the clock back!” … Why all this caterwauling? Because we refused any longer to see our natural resources stolen from under our noses. Because we were tired of seeing corporations located in other sections grab huge monopolies on reesources which they sucked dry and departed with bulging money-bags, leaving a devastated land behind them… Please let me say that I don’t accuse all alien interests of motives of plunder and exploitation. To do so would be ridiculous. Probably the mass of them are honest and upright; but there are always wolves among the sheep, and invariably the former proclaim the same aims and motives of the latter.
This view can be compared with Esau Cairn’s own troubles with the same sort of barons,
Of the final burst of blind passion that banished him for ever from the life wherein he roamed, a stranger, I need say little. It was a nine-days’ wonder, and the papers exploited it with screaming headlines. It was an old story — a rotten city government, a crooked political boss, a man chosen, unwittingly on his part, to be used as a tool and serve as a puppet.
Cairn, restless, weary of the monotony of a life for which he was unsuited, was an ideal tool – for a while. But Cairn was neither a criminal nor a fool. He understood their game quicker than they expected, and took a stand surprisingly firm to them, who did not know the real man.
Yet, even so, the result would not have been so violent if the man who had used and ruined Cairn had any real intelligence. Used to grinding men under his feet and seeing them cringe and beg for mercy, Boss Blaine could not understand that he was dealing with a man to whom his power and wealth meant nothing.
Yet so schooled was Cairn to iron self-control that it required first a gross insult, then an actual blow on the part of Blaine, to rouse him.
Cairn was no fool. With the red haze of fury fading from his glare, he realized that he could not hope to escape the vengeance of the machine that controlled the city.
My impression is that the tale of Almuric represents, at least in part, Howard’s own longing to participate in an earlier, simpler time, and that Cairn himself represents Howard as he hoped he could be.
I realized that I, too, had been partly dead on my native planet. But now I was alive in every sense of the word; I tingled and burned and stung with life to the finger tips and the ends of my toes.
All my life I had held down my instincts, had chained and enthralled my over-abundant vitalities. Now I was free to hurl all my mental and physical powers into the untamed struggle for existence, and I knew such zest and freedom as I had never dreamed of.
As a planetary romance, Almuric falls a bit short of the works of Burroughs, Moore, and Brackett. It is a nice, rousing tale, however, that gives some insight into Howard’s own fascination with the barbarian spirit.
I, for one, would greatly appreciate an expanded treatment of Howard’s themes. I hadn’t made the connection between the oil barons and the self-indulgent oblivion of the Lemurians until you mentioned it, and I’d like to hear your insights about Howard’s other themes.
If you havn’t, I’d suggest you check out The Day After Ragnarok, a role-playing game setting based on Howardian themes by Ken Hite. The premise is that the Nazis in 1943 initiated ragnarok, and the great serpent was unleashed on the earth. President Trueman ordered a suicide mission to fly an atomic bomb into the serpent’s eye, which killed it, but it’s fall has ruined the earth. I’d say more, but I wouldn’t do it justice. There’s a review here:
Thanks for the blog. It’s a treat.
Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll have to look into The Day After Ragnarok.
I should hopefully be discussing more of Howard’s ideas and themes in upcoming posts; I’ve been delving into his letters again recently.