Howard’s Mind: A well of fantasy plots.
According to the forward by Fritz Leiber in my 1978 printing of Marchers of Valhalla, this ambitious titular story of the collection shows the origins of “the Hyborean Age,” which later gave us the Conan stories. Mixing the dust of his native Texas with the dark soil of the Celtic and Nordic lands, REH constructed story ideas like a boy at play and spun them into tales with all the style he could gather on his own. It is a collection for which Howard fans ought to thankful—at least to Glenn Lord, who had it published long after Howard’s death. As I read them, this book challenges me in a way that no other Howard story ever has.
I didn’t read this one early on, except to dip into it ever so slightly and see that that it was a matter of early work, but I’ve had the fortune to look at it now, and I’m glad I did. Marchers of Valhalla alone is worthy of a look, even if it is, as Leiber says, an “apprentice piece.” There’s much good to say about it, starting with the germ of the story idea itself. Its central character, James Allison, in his present, is beset with a crippling malady. This character, despite his lack of ability, is allowed to recall past lives of heroic action and tells us that as he relates this stoty, he experiences it as his memory: he is the prehistoric viking, Hialmar as much as he is JAMES Allison. Allison, a twentieth century Texan, having lost a leg by accident and lives a life of misery amongst the shinnery and post-oaks of his dusty land.
Like another of his “past lives” characters, John Garfield—the same fellow in “Old Garfield’s Heart” I mentioned before, James Allison is lifted from the dull emptiness of his modern existence and allowed to live heroically in his memory. Truthfully, had Howard taken time with it, showing more of the Allison/Hialmar interface and exploiting the struggle of the modern man and the barbarian within, he’d have had a novel that broke really important ground, with a character caught between his desires and his realities, not unlike Hamlet.
Marchers’s plot is also worthy of a superhero movie, having a three act arc, along with the required conflicts and reversals that satisfy todays’ audiences. The ending sets up another adventure, and it all moves along at a brisk pace with interesting characters, if not very well developed ones. My point is that Marchers, along with the other stories in the collection, show us a writer well on his way to crafting consistent make-believe worlds and characters who live out the stories of such worlds. While Howard might have lacked the background of noted writers in his field, like Lovecraft, Smith, or Burroughs, he had the drive and the raw talent to piece together complex stories and bring them to conclusion.
The stories in the Marchers collection illustrate the great start he gave himself in creating his Hyborean Age, especially the manner in which he manipulated myths and past cultures to tell stories that embodied his own doomed desire for freedom. Leiber notes in his closing remarks that Howard’s bleak endings offer a foreshadowing of Howard’s demise, and Marchers is no exception. But when it comes right down to it, the thing I admire about Marchers of Valhalla has to do with Howard’s drive to publish.
A big part of Howard’s dream was to support himself with his writing, to remain free of bondage to any man or job that tied him to a task or schedule other than his own. The thing I admire so much about this is how that drive prompted the young Howard to take chances, to put out there what was raw and rough, and, when it gets right down to it, that’s what I wish I would have done much earlier in life. I never dreamed that a story I could come up with would bear up under criticism. People might suggest that Howard should have worried more about style, diction, depth of character. But even just criticisms should not be damning enough to keep someone from putting ideas together and getting them out to others. I don’t know how many novels I’ve hears about that will never be written because of this doubt.
Howard’s Mind: A well of fantasy plots.