Thursday, February 28, 2013

"...two wild natures, thirsty for each others' life."

Last time we visited with Robert E Howard, we met Kirby O'Donnell, an Irish-American wanderer who found adventure in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But, by golly, Kirby wasn't the only Irish-American adventure who hung out in that part of the world in the early 20th Century. Howard also wrote about Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak ("The Swift").  Gordon wasn't quite as boisterous as Kirby. Whereas Kirby traveled alone or with a single companion, Gordon was often leading local tribesmen into battle. But both men were fantastic fighters and both were prone to find trouble wherever they went.

We've been taking a look at instances in which Howard's heroes were obligated by circumstances to team up with deadly enemies. It was always a temporary alliance, with the parties involved certain to return to killing each other at the first opportunity.

It's something that happened to them a lot. Which is just fine by me--it was a plot devise that Howard used very effectively.

We've already seen it happen once to Conan (and we'll have to return to the Barbarian again for another reluctant team-up with an enemy) and once to Kirby. It happened at least twice to El Borak.

"Son of the White Wolf" was published in the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Adventure magazine. This story is set during the First World War, during which Gordon allied himself with the British and helped out Lawrence of Arabia. But this time out, he's not going up against the Germans or the Ottomans. Instead, he runs across a band of Turks who have fallen under the sway of a madman--a man who plans to carve his own kingdom out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. He rescues a beautiful German spy from their clutches and runs for help. But he finds not the allies he was hoping to find, but a tribe of Arabs who fight for the Ottomans.

To stop the renegades, he must convince the Arabs that the mad would-be emperor is a danger to everyone. Then he has to lead the Arabs into a wild battle while simultaneously remaining wary of one of his erstwhile allies putting a bullet in his back.

But that wasn't the first time Gordon had to team-up with a deadly enemy. It also happened in "Blood of the Gods," which first appeared in the July 1935 issue of Top Notch magazine.

El Borak learns that a ruthless Englishman named Hawkston (along with Hawkston's band of thugs) has discovered where a hermit named Al Wazir is living. This particular hermit is owner of priceless rubies called the Blood of the Gods. Hawkston wants those rubies and he's willing to use murder and torture to get them. (Al Wazir's back story--explaining why he's a hermit and why he owns valuable treasure--is an interesting part of the story.)

Gordon is the hermit's friend, so he rides his camel across a trackless desert to find and protect Al Wazir. But a violent encounter with a band of Arabs (members of a tribe with whom he has a blood feud) leaves him on foot.

He still manages to reach the cliff-side caves in which Al Wazir is currently living. But the poor hermit--someone Gordon once knew as a compassionate and wise man--has degenerated into a homicidal maniac.

Then Hawkston shows up. But he's being pursued by the same Arabs who are also after Gordon. They've already killed Hawkston's followers, so the two men must team up to fight off their mutual enemy. If they survive that, then they can go back to killing each other over Al Wazir and the rubies.

"Son of the White Wolf" is a great story, but--even though it has some flaws--I really love "Blood of the Gods." Howard always does fantastic action scenes, but he outdoes himself in "Blood." There's a particularly intense hand-to-hand struggle at an oasis during Gordon's journey to the hermit's cave. The defense of the caves by Gordon and Hawkston against the attacking Arabs is equally intense and very exciting--involving both gun play and more hand-to-hand combat. And there's a sword fight at the stories climax that is nothing short of awesome.

I also like the way Gordon and Hawkston are portrayed when they are forced into a partnership. Howard makes it clear that Hawkston has no morals at all, but he's otherwise like Gordon in a lot of ways. Both men are brave, clever and experienced fighters. Hawkston is a sort of evil mirror image of Gordon. It's something that adds a lot of tension to an already tense situation.

This all makes me very forgiving of the story's flaws, which mostly relate to the plot structure. Most of the story is just fine in terms of good storytelling, but Howard relies a little too much on several unlikely contrivances at the denouement to get Gordon out of trouble and wrap up Al Wazir's story arc. And the ironic twist that ends the story is arguably predictable.

But that's okay. Awesome sword fights make everything better.

We still two more REH stories I want to look at--a Conan yarn set early in the barbarian's career and one involving the pirate Black Vulmea. Two more cases in which the protagonist must team up with a man who wants him dead. It's something that seems to be a genetic predisposition in Howard's adventurous heroes.

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