The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.
Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:
Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.
This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)
Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.
Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?
It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…
I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.
These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.
The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.
So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)
This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.
Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).
Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: ‘My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’
These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.
In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.
The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.
When we first considered bringing out a book of our short stories, which was to become The Red Man and Others, it went without saying that it’d be illustrated. I’ve got a background in illustration, so we’ve got the ‘in house’ talent, but we also like the look and feel of illustrated books: the art adds a sense of occasion.
Illustrated books, and not only children’s books, used to be common. When I take one of our old Rider Haggard books from the shelf, or Dickens, or our antique Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ll find illustrations in there; at least a frontispiece. Yet, somewhere during the last century, illustrations disappeared from ‘adult’ books. There are different factors behind this, I think, some cultural, others technical. Many books of yore first appeared in magazines, which as a rule were heavily illustrated. Others, like the works of Dickens, appeared as cheap partworks, the predecessors of the pulps. Illustrations, in woodcut or engraving, offered a one-glance appeal to potential buyers.
Mostly, illustrations would be made ready for print by an engraver. They were highly skilled craftsmen. You can see this most clearly when looking at the work by Gustav Doré; some prints are neatly engraved with parallel hatching, others have a more organic, ‘woolly’ treatment. Maurice Greiffenhagen, who did many awesome paintings for H. Rider Haggard’s stories, painted his illustrations in gouache, after which they were rendered by an engraver.
Then, at the end of the 19th century, photographic reproduction became available to printers. It was cheaper but also more versatile. For magazines and newspapers in particular this was a revolution: They were no longer dependant on an artist’s impression of newsworthy items, or an engraver’s rendition of photographs; they could print photographs as they were. I wonder whether this had an impact on how illustrations were seen – as old-fashioned, perhaps, or ‘the next best thing after photographs’. Compare how radio plays took a backseat to films, even though radio drama is a valid art form in itself.
Illustrations kept going strong in the magazines and, when we talk about the science fiction and horror field, the pulps in particular. Really interesting things went on there too; Virgil Finlay is of course a fan favourite, though personally I find the illustrations by Lee Brown Coye and Hannes Bok much more imaginative. Hugh Rankin’s work may look rough and unfinished, yet on closer inspection has a delicious art deco sensibility and leaves room for the imagination. In fact, it’s Finlay’s work which I find less and less satisfying, reliant as it is on photo references. He did put a lot of work in stippling all those shades of grey, though.
If you look at pulps from the time of their decline in the 1950s and ’60s, when they moved over to a digest format, you’ll see the illustrations change: they become more simplified and stylized. Science fiction then moved away from bug eyed monsters and big-bosomed girls in peril, and an atomic age sensibility took over. It’s noticeable that magazines like New Worlds opted for more abstracted and dynamic cover design, with no internal illustrations. The message to readers seems to have been that this was not like the old stuff: this was serious Science Fiction, not frivolous junk.
As paperbacks took over the spinner racks previously dominated by the pulps, and Weird Tales was no more than a fond memory (despite attempts to reanimate its corpse), illustrations could still be found there, but only with the frivolous junk Sword and Sorcery anthologies. Old Weird Tales illustrations were repurposed, Roy G. Krenkel illustrated Robert E. Howard’s stories for Donald M. Grant’s hardbacks (then badly reproduced in paperback), and Stephen Fabian diligently stippled his way through several paperbacks and fanzines. You get a sense that illustrations were used despite the trend; that they happened because of an editor or publisher’s love for the old pulp format. It just didn’t feel right to do without – even lesser publications had artists bravely stippling away. More recently, Wandering Star published Robert E. Howard’s work in luxurious hardbacks, illustrated by top talent like Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. These editions were (affordably) republished in paperback by Del Rey.
Outside Weird Tales-derived anthologies (and even within – I’m not aware of a culture of illustrating Lovecraft), there wasn’t much illustration being done. Money had something to do with it too: illustrators need to be paid, and cost-conscious publisher were cramming as much (ever increasing) wordage within paperback covers as they could. I guess this then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a certain snobbery attached. I at least was smugly proud of myself when I read Lord of the Rings in the tiniest print imaginable. Of course, another kid in the bus yanked it from my hands and declared to all fellow travellers that I was reading fairytales with gnomes and such. ‘But… they’re not gnomes! They’re Hobbits! And it’s a recognised work of literature!’ I tried to stem the laughter, in vain. Illustrations might not have helped make my point.
Outside the safe space of fandom you could find illustrated books for two completely opposite market segments. You had the Folio Society books on one hand: expensive, illustrated hardbacks of classics. Then you had the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books: cheaper, illustrated hardbacks of contemporary bestsellers which were obtained by subscription: everyone could have their home library (and everyone’s heir their white elephant – as Wikipedia has it: ‘Despite this popularity, old copies are notoriously difficult to sell.’). What both series have in common is that they’ve got top talent illustrating, giving each book a certain allure. I certainly wouldn’t mind having the condensed Notre Dame for Ronald Searle’s illustrations alone!
And with digital making inroads in our reading habits, perhaps that’s where it’s heading: paper books as ‘have-things’. One book on kindle for in the bus, one for on the shelf. It’s certainly what I see in the bookshops, where classics in particular are sold in several formats, with different, stylish covers. Buying a book for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, has become an occasion again. It’s certainly what we’ve aimed for with The Red Man and Others: with the cover illustration, font choice and lay-out, with the title designs and especially the illustrations we wanted to make it into an attractive book, which people would want to put on their shelf, to occasionally pick up and dip into.
It takes much longer to write stories than to read them; plotting, drafting, screaming in frustration and starting again – never mind all the tear-stained pages on which we honed our craft, which will never see the light of day. We’re fortunate that it’s not our book sales that keep our cat (and ourselves) in kibble. However, when you buy our book, you help us to justify the time and energy we spend on the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. While we’ve been overwhelmed by the great reactions we’ve had on our book, it all comes down to this: do we have enough sales to make it worth writing their further adventures, or do we focus on other stories?
If you like what we’ve been doing with The Red Man and Others and would like to support us (or any other indie writer whose work you’ve enjoyed) you can do the following.
Spread the word on social media. This is an important one, if not the most important: if people don’t know our book exists, they can’t buy it. The indie writer’s social media reach is limited, and their friends-list will at a certain point be fed up with them banging their drum. So, they need to break out of their own tweet-circle. You can help by retweeting, and definitely by letting your own peeps know that you’ve read an amazing book, and why you thought it was amazing.
Give our book as a present. Did you read our book, and you think it’d be perfect for this or that friend or family member? Buy it for them as a gift. More and more authors these days are offering to sign bookplates remotely, and we hope that physical events will return soon, so we can meet you and sign and dedicate our book in person.
Let us know that you love our work, and what particularly spoke to you. We spend a lot of time behind our keyboards wondering whether we’re reaching people, whether our characters have truly come to life, and whether our messages have landed. Our egos may be tender, but they can really blossom with a well-placed kind word.
Review or rate our book on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and The Storygraph. Reviews help further sales, push us up the Amazon rankings, and help authors get (better) contracts or other opportunities. Do you write reviews for a magazine, website or blog? We’d be overjoyed with the exposure (if, let’s be honest, it’s positive) and will happily provide you with images and other info to present it well.
Read it with your book group. Perhaps The Red Man and Others is something you’d like to read with your book group? Let us know! We might not be able to provide you with bulk-discounted copies, but we can provide you with talking points and anything else that might make it a great group reading experience. If the stars align, we’ll even come by (through the power of Zoom) to chat about our work and answer questions.
Buy ebooks legitimately! Research showed that only a fraction of the books on the average e-reader were bought legally. People assume that big names can absorb the losses through piracy, and for a small number of bestselling authors that may be true, at least financially speaking. It affects publishers’ bottom line, however, and with it their willingness to support ongoing series or to take a chance on lesser known name. Ultimately, this hurts us all, authors and readers alike.
Buying a physical copy? If your indie author is lucky enough not to be beholden to Amazon for their sales, choose an indie bookshop that supports local authors. Two of our favourite local bookshops are No Alibis in Belfast, and The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus. They’re both brilliant at helping readers find books they don’t yet know they’ll love.
Check their book out from the library, and if they don’t have it – ask for it. The UK has Public Lending Right, which means that authors get a bit of money every time their book is checked out.
Attend events like arts/lit festivals, book launches and readings. Sometimes, writers are allowed out in the wild, and they’ll be happy to see you in the audience. With Covid stalking the land, it’s even easier to attend events through Facebook, Zoom and other platforms; you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and your pyjamas! If there’s a chance of a Q&A you might think of some questions to stimulate audience participation.
Connect with us! Visit our blog to read our thoughts on fiction writing, folklore and pop culture, and subscribe to our email newsletter to keep up to speed on what we’re working on, and with a grab bag of what we found around the ‘net. You can find all our useful links on Linktree.
Writers sometimes say that their characters start to lead a life of their own. This definitely has turned out to be true for Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. We started out with a basic outline of who they were, but during the stories we wrote for The Red Man and Others and the follow-ups we’re working on, their personalities definitely have become more complex and nuanced. It’s not easy to define exactly who they are, and often it comes down to ‘Kaila would definitely do this’ or ‘Sebastien would never say that’. For Ymke, we found the one word that encompasses a lot of who she is, how she thinks and what she believes in: Northernness.
This actually came up during a discussion about a project we’ve got in the fridge, about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller M.S. Teenstra – and in the back of the fridge, slightly mouldy, a project about the ornery northern Dutch writer/traveller J.J. Slauerhoff. Angeline mentioned Northernness, a term used by C.S. Lewis in his Surprised by Joy, and asked whether it’d be translatable to Dutch. It’s a term that encompasses a lot, but has no strict boundaries:
…Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country…
And to go a bit deeper into the rabbit hole, Joy is understood as:
…it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. …I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.
To answer Angeline’s question: Northernness can be translated as Noordsigheid, and it is applicable to Teenstra and Slauerhoff, both writers who travelled to the remote corners of their world, had experiences they could not hope to explain to others (not for want of trying), and yet could never find that single thing that would truly make them happy. Perhaps it was because searched so far that they forgot to look close by; I am reminded of John Boorman’s Excalibur, in which the Knights of the Round Table seek the length and breadth of the realm for the Grail, until Parcival dreams of it while on the verge of death. What is the secret of the Grail? The King and the Land are one, is the answer. Who does it serve? The shadowy figure asks. We may be mistaken this figure for Christ, or God, but no; when the King and the Land are one, we’re looking at a pre-Christian, rural past of agrarian cycles and customs like the May Queen and, per James George Frazer, the Sacred King, who’d take place next to the Earth Goddess for a year.
A sidestep to my dad. While we’re from very orthodox Protestant stock, my grandfather broke with the church, and my father was a Christian in name only. However, he found spirituality outdoors; even when pensioned he’d be up at dawn and on his bicycle, and could be found in the nature reserve close by, or in the polder, the land reclaimed from the sea, while the world was still asleep. This, for me, is a feature of Northernness: the spirituality of the landscape, and the way the northern soul is attuned to it. This is not something that is talked about; it’s a personal relationship. God does not live in a church; God is in the landscape, is the land. With that, the Sacred King, like Arthur, is a stand-in for that deity, but in a way all us northerners are.
One of the most popular and enduring songs in my native Gronings dialect is Ede Staal’s ‘Mien Hogelaand’. You can find the full text here, with the Dutch translation which Google will help you render in your language of choice. It’s worth listening to, even if you don’t get the words, as part of the song’s meaning is in the melody. (Hogelaand, or Highland, is what the area is called – it’s ever so slightly raised, which was a plus in bygone times of floods).
It’s the sky behind Uithuizen, it’s the little tower of Spijk, It’s the road from Leens to Kloosterburen, and through Westpolder along the dike. It’s the windmills and the canals, the churches and the strongholds. It’s the land where as a child, I didn’t know of pain or sorrow. That’s my land, my High Land
These examples are not postcard pictures. The accumulation of places, for anyone having grown up there, will go straight to the heart. Ede zooms in gradually, his broad strokes becoming more detailed:
It’s the wheat fields, it’s the oats, It’s the rapeseed in bloom It’s the horizon at Ranum, Just after a thunderstorm
The song goes from the permanence of the landscape to the cyclical nature of the harvest, and to the momentary, to how the horizon looks after a thunderstorm. That he mentions the village of Ranum is immaterial; we from Groningen recognise the wideness of the landscape, and how that sky looks in the distance. Then, he gets personal, and places himself inside of the landscape and the song:
It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland. I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand. The wild plans that I had – Nothing will come of them, until the night in the High Land, lays its dark cloak over us.
This is Northernness, Ede sings about, and Joy: it’s a nostalgia that lies as much in a moment as in the place. Did that moment indeed happen the way he describes, or is his longing for how he remembers it, or wants to remember? There’s a Dutch word, Heimwee, homesickness, which reaches further than ‘home’ alone. It’s a yearning like the German Sehnsucht, or the Welsh term hireath, described as ‘the feeling of longing for a home that no longer exists or never was. A deep and irrational bond felt with a time, era, place or person.’ In Groninger dialect, there’s the word wènst, as in “Ik heb wènst van die”, for which the translation “I miss you” doesn’t reach deep enough. For the Northerner, this longed-for place does exist; the villages may have changed, with shops closing and doors no longer kept unlocked, the landscape in its broad strokes is still there.
Artists from Groningen have tried to tap into this. Of a younger generation than Ede Staal is Marlene Bakker, whose Waarkhanden exudes the same heimwee, linking a personal past with the rurallandscape. Its video celebrates the heavy clay of which the Groninger soil is made and which sticks to our feet (figuratively) wherever we go. From the early 1920s, inspired by German expressionists, the members of the artistic circle De Ploeg started portraying the landscape, not as it strictly was (no impressionism or realism here), but as they felt it. That Grail, which Parcival sought, is there, be it perhaps just out of reach: the Northerner and the Land are as one, and for better or worse, this is where the well of happiness, Joy, lies.
So, Northernness. That’s how we’ve decided to characterise Ymke, who comes from an analogue to the rural Dutch north. It’s still a somewhat amorphous description, but it’ll do. As a farm girl she was keenly aware of the enduringness of the landscape – the fields that had been there for generations, the paths that were trod since the first people came to the area, but also the cyclical nature of the seasons. She knows about patience, about sowing a seed and then to wait, trusting that it’ll come up much later, and about finding the brightness in the moment, the way the morning sky looks a bit different every time, the singing bird and ribbitting frog, the flower opening up and the bee with its pollen-encrusted butt. She feels deeply and passionately, yet her convictions are strong as tree roots, below the clay.
We did this portrait of Maeve Binchy (1939-2012) years ago for Verbal Magazine, in our series ‘A Bluffer’s Guide To Irish Writers’ – something we’d love to pick up again!
Maeve Binchy has described her childhood in the rustic town of Dalkey as unsuitable for an Irish writer: it was a happy childhood. Books were read, stories were told, and nobody possessed the gift of blarney as wee Maeve did.
Had not her pupils pooled their pocket money to send her to Israel, hopefully out of gratitude, she might well have remained a school teacher. But her father sent her holiday letters to the Irish Independent, where they saw print, and an author was born.
She specialized in slice-of-life columns and settled into a cottage a mere stone’s throw from where she was raised. She and her husband wrote side by side, their happiness only marred by abject poverty. Luckily, the novel she’d written on the side turned out an instant hit and the wolf was kept from the cottage door for good.
She knows that hers is not an audience of scholars, but people who mark their page in a book by folding the corner. At heart, every American is Oirish, and whenTara Road was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club by that Queen of Daytime Television, they clasped Maeve to their collective bosom.
She may be a world famous author, winner of numerous awards and be the Godmother of Irish chick lit, but Maeve remains unspoilt by her success. Doing the cottage up a bit has been her only authorly extravagance to date; for Maeve Binchy, there’s no place like home.
Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.
To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.
The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.
It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!
Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.
A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?
Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.
These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?
When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!
Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.
Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.
And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the Riverstories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”
I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.
Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.
Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.
With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.
Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.
Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.
What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.
Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.
So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?
Let’s start with this: the Oera Linda book is a fake, probably put together as a satire on the Frisian nationalism of the 1870s, orthodox Christians, and the Frisian antiquarians’ zeal to piece together a Great Frisian History that never existed. The joke got out of hand when a prominent Frisian antiquarian took it seriously and had it published as genuine. While by the late 1870s it was generally recognised as a forgery, it was translated into German in 1933, dubbed “the Nordic Bible” and a panel discussion in 1934 inspired Himmler’s Ahnenerbe. It again popped up with the neopagans from the late 1970s onwards, and it’s become a bit of a darling of neo-Nazis too.
As we live in an era in which history is all too easily dismissed as ‘old stuff for the scrapyard,’ we would do well to remember that the study of history is a living thing in itself. Not only do we keep learning about who we are, we also keep placing history in its proper context and finding new angles: a lot of our thinking about history, and indeed history writing, was formed by the 18th and 19th century culture of conquest, empire building and white male supremacy. Only now have we begun to write women back into history, and PoCs and other groups previously omitted. In studying and teaching history, another important role is to fight the misuse and perversion of history, for example by those neo-Nazis.
But let us go back to the earliest mentions of the Oera Linda book in the Dutch papers! The first mention we find is in the Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant of 16th November, 1871.
The bookseller H. Kuipers in Leeuwarden has sent a prospectus of the much discussed manuscript: Thet Oera Linda Bok, of which dr. J. G. Ottema has taken on the editing and translating. The prospectus states that under this title a collection of writings is offered, of which the first is called: Thet bok thére Adela Folstar and is written by Adela, the wife of Apol Grêvetman ovir the Linda wrda, the second by Apollonia her daughter, the rest by her later descendants Frêthorik en Wiljow, their son Konerêd and grandson Bêden, who all have the family name Oera Linda. The first two pieces, the prospectus says, give the most important messages about the country, the people, the social position and religion of the Frisians in the earliest centuries. The later pieces contain a history of Friso and his successors. The authors mark themselves as contemporaries of the incidents of which they write, or give an attestation of the source of the messages. The whole is a strange addition to the old Frisian letters…
In the prospectus a page has been printed from the writing by Fréthorik Tobinomath Oera Linda about the arrival of Friso in Staveren. The first page, of which the first words are in the original language goes like this: Twa jêr nêi that Gosa moder wrde, kêm er en flâte to thet Flymare en fala. Thet folk hropte ho-n-sêen; which according to the prospectus should be read as: Two years after Gosa became honorary mother, a fleet came to the Flymeer. The people called ‘Houzee!’ They sailed to Staveren, and there they called again. The banners were in top and at night they shot burning arrows in the sky. When day broke, some of them rowed to the harbour. They again called ‘Houzee!’ When they came to land a young man jumped on the shore. In his hands he carried a shield; on which were laid bread and salt. After him came an old man. He said: we come from the far Krekaland, to preserve our customs; now we wish that you are so friendly as to give us enough land to live on. He told us a whole history, which I will narrate in more detail afterwards. The elder didn’t know what to do. They send messengers round, also to myself. I went to them and said: now we have a Mother, we should ask her counsel. (Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant, 16Nov, 1871)
It goes on like this. You may have noticed that Friso, the founding father of the Frisians according to myths, comes from Krekaland – a hardly disguised Greece, “Griekenland” in Dutch. They have sailed past an island called Kreta, after the shouting (“kreten”) of the inhabitants when they see the ship. This in itself should have been a tip-off for Dr. Ottema that this document was a stinker. Not so. From the same newspaper, on 10th of October 1872, this notice: At H. Kuipers from Leeuwarded rolls off the press: Thet oera linda bok. After a manuscript from the thirteenth century. Edited, translated and published by Dr. J.G. Ottema. Price: Fl 4.
And it was good enough for some! From the Leeuwarder Courant of a week later, a book report. The newspaper only prints part of what apparently was a longer letter.
Finally the manuscript, that last year caused so much ruction amongst men of letters, has been published. Then I’ve always said: we can and must not judge before the whole work has been printed and read by us. And what impression has reading it left us with? Such a thing could one not invent; like this could someone from our century, from the us known practitioners of the Frisian language, not have composed it. The new, and so far unknown and so mathematically formed writing system; – the peculiar spelling of the old-Frisian, older and better than that of the old Frisian laws; – the style and appearance of myths and legends, as pieces from different, from older times remained writings from different people in different times; but especially the contents, the thoughts, the characteristic expressions and original images, – this all contradicts the possibility that it could be an invention from our own time. (…)
It is a miracle book which, however you look at it, praise it or doubt it, will remain a mystery, while for its provenance the honesty of the owner, who won’t sell it for any money, is guaranteed. For him it is an heirloom from his father and forefathers, and he still lives in the area which was the stage of most of what happened: because this is remarkable too, that it contains so many details about the area between the province of Noord-Holland and the islands and Staveren, and mentions countries, forests and places of which we know so little, because they have been swallowed by the South Sea in the 12th and 13th century. Though – read the book yourself and write to me what you think. Your friend, F. (Leeuwarder Courant, 18 Oct 1872)
In 1873 academics were still stroking their learned chins. The Frisian Society for History, Antiquities and Language had their 135th meeting on the 27th of August. Twenty members and two guests heard a lecture from Dr. A.T. Reitsma, a historical-critical investigation of Thet Oera Linda bok. He encapsulated its authenticity in three questions: 1. Was the manuscript really written in 1256 by Hiddo Oera Linda? 2. Is it a copy of another manuscript by Liko Oera Linda, from 803? 3. Are the pieces in that manuscript from the times and hands of the writers whose names they bear, and composed between 558 and mid-1st century before Christ?
Regarding the 1st question we argue for authenticity; aside from the way in which the manuscript has come to the family Over de Linden, a) the language in which it was written, similar to that of the oldest old-Frisian documents, b) the completely original script, differing from the later Roman script, and c) the writing tools that were used. Regarding the 2nd question; a remarkable gap which happened because of turning two pages at the same time proves that it is not an original but a copy. Also, the preface by Liko completely corresponds with the era of Charlemagne, in which it was written, and explains why the manuscript from that time on could no longer be counted as part of the national literature, but only has been saved as a relic in one family. Regarding the 3rd question; the relationship between the various pieces show that Adela has started in 558 with writing down the curious tales from antiquity, and that this work was continued by her offspring in the family of Oera Linda, maybe until the time of Liko, though the last part of the manuscript has been lost. In this manner, each writer is a witness to the authenticity of the previous writings.
Regarding the internal proof of authenticity, the speaker pointed out firstly the general level of culture in which Frya’s people according to these writings lived in the 6th century before Christ, which is not inconsistent with, but with keeping in mind the singularity of this people, completely in correspondence with the cultural situations of other older people. Secondly, that the manner of history writing was in its infancy, not showing any artistry, and can be compared with the histories of the Greek logographs from before Herodotus. On basis of these internal and external facts the speaker concluded that the manuscript was authentic.
Of course, the ‘evidence’ trotted out could well have been foreseen by the composers of the fake manuscript: for centuries, stories have been told in the form of diaries, and ‘here a page is missing’ is one of the tricks a writer has up their sleeve to give their story a veneer of authenticity. The (likely) main author of the book, François Haverschmidt, was a preacher who had published a collection of poetry in his student days,under a punning title translating as Sobs and Grim Smiles. He did so under the pseudonym of Piet Paaltjens, a student who, according to the collection’s preface, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Leiden “on the 9th October 1853”. We see the same sort of mystification as used in the Oera Linda bok. In the collection, Haverschmidt fights his own lingering depression by ridiculing sentimentalism, and so it is a rare example of cynical romanticism. As a theology student, Haverschmidt lived above an undertaker, which lead to the following lines: When I see the mourner walk / my heart beats in joy / because I think how soon / I shall go out to pray.
Haverschmidt, with help, wrote the book as an elaborate parody. As a result, scientists in 19th century Frisia found themselves the horses put behind the wagon, and confirmation bias was a significant factor: they wanted the documents to be real, and found the reasons why it was real; it conformed to their idea of what the Frisian history should be. The Oera Linda joke backfiring shows us why we need to be critical about history as we are being taught and told it, and consider: “How much of this is true? Is this interpretation of the evidence correct?” and, “What has been left out of the history books?”
Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.
While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.
So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.
Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?
Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.”
MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.
These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.“
Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.
Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.
In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’
Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.
They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.
Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!