The following is an excerpt from Steven Erikson’s essay for ROBERT E. HOWARD CHANGED MY LIFE, an upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation.
At first glance, and given the subject of this essay, it might seem I am invoking an echo of Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery tales. That first warrior might well be Conan, leading a band of Cimmerians into the Border Kingdom. At least until we come to the last sentence, the question asked. What runs through their minds?
Howard would have an answer. It was a theme he revisited again and again. In his mind, there was something pure, unsullied, in the barbarian. And something insipid, corrupt and decadent in civilization. If the Celtic or Pictish warrior was the hero, the villains were Romans. At times, he would twist and turn away from that theme, muddy the waters a bit, even occasionally drawing on some ancient, pre-human, primal horror against which humanity must contend. And eventually, he would crown a barbarian king of one of those civilized nations, ruling by the notched edge of his axe, and in so doing, impose the barbarism of tyranny—a cold, singular justice to cut through all the grey shades of complexity that comes with civilization.
As a twelve-year-old, jumping with both feet into the fantasy realms of Howard, Burroughs and Leiber, I was fine with all that. Civilization? Who needs it. I spent most weekends out in the wilds of Manitoba, all year round, as my family fished the lakes and rivers to keep the freezer stocked with enough food to keep us from going hungry. I wandered through untamed places where Picts might lurk in the thickets, where at any moment the prow of a Viking ship might come into view where the river bends, iron weapons glinting as painted shields were readied.
And in seeing the ongoing destruction of those wild places, the relentless taming of the world in which I lived, I shared Howard’s disgust for all things civilized. Although utterly unknowing at the time, I was living another man’s nostalgia, in the same manner that young fans of J.R.R. Tolkien lived his, through reading THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. All too young, we became imbued with melancholy, a sense of things lost, the regrets piling up. We were innocents bemoaning the loss of innocence. It was heady stuff.
It is difficult for me to gauge the full measure of Howard’s influence on me, since it goes way beyond my career as a writer of Epic Fantasy. That damned map in the Conan books planted the seed of my becoming an archaeologist, of minoring in both history and classics, writing essays on the fall of Rome and the ‘Barbarian Invasions’ of Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D.
The hidden legacy of the past infused Howard’s map of the Hyborian Age. The connections to history were obscure, yet detectable. Everything was steeped in mystery, so many secrets lost. How I pored over that map!
That sense of mystery haunts me to this day. The notion of fallen civilizations sent me into landscapes all over the world, wandering among ruins, and in those ruins, why, my imagination simply catches fire. From this come all the questions of ‘What if.’ What if the Picts were the original indigenous population of the British Isles? What if the Romans had been driven from the beaches of England in 55 B.C.? What if Caesar bought the big one at Alesia? What if the Varangian Guard had thrown back the Turks at the walls of Constantinople? What if Atlantis wasn’t just a story?
I can imagine Howard studying old history books, perhaps in his small hometown’s crappy library, and I’m there with him, riding the same waves of wonder and conjecture and lingering over every turning point in history. What if the Christians hadn’t burned down the Great Library at Alexandria?
And walking the sites of past civilizations, past cultures, witnessing the seeming madness of the final days of the Mayan civilization, my mind’s eye filling with scenes of blood sacrifice and unmitigated slaughter, standing at the edge of cenotes where they threw young women into the water, drugged and weighed down in some travesty of Joseph Campbell’s illustrious cycle of life and death. And still the rains refused to come.
Archaeology is all about fragments, the barest remnants of past lives and past worlds. If I could conjure up Howard’s ghost, I’d lead him onto a scrubby hill in Puglia, to wander among shattered Greek pottery from the 5th century B.C., along with the occasional Neolithic potsherd from the people their colony displaced. I’d show him the caves nearby with their Byzantine frescos and forgotten altars. I like to think he’d be smiling, fascinated by whatever detail I offered, and in his ethereal gaze there would be strange peoples wandering the landscape, the flames of burning settlements, pirates plying the coast, Turkish warships bombarding the citadel of Otranto, and heroes emerging from the smoke and ashes.
It’s what lies beyond the tales themselves, whispering between every word. When I eventually set to creating the Malazan world, alongside my co-conspirator, Ian C. Esslemont, we conjured up the almost ineffable impulses that both drive and haunt archaeologists, and we made that the heart of the fictional world we created. There is a quality to ruins, to abandoned places, to ancient sites of ritual, worship and evocation. To walk such places is to fall into silence, the eyes scanning the ground, reading the signs, to pause again and again, seeking that elusive sense of… something.
In our creation of the Malazan world, we took that something and made it this thing.
So did Howard.
Steven Erikson is the author of the ten-volume epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, as well as other works of fantasy and science fiction. He worked for eighteen years as a field archaeologist before becoming a fulltime writer, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Find out more at www.steven_erikson.org.