By Willard M. Oliver
In the third issue of The Dark Man, Rusty Burke published an article titled, “The Active Voice: Robert E. Howard’s Personae,” in which he demonstrated a clear pattern in Howard’s writing in that in order for him to write his stories, he first had to create a character and develop a persona around that character. “It wasn’t enough for him to relate stories about a character,” Burke wrote in the introduction to Post Oaks and Sand Roughs & Other Autobiographical Writings, “he had to relate them from within the character” (REH Foundation Press, 2019). As Howard himself told Lovecraft in a September/October 1933 letter, “I like to have my background and setting as accurate and realistic as I can, with my limited knowledge.”
In The Dark Man article, Burke noted the three main personae for Howard were the Boxer, the Celt, and the Texan, while in the introduction to Post Oaks he adds one more persona, the one he developed to write his semi-autobiographical novel, the “Realist” or “Realism” persona. To this list, I wish to propose one more persona that, like the Realism persona, did not fully develop, but still found its way into many of his yarns and rimes; I am speaking of the Ancient Mesopotamian Persona.
The early roots of this persona most likely came from reading the Bible, something his mother no doubt impressed upon him. In Howard’s letters to Lovecraft, he mentions Ancient Mesopotamia in five separate letters, such as a February 1931 letter in which he explained, “I somehow feel more a sense of placement and personal contact with Babylon, Nineveh, Askalon, Gaza, Gath, and the like, than I do with Athens or Rome.” In a follow-on letter in June, he even went so far as to write, “I have wondered at times if I number some Babylonian or Chaldean among my ancient ancestors, so strong at times [...] for it is only with the Mesopotamian countries that I feel any sense of placement.” It is possible that Howard was purposefully writing about Ancient Mesopotamia in these letters because he was endeavoring to create a new persona.
Howard’s yarns that have a strong connection to Ancient Mesopotamia include the unfinished Solomon Kane story “The Children of Asshur,” as well as “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” “The House of Arabu,” and “The Voice of El-Lil.” He also mentions Mesopotamia in such varied stories as “The Blood of Belshazzar,” “The Road of the Eagles,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” “Skull-Face,” “The Moon of Skulls,” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”
In looking to Howard’s rimes, the evidence is clear that he had a fascination for Ancient Mesopotamia: “The Gate of Nineveh,” “Babel,” “Babylon,” “Babylon has Fallen,” “O Babylon, Lost Babylon,” “The Road to Babel,” “The Riders of Babylon,” etc.
Although the topic of Ancient Mesopotamia sadly did not develop into a specific character, it clearly wove its way through some of Howard’s writing. Further research may clarify if this was merely a subject of fascination or an undeveloped persona.
Blogger bio: Willard M. Oliver is a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He is a member of REHupa, has recently published in The Dark Man, and is currently working on a biography of REH for the University of North Texas Press.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org