Monday, February 6, 2017

The Valley of the Worm

Robert E. Howard is best remembered for his greatest and most influential creation, Conan of Cimmeria, but his oeuvre comprises more than just adventures set in the Hyborian Age. He was, in fact, one of the most prolific writers of the pulp era; he contributed historical fiction, horror, sports stories, detective tales, and westerns to a variety of magazines.

Marvel began publishing Conan comics in 1970, originally in Conan the Barbarian and then in Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan (the latter of which, taken as a whole, remains one of the greatest achievements in the annals of comic history). Along with its acquisition of the Conan stories, Marvel gained access to Howard's entire body of work. In addition to the adventures of King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, Howard penned fantasy tales featuring heroes that were designed to be one-offs, and Marvel adapted some of these for its comics and magazines.

In Supernatural Thrillers #3 (1972), Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and Ernie Chan gave us their spectacular version of “The Valley of the Worm.” Originally published in Weird Tales in 1934, “Worm” is a sword & sorcery tale told by James Allison, a man on his deathbed reflecting back on the most remarkable of his many previous lives.

He explains that as a man called Niord he fought a monstrous “worm” (he chose the word because it was the closest approximation he could think of for the creature) and that this served as the basis for all the well-known heroic tales of the ancient world. To avenge the slaughter of his tribesmen, he ventured into the part of the jungle most feared by the locals and battled the enormous, serpentine horror, which had emerged from a black pit in the earth. Though he was triumphant, it was at the cost of his own life.

Like most of Howard's stories, it is rich in detail and wonderfully realized. It unfolds at an excellent pace and builds to its climax in an immensely satisfying manner. Though we are essentially told from the beginning how the tale will end, it still packs a punch. Thomas was the man behind Marvel's acquisition of Conan and had a real flair for adapting sword & sorcery tales, as well as coming up with new ones.         

By the time Kane began working at Marvel in the early '70s, he had already been in the industry for thirty years. His work for DC on such titles as Green Lantern and The Atom helped to propel the publisher to new heights during the Silver Age, the era in which superheroes took the world by storm after having diminished in popularity following the Second World War. He soon established himself as one of one of the industry's fastest and most reliable artists, and he illustrated more covers for Marvel during the Bronze Age than anyone else. His style mixes well with a variety of inkers, perhaps because it is fairly loose. Chan later developed a reputation for inks that were overpowering, especially when he worked with John Buscema on various Conan stories, but here he seems to follow Kane's layouts closely. 


Interestingly enough, this story was adapted again four years later by Richard Corben and published as the graphic novel Bloodstar. This version, which received critical acclaim, is obviously much longer, and Corben arguably improved upon the original story by providing the characters with greater depth and imbuing the overall narrative with more emotional weight. (It is worth noting that Kane conceived and illustrated the pioneering sci-fi/sword & sorcery graphic novel Blackmark a year before the Supernatural Thrillers adaptation.)   

One of the particularly intriguing aspects of this tale is the use of the word “worm” to describe the eponymous monster. Readers unfamiliar with the language of fantasy will likely only associate it with the rather unpleasant creatures that eat dirt and are used by fishermen as bait, but its use as a term for dragon goes back thousands of years, to the mythical tales of Germany and Scandanavia. (It is also sometimes spelled “wyrm.”) The most famous of the Anglo-Saxon epics is Beowulf, which features a fire-breathing dragon in its third act and was a huge inspiration for the works of fantasy luminary J. R. R. Tolkien.   

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield describes the dragon Smaug as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Personally, I prefer the spelling “wyrm” not only because it differentiates itself from the aforementioned annelids but also because, frankly, it just looks cooler. In modern fantasy literature, particularly in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives, wyrm is used interchangeably with dragon, probably because writers get tired of using the word “dragon” all the time. (Admittedly, the non-alliterative “Dungeons & Wyrms” doesn't have the same ring to it.) Moreover, “worm” refers to a completely different kind of monster, the most recognizable of which is the massive, armored bane of adventurers known as the “purple worm.”

(On a related note, a lot of people don't realize that Tolkien's use of “dwarves” as a plural for dwarf is nonstandard, which is why Disney's film is titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fantasy, “dwarves” has been adopted as the standard, and I tend to agree with Tolkien's assertion that it has a better sound to it. This is, after all, the man who famously made us aware that “cellar door” is the most pleasant-sounding phrase in English (though he was not the first to do so), so it's fair to say that he know whereof he speaks.)

Allison declines to mention the age in which the story takes place because he believes that “historians and geologists would rise up to refute [him],” but he provides us with a few potential clues.

Niord utters phrases such as “By Ymir's Eyes!” on  a couple of occasions and  alludes to the name's being highly significant to his tribe. According to Arthur Cotterell's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Classical Mythology, Ymir is “the first living creature” in Germanic mythology, a frost giant (251). Not unlike the titan Cronos in the ancient Greek myths, he is overthrown by his offspring, in this case Odin, Vili, and Ve. (Odin, of course, is famous for being the father of Thor; the others are far more obscure.) All of creation then springs from his ruined corpse. Fans of Conan will recall that the Cimmerian frequently references this primordial being in his oaths, which is not at all surprising considering Howard's practice of appropriating deities from various mythologies for his own purposes. It is therefore likely that we are dealing with Howard's version rather than the “actual” one.

Niord identifies his tribe as the Aesir. This term, within the context of Germanic mythology, refers to a branch of the gods. In Howard's Hyborian world, the Aesir are the denizens of the country of Asgard; this is also the name of the home of the Germanic Aesir, analogous to the Mount Olympus of the Greek gods, though Howard's race is mortal rather than supernal in nature. Similarly, shortly after entering “The Country of the Worm,” Niord's tribe is set upon by Picts, though they eventually make peace and become allies. These are not the historical Picts, formidable warriors from what is now Scotland, but are, rather, the fierce Native-American-inspired race created by Howard.

Taken together, these clues suggest that Niord lived in the same age as Conan. This does not, however, assume that they were contemporaries. In fact, it's fair to aver that he actually predates the Cimmerian, possibly by centuries. His is a story concerned with the establishment of a civilization, whereas Conan's is one of traversing a world where many already exist. In any case, it is reasonable to argue that Niord is a figure from prehistory, from sometime after the sinking of Atlantis and before the first of humankind's records were written.        

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