Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Allure of the Undead

“Though it can seem sudden, death is more of a process than an event.” – Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I have been fascinated by the undead for a long as I can remember. Frankenstein’s Monster is the first horror character I can remember falling in love with, and my predilection for this sort of thing has only grown as the years have passed. (Stephen King and George Romero’s film Creepshow, in which the undead figure prominently, came out when I was eight years old, and despite my pleas, my father, probably wisely, would neither allow me to watch the movie nor read the tie-in comic book. Of course, I have both now and cherish them all the more because of it.)



The concept of the deceased returning from the grave in drastically-altered form is not a new idea. Folklore from all over the globe teems with it. I suppose it’s because the concept of death’s being the end is so hard to swallow. Our consciousness seems like something that should endure indefinitely, yet few of us can hold on for even a hundred years.

 

In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson asked Larry King whether he wanted to live forever, and, without missing a beat, King replied, “Yes.” Tyson was somewhat thrown by King’s response, as he seemed to prefer the idea of making the most of each day, knowing that we are only given a limited amount of time. If we were to live forever, he maintains, there would never be any sense of urgency to do anything worthwhile. While I can understand Tyson’s point, I tend to agree with King’s position.

It’s fair to say that most people expire with a lot of things left undone, so it makes sense that we would conceive the notion that the dead sometimes come back. It is also related to the fact that humans are a fearful species. As if there weren’t enough reasonable things to be afraid of, we like to invent things that give us the willies. We also, apparently, need a way to keep people from wandering around after dark, lest they get into trouble. Unfinished business is, of course, just one reason that the dead might return. Someone’s disturbing their grave, an insatiable hunger for the flesh and/or blood of the living, revenge, being forced to haunt a house or some other location as a form of punishment, and being reanimated by magic or arcane science are others.

    

Of course, this sort of thing is very popular in works of supernatural horror and fantasy; in fact, it could prove challenging to find a book or movie in these genres that doesn’t contain at least some element of it. Arguably, the most popular “species” of undead is the vampire. These days, we differentiate vampires from zombies, but in many old tales they are essentially the same thing: creatures from beyond the grave who seek out the living for sustenance. Although vampires had been a part of European folklore for centuries, John Polidori wrote the first piece of vampire fiction, “The Vampyre,” in 1819 (during the same session in which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, interestingly enough). Of course, Bram Stoker would attain far greater success for his novel Dracula some eighty years later. Stoker considered calling his novel The Un-Dead, and this was, for all intents and purposes, the origin of the term (“undead” was previously just another way of saying “alive”).



Stoker also penned The Jewel of Seven Stars, a horror novel about an ancient Egyptian mummy. During this time, Egyptology was very much en vogue, and it therefore stood to reason that stories about mummies returning from their tombs would follow. Of course, writers such as Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, and M. R. James popularized the ghost story around the same time. Thus, vampires, ghosts, and mummies were the first three kinds of undead to capture the popular imagination. Bloodsuckers, check. Incorporeal representations of formerly-living people, check. Artificially-preserved, bandaged corpses that can curse you, check. Zombies as we know them came along later, although the idea was, in a way, alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh. (It is interesting that this, the world’s earliest surviving work of literature, would contribute something so vital to our modern speculative genres, despite the fact that horror and fantasy are frequently repudiated by the “intellectually elite.” Also, while I am not a big fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, I consider 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead one of my favorite horror films.) 




In the realm of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien introduced us to “wights” in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to “undead,” the term originally referred to living beings, but Tolkien uses it to describe demonic spirits who possessed the corpses of those who had fallen in battle. Frodo and the hobbits encounter some in the Barrow-downs, an ancient burial ground beyond the Old Forest, and only manage to escape with the help of the mysterious Tom Bombadil. (This was entirely omitted from the film version, incidentally.) Wight was later appropriated by fantasy authors and game designers as the name of a powerful type of undead.



When Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) came along, its creators were fond of the idea of variety, so they invented numerous species of undead for adventurers to encounter. In 1988, TSR published Lords of Darkness, which was designed to be used with the then-current version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This book is interesting because it focuses on ten undead types (skeletons, ghouls, shadows, spectres, vampires, et al.) and includes complete scenarios for each. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast, having acquired the game from TSR, released Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, a supplementary book for 4th-edition D&D that, in addition to nine detailed scenarios for both low- and high-level characters, gives players everything they could ever want to know about the various kinds of undead, including ecology and physiology (the latter of which is, to quote Tori Amos, “kind of gross”).

While the basic creatures can be found in the Monster Manual, this book provides players with all the details concerning every type of undead they could ever want, plus a whole section of new monsters, including subsets of well-known creatures, and even includes templates for creating your own. Some of the more interesting creatures include:

Blaspheme: A monster crafted from pieces of corpses and given life through magic and then tasked with guarding wizards' libraries.

Bone Yard: A huge mass of animated bones, such as those from a desecrated cemetery.

Deathtritus: Dead flesh, dirt, and crushed bone animated by necrotic energy.

Deathtouched Golem: An animated amalgam of corpses, grave dirt, hangman's nooses, and tombstones.

Nighthaunt: Cursed soul of someone who has eaten food infused with necrotic energy.

Skin Kite: A gliding mass of, well, skin that attaches to a target and eats its flesh until it can split in two, not unlike a dividing cell.

Wrath of Nature: A mindless embodiment of death, created by pollution.



Another interesting type of undead, which appeared in earlier versions of D&D but is not included in the current one, is the Crypt Thing. This creature appears merely as a skeleton in a robe, but it’s tricky. Many dungeons are actually tombs, with the adventurers’ objective being to destroy its chief inhabitant. This is often a “lich,” an undead wizard. The Crypt Thing’s job is to trick explorers into thinking that it is the lich. When it touches them, they are teleported to another part of the tomb where deadly traps await. 

   

It is also worth mentioning that Richard Lee Byers’ Haunted Lands trilogy (Unclean, Undead, and Unholy), published under the Forgotten Realms banner, is a veritable feast for undead lovers. One of the main set pieces of the series is the “Manufactory,” where undead are created for the army of the lich Szass Tam. The operations of the place are supervised by the foul Xingax, the enormous, mephitic aborted fetus of a demigod (yes, really). He transforms Tammith, a young girl who sells herself into slavery to pay off her father’s gambling debts, into a vampire, and though initially a villain, she eventually becomes an ally of the heroes and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections of a Former Otaku

If you walk into a chain bookstore these days, it's a safe bet that you'll find a section devoted to manga, i.e. Japanese comics, often a rather large one. In the current market, manga is published in book form; these books, called tankobons, are compilations of comics that have been published previously, making them the equivalent of American trade paperbacks. (Some people like to call them graphic novels, but in most cases I think this designation is erroneous. Watchmen is one notable exception; even though it was originally published as a twelve-issue limited series, it has been in collected form for over thirty years and comprises a complete story.)



Instead of being published in monthly comics, as they are in America, manga are released in monochromatic, phonebook-sized magazines (there are some exceptions, but this is the way it is done for the most part). Some of these, such as Shonen Sunday, come out weekly and are sold everywhere. Rather than just featuring one story, these magazines are anthologies of numerous series. They are printed on cheap paper and are, not unlike newspapers, considered ephemeral. People read them on the train and toss them when they’re done. Fans of a particular series can purchase tankobons, which are of considerably higher quality and often even have dust jackets, at a later time. Some places even rent them out, not unlike the video stores of old. I once tried to purchase one from a shop, only to find out that it was not for sale.

For me, seeing such a huge volume of manga readily available is stunning. Frankly, most modern series are of little interest to me, though I do find the odd one here and there that gets my attention (examples include The Sacred Blacksmith, How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King, both fantasy series, and the various horror manga of Junji Ito, such as Tomie and Uzumaki). During my fervid manga period, which lasted from 1994-2000, there were only three companies translating and publishing manga: Dark Horse, Viz, and Antarctic Press, and their output isn't what you'd call huge. Comic stores usually had a single shelf devoted to manga, and I always wished there was more available. The most popular title of the time was probably Ranma ½, Rumiko Takahashi's comedic saga of a teenage boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. Today, Takahashi is better known as the creator of the fantasy series Inu Yasha, which is a pretty clear indication of the delineation between older fans and newer ones.



In those days, manga was actually put out in comic-book form. The tankobons were broken up into chapters, translated into English, and then republished. In addition, the pages were reversed because Japanese read right to left. Many mangaka, i.e. manga artists, disliked this, and many “otaku,” American manga fans, did, as well. (In Japanese, “otaku” is a multi-purpose word roughly the equivalent of “geek,” but in America it is used specifically for fans of manga and anime.) Some series were later recompiled. After a while, the publishers decided not to reverse the art and to start putting the books out in their original form rather than breaking them apart. This proved to be a good decision, not only because it ultimately made more sense but also because it made manga easier to get into mainstream bookstores.

I read a ton of manga and watched a mountain of anime during those years. I was even a member of an anime club that met in a community center in Atlanta once a month. I frequented a Japanese bookstore that sold untranslated manga (so I could at least look at the art) and even tried to learn Japanese because there were so many series that interested me that had yet to be translated.

Most of the anime I absorbed has fallen by the wayside, but a few series remain favorites: Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, and Urusei Yatsura.



Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) is an eight-episode cyberpunk OVA (Original Video Animation) series heavily influenced by Blade Runner. It chronicles the adventures of four women calling themselves the Knight Sabers who wear “hardsuits,” technologically-advanced exoskeletons, and battle rogue androids known as “Boomers” in the Tokyo of 2032. It features gorgeous character designs by Kenichi Sonoda, the creator of the popular manga Gunsmith Cats. One of the most notable aspects of this series is its hard-rock soundtrack, which is a perfect fit for its gritty, violent world, where everyone is at the mercy of the evil Genom corporation.



Dirty Pair is a futuristic sci-fi series about the Lovely Angels, two beautiful but dangerous women named Kei and Yuri, who work as troubleshooters for the WWWA (Worlds Welfare Works Association). They succeed in solving all of their cases, but something invariably goes terribly wrong, resulting in massive property damage and casualties. Hence, they are more commonly known as the “Dirty Pair,” a name they despise. Creator Haruku Takachiho originally published several novels featuring the Pair before bringing them to the screen. The 1985 TV series ran 24 episodes, and there are several OVAs and a film. The TV series, which is the most comedic in nature, is by far the best, as far as I’m concerned.



Urusei Yatsura is a romantic comedy about an alien girl named Lum who falls in love with a boy from Earth named Ataru Moroboshi. While he is fond of Lum, Ataru is a lecher who cannot commit to one woman. As such, Lum gives him electric shocks whenever he chases anyone else. Naturally, Lum has friends from the stars who make further trouble for her beloved, whom she calls “Darling.” It’s also extremely weird, which is one of the main reasons it appeals to me. The title is derived from an untranslatable pun, so for the most part it has been left as is (AnimEigo, the company that released the anime in the States, retained the title but put “Those Obnoxious Aliens” in parentheses). The series is based on Takahashi’s earliest ongoing manga. The TV series, which ran from 1981-1986, comprises nearly 200 episodes, and six movies and an OVA series were also produced.

Most popular manga have been made into anime, and in many cases the anime proves superior, as the writers are able expand the stories and inject more drama (in the case of Urusei Yatsura, they often become far crazier). The series that I adore in manga form are Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku.


Shirow is probably best known for Ghost in the Shell, which will soon be released as a live-action film starring Scarlett Johannson, but I prefer Appleseed (1985-1989). Following World War III, Deunan Knute and her companion Briareos Hecantochires (named after the one-hundred-armed, fifty-headed monster from Greek mythology) join the police force in the city of Olympus, battling threats from both outside and inside the utopian metropolis. There have been several animated versions produced, but none of them seem to quite capture the spirit of the manga. 

  

Maison Ikkoku, which ran from 1980-1987, might seem like an odd choice, seeing as how it’s merely the story of a broke university student, Yusaku Godai, and the young apartment manager he falls in love with, Kyoko Otonashi. A widow, Kyoko is afraid to love anyone else, and Yusaku’s constant financial struggles and perceived duplicity certainly don’t make things any better. There is nothing even remotely supernatural or speculative about it. But something about it grabs me and won't let go. Its cast of wacky characters is certainly an element of its appeal, as is its frequent hilarity. It’s a huge story, spanning several years. I’m not sure of the exact page count, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands. 

I consider myself a “former” otaku because while I still enjoy manga and anime, I am no longer fanatical about them and am more interested in other things these days. (I never learned much Japanese, incidentally.) I know a few current otaku, and it’s clear that we are speaking different languages when it comes to our favorites. They have never even heard of the stuff I like and vice versa. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Magic of Miniatures

Diminutive representations of warriors, wizards, and monsters have been, in one form or another, part of fantasy gaming since the dawn of the hobby. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was an avid wargame player and often supplemented the miniatures provided with his store-bought games with inexpensive toys (such as a now-famous set of rubber dinosaurs that inspired such iconic beasts as the Rust Monster and Owlbear) or made his own. In the mid-1970s, fantasy-miniature manufacturers began to spring up, making it far easier for gamers to procure the creatures they needed for their pencil-and-paper quests.



Strictly speaking, miniatures are not an indispensable element of role-playing games (RPGs). The Game Master (or Dungeon Master if you're talking in D&D terms) is responsible for describing the players' environments, so it's entirely reasonable to play a game completely within the framework of interactive storytelling. However, to avoid confusion, visuals are often provided. These can take many forms. The most common is a map, typically drawn on standard graph paper, with each square corresponding to a span of distance, such as five feet. Some game designers prefer to use hexagons (or “hexes”) instead because they more accurately represent the ways in which a character can interact with its surroundings. In games such as Metagaming Concepts' The Fantasy Trip or SPI's Citadel of Blood and Deathmaze (the latter two, while excellent, are only RPGs in the loosest sense of the term, but the principle’s the same), punch-out cardboard “counters” are used either to designate player and adversary positioning or to construct dungeons. But for those who are seeking an arguably richer gaming experience and are willing to shell out the extra cash, miniatures are always an option.


In the early days, companies such as Ral Partha and Citadel cast creatures in lead and pewter. Today, minis of this nature are produced by Reaper, Iron Wind Metals, et al. One of the potential drawbacks of metal miniatures is that they need to be painted, unless you're okay with your figures' looking vaguely silver-ish. For some, this has become a hobby unto itself and is, in fact, a frequent point of pride for players of games such as Warhammer (the Games Workshop magazine White Dwarf is essentially a showcase of miniature painting). During the 1980s, Ral Partha obtained a license from TSR to produce miniatures to be used with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and these high-quality figures are still prized by collectors.



In the current market, the majority of miniatures are rendered in plastic and are pre-painted. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), which had acquired TSR's assets in the wake of its bankruptcy, began manufacturing miniatures of this kind for D&D and continued to do so until 2010. Twenty-one sets were released, including both player-characters (humans, elves, dwaves, halflings, et cetera), monsters, and occasional “dungeon dressing,” i.e. pieces such as statues, portals, and sarcophagi.



Adopting the booster-pack model of its own wildly successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, WoTC originally packaged eight random figures of varying rarities in each box.
The “common” minis comprise the most frequently encountered creatures in the game, such as skeletal warriors and animals, which Dungeon Masters require in large numbers. The “uncommon” figures represent the less-common ones. The “rare” slot is reserved for dragons, deities, unusual monsters such as Mind Flayers or Beholders, and popular characters from the publisher's novel lines, such as heroic dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and sorcerer Elminster Aumar from Forgotten Realms and vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich from Ravenloft. The minis varied in size from tiny to huge. Naturally, there was only one rare in each box, and these often showcased the most impressive sculpts and paint jobs.



These miniatures are convenient for players because they can be used right out of the box. While the primary purpose of the miniatures was that they be used in the RPG, the first seventeen sets included a card for each figure that could be used in a two-player tabletop skirmish game that pitted bands of minis against each other. The game proved fairly popular for a few years, with gaming shops hosting weekly tournaments with prizes provided by WoTC. In 2008, with the release of the fifteenth set, “Dungeons of Dread,” the skirmish rules were changed to reflect the impending release of the fourth edition of D&D. Unfortunately, because of this a significant number of players decided to abandon the game.



WoTC gradually converted all of the old sets over to the new rules free of charge, but by then the damage had been done. After the seventeenth set came out that autumn, the company announced that it was no longer going to support the skirmish game and that it had decided to restructure the line. One of the major changes was that heroes and monsters were now going to be released in different sets, ostensibly so that players would have an easier time getting figures to represent their characters. The player-character sets would be non-random, while the monster sets would include one visible figure. Additionally, the figure count for the monster boosters was reduced from eight to five (the heroes came three to a pack).



These turned out to be a disastrous decisions. Players were irritated by the reduction in figure count, and the new sculpts and paint jobs, particularly those of the heroes, left a lot to be desired. Moreover, not all of the visible minis in the boosters were equally desirable, and players wouldn't buy a set with a visible they didn't want. Stores refused to order more boosters because they couldn't sell what they had. By the time the third set in this format came out, WoTC knew that the end was near. The company only released one more set, 2010's “Lords of Madness,” which was, again, “blind” and included six figures per booster. It did go out on a high note, though, as the quality was excellent.

In 2011, WizKids, the manufacturer of the Heroclix and Mage Knight miniatures games, began producing figures for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. To make a long story short, Pathfinder is a fantasy RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D’s 3.5-edition rules. This seems odd, but it was made possible by WoTC’s Open Game License, which essentially permitted anyone who wanted to use the rule sets of any of their games, including the ones it acquired from TSR. It seems foolish in hindsight, but at the time it was designed to kickstart a resurgence in tabletop RPGs, which were quickly losing players to online games such as World of Warcraft. In any event, the Pathfinder minis have proven, through twenty-four sets of various sizes (some as few as two, others as many as 55), to be of superb quality. In 2014, WoTC gave WizKids a license to produce D&D minis. So far there have been ten sets, again of varying sizes. As a whole, these minis have been excellent, as well, though the figure count has, unfortunately, been reduced again, to four per booster.



While it’s strange that the miniatures for two rival games are made by the same company, it does effectively guarantee that both lines will adhere to a high standard, as I can imagine that there is some healthy competition between the designers going on. (The Pathfinder minis do tend to look a bit better, it must be said.) 



Fortunately, those who still enjoy the D&D skirmish game have not been left out in the cold. When WoTC stopped making cards, they gave a free license to a group calling itself the DDM Guild, allowing it to design stats for the forthcoming releases. When WizKids took over, it was permitted to continue. It’s hard to find skirmish players these days, but for the hardcore fans it’s still one of the greatest games around.

There are, of course, dozens of miniatures companies not mentioned here. These are just the one with which I am most familiar. If you’re interested in RPGs and their ilk, miniatures can make great additions to your fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, they have become considerably more expensive in the last decade or so, but you can find bargains on eBay if you’re looking for singles or multi-figure lots.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of a game table covered with heroes and magical creatures. Even your non-player friends will be intrigued. It’s the best way to bring your imagined adventures to life.

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.