Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Adventure classics -- Great War, with glamour

“Son of the White Wolf ”

by Robert E. Howard


I’d love to know whether “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau read Robert E. Howard’s El Borak stories to prepare for his “Sorkh Razil” storyline. Sorkh Razil “Red Rascal“ is the alter ego of one of Doonesbury’s youthful slacker characters, Jeff Redfern. El Borak, ex-gunfighter Francis Xavier Gordon, is the protagonist of “Son of the White Wolf,” among other Middle Eastern adventure stories. And perhaps, even more so than Conan, the alter ego of Robert E. Howard.

After all, Howard made Gordon a Texan like himself. And, as Rusty Burke notes in his introduction to The Best of Robert E. Howard, Howard had lived the El Borak stories longer than any of his others, creating the character when he was only ten.

(In Doonesbury, young Jeff Redfern has been channeling his alter ego’s adventures for years while his parents wait for him to get a real job. In the strip, he now has a seven-figure advance for a book about the Rascal but, as with so many of Sorkh Razil’s exploits, I keep wondering whether the book is “real” in the storyline or will turn out only to have been a dream.)

If you’ve read this blog very long, you know I can’t resist searching for the influences behind fictional characters. (King George VI as Roman Emperor Claudius. The aged, grieving Queen Victoria as the very aged, grieving “She,” among others.)

It’s a particularly irresistible game in the case of “Son of the White Wolf,” in which El Borak combines traits of T.E. Lawrence and Sir Richard Francis Burton. (Frederic Leighton’s painting of Sir Richard -- the Victorian explorer, not the actor -- illustrates this post. I find the resemblance to El Borak’s dark hair and eyes striking.) And could the story’s “Olga” -- a pseudonym, of course -- have existed without the inspiration of intrepid British traveler Gertrude Bell?

In his appendix to The Best of Robert E. Howard, the late Steven Tompkins calls the likes of Lawrence and Bell one of the few “glamorous” sideshows of the Great War. And despite a relatively realistic setting, there’s more than a trace of glamour in Olga, young, beautiful, brave -- and a spy.

“Son of the White Wolf” finds El Borak in the middle of Ottoman Turkish territory in the waning days of World War I, where a Turkish outpost deserts in favor of a rebel leader whose banner carries the image of a white wolf. In their retreat, the deserters destroy an Arab village which has given shelter to Olga and her guide. One of Gordon’s followers, also wounded in the attack, survives long enough to warn his leader, who promises revenge.

And as Howard writes, “(Gordon) not only understood the cry for vengeance, but he sympathized with it. And he always kept his promise.” The followers of the wolf, are, of course, doomed. But telling you just how Gordon and his companion manage that might spoil your own fun in reading the story. It’s available in The Best of Robert E. Howard and several other anthologies, at

Also available on Amazon -- Red Rascal’s War: A Doonesbury Book. For more about El Borak -- and Howard -- see the discussion of the El Borak stories at

(Next week -- He was the Conan before Conan -- Kull of Atlantis, in Robert E. Howard’s “Swords of the Purple Kingdom.”)

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