Monday, November 21, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Flame Winds

If you've never heard the name Norvell W. Page before, that's perfectly understandable. Most of Page's prodigious pulp output was published under the pseudonym of Grant Stockbridge. That name, too, may not be well known outside of pulp aficionados, but I hope that the name of the character Page wrote about under that nom de plume isn't wholly unfamiliar: Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider. Like the Shadow, the Spider was a masked crime fighter with an Asian sidekick, in his case a knife-throwing Sikh named Ram Singh. Also like the Shadow, the Spider used two .45 automatics and, like the comic hero the Phantom, he left a brand on the foreheads of criminals he defeated. Page wrote dozens of stories about the Spider during the 1930s and 1940s.

This post is not about the Spider, however. Rather it's about Page's one and only sword-and-sorcery character: a red-haired and bearded Scythian gladiator whose birth name is (improbably) Amlairic, but who is known in the arenas of 1st-century Rome as "Hurricane John," because of his deadly skill with arms. By means of a somewhat dubious etymology, Page claims that the "hurricane" in John's sobriquet was passed down into history from Greek into Latin and thence into other European languages as the word "prester." Yes, that's right: this Scythian gladiator is in fact the basis for the medieval legends of the Asiatic Christian priest-king, Prester John.

John appears in two stories by Page, the first of which "Flame Winds" was published in the June 1939 issue of Unknown. "Flame Winds" tells the story of John's abandonment of his former occupation and his travels eastward in search of a kingdom to rule. If that sounds a bit like Conan and his imitators, I suspect that that's not a coincidence, though I also imagine that Harold Lamb's historical tales were also a source of inspiration. It's worth mentioning that John is a Christian, who wears a fragment of the True Cross around his neck as a magic charm. That said, John's Christianity is a bit ... odd. He serves the "new God called 'Christos'" in part because Christos sought only more followers and not wealth, making him a fine deity for a would-be conqueror such as he. John boldly boasts that his eventual subjects "shall believe, as I believe, no matter what throats must be slit.”

After wandering through a number of Asian lands, including China, where he steals the emperor's favored concubine -- a fine model of Christian virtue this Prester John is! -- the ex-gladiator comes to walled city named Turgohl. Turgohl proves to be a dangerous place for a freebooter such, because it is ruled by a cabal of seven wizards, who command deadly flame winds from the surrounding desert to slay their foes. Undeterred by this, John teams up with a band of thieves and a dethroned princess to lead a revolt against the wizards and attempt to claim Turgohl in the name of Christos and his own ambition.

If "Flame Winds" sounds a little strange, it is. Page clearly intended his work to be historical fantasy, as he provides some thin rationalizations for many of its supernatural occurrences (like the wizards' flame winds), but, unlike Lamb's books, the grounding in real world history is also thin, which makes it hard to take the story seriously. "Flame Winds" reads more like a Conan pastiche than anything, which probably explains why Roy Thomas chose to adapt the tale in issues 32-34 (November 1973-January 1974) of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic. I actually think the story works better set in the Hyborian Age, though I'll admit that there's nonetheless a certain charm to Page's hamfisted attempt to "explain" the legend of Prester John by means of a historically-based sword-and-sorcery tale.

11 comments:

  1. Yes, that's right: this Scythian gladiator is in fact the basis for the medieval legends of the Asiatic Christian priest-king, Prester John.

    That might be the most insane thing I've ever read, especially when one considers that "hurricane" comes from a New World (Mayan?) storm god.

    Also, how is one supposed to pronounce Amlairic? Is that a typo, because it looks very similar to Amalric, which is at least Gothic.

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  2. Too bad Charlton Heston never got to portray Hurricane John XD

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  3. @Evan: I would assume it's supposed to be from lailaps or typhoeus or something, not from the English word for hurricane. Not sure how you'd get "Prester" from one of those, but oh well.

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  4. The cover picture seems to be illustrating Attack of a Combination of All Racial Caricatures In Existence.

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  5. Too bad Charlton Heston never got to portray Hurricane John XD

    It's true!

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  6. Obviously the guy would eventually have had to become a philosopher king (possibly by the whole immortality thing giving him time to learn wisdom and mercy), because the whole point of Prester John was that he was supposed to be more wise and good than the European kings he wrote open letters to.

    There used to be a lot of European legend figures reported to be sending people letters, even aside from the rash of apparitions of "letters from God" during Charlemagne's time. Sometimes they were forged or ghost authored and passed around; sometimes the letters disappeared mysteriously before anyone else could read them, or were written in gibberish. (Although, given the wide variety of peoples trading in Charlemagne's time, it may just have been non-Latin alphabet litter being mistaken for something mystical.)

    I don't remember anyone reporting getting mystical emails, though.

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  7. I would assume it's supposed to be from lailaps or typhoeus or something, not from the English word for hurricane. Not sure how you'd get "Prester" from one of those, but oh well.

    Page claims that the word "prester" comes from a Latinization of a Greek word "presteras," which was used to describe strange Mediterranean storms. This usage is real and can be found in Lucretius, so, while a dubious connection, it's based on some fact. As to the fact that he also claims there was a gladiator in 1st-century Alexandria nicknamed "Hurricane John," I don't know. Did they even have gladiatorial fights in Roman Egypt?

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  8. Anyway, my point is that, if the character were supposed to eventually become a super-wise good guy, starting out with a total jerk would have been a good move. The problem is that maybe readers don't want to stick with a jerk long enough to see him grow and better himself.

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  9. "Did they even have gladiatorial fights in Roman Egypt? "

    I'm pretty sure that if there was a Roman there, they had games. I can't find any specific mentions of arenas in Egypt, but they had them in present-day Libya and Israel.

    (If you ever get the chance, tour the arena in Capua, Italy. Not as big as the Colosseum, and the stands aren't as complete, but you can walk around the main floor (where they fought) and the tunnels and store rooms beneath. And someday I have to write up the RPG-like experiences I had on my last vacation...)

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  10. The cover picture seems to be illustrating Attack of a Combination of All Racial Caricatures In Existence.

    Seriously. It's made even more hilarious by the fact that the style of sword they're using -- a Chinese dao, or something close to it -- has a single-edged blade, with the concave side being blunt. "Unknown", indeed!

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  11. I have this book but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. The main appeal of Page's fiction to me, at least in his Spider stories, is how absolutely insane it is. Mega-violence (in the Spider, 9/11 basically happens every month), barely (or not at all) coherent plotting, and heroes that are bloodthirsty, emotional wrecks. Page strikes me as the kind of writer that some people ignorantly believe Robert E. Howard was, but in a fun way.

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