Monday, November 21, 2011
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.