Monday, August 31, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow of the Vulture

No doubt you've heard of Red Sonja, the chainmail bikini-clad heroine created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for Marvel Comics in 1973. For nearly a half-century, she's been an icon of sword-and-sorcery literature and the world's most prominent poster girl for unreasonable armor. She first appeared in issue #23 of Conan the Barbarian (February 1973), which adapted a story by Robert E, Howard entitled "The Shadow of the Vulture." But did you know that the original story neither featured Conan nor took place in the Hyborian Age but was rather a historical yarn set in Austria in the 16th century?

The short story appeared in the January 1934 issue of The Magic Carpet Magazine. The Magic Carpet was the very short-lived successor to Oriental Stories, a companion magazine to the much more well known and successful Weird Tales. Farnsworth Wright was editor of both magazines, which no doubt explains the presence of so many Weird Tales stalwarts in its pages (e.g. Robert E. Howard, Otis Adelbert Kline, Clark Ashton Smith). The January 1934, as it turns out, was the final issue of the pulp and it is now largely forgotten but for the handful of memorable stories published in its pages.

By my lights, "The Shadow of the Vulture" is among those memorable stories. The story starts sometime after the Battle of Mohács (which Howard spells Mohacz), as the Ottoman sultan, Suleyman, is preparing to release a collection of Austrian envoys "pallid from months of imprisonment." As he is doing so, he recognizes one of the envoys, but does not immediately remember where, and so lets him return to his homeland. Later, as he is talking with his grand vizier, Ibrahim, he recalls that the Austrian, named Gottfried von Kalmbach, had wounded him at the aforementioned battle. "I could not mistake those blue eyes," he explains. For the crime of having "with impunity spill[ed] [Suleyman's blood] on the ground for the dogs to lap up," the sultan demands Gottfried's head. 

Eager to gain Suleyman's favor, Ibrahim enlists the aid of a Tatar named Yaruk Khan to stop Gottfried from leaving Turkey; when that fails, he turns to his agent Mikhal Oglu.

The Grand Vizier brooded on his silken cushions until the shadow of a pair of vulture wings fell across the marble-tiled floor, and the lean figure he had summoned bowed before him. The man whose very name was a shuddering watchword of horror to all western Asia was soft-spoken and moved with the mincing ease of a cat, but the stark evil of his soul showed in his dark countenance, gleamed in his narrow slit eyes. He was the chief of the Akinji, those wild riders whose raids spread fear and desolation throughout all lands beyond the Grand Turk's borders He stood in full armor, a jeweled helmet on his narrow head, the wide vulture wings made fast to the shoulders of his gilded chain-mail hauberk. Those wings spread wide in the wind when he rode, and under their pinions lay the shadows of death and destruction. It was Suleyman's scimitar-tip, the most noted slayer of a nation of slayers, who stood before the Grand Vizier.

I suspect that Oglu's unique armor is inspired by that of the famed Polish winged hussars, which are contemporary with the time period of the story.

Oglu and his men, after some time, track Gottfried von Kalmbach to a village along the Danube but he manages to escape their clutches, riding to Vienna. When he arrives there, the city is already preparing for a siege by Ottoman forces led by Suleyman himself. Gottfried joins the Viennese in fighting the Turks and, while doing so, finds himself under the guns of advancing Janissaries. Deciding to make a break for a nearby cannon, he turns, only to be greeted by a strange sight.

It was a woman, dressed as von Kalmbacj had not seen even the dandies of France dressed. She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was a carelessly thrown scarlet cloak.

This surprising figure was bending over the cannon, sighting it, in a manner betokening more than a passing familiarity, at a group of Tirks who were wheeling a carriage-gun just within range.

"Eh, Red Sonya!" shouted a man-at-arms, waving his pike. "Give 'em hell, my lass!"

This woman, who hails from Ruthenia, saves Gottfried's life for the first time (the second will occur later in the story). We learn that she bears a grudge against not just the Turks generally but against her sister, Roxelana, who has become Suleyman's chief consort. Over the course of the story, we learn more about Sonya and watch her prowess in battle on numerous occasions. Though Gottfried von Kalmbach is ostensibly the main character of this tale, it is Red Sonya of Rogatino who is by far its most memorable character.

"The Shadow of the Vulture" is, I think, a good example of Howard's historical fiction. He tells an engaging story that takes place against real historical events, in this case the 1529 Siege of Vienna, populated by a mix of fictional (Gottfried and Sonya) and real characters (such as Suleyman and Roxelana). It's told in a fast moving "blood and thunder" style that I found delightful, but it is likely not to everyone's taste. If nothing else, as the literary origin of one of the most enduring female characters of sword-and-sorcery literature, it's well worth looking at.  

1 comment:

  1. There you go. This is the finest version of Red Sonya/Sonja. Shadow of the Vulture is one of my favorite Howard stories.