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Rogue Blades Author: An Empire of Ghosts and Smoke

Friday, June 12th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeThe following is an excerpt from Scott Oden’s essay for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, an upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation.

Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time, there was a kid from the Deep South, a fairly bog-standard middle-class white boy who was small for his age and a bit asthmatic. He wore glasses, had the profusion of freckles endemic to gingers, and possessed far more hair than he (or his mother) knew what to do with. On the surface, he seemed the normal sort.

This kid, though, he saw things. Things that weren’t there. He saw gnarled trolls lurking under fallen trees, dragons soaring among the clouds, and goblins hiding in fields of waving grass. The rusted-out shell of a boat drawn up on the bank of the pond behind his house was, in this kid’s reality, the Argo of legend. It was not a knotty pine branch he carried, stripped of its bark and dark from weathering. No, it was a sword: a great blade like Excalibur or the sword of Perseus. The old galvanized trash can lid on his arm was a shield wrought of silver; the tablecloth tied around his neck was a magic cloak, spun of silk and moonlight.

This kid’s domain was an eighteen-acre fiefdom with fields and woods and boggy creeks; at its heart: a two-acre fishpond thick with cattails and catfish, frogs and snakes, and surely haunted by merfolk and the ghosts of lost sailors. When the goblins swarmed down from the North, the kid met them blade-to-blade in the tall grass of a fallow field. When the trolls encroached from the East, he hunted them through the woods with spear and shield. And when the dragons threatened, the kid wisely retreated to his fort made from hay bales and old canvas, its walls impervious to dragon-fire. There, he plotted their demise.

As you can see, by the measure of most of his contemporaries in the Deep—and deeply conservative—South of the 1970s, this kid was weird. What’s worse, his parents encouraged this behavior. They enabled it. If the kid needed a cardboard box to forge into armor, his Dad brought one home from work; if he needed construction paper and poster board to make goblin masks, his Mom put it on the shopping list. His Dad fixed a cross guard to his sword and spray-painted the face of his shield; his Mom baked him chocolate chip cookies, kept his canteen filled with Tropical Punch-flavored Kool-Aid, and drove him to the library when he ran short on books.

A Gathering of Ravens Oden-smallBooks were this kid’s first true love and the wellspring of his weirdness. Unlike his brothers, he didn’t hunt or fish; he had no aptitude or interest in sports. Cars were merely a mode of transportation. No, his interests, his obsession, lay between the pages of books. And he was good at it, this reading. He burned through the standard fare for a kid his age: Charlotte’s Web, Curious George, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tom Swift… whatever his grade-school librarian could throw at him. But, the only one that stuck was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. When he walked the perimeter of his domain checking for signs of goblin incursions, he carried a battered second-hand copy of The Hobbit in his Army surplus knapsack; the chapters on Mirkwood made him mindful of giant spiders lurking in his woods; he re-read the chapter on the defeat of Smaug from the safety of his hay bale fortress, one eye on the skies.

But then, in the summer of 1978, two things happened near simultaneously: he received for his eleventh birthday a copy of what we now know as the Holmes edition of Dungeons and Dragons… and he discovered a dog-eared paperback in his brother’s stash, a book with a lurid cover by an artist named Frank Frazetta of a brawny barbarian straddling the shoulders of a monstrous ape-man, red cloak swirling around them, a long dagger in the barbarian’s out-flung fist.

The book was, of course, Conan by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter (Ace Books), and it changed this kid’s imaginary world. The goblins fled before the inexorable tide of northern barbarians; the trolls crept back into the earth as ape-men and beasts from the abyss inhabited their wood. The kid stalked the wilderness of the Picts, descended into Stygian tombs, and fought tooth-and-nail against Vanir raiders and sinister Aquilonian noblemen. His parents continued in their acceptance of his imaginings, aiding him where they could by deed, word, or an advance on his allowance. But for a few intrusions from poor grades at math, the kid’s childhood was idyllic and imaginative, a magical oasis of books and creativity which his parents nurtured rather than neutered.

As you’ve likely surmised, the kid in this story was me. And I get that this essay is about how REH changed my life, but you really should know about the life he changed ere we get into the bloody heart of the tale, right?

OdenScott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop roleplaying games. When not writing, he can be found walking his two dogs or doting over his lovely wife, Shannon. Scott’s books include the historical fantasies Twilight of the Gods, A Gathering of Ravens, and The Lion of Cairo, and the historical novels, Men of Bronze and Memnon. Keep up with Scott at

Ty Johnston is vice president of the Ty JohnstonRogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.

1 Comment »

  1. Oden…Oden…Write about orcs, or goblins, or something like that, right?

    Comment by Bob Byrne - June 13, 2020 6:20 pm

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