Cimmerian Collection

Son of the White Wolf (El Borak)
Copyright 1978 by Glenn Lord

Publishing history:
Berkley Medallion edition published April 1978
Ace Fantasy edition published January 1987

Blood of the Gods
The Country of the Knife
Son of the White Wolf

(out of 5)

El Borak ("The Swift") was Howard's answer to Lawrence of Arabia and, next to Conan, is Howard's most well-drawn character.  REH liked to claim he felt as if Conan was sitting at his shoulder telling him his adventures, but I could well believe that of El Borak as well.  Howard was not a subtle writer but in El Borak he fashioned a remarkably subtle hero, one who seems superhuman even as he remains human, if you know what I mean. The nick-name itself I suspect Howard got from Sabatini's The Sea-Hawk (where it was used for a peripheral character), which was about an Englishman who becomes a muslim and leader of Barbary pirates.

Of the three stories found here, only "Blood of the Gods" was published late during Howard's lifetime.  The other two saw print shortly after his death in 1936.  As with all the El Borak stories, "Blood of the Gods" is fast paced and tightly written, demonstrating how much Howard had improved by the end of his career.  The yarn features involved machinations, with multiple villains and a double-cross.

A friend of El Borak's, Al Wazir, decides to chuck it all and become a hermit living alone in the Arabian hills.  Unfortunately, he is rumoured to have taken some fabulous jewels with him known as the Blood of the Gods.  When a villainous Englishman, Hawkston, learns where Al Wazir is hiding, he sets out to steal the jewels, presumably with unfortunate repercussions for the hermit.  El Borak, in turn, means to stop him.  Along the way, El Borak runs into an old enemy named Shalan ibn Mansour, who takes up his trail, meaning definite mischief.  But when he reaches the place where Al Wazir is hiding, El Borak finds the hermit is missing and something is haunting the caves...

This is one of my favourite El Borak stories.  El Borak, as usual, seems to fairly breathe with life, seeming neither too good nor too bad, but just entirely real.  With Howard's other characters, however well written, they all seem as if he was meticulously working to some character sketch he had written down somewhere.  With Solomon Kane, for example, REH repeatedly stopped the stories for exposition telling us who Kane was and what his motivation was.  With El Borak there is no need for this.  His actions speak for themselves.  He does not seem confined by a character sketch but is allowed to behave according to his nature, entirely plausibly and true to life.  Of course, the same could be said of the big guy himself, Conan.

"The Country of the Knife" saw print a few months after Howard's death and it is quite a long tale, perhaps a bit too long.  Certainly, REH needed plenty of room to fit in all the many players in this complicated piece, but, although it is well paced and well written, I still found my attention wandering.  At the same time, it encompasses a much wider scope than "Blood of the Gods", impressing through sheer size and complexity.

Dick Stockton, a British agent stationed in Afghanistan, is murdered but, before he dies he entrusts a message to another Englishman, Stuart Brent: Abd el Kafid, the leader of a criminal organization known as the Black Tigers, is in reality a Russian named Vladimir Jakrovitch.  Stockton tells Brent to deliver this information to El Borak, hiding somewhere in the Afghan hills.  But no sooner does Brent set out than he is captured by slave traders on their way to the mysterious "City of Thieves", Rub el Harami.  Along the way, another villain named Shirkuh joins them, claiming to have a price on his head and  hoping to seek refuge in the city of thieves.  Desperately, Brent makes a deal with Shirkuh, offering him thirty thousand rupees to deliver his message to El Borak or else to help him escape from the slavers.  Shirkuh accepts the message but, before he can help Brent escape, they arrive at the dreaded "City of Thieves"...

The number of players here is truly impressive, especially once they reach Rub el Harami.  Each one has his own agenda and character, and all ring true to life.  Whereas REH often settled for villains who were just plain bad to the bone, here there are few true villains (except Jakrovitch).  Each one is motivated by self-interest and if self-interest is served by helping El Borak they are just as happy to oblige.

The weakness in the tale lies in the lack of questions.  "Blood of the Gods" constantly provoked questions, such as what had become of Al Wazir, what was haunting the caves, why had Hawkston not reached the caves, and so on.  Here, the story is built around the mysterious Shirkuh.  I don't think I'm giving anything away by acknowledging that Shirkuh is really El Borak in disguise.  I think the reader was supposed to know this and the suspense was supposed to lie in wondering if he would be found out.  But the result is an El Borak story in which El Borak doesn't really put in an appearance until late in the tale when he finally reveals his true identity.  For a shorter yarn, this would have worked terrifically, but here it just made me impatient.  That being said, once El Borak does reveal himself, once again he is excellently drawn, and it is almost worth the wait.

"Son of the White Wolf" is another El Borak which saw print only shortly after Howard's death.  It's a good one, which manages to encompass a wide scope within a remarkably tight narrative.

During the First World War, a group of Turkish soldiers (fighting on the side of the Germans) mutiny under the megalomaniacal leadership of a madman named Osman Pasha.  Osman is a little empire builder.  He dreams big, planning to renounce Islam and revive the ancient Turkish religion, worshipping the White Wolf.  Under its banner, he means to create a New Turkish Empire while the former empires of Europe batter themselves to dust in the War to End All Wars.  Their first stop is a small village, loyal to the Germans, called El Awad.  Razing the village, they kill all the men but take the women for their wives, including a lovely German spy named Olga Von Bruckmann.  But one man, mortally wounded, escapes the massacre and crawls literally miles to bring the word to El Borak.  Our impulsive hero sets out on camel alone and without a plan, determine to rescue Olga and hang Osman from the nearest tamarisk...

What is most impressive about "Son of the White Wolf" is how REH manages to portray the stakes as sufficiently high that we believe the fate of empires are in the balance.  After all, Osman Pasha only has maybe a hundred men, and he so far has taken only one village.  Not exactly the stuff of legends.  Nonetheless, Howard makes us believe that, unless Osman is stopped and damn quick, he really might succeed in his seemingly mad quest.  Given that this is one of the shorter El Borak stories, this achievement is all the more remarkable.

This is the only El Borak story that makes explicit reference to Lawrence of Arabia, upon whom El Borak was obviously based.  We are told that El Borak was living with the Arabs even before Lawrence came along, and now works hand in hand with the great man himself.

Here again, as with "The Country of the Knife", there are few real questions to hold our interest, but in this case, because it is a shorter narrative that isn't a problem.  Finally the ending features a mild surprise twist, which depending on your preference is either a good thing or a cop-out.  Read it and decide for yourself.

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