The Lost Valley
of Iskander (El Borak)
Copyright 1974, by Glenn Lord
The Daughter of Erlik Khan
The Lost Valley of Iskander
Hawk of the Hills
(out of 5)
This was one of two Berkley collections of Robert E. Howard's El Borak stories, and the first time the story "The Lost Valley of Iskander" appeared in print. Five of his El Borak stories were sold during his lifetime, although two only came out after his death. According to the introduction to this collection, among Howard's papers was found another El Borak story, plus an unfinished one -- the completed one, "Swords of the Hills", appearing in this volume as "The Lost Valley of Iskander". So what was the unfinished one? I might have thought it was "Three-Bladed Doom", except L. Sprague de Camp gives a complete history for that story in an essay found in The Sword of Conan. He indicates that "Three-Bladed Doom" was a complete, but unpublished manuscript. I don't know how to reconcile this. If you know anything about it, e-mail me.
Next to the Conan stories, the El Borak stories are my favorites. The stories themselves are the most consistently sure-footed of anything Robert E. Howard wrote -- including Conan. I'm not sure why that is. Everyone agrees that REH was a big fan of Talbot Mundy, who wrote similar adventures set in the east, and that he modeled El Borak after those. With Conan or Kull or Solomon Kane, REH basically had to develop things on his own. Maybe Mundy gave him a template to follow? Whatever the reason, the stories are remarkably consistent with a clean, fast prose style, lots of machinations, and a hero who, if not quite as swashbuckling as Conan, at least isn't bogged down by the endless brooding which characterized so many of Robert E. Howard's stories. These are what pulp was meant to be.
One weakness with the El Borak stories is a dearth of women, so this story ranks a little higher in my estimation than some. Yasmeena herself is another one of those interesting strong-but-vulnerable female characters which REH did so well. For a woman with a death-sentence hanging over her head, she shows remarkable pluck. Then too, any woman who, bored with life, would chuck everything and run off to become a goddess...wow!
One nice thing about the El Borak stories is their portayal of eastern characters. Oh, I know the characters are still stereotypes, but, given how appallingly racist Howard could be toward blacks, I have to take victories where I can find them. Though Howard describes the Arabs as primordial and wolf-like, in this case he really does mean it as a compliment of sorts, since we are repeatedly told that El Borak himself, having lived so long amongst them, has the same characteristics. Then too, El Borak treats his eastern comrades as friends, rather than as hired help. The characters themselves are well-drawn, and heroic in their own wolfish ways.
"The Lost Valley of Iskander" has El Borak racing to deliver papers detailing plans to "send howling hordes of fanatics across the Indian border", while pursued by Gustav Hunyadi, the author of those plans. El Borak happens upon a lost city, left over from the invasion of Alexander the Great, and gets on the wrong side of the city's king, Ptolemy.
For some reason, Robert E. Howard never sold this story. It isn't my favorite, but it's still a good read. On the other hand, for all that it is about a lost city, the city itself doesn't seem all that strange or interesting...or lost. It basically seems like any other city in an El Borak story. Darrell C. Richardson, in the introduction, calls this "one of the best and most fantastic" of the El Borak yarns, but it really isn't that fantastic. Good as it is, the (new) title does offer somewhat more than the story delivers.
"Hawk of the Hills" is my favorite El Borak story. Unlike the other stories in which El Borak plays the part of Lawrence of Arabia, here he has crossed over to the other side of the law. He is fighting a bitter feud with Afdal Khan, chief of the Khoruk Orakzai, who villainously massacred several of El Borak's eastern friends. A very English diplomat, Willoughby, has been sent to talk some sense into El Borak, and the story is told from Willoughby's point-of-view.
The characterization here is quite amazing, particularly given that we see into no one's head but Willoughby's. There is a wonderful sense of comradeship between El Borak and his men, especially in one scene where one man berates the others for abandoning El Borak even though El Borak had ordered them to do so. But Willoughby is the most fascinatingly drawn. The story is basically a clash of philosophies -- Willoughby's diplomacy versus El Borak's more hands-on approach. Of course, it comes as no surprise that REH ultimately sides with El Borak and his bloody blade, but Willoughby is still presented with considerable dignity -- a man whose ideals might be fine, just not in this time and place.
Three other El Borak stories were printed in Son of the White Wolf by Berkley Books and later Ace, and Three-Bladed Doom appeared under its own cover by Ace.
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