East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Swift One: El Borak

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el borak 2Today is Robert E. Howard’s birthday, and it seems a nice thing to do to post something about one of the most popular and influential pulp authors of all time.

I discovered Howard – I think I already mentioned it – with Conan the Adventurer, when I was fifteen or thereabouts.
But I’m not here to praise Conan.
In his brief career Howard wrote a huge number of stories, and created an army of characters, and one in particular I always liked, and I consider fitting for Karavansara’s themes and topics.

His name is Francis Xavier Gordon, but they call him El Borak.

el borak1El Borak (Arab for “The Swift”) is an American adventurer plying his trade on the North Western Frontier and in Afghanistan.
The main character in a number of adventure yarns, Gordon is the Howard character that shows best  the influence that Talbot Mundi had on Howard.
Gordon is Howard’s remix of Mundi’s Jimgrim – with extra dollops of Lawrence of Arabia and Richard Burton, among others.

The character debuted in 1934 in the pages of Top-Notch, one of the classier pulps of the time – and a nicely paying market. It is likely that El Borak contributed to keep Howard afloat while the Weird Tales payments lagged.
The stories were The Daughter of Erlik Khan (1934), Hawk of thge Hills and Blood of the Gods (both 1935).
Two more stories appeared in ’37 in two different magazines – The Country of the Knife was published in Complete Stories, and Son of the White Wolf in Thrilling Adventures.

lost valley of iskander ukHoward wrote a number of other El Borak stories that didn’t see print until much later.
The Lost Valley of Iskander was published in 1974 – and it was the story that got me hooked when I read it in an old Orbit paperback in the early ’80s.
A classic lost world/lost race story, it pits El Borak against the descendants of Alexander the Great and their hidden empire in the Afghan hills.
More stories surfaced in the late 80s.

I always liked the El Borak stories because – while still being fast and furious action adventures – they lacked the supernatural elements found in Conan or Solomon Kane, and offered a classier, more sophisticated hero. Sort of a thinking man’s adventurer.
Gordon is an intelligent character, a classic super-competent hero in line with the tradition of adventure and pulp stories, and one that can carry a good narrative without becoming repetitive.

And I often wonder – as Howard fans are wont to do – what would have happened had Howard survived, and Francis Xavier Gordon continued his adventures in Top-Notch or more highly-paying markets.
But that’s just wishful thinking.
As things stand, we have the El Borak stories as they are – and a damn good read they are indeed.

Happy birthday, REH!

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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