Sunday, January 13, 2019

Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory by Bobby Derie

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. […] The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time. —Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Jun 1930, CL 2.43

In the prelude to his correspondence with Lovecraft, as discussed in Howard, Lovecraft, & “The Sin-Eater,” Robert E. Howard had written to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, to praise and question H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls.” Wright forwarded the letter to Lovecraft, who in turn wrote to Howard. In the first extant letter from Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, the discussion of “The Rats in the Walls” has led to the question of the ancient population of the British Isles:

This departure from the original Celtic stock might have taken place in Ireland after the invasion, despite legends to the contrary—might have merely been a result of the conquerors mingling with their Mediterranean subjects.—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Jul 1930 (MF 1.22) 

Arthur Machen
Though Howard did not know it, the segue led into a line of thought which Lovecraft had been developing on his own for some time. In early 1923, Lovecraft became aware of the work of Arthur Machen, when Frank Belknap Long lent him The House of Souls (1906). The book contained “The White People,” “The Three Impostors” (including “The Novel of the Black Seal”) and “The Red Hand,” and Lovecraft immediately became a Machen fan. (DS 49, SL 1.228) “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Red Right Hand” both concern the survival of a strange, prehistoric, subterranean race; essentially connecting the idea of the fairies or “Little People” of the British Isles with euhemerism, the idea that myth has some basis in fact:

They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible 'fair folk' into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. [...] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth. —Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)

Machen also wrote another tale dealing with the idea, “The Shining Pyramid,” but Lovecraft would not read that until 1925. (LNY 135) The Welsh reporter would also write an essay “The Little People” which appeared in Dreads and Drolls (1926), but it is not known if or when Lovecraft ever read that. In either case, Machen was deliberately pursuing a line of contemporary anthropological thought, seeking a grain of historical truth in tales of the elves, fairies, or “Little People” by conflating them with a “Mongoloid” or “Turanian” dwarf race that existed in Europe before the coming of Caucasians. (Silver 141, 146). After discovering Machen, Lovecraft would read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921):

The most revealing and stupefying book among those I have been reading is “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” by Margaret Alice Murray, which was published in 1921 and reviewed with great attention by Burton Rascoe in the Tribune. In this book the problem of witchcraft superstition is attacked from an entirely new angle—wherein the explanation of delusion and hysteria is discarded in favour of an hypothesis almost exactly like the one used by Arthur Machen in fiction [marginal note: The Three Impostors]—i.e., that there has existed since prehistoric times, side by side with the dominant religion, a dark, secret, and terrible system of worship nocturnally practiced by the peasants and including the most horrible rites and incantations. This worship, Miss Murray believes, is handed down from the squat Mongoloid peoples who inhabited Europe before the coming of the Aryans; and reflects the life and thought of a barbarous culture in which stock-breeding had not yet been supplanted by agriculture. THis latter feature is clear from the dates of the two great nocturnal feasts and orgies...Roodmas, or April 30, and Hallowe’en, or October 31—dates having a connexion with nothing whatever in agriculture (unlike such agricultural festivals as Easter, Harvest-home, etc.), but corresponding with uncanny fidelity to the breeding-seasons of the flocks and herds. Buttressed by an amazing array of sound documentary evidence taken from witchcraft trial reports, Miss Murray unhesitatingly asserts that the similarities and consistencies in the testimony of witch-suspects cannot be explained on any assumption save one which allow for a certain amount of actuality. In her mind, practically all the confessions treat not of dreams and delusions, but form highly coloured versions of real meetings and ceremonies conducted in deep woods and lonely places betwixt midnight and dawn, attended by secretly initiated peasants stolen thither one by one, and presided over by local cult-leaders clad in animal skins and called the “Devils” of their particular branches or “Covens”. The hideous nature of the cult-rites is amply attested—and the whole subject takes on a new fascination when one reflects that the system probably survived to comparatively recent times.—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 Mar 1924, LNY 53-54

Murray’s hypothesis opens fairly directly:

The connexion of the witches and fairies opens up a very wide field; at present it is little more than speculation that the two are identical, but there is promise that the theory may be proved at some later date when the subject is more fully worked out. It is now a commonplace of anthropology that the tales of fairies and elves preserve the tradition of a dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe. Successive invasions drove them to the less fertile parts of each country which they inhabited, some betook themselves to the inhospitable north or the equally inhospitable mountains; some, however, remained in the open heaths and moors, living as mound-dwellers, venturing out chiefly at night and coming in contact with the ruling races only on rare occasions. As the conqueror always regards the religion of the conquered as superior to his own in the arts of evil magic, the dwarf race obtained the reputation of wizards and magicians, and their god wa identified by the conquerors with the Principle of Evil. The identification of the witches with the dwarf or fairy race would give us a clear insight into much of the civilization of the early European peoples, especially as regards their religious ideas. (Murray 14) 

This was expanded upon in “Appendix I: Fairies and Witches”:

The dwarf race which at one time inhabited Europe has left few concrete remains, but it has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves. Nothing, however, is known of the religious beliefs and cults of these early people, except the fact that every seven years they made a human sacrifice to their god—‘And aye at every seven years they pay the teind to hell’—and that like the Khonds they stole children from the neighbouring races and brought them up to be the victims. That there was a strong connexion between witches and fairies had been known to all students of fairy lore. I suggest that the cult of the fairy or primitive race survived until less than three hundred years ago, and that the people who practised it were known a witches. I have already pointed out that many of the witch-belief and practices coincide with those of an existing dwarf race, viz. the Lapps. (Murray 238)

Thomas Henry Huxley
That Machen and Murray dovetail is not surprising, given that they both were following a definite trend in anthropology. Murray’s emphasis on Lapps (the Sami people) jived with scientific racialism of the day that followed Thomas Henry Huxley’s delineation of the human species into three broad racial categories: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid—the latter of which encompassed all Asian peoples, Native Americans, and some Europeans, as Lovecraft would later make a point of Robert E. Howard:

He asked me what the native races of Europe were, and I told him Caucasian and Mongolian. That last didn't suit him, and he began to tell me that Asia was the only home of the Mongol. Then I reminded him of the Lapps, and of the original stock, at least, of the Finns, Magyars, and Turks.—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 25 Mar 1933 (MF 2.582-583) 

Lovecraft was so taken by the combination of Machen and Murray that he began to work it into his stories:

They must be, he felt inwardly, the heirs of some shocking and primordial tradition; the sharers of debased and broken scraps from cults and ceremonies older than mankind. Their coherence and definiteness suggested it, and it shewed in the singular suspicion of order which lurked beneath their squalid disorder. He had not read in vain such treatises as Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe; and knew that up to recent years there had certainly survived among peasants and furtive folk a frightful and clandestine system of assemblies and orgies descended from dark religions antedating the Aryan world, and appearing in popular legends as Black Masses and Witches’ Sabbaths. That these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook” (Weird Tales Jan 1927) 

Lovecraft was still developing the Machen-Murray idea, and expanding on it:

As to “The White People”—well, I take it that if the girl had not killed herself there would have happened exactly what did happen at the outset of “The Great God Pan”. But the great strength of the tale is in the colouring and atmosphere. You have probably gathered that the nurse was a member (or was at least descended from a member) of that persistent secret institution known as the witch-cult, whose nocturnal assemblages and celebration of the “witches’ sabbath” twice a year were the topics of so much whispered conversation in the old times. When Machen wrote the tory the cult was regarded as a popular delusion, but since then the important anthropological work of Prof. Margaret Alice Murray has virtually proved that such a frightful circle did actually exist up to about a century ago. In her work “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” Miss Murray shews that a very ancient cult of nature-worship and fertility-rites, allied to the Dianic cult of the Mediterranean region, certainly existed amongst the Mongoloid peoples (who have left their language in Finland and their race-stock in Lapland) inhabiting Europe just prior to the first wave of Aryan invasion. This cult, driven into secrecy by the hostility of the newcomers but thriving unimpaired and even borrowing from the Druidical, Graeco-Roman, and Christian ceremonies of the religions succeeding it, became a feared and dreaded thing to the majority who were not initiated into its mysteries; and when acetic Christianity reigned, it was bitterly hated because of the nature of its ritual and practices. It became a furtive, midnight organisation, to whose meetings the few initiated members would steal out silently from their homes, unknown even to the rest of their families. One’s own sister or grandmother might be an initiated witch, yet remain undiscovered. Local groups called “covens” were formed, each presided over by a leader called “the devil” or “the black man”, who would often attend disguised in the skin of an animal—especially the goat, since the Pan notion became engrafted at an early date. Meetings were of two kings—“esbats”, called irregularly for the transaction of business or the laying of spells, (for the deluded devotees firmly believed themselves dowered with Satanic power) and “sabbats” held twice a year at dates once fixed as the breeding-seasons of the flocks and herds—April 30 (Roodmas or May eve) and October 31 (Hallowe’en). This is evidence that the cult reached back to an age of pastoral nomads, antedating the advent of agricultura life, whose natural festal dates are solsitial and equinoctial. (Christmas, Easter, Midsummer’s Day, Harvesthome.) The Sabbat was what the outside world came to know as the Witches’ Sabbath, and was always held in a dark wood or a wild and lonely place. At this great semi-annual convocation a regular programme was followed out, including many rites of the most loathsome and abominable description—”the unnamable”, in truth! Initiations to the cult were few, and always followed a rigid study of the prospective witch by the local coven members. The ceremonies were impressive, and included the signing of a book in one’s own blood, and the receiving of a tattoo-mark from the presiding “black man”. Each neophyte, also, received a new name by which he or she wa always subsequently addressed during meetings. The existence of the cult wa always vaguely known, and occasionally referred to in whispers of horror. It was altogether rural, (though allied to the diabolist and Black Mass cults of the towns) and comprised mostly the peasantry; though occasionally a person of high birth would become involved. The notorious Gille de Retz was almost certainly a member, if not the actual “black man” of the local coven. Whether or not Joan of Arc was a member is still disputed, Miss Murray inclining to the view that he was. [...] It remained for the 20th century to establish the cult as an anthropological reality—no supernatural thing, in truth, but a very dismal and disgusting band of furtive degenerates adhering to ancient practices antedating the Aryan occupancy of Europe.—H. P. Lovecraft to Bernard Austin Dwyer, 3 Mar 1927, LMM 427-428, 429

This interpretation might have been reinforced for other sources that Lovecraft read or experienced, for instance:

A week ago yesterday I heard a highly interesting lecture here in Providence—Sir Rennell Rodd on survivals of classic myth in modern Greek folklore. I was astonished at the amount of ancient belief till persisting under thin Christian guise amongst the remoter peasantry. Gods masked as saints till worshipped at their ancient shrines, the Fates, Charon, nymphs, satyrs, (now called kalikanzari, & having hideous attributes like those of Machen’s “little people”) & so on….
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 29 Nov 1927, ES1.117

In October 1927, Lovecraft had a dream of himself as a Roman legionnaire in Hispania dealing with a dark folk, which he recounted to Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei (MTS 177-182), Barnard Austin Dwyer (LMM 457-464), and in a much-abbreviated account to Elizabeth Toldridge (LET 40-41). Long would excerpt Lovecraft’s dream and use it as the fifth chapter in his serial “The Horror from the Hills” (WT Jan, Feb-Mar 1931), elsewhere published as “The Very Old Folk.” The three accounts differ a little, but all of them take elements from Machen and Murray, specifying the “strange dark folk” who speak an unknown language and describing their religious festival as a Sabbat. When questioned, Lovecraft would expand a little:

As for the Dark Folk—I saw none of them in the dream, but do not think I understood them to be little from what I read and from what Annaeus Mela and the Pompelonii told me. They had strange features, but could not have conspicuously impressed the villagers as undersized else the edile would have mentioned it. Nor was their language a hissing. It was normal human speech, and Mela even tried to imitate some of it to me. Its nature and affiliations were totally unknown. Its source, as a feature of the dream, must have been my memory of the fact the Basques of the Pyrenees speak a language absolutely unclassifiable by human erudition. It was probably left by the little Mongoloids, although the Basques themselves have none of their blood—just as the Finns speak a Mongoloid language despite an ascendancy of Aryan blood in their actual veins. —H. P. Lovecraft to Bernard Austin Dwyer, Jan 1928, LMM 466

The account to Toldridge, written some months later, was prefaced by:

Prior to the Druids, & to the Aryan race which evolved them, Western Europe was undoubtedly inhabited by a squat Mongoloid race whose last living vestiges are the Lapps. This is the race which bequeathed the hideous witch-cult to posterity, & which lingers in popular folklore in the form of gnomes & kobolds, evil fairies & “little people.” There is no archaeological evidence to prove that this stock ever crossed into the British Isles, but writers like Arthur Machen love to imagine that they did, & to base fantastic & horrible tales upon certain influences emanating from them. They would fit well into any Romano-Britannic tale—as a sinister background already fabulously ancient when the first Roman galley hove in sight of Dover’s chalky cliffs.—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 8 Mar 1929, LET 40

Lovecraft would revisit the idea in highly abbreviated form in his 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” which Robert E. Howard would later read in The Recluse (MF 1.97) and it’s reprinting in the Jan 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan:

Much of the power of Western horror-lore was undoubtedly due to the hidden but often suspected presence of a hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs—descended from pre-Aryan and pre-agricultural times when a squat race of Mongoloids roved over Europe with their flocks and herds—were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity. This secret religion, stealthily handed down amongst peasant for thousands of years despite the outward reign of the Druidic, Graeco-Roman, and Christian faiths in the regions involved, was marked by wild “Witches’ Sabbaths” in lonely woods and atop distant hills on Walpurgis-Night and Hallowe’en, the traditional breeding-seasons of the goats and sheep and cattle; and became the source of vast riches of sorcery-legend, besides provoking extensive witchcraft-prosecution of which the Salem affair forms the chief American example. (CE 2.85)

Margaret Murray circa 1928
All of which preceded the first letters from H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. The Texas pulpster does not appear to have ever read Margaret Murray, but was at that point already familiar with “The Horror at Red Hook” and Arthur Machen (MF 1.17), although it isn’t clear what exactly of Machen’s work Howard had read by 1930—none of Machen’s books are listed in Howard’s library at the time of his death, but the Knopf reprints would have been fairly available, the epigraph to “The Horror at Red Hook” is taken from Machen’s “The Right Hand”, and a couple of his stories had been published in the pulps (“The Bowmen” in WT Jul 1928 and “The Red Hand” in Argosy Dec 1930). Howard himself had already made assays into the theme, starting with “The Lost Race” (WT Jan 1927, the same issue as “The Horror at Red Hook”):

Men carried him on their shoulders, but such men a he had never seen before. Scarce above four feet stood the tallest, and they were small of build and very dark of complexion. Their eyes were black; and most of them went stooped forward, as if from a lifetime spent in crouching and hiding; peering furtively on all sides. They were armed with small bows, arrows, spears and daggers, all pointed, not with crudely worked bronze but with flint and obsidian, of the finest workmanship. [...] Small dwarfish men, who dwelt in the earth. [...] Surely they were the malevolent dwarfs of whom the Cornish people had spoken, who dwelt in caverns by day, and by night sallied forth to steal and burn dwellings, even slaying if the opportunity arose! [...] The men, or elves if such they were [...] (BMM 175-176)
He had heard so much of them as “little people.” [...] That the tales which the ancient Gaels told of the Picts, already warped, would become even more warped from age to age, to result in tales of elves, dwarfs, trolls and fairies, at first accepted and then rejected, entire, by the race of men, just as the Neandertal monsters resulted in tales of goblins and ogres. (BMM 181)

These were Picts, the subject of Howard’s interest since childhood (see “Robert E. Howard and the Picts: A Chronology” BMM A1-A20). The second effort was “Men of the Shadows,” rejected by Wright for Weird Tales, and the Picts there are not elves but descendants of Lemuria and Atlantis, Howard freely mixing in a bit of Theosophy into his history. The third effort, probably dating to 1928, is “The Little People” (BMM 193). The tale begins with a reference to Machen’s “The Shining Pyramid” (BMM 199), from one of the collections of the same name (either the Covici-McGee edition of 1923 or more likely the Knopf edition of 1925), and goes on:

The ‘Little People’ spoken of by Machen are supposed to be descendants of the prehistoric people who inhabited Europe before the Celts came down out of the North. “They are known variously as Turanians, Picts, Mediterraneans, and Garlic-eaters. A race of small, dark people, traces of their type may be found in primitive sections of Europe and Asia today, among the Basques of Spain, the Scotch of Galloway and the Lapps. [...] All over Europe, and especially in Britain, the legend is that these Picts, whom the Celts looked upon as scarcely human, fled to caverns under the earth and lived there, coming out only at night, when they would burn, murder, and carry off children for their bloody rites of worship.[“] (BMM 199-200)

Robert E. Howard’s “The Voice of El-Lil” was written and sold by June 1930 (CL 2.47), and was publishing in the Oct-Nov 1930 issue of Oriental Stories—so too early for Lovecraft’s letters to have provided inspiration for the tale, but when Howard wrote about it in Oct/Nov:

As regards the pre-Aryan communities I mentioned in “The Voice of El-Lil,” as you know all western Europe was once inhabited by small, dark, garlic-eating tribes of Neolithic culture, known variously as Mediterraneans, Iberians, Basques, Long-heads, Garlic-eaters, and in Britain, Silures or Picts. Traces of these people, conquered and subjugated by the Aryan Celts, show still in the races today in the British Isles, and these primitive peoples I mentioned are undoubtedly vestiges of the race—whence doubtless come the legends of Phoenician settlements in Cornwall and Ireland. New races of Nordic Celts or Teutons coming into the Isles, seeing these small dark men concluded that they were of Semitic blood, or Egyptians. The fact is, they preceded all other races into the west, possibly excepting a very primitive Mongoloid prototype which was soon extinct.—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, Oct/Nov 1930, CL2.107

The recurrence of “Garlic-eaters” as much as anything else shows that Howard was thinking of the same people in both “The Little People” and “The Voice of El-Lil”; Howard uses it also in “Children of the Night” to refer to the Picts, and it echoes with the “Eaters of Garlic” in The Romance of Early British Life (1909) by G. F. Scott in describing the people called “Basques, Iberians, Silurians, the Firbolg, the Dolmen-builders, the Picts.” (BMM A22)

So Robert E. Howard was already at least familiar with the idea of tracing an anthropological origin for elves or fairies when Lovecraft expanded on his thesis:

Now the heliolithic culture, which extends all the way from Ireland across Europe and North-Africa to Arabia, India, South China, Melanesia, Polynesia, and even Mexico and Peru, is pretty definitely associated with the small, dark Mediterranean race, and is known to have had nothing whatever to do with any branch of Nordics. It probably arose in the Mediterranean region and spread in all available directions—in many cases overriding previous primitive cultures and influencing other races. But where its artifacts are the earliest, as in the British Isles, we may reasonably conclude that it was the first culture of any permanence on the given site, and that its users were of the Mediterranean race that evolved it. I believe, therefore, that it will be difficult to prove that the British Isles (possibly a part of the continent at the time of first settlement) had any civilised, half-civilised, or even advancedly savage inhabitants prior to the coming of the dark neolithic Mediterraneans. The sub-human reliquiae represent stocks which could scarcely have survived the glacial periods, and it is my guess that the incoming Mediterraneans found the terrain fairly well devoid of bipedal fauna. There may have been some of the squat Mongoloids now represented by the Lapps, for it is known that they once reached down extensively into Western Europe; being probably the stock amongst whom the witch-cult (a fertility religion arising in a pastoral and pre-agricultural age) and rite of the witches' sabbath took their source. But evidence seems to have been against their having penetrated the British area to any extent. It is true that the Celts share most vigorously the myth-cycle of fairies, gnomes and little people, which anthropologists and all over western Europe (in a distinctive form marking it off from the general Aryan personification system which produced fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.) and attribute to vague memories of contact with the Mongoloids which was wholly prior to their invasion of Britain. Since these fair Nordic Celts found a smaller, darker race in Britain and Ireland, there is a tendency on the part of some to be misled, and to assume that the "little people" legends allude to contact with those dark aborigines. This, however, can clearly be disproved by analysis of the myths; for such myths invariably share with the parallel Continent myths the specific features (or traces of these features) of having the "little people" essentially repulsive & monstrous, subterraneous in their habits of dwelling, and given to a queer kind of hissing discourse. Now this kind of thing does not apply to Mediterraneans—who are not abnormal or repulsive from the Nordic standpoint, (being very similar in features) who did not live underground, and whose language (possibly of a lost branch, but conceivably proto-Hamitic, Hamitic, or even Semitic) could scarcely have suggested hissing. The inevitable probability is that all the Nordics met with this old Mongoloid stock at a very early date, when it shared the continent with the northward-spreading Mediterraneans and with the remnants of other paleolithic and neolithic races now lost to history; and that after the ensuing conquest the defeated Mongoloids took to deep woods and caves, and survived for a long time as malignantly vindictive foes of their huge blond conquerors—carrying on a guerrilla harassing and sinking so low in the anthropological scale that they became bywords of dread and repulsion. The memory of these beings could not but be very strong among the Nordics, (as well as among such mediterraneans and Alpines as may have encountered them) so that a fixed body of legend was produced—to be carried wherever Celtic or Teutonic tribes might wander. But this is rather a digression…especially a your theory does not deny an early dark race in the British Isles, but merely postulates that, among the Celtic-speaking invaders, the light-haired element was of earlier advent than the tribes who spoke Gaelic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 20 Jul 1930, MF1.26-27

While much of this is a rehash and expansion of his previous statements, the idea of “guerilla warfare” is new to Lovecraft’s thinking, and it is possible he may have picked up the idea from Howard’s tale “The Lost Race.” The Texan even remarks on the point:

Your observations regarding the Mongoloid aborigines and their relation to the fairy-tales of western Europe especially interested me. I had supposed, without inquiring very deeply into the matter, that these legends were based on contact with the earlier Mediterraneans, and indeed, wrote a story on that assumption which appeared some years ago in Weird Tales—“The Lost Race”. I readily see the truth of your remarks, that a Mongoloid race must have been responsible for the myths of the Little People, and sincerely thank you for the information. As the present Mongolian is more or less repellant in appearance to the present-day Aryan, how much more must the primitive or retrograded type of Mongoloid repelled the original Aryan, who was probably superior in physical comeliness to moderns!—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Aug 1930, MF1.32-33

Lovecraft responded to Howard’s letter:

Concerning early Europe and the “little people”—I remember the interest with which I read “The Lost Race” in 1926. For fictional purposes it is perfectly proper—perhaps even best, on account of the dramatic simplicity of the idea—to attribute the British legends to forgotten races in the British Isles themselves. That is what Arthur Machen has done with such marvelous skill and potency—giving the wild hills of Wales an aura of hidden fear and dark fascination which no reader of “The Red Hand”, “The Black Seal”, or “The Shining Pyramid” can ever forget. But in sober fact, it seems most probably to lay the myths to the squat Lapp-like or Esquimau-like aborigines of the Continent—especially since they exist in vivid form (as kobold legends etc.) amongst northern Continental races who were never in prehistoric contact with Mediterraneans. More about the heritage of these primal Mongoloids can be found in that important anthropological work, "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe", by Margaret A. Murray (1921).—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 14 Aug 1930, MF1.38

A few months later, Howard would comment:

By the way, I recently sold Weird Tales a short story, “The Children of the Night” in which I deal with Mongoloid-aborigine legendry, touch cryptically on the Bran-cult, and hint darkly and vaguely of nameless things connected with Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua and the Necronomicon; as well as quoting lines from Flecker’s “Gates of Damascus” and lending them a cryptic meaning which I’m sure would have astounded the poet remarkably!—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Oct 1930, MF 1.95

That particular thread of their correspondence drops off there, though Lovecraft would revisit Murray’s book in discussing witchcraft with Howard (MF 1.77-78), and some years later talking about “The Festival”:

In intimating an alien race I had in mind the survival of some clan of pre-Aryan sorcerers who preserved primitive rites like those of the witch-cult—I had just been reading Miss Murray’s “Witch-Cult in Western Europe.”—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 2 Nov 1933, MF 2.655

Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard would go on to write more “Little People” stories, some of which sold and others which did not—“The Children of the Night” (WT Apr-May 1931), “The Black Stone” (WT Nov 1931), “The People of the Dark” (Strange Tales Jun 1932), “Worms of the Earth” (WT Nov 1932), and “Valley of the Lost” (also as “The Secret of Lost Valley”). It is important in noting these stories that before corresponding with Lovecraft, Howard was invested in a fictional history of the Picts (as evidenced by “The Lost Race” and “Men of the Shadows”), and was already working through the precursors of the Machenesque reformulation (“The Little People”) when he and Lovecraft happened upon the subject in their letters—and this gave birth to a synthesis:

Doubtless the legends of the Picts became mixed with the older, darker legends of the ancient Mongoloids of the Continent. These tales form the base of the Aryan folklore—as regards dwarfs, elves, gnomes, kobolds, demons, and the like—and twining themselves about the myths of the Picts, lent them a supernatural accent—demoniac appearance, subhuman stature, and so on. No doubt the later Picts were of more stocky build and unprepossessing appearance than the purer blooded Gaels, but I cannot believe that they were as hideous in aspect as the legends make them out. —Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, Oct/Nov 1930, CL2.109

Howard adopted Lovecraft’s interpretation, which became the basis of his “Little People” tales, while the Picts remained separate (if occasionally confused)—the confusion being the basis of an argument in “The Children of the Night.” The two appear together, in contrast to one another, in the final Bran Mak Morn tale “Worms of the Earth.” This was not, however, Lovecraft’s last word on the subject. A letter to Wilfrid Blanch Talman dated 23 Sep 1932 offers Lovecraft’s fullest thoughts on the matter, a lengthy essay excerpted in Marginalia as “Some Background of Fairyland.”

There is no explicit reference to Machen or Murray’s work in “Some Backgrounds of Fairyland,” although this is implicit in reference to the Sabbat. Lovecraft appears to have based much of the essay on relevant articles of the Encyclopedia Britannica as much as his reading of Murray and Machen. In his fiction, while Howard focused on Machen, Lovecraft focused on Murray, referencing Murray or the witch-cult explicitly in “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and “The Trap” (with Henry S. Whitehead); it may also have influenced tales like Robert Bloch’s “Satan’s Servants” (rejected by Wright for Weird Tales in 1935, finally published in Something About Cats in 1949). Some elements from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, particularly the calendar-feast, find their way into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror”—the great homage to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” Lovecraft’s final word on the Machen-Murray theory would be in one of his last letters, some months after Howard’s death:

I’m glad you’ve secured “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”, which certainly throws a clear light on many aspects of Machen, Blackwood, & others. The theories of Miss Murray regarding the source of the cult have been attacked from different angles by scholars as antipodal as Joseph McCabe & the Rev. Montague Summers, but I still think they are as plausible as any yet advanced. You will, I think, appreciate “The White People” anew upon giving it a post-Murray re-reading. What I like about it is its subtlety & slow, cumulative convincingness—qualities in which, to my mind, it excels “The Black Seal.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber, 19 Dec 1936, LCM 302

Much of the basic material from Lovecraft and Howard’s letters, as well a their stories, has already been covered by Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet in Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, Jeffrey Shanks’ “Evolutionary Otherness: Anthropological Anxiety in Robert E. Howard’s ‘Worms of the Earth’” in The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales, Robert A. Waugh’s “Dr. Margaret Murray and H.P. Lovecraft: The Witch-Cult in New England” in A Century Less A Dream: Selected Criticism on H. P. Lovecraft, etc. The “Little People” stories that Howard wrote after his contact with Lovecraft are a large part of the shared mythos that each was developing in their own way—but it was a sharing of ideas.

Lovecraft did not create his theory from scratch; it was the development of some years of reading and thought before he put pen to paper to write a reply to Robert E. Howard. Likewise, Howard had already begun writing his Pictish histories and writing fiction inspired by Machen before he first wrote to Lovecraft. Both men were coming at the subject from slightly different approaches—and it is the development of those ideas, as much as the contact and the effect it had on both men’s writing and thought, which is of interest. Lovecraft’s theory in many ways gave Howard the key to split the two strains of his thought—the noble-but-degenerating Picts from the wholly degenerated Worms of the Earth—and Howard’s reference gave Lovecraft the impetus to flesh out a theory which he had held but not fully developed.


BMM Bran Mak Morn: The Last King
CE         Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft
CL         The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
DS         Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and                                     Clark Ashton Smith
LCM Letters to C. L. Moore & Others
LET Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw
LMM Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others
LNY Letters From New York
MF        A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E.                                Howard
SL         Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft

Other Works Cited

Murray, Margaret (1921). The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Silver, Carole G. (1999). Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


Unknown said...

Thanks a lot for this! I love your articles–I've read many of them before–but I decided to comment now because I hope I can encourage you to keep on publishing them ;)

greyirish said...

Thanks Felipe! I've got a few more articles in the works.