Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West by Harold Lamb

by Mike Pursley

1 November 2009

Heavy on history but with enough action to give aerodynamic lift, Lamb’s prose exemplifies and occasionally transcends the pulp genre.
Image (partial) The Death of Attila the Hun, 453 A.D. 
cover art

Swords from the Desert

Harold Lamb edited by Howard Andrew Jones

(University of Nebraska Press)

cover art

Swords from the West

Harold Lamb edited by Howard Andrew Jones

(University of Nebraska Press)

His name may find scant recognition today, but among pulp hounds Harold Lamb holds a mythic standing. He wrote scores of historically meticulous, action laden short stories and novellas for Adventure Magazine in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was work that defied the stock plots and chopped prose often associated with pulp. What distinguished Lamb’s tales, in addition to their careful setup and pure visceral thrills, was a Middle Eastern setting and the balanced take on regional culture and history they presented.

Lamb’s adventure stories were a footnote at the time of his death. Surviving the pulp market’s downshift to digest format, he turned to nonfiction, traveled extensively through the Middle East and Asia, wrote Hollywood screenplays, and for a time worked undercover in Iran for the US Office of Strategic Services (conveniently under the guise of doing research for his writing). While time was persistently scattering the fragile leaves of Adventure Magazine, a committed few became convinced of the value of his early fiction, and were busy scrounging copies for posterity. 

The Lamb resurgence is largely thanks to University of Southern Indiana professor Howard Andrew Jones, who collected and edited four volumes of Lamb’s Khlit the Cossack tales in 2006 and 2007. Now two more volumes (Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West) are available. Nearly 1,000 pages total and also edited by Jones, the two latest collections primarily involve the Crusades. They offer ample entertainment and enough swashbuckling intrigue to thoroughly appraise Lamb’s style, characters, and eye for cultural detail.

Heavy on history but with enough action to give aerodynamic lift, Lamb’s prose exemplifies and occasionally transcends the pulp genre. His influence on Conan creator Robert E. Howard marks him as a direct godfather to Sword and Sorcery fiction, though readers of these volumes will find few traces of the supernatural. Hauntings, ghosts, and prophets can be found within the pages of Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West, but the stories conclude with magic and mystery neatly debunked by an unmasking or twist of logic. 

Stories vary in length from 20 page sprints to novellas weighing in at over 100 pages. The longest stories are strongest; with interwoven plot lines and a big tip-the-dominos finale. The shortest stories are also enjoyable-compact jabs of action and mood. The stories of moderate length suffer, as Lamb labors to flesh out characters and then must rush the conclusion. 

Regardless of length, the work rarely feels 80-years-old. Lamb’s fondness for archaic language (bethought, knoweth, ye, nay) detracts from readability at times, but a freshness remains.

Much of this is thanks to his attitudes about the Middle East. As these stories prove, Lamb was fascinated with the Crusades and enjoyed seeing the story from both sides. In a 1926 letter to an Adventure Magazine reader, Lamb opined that Islamic fighters “were more intelligent than our Croises (Crusaders), more courteous, and usually more daring. They had a sense of humor.”  Infused within these tales is an exceptional degree of cultural detail, incorporating Islamic medicine, conversation, clothing, taboos, and etiquette to fortify the sweeping action. 

Lamb’s characters are more than warring Crusaders and Arabs. Readers will encounter Polish knights, wayfaring Vikings, Mughal Empire Indians, and Chinese kings. Archetypal players-spies, minstrels, tribesmen, rogues, and adventurers-rub elbows with the likes of Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane, and Marco Polo. 

Some characters appear in multiple stories. Daril is an aging Arab physician driven by circumstance to take up the sword. Also recurring is Nial O’Gordon, a young adventurer of Scottish descent wandering from Palestine to China. Like Nial, many of the author’s best creations stand between cultures. He loved to feature Europeans born after the Crusades living entirely in the Middle East. These serve as symbols of cultural displacement and exchange-living sparks rising from a clash of civilizations.

The rub is that Lamb most likely knows the history better than his readers and isn’t much inclined to review the material. An immediate drop into Tana circa 1400, 12th century Jerusalem, or British occupied India of the early 1800s makes for unsteady footing at the start of each story. An acclimating Wikipedia visit is a frequent necessity, especially as countries and cities are given historically accurate names. 

The labor over textbook precision is commendable but challenging to reconcile geographically. And heads up: stories with Muslim protagonists will use the Islamic calendar. The collections would have been well served with the addition of maps and listing of place names. 

Out of the two volumes, Swords from the West gives more bang for your buck and features the strongest stories. In “The Making of the Morning Star”, crusader Robert of Antioch gets stuck in Bukhara, Uzbekistan and defends the city against the siege of Genghis Khan. With converging cultures, blood and treasure, and an upstanding hero, it’s Lamb at his most insightful and engrossing. 

Both volumes contain solid biographical information and collect letters the author wrote to Adventure readers. The letters reemphasize the scholarship and tolerance of Lamb, put succinctly in the author’s own words when referring to the factions at arms during the Crusades: “There were rogues as well as splendid men on both sides.”

Swords from the Desert


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