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The Ukrainian grandfather of Conan the Barbarian

On the largest Cossack epic in world literature, written by… an American
02 September, 17:19

The year 2017 marks a centenary of the publication of Harold Lamb’s first work about the Cossack Khlit. This adventure cycle is, by all accounts, the first American fiction prose about Zaporozhian Cossacks in history. This serial was of paramount importance for the development of American belles-lettres. But, although it still remains an illustrative example of the perception and creative reconsideration of Ukrainian history in the US, our public was unaware until now about its existence and its noticeable impact on further development of the world’s popular culture.


Harold Lamb wrote one short story and 18 novellas about an old tough Cossack, Khlit, nicknamed Wolf, a former kish otaman in Zaporozhian Sich, a prominent fencer, and an incredible strategist.

All researchers point out a direct impact of this Zaporozhian on the oeuvre of Robert Howard, including the character of Conan the Barbarian.

Khlit was a precursor to such classic “hardboiled detective” characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He and they are in fact a mixture of a principled approach and craftiness, humanity, and cynicism, which brought fame later to the prose of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, reformers of the whodunit genre.

One can imagine Khlit’s nature even better by comparing him to the protagonist of the film franchise The Chronicles of Riddick. Some details of Riddick’s behavior and even utterances allow us to suggest, rather convincingly, that the Cossack Khlit was one his direct prototypes. Well before this, the fifth work of the Khlit cycle, The Mighty Manslayer, had had an impact on Sax Rohmer’s stories about the arch-villain Fu Manchu, which is clearly visible in the 1932 film The Mask of Fu Manchu.

When practically all the over-courageous heroes in the world’s adventure literature were brimming with emotions and spewing pompous phrases, Lamb was describing a silent and lonely warrior who reacts in the same pokerfaced manner to the sword over his head and to female charms. One must call him for help persistently and for a long time before he finally gives up and turns his horse around toward some injustice. In other words, the Cossack Khlit is one of the first stones that stirred up the waves of Machismo and affected heartlessness in pop culture, as is in the case of Clint Eastwood’s cowboy characters or Mad Max.

Yet cutting up enemies is not at all Khlit’s chief way to solve problems. American researchers call him a “hero of Odyssean wit,” which is the best definition. Khlit always gets into a seemingly hopeless situation, one against a thousands-strong army, often constrained with chains, unwarranted oaths, empty promises, Herculean tasks, or a difficult moral choice, a step away from death. The Tatar, Chinese, and Muscovite rulers try to make use of the Cossack’s war experience, strategic talent, and legendary cunning in their own “game of thrones.” The Cossack beats influential manipulators and hordes of enemy troops by means of multi-aspect combinations and rather nontrivial tactical decisions. Lamb’s trademark method is the atmosphere of a mortally dangerous psychological game.

Whoever will read the Khlit serial will no longer look in the same way at either Stierlitz or the witcher Geralt. Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing about Holmes and Maurice Leblanc about Arsene Lupin, when Lamb began to describe much more ingenious ways of breaking free from absolutely hopeless situations and much more tense intellectual duels between experienced crafty persons.

Lamb is also an author who closely followed the subject of treasuries and tombs full of deadly traps, i.e., adventure romanticism which the general public knows from the film and game epics Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, or The National Treasure. Earlier, this kind of fictional events occurred in Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, while Jack London wrote Hearts of Three after Khlit.

Professor of history and writer William Forstchen commented on the Cossack Khlit’s author as follows: “I think a poll of those following the trail of adventure/historical fiction today will reveal either direct, or most certainly an indirect influence from Lamb on nearly all of the main players.”


S.M. Stirling, a master in the genre of alternative history, compared Harold Lamb’s ability to invent adventures with the ability of Michelangelo to paint pictures. Robert Weinberg, a notable figure in American pulp fiction, called him one of the best authors in the 20th-century adventure literature.

Lamb was born in a small town near New York. He studied at Columbia University. When still in the army, he began to contribute to the then popular pulp magazines. The success of his books on crusaders helped him become a scriptwriter of feature films, and he derived the best benefit from his knowledge and capacities by writing belletristic biographies of antique and medieval historical figures.

But even before he gained these achievements as a professional litterateur, he made a name for himself with the “Cossack cycle.” Incidentally, Lamb was far more popular than even the “father of heroic fantasy” Robert Howard and the “father of modern horror” Howard Lovecraft. The adventures of a Cossack veteran remained his most magnetic invention for most of his appraisers. Science fiction writer E.E. Knight wrote: “If Robert E. Howard is justly named the king of ‘Sword and Sorcery’ thanks to Conan, and my hometown icon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, is justly named the warlord of ‘Sword and Planet’ due to John Carter’s exploits on Mars, then it is only fair to crown Harold Lamb the tsar of ‘Sword and History’ thanks to his Cossack stories.”

What recovered many of his rivals from oblivion was a wave of the republication of action-packed journal prose in the 1960s-1970s. But Lamb’s works were not lucky to find a sufficiently reputable journal. A team of enthusiasts had to look for some of his early writings in old fragile journals as late as in the 21st century. Howard Andrew Jones, who spearheaded the revival and edition of the four volumes of Lamb’s “steppe stories” (in addition to the Khlit stories, Lamb also wrote some on other Zaporozhians, the Don Cossacks, and Muslim warriors), was in rapture over his mission because he rescued “the stuff of grand adventure from the pen of an American Dumas.”


The first story of this series is rather modest. It is about Khlit winning sort of a bet with another Cossack, and, in general, it looks like a jocular parable about Nasreddin. But the next work, where the old Cossack beats the whole Crimean Tatar power on his own, begins to outline the true width of Lamb’s inventiveness. In the third story, Khlit saves his native Ukraine from Kalmyk conquest. Now the plot thickens: traveling across Asia, the Cossack destroys the hidden empire of Assassins, finds the grave of Genghis Khan and the treasures of St. John the Baptist, twice beats the Chinese army owing to a farseeing strategy, heads the united Tatar horde, and becomes a khagan – the khan over khans. In India, the elephant-mounted Cossack tramples down the detachments of extortionist priests. Disappointed with life at the Great Mogul court, he abandons the office of military advisor and saves Afghanistan from a new conquest by this empire.

After raising hell all over the continent, the old Cossack goes back to Sich but has to repeatedly clash with the Muscovites on his way.

At first, when Lamb chose this nontrivial character, he knew very little about Cossacks. Moreover, he received information from people who took if not an extremely hostile then quite a controversial attitude to Zaporozhians, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz, Alfred Jensen, and Panteleimon Kulish. Towards the end of the cycle, having read almost every line about our and Russian history accessible in the US at the time, he became quite a good connoisseur in this matter and a deft imitator of the styles of Slavic literatures.

Throughout the cycle, Khlit evolves from an avid Tatar hater to the best friend of Tatar tribes and from a “watchdog of Russian lands” loyal to the Moscow tsar to the enemy of the tsar’s throne. In the last parts of the series, Lamb becomes a Ukrainian nationalist – not to a lesser degree than Olelko Ostrovsky, Bohdan Lepky, or Yurii Lypa.

He depicts the Kremlin’s treacherous and expansionist foreign policy, the despotic willfulness of princes, their pious and, at the same time, scornful attitude to the grassroots and slavish shiver in response (which utterly surprises a Cossack younger than Khlit), misappropriation of somebody else’s merits, and, what is more, hatred for somebody else’s freedom, for any unbent human being. The following phrase of Khlit is central to Lamb’s several works: “Muscovites are not our people.”

No wonder the Russian reader only knows Harold Lamb as a biographer of historical figures. But the fact that the broad Ukrainian readership is also unaware of the Cossack Khlit seems to be almost a criminal oversight on the part of our publishers.

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