I can’t help but feel redundant in joining the tributes to Steve Tompkins. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? What can I contribute about Tompkins the scholar, editor and critic that hasn’t been covered by those with greater knowledge and erudition than I? Heck, what can I say that I didn’t already say back last May? But then, to suggest that everything that can be said, has been said, is something of a discredit to the impact and importance Tompkins had on Howardom.
His essays have graced journals and magazines. He edited and wrote the forwards to many books, including some of the Del Rey collections, in many ways the definitive Robert E. Howard collections. His opinions and knowledge of all realms of fiction made him preeminently qualified to speak about the merits of one author or another in regards to the great scheme of literature. A criticism often leveled at fans of Howard, Tolkien and other such authors is that we simply haven’t read enough “real literature” to make a reasoned and informed judgment on where they stand against the rest. Such a thing could surely never be said about Steve Tompkins, a man whose knowledge of high literature and history is surely as great as his intimacy with popular culture. Who else could make the link between “Beyond the Black River and Richard Slotkin, or “The Black Stranger” to The Scarlet Letter, so succinct and clear? Who else could note similarities between the characters of an Oscar-nominated, blockbuster movie to a 1930s Sword-and-Sorcery novel? Who else could speak about expectations of the upcoming The Hobbit from the Tolkien fan, the film fan and the fantasy fan within him simultaneously?
I know the ghost of Tompkins is strong, for though he has left this plane of existence, the echoes of his words reverb around all things Howard–not least in my own time on The Cimmerian. My recent “Barbarians of Middle-earth” articles could be considered spiritual sequels, or at least derivatives, of Tompkins’ seminal “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers“; in particular, his comparison of Howard’s heroes to Aragorn was inspirational. In addition for opening my eyes to the incredible character of Valerius, Steve’s blog “What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child” inspired me to keep an eye out for Howardian allusions or applications in films as disparate as Up! and Avatar. Even his delightful children’s tales with a Howardian twist “Night Falls on Whoheim” and “Bumbles Pounce” moved me to contribute my own seasonal story, “Walking in the Air, With Burning Feet of Fire.” I don’t doubt others in the Howard sphere are similarly influenced and inspired by Steve Tompkins.
I like to imagine, in some world beyond man’s reckoning, there is a grand longhouse–perhaps like Beorn’s hall as envisaged by Tolkien–with many hearty men quaffing ale and roaring wild songs with abandon. Among them are great storytellers, like Homer, Tolkien, and Howard, telling tales of old heroes and great deeds to a captivated audience. And, still starstruck even after a year carousing all night and fighting all day, a certain newcomer is having the time of his afterlife.