Textual Changes to “The King and the Oak”
by Rusty Burke
Charles Gramlich mentions that Baen changed the formatting of the poem “The King and the Oak,” and that he thinks it is “quite obvious which version is closer to the original format chosen by REH.” So I looked at the Baen version and, sure enough, they chopped up the original three-line stanzas into six lines, which was simple enough to do given this rhyme scheme. However, they were inconsistent about it. In stanzas 3, 4, 7 and 8 one line is left intact, resulting in a five-line stanza, and in stanza 5, two lines are left intact, resulting in a four-line stanza. My feeling is: if you’re going to make a change like this, at least be consistent about it!
As to whether it is “closer to the original format chosen by REH” consider: the Weird Tales publication of this poem, and all subsequent publications until Baen, had used the three-line stanza. However, the poem was not published until 1939. Short of a copy of the original manuscript, or a draft, I cannot be certain that REH himself chose the three-line stanza, but it seems likely, to me. I have seen many of his typescripts of poetry, and he tended to be very conservative of paper: his lines usually spread from one margin of the paper to the other. In support of this view, a listing of Howard poetry made by the Otis Kline agency (Dr. Howard had sent Kline all of Robert’s manuscripts of stories and poems, and someone at the agency typed a listing of both) shows “The King and the Oak” as “1 page”. It’s kinda frustrating: for most of the poems, the number of lines is given, which would have enabled us to definitively answer the question of whether the manuscript used three-line stanzas. For some reason, though, “The King and the Oak” is one of a few poems that are given as a number of pages. But it seems unlikely to me that, with an old manual Pica typewriter, you could get “The King and the Oak” onto one page unless you used the three-line stanza.
More seriously, as I started reading the poem, I stumbled on the phrase “dried crimson” in the first line of the second stanza. Something about it struck me wrong. I checked against the Bantam edition: also “dried.” But then I looked in my copy of Always Comes Evening: “died,” not “dried.” Certainly “died” in this context made more sense. Well, the next thing you know I’m comparing all the published versions I have, and then calling Vern Clark, who has the ones I don’t. So now I can show you the publication history of “The King and the Oak,” and the textual changes that have been wrought, and you can restore this poem to something more nearly the original. Admittedly, most of these changes are relatively minor, but as most of us here are purists, I’m sure you want to note these.
I would suggest that those of you who want to do this get out your copy of Baen’s Kull (or Bantam, the same text with one exception), and make the following changes to restore it to the Weird Tales, February 1939 text:
Stanza 2, line 1: change “dried” to “died”
Stanza 2, line 3: change “spectres” to “specters”
Stanza 4, line 2: change “gray oak” to “great oak”
Stanza 7, line 2: add “bow” after “grass-blades” (this word was dropped only in the Baen, not the Bantam edition)
Stanza 8, line 2: change the exclamation point after “woke” to a semicolon
Okay, so now you have the Weird Tales version, and we can look at the publication history. The next publication of the poem was in 1947, in the Arkham House poetry collection Dark of the Moon. This publication replicates the Weird Tales text. In 1953 the poem was reproduced in the Gnome Press volume The Coming of Conan. This version introduced only one change, obviously a typesetting error: in stanza 8, line 2, the comma at the end of the line was dropped. No other version picked up this error.
Glenn Lord included the poem in Always Comes Evening (Arkham House, 1957), and again the text conforms to the Weird Tales version. Ten years later, the poem was included in the Lancer King Kull, and here we find the roots of errors that crop up in the later paperback versions. For some reason, Lin Carter changed the spelling of “specters” to “spectres” in stanza 2, line 3. Howard nearly always used American, not British, spellings, but Carter, an avid Lovecraftian, may have preferred the British spelling. Worse, the “one great oak” in stanza 4, line 2, that blocks Kull’s way and fights with him, is changed to “one gray oak.” This doesn’t seem like a change Carter would have made deliberately: my guess is typesetter error.
In 1971, the poem was illustrated by Marie and John Severin and included in Conan the Barbarian #10. Several changes were introduced, but it’s obvious that the Carter King Kull version was the source text, since “spectres” and “gray oak” are carried forward. Because it’s a comics adaptation, I’m not going to note the other changes, except to say that this version, like the Baen, drops the word “bow” in stanza 7, line 2.
The poem was next published in Night Images, a deluxe Howard poetry volume from Morningstar Press. This text follows the Weird Tales version.
In 1977, Underwood-Miller published a new edition of Always Comes Evening. (Notice how the poem was published in 1947, 1957, 1967, and 1977? What happened to 1987?) They introduced three errors. In stanza 6, line 2, “Fraught” was misspelled “Frought”; in stanza 7, line 2, “grass-blades” was rendered “glass-blades”; and in stanza 7, line 3, the semicolon after “dawn” was dropped.
The following year, Bantam Books published Kull. The Lin Carter “posthumous collaborations” were dispensed with in favor of the original Howard fragments, but his changes to “The King and the Oak” were carried forward: “spectres” and “gray oak.” This version introduced two new errors, as well. In stanza 2, line 1, the sun “dried” crimson, and in stanza 8, line 2, an exclamation point was substituted for the semicolon after “woke.”
In 1985, Donald M. Grant published Kull, and his version of the poem contains the same errors as the Bantam. He also has “the” winds in stanza 1, line 3 (no other version has “the”), and drops the word “bow” after “grass-blades” in stanza 7, line 2.
Baen carries on the Bantam text, and also drops the word “bow,” as in the Grant (and earlier, the comics) versions.
And there you have it, a complete publication history and record of textual errors in “The King and the Oak.” Aren’t you glad you joined REHupa? Where else could you learn this stuff?