While Fritz Leiber was creating a boisterous style of Sword & Sorcery based upon E. R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell, Norvell W. Page wrote two novels that seem on the surface to be closer to Robert E. Howard and his Conan series. But only to those who do not look closely.
Norvell W. Page was a word machine, writing hundreds of thousands of words a year for the Pulps, especially for The Spider (under the house name of Grant Stockbridge), a weird hero pulp featuring a freakish avenger who terrorized criminals. Page also wrote for the Weird Menace pulps, a kind of 20th Century Grand Guignol style that featured supernatural-appearing stories with flimsy natural explanations at the end. These far-fetched tales required an almost hysterical style of writing. These experiences would come in handy when Page came to pen his novels of Wan Tengri, known to the Western world as Prester John.
As Page explains, Prester John was a character out of legend, a Christian priest who cut out an empire in the East. Page does a good job of explaining the error of this idea, since a “prester” is a priest, but it is also a hurricane. Hurricane John, no clergyman, is an ex-gladiatorial superstar from Alexandria, now wandering in Asia. Friend to Mongols, who gave him the name Wan Tengri (after the hurricane and its lightning), he is an amazing fighter with his horn bow and curved scimitar. The fight scenes that Page creates are intense, brutal and in the spirit of Robert E. Howard, but also in the style of Page’s pulp heroes.
And this is where one would think Weird Tales had found its new Conan. (The paperback reprints in the 1970s would all bear “In the tradition of Conan!”) But Wan Tengri never graced the pages of “The Unique Magazine”, but instead appeared in Unknown alongside Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Not surprising, John W. Campbell, the editor of Unknown, had his influence. The first novel The Flame Winds (June 1939) opens with Wan Tengri sneaking into Turgohl, a city ruled by the wizards of Kasimer, seven secret magicians, all rivals to each other. Prester John robs a man only to find his booty recalled to its owner by magic. He falls in with the city’s thieves, begins to build his crew to defeat the wizards and take over the city. He goes up against magic that buries his feet in the ground, faces three trials in the gladiatorial ring, and wins, allowing him to ask Death a question, “How do you rule Turgohl?”. The answer is to capture the ruling princess (which he does with the help of his thieves) but a prophecy says that Wan Tengri will rule for only a day. In the end, after defeating all seven wizards and their magic he leaves the city (his sidekick, the wizard-thief Bourtai at his side ) to the princess, not willing to marry her and rule beside her. Her final illusion robs him of the rich prize he thinks he is taking with him.
Page’s concept of magic is one we would expect of John W. Campbell, not Robert E. Howard. Magic is an illusion, a complex theatrical lie that has no actuality, only existing in the victim’s mind. Page would have gained experience writing these kind of “explained” miracles in the Weird Menace pulps. Campbell must have encouraged Page to make the explanations closer to Science Fiction. Howard’s worlds of Atlantis, Hyboria and more modern times, includes real magic, much of it Lovecraftian in nature. Philosophically, Howard and Page could not be farther apart.
In the second novel, Sons of the Bear God (November 1939), Wan Tengri is once again trying to take over an empire, this time the grassland kingdom of the Tinsuchi, short dwarfish men who worship bears. (The dwarfish Tunsuchi reminded me briefly of Nycztin Dyalhis’s Vulmin Dwarves from “The Sapphire Siren” (Weird Tales, February 1934.) As before Prester John must defeat their magic, a hallucinogenic dust, telescopes and electricity, to take the throne. He loses it (again) through the guile of his sidekick Bourtai and a woman. This second venture lacks the originality of the first and you want to slap Prester John in the head because he is so obviously being manipulated by Tossa, his queen. Wan Tengri walks away laughing, once again avoiding a clutching female.
The legend of Prester John tells of three empires he was supposed to have won, so Page may have planned a third and final tale but it appears to have remained unwritten. Page moved on to more Spider novels, and finally left the Pulps to work in Intelligence in Washington. His influence on Sword & Sorcery is hard to say. The pages of the Pulps did not become filled with Wan Tengri clones. Conan himself would lie dormant for ten more years. What Page did do was show Fantasy writers another way to go, a way that Campbell approved of, and that L. Sprague de Camp would take up in the 1950s when he would try to re-fit Sword & Sorcery in his Pusad tales. (Marvel Comics did “loosely adapt” both Prester John novels as Conan stories in 1973 and 1980. Roy Thomas kept fairly close to the books but injected more supernatural creatures, ignoring the Page’s core idea about magic.)