Saturday, February 25, 2023

Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian


Opening Passage: As the book is an anthology of texts, I provide the opening passages for "The Hyborian Age", the essay Howard wrote laying out the basic chronological and sociopolitical background for his Conan stories, and for "Red Nails", the last of all the Conan stories, first serialized posthumously after Howard's suicide:

Of that epoch known by the Nemedian chroniclers as the Pre-Cataclysmic Age, little is known except the latter part, and that is veiled in the mists of legendry. Known history begins with the waning of the Pre-Cataclysmic civilization, dominated by the kingdoms of Kamelia, Valusia, Verulia, Grondar, Thule, and Commoria. These peoples spoke a similar language, arguing a common origin. There were other kingdoms, equally civilized, but inhabited by different, and apparently older races. (p. 11)

The woman on the horse reined in her weary steed. It stood with its legs wide-braced, its head drooping, as if it found even the weight of the gold-tassled, red-leather bridle too heavy. The woman drew a booted foot out of the silver stirrup and swung down from the gilt-worked saddle. She made the reins fast to the fork of a sapling, and turned about, hands on her hips, to survey her surroundings. (p. 421)

Summary: Howard's essay, "The Hyborian Age", gives us the essential background of the story. We are in very ancient times; the lands are not as they are now. In terms of how things are structured it is clear that we are mostly in what today would be Europe and North Africa, extending eastward beyond what we call the Caspian Sea, which is a much larger body of water than it is today. Many of the kingdoms that are particularly important are in fact in what today would be the Mediterranean Sea, which is not yet a sea. The distances, however, are in practice somewhat squashed, although this is mostly in the seams rather than within the stories; Conan in different stories pops up all over the map, having more adventure, and across a wider geographical expanse, than anyone could have in a lifetime. The world is dominated by what are known as the Hyborian Kingdoms, especially wealthy Aquilonia. The Hyborians were a relatively minor northern tribe in the centuries after the Cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis who happened to discover how to make impregnable stone fortresses, allowing them to dominate much larger areas of land than other tribes; they expanded out of Hyperborea and began taking over everything. However, at the time of the Conan stories the Hyborian Kingdoms are in an extended period of decline. They were early on resisted to the west by the much more ancient Pictish tribes (the remnants of the greatest enemies of Atlantis), who have already started slowly pushing them back. In the south, they never managed to penetrate much into Darfar, and the old civilizations in the area have also begun pushing back heavily. And in the north, they are being overrun by an even more deadly enemy. Long ago, their ancestors pushed a species of fairly intelligent snow ape into the deep arctic; the snow apes, however, seem to have evolved into two very aggressive warrior civilizations, the Vanir and the Aesir, who are, despite the best Hyborian efforts, expanding everywhere except in Hyperborea, where the Hyborians are most solidly entrenched. All the kingdoms are inevitably doomed, in any case, although they don't know that, because between us and them is yet another Cataclysm, one that makes the world as we know it.

Fair use, Link

The novelty of it is, I think, easily lost on us, who live in an age of Howard imitators, particularly in the form of comic book media, but the mish-mash character of the Hyborian Age is a stroke of brilliance. If you think about all of the different kinds of adventure stories one might have read up to the 1930s, they are in a dizzying array of different locales; the nineteenth century, which really sees the rise of the adventure story, was the first truly global era, and people read in their penny dreadfuls and triple-deckers of all the strange, exotic locations that, once only rumors, were now open to them. Of course, in many ways the exoticism of these exotic locales was exaggerated to make them seem as strange as possible, but that made the adventure more exciting than not. Howard's brilliant stroke was to create a framework in which all of these different adventure-aesthetics could be had equally. Conan is the Everyman Adventurer, wandering through all the different possible kinds of adventure stories. 

In the works in this anthology, we see this clearly. "Shadows in the Moonlight" takes place in a broader context of Hyrkanian pirates on the Vilayet Sea. "Queen of the Black Coast" gives us Argosian pirates in the Western Ocean, raiding on the coast south of Argos. "The Devil in Iron", taking place on the southern end of the Vilayet Sea, gives us a little taste of proto-Persian aesthetic in our adventure. "The People of the Black Circle" finds Conan dealing with secret magician societies in Vendhya, away off to the southeast, in what is aesthetically the Indian subcontinent. In "A Witch Shall Be Born" we are in Khauran, with a Middle Eastern aesthetic. "Jewels of Gwahlur" occurs in Keshan, and an African aesthetic dominated by the ancient and powerful kingdom of Zembabwei.  "Beyond the Black River" occurs in the Pictish territory, in which the aesthetic is Pictish and savage Celtic. "Shadows in Zamboula" returns us to the Middle Eastern aesthetic. "Red Nails" goes way south, into Darfar, and psychs us out by initially suggesting that the adventure-aesthetic will be African, then throwing us a twist as Conan and the pirate woman Valeria have to deal with a 'dragon' that is pretty clearly a dinosaur, and then find themselves in a harrowing adventure with an Aztec/Olmec aesthetic. The recognition of the aesthetic style as integral to the adventurousness of the adventure story is brilliant; and it's even better, because of course, the borders are not heremetically sealed. You can have Valeria, pirate girl, rapiering her way through Aztec-Olmec wars; you can have Kothic mercenaries, a bit Gothic and a bit Roman, meddling in a Middle Eastern tale; you can, in short, have any cocktail of adventure-aesthetics that you wish. And because of that, you can build with any set of adventure tropes, like modular blocks. Besides pirates and secret magician societies and dinosaurs, we also get cannibal cults and lost cities and terrible demons (the world of Conan is part of the broader Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft and his friends, of whom Howard was one, so we get the Lovecraftian, not often, but occasionally) and political scheming and cursed treasures and wizards capable of controlling wild beasts and human sacrifices and terrifying great apes and people with a terrible secret that gives them perpetual life. You get all the aesthetics of whatever historical fiction you might like, without the need to worry about strict historical accuracy. The mash-up technique would be copied so widely that it has become familiar and trite and occasionally very absurd. But there is a brilliance to the original conception, the Super-Adventure that includes all flavors of adventure.

Of the stories collected here, "Red Nails" and "Queen of the Black Coast" are easily the best as stories, with their layered construction and engaging non-Conan female characters -- in "Red Nails" the independent and coolly ironic swashbuckler Valeria, in "Queen of the Black Coast" the fiercely passionate Belit. Interestingly, both the women are pirates; Howard seems to have liked the notion of a pirate-queen and he writes them both reasonably well. But in some ways, in all these sword-and-sorcery tales, the parts I liked best were the sorcery parts, in which Conan brushes up against some unnatural and inexplicable devilry -- an iron-bodied devil-god in "The Devil in Iron", mesmerists who can manipulate the mind in "The People of the Black Circle", Zogar Sag speaking the ancient beast-language to the animals who remember their ancient ways under the beast-god in "Beyond the Black River". It is with such things, the things that cannot be handled by brute force, that we often see Conan put to his best test.

Conan himself is usually the least interesting thing in any given story. He is a physically powerful and highly trained Cimmerian barbarian, the Cimmerians being descendants of the Atlanteans and ancient enemies of the Picts, who will eventually wander in part to the region of what we call the Caucasus. But we rarely get anything of his Cimmerian life; he has been wandering the world, as soldier, guard, bandit, pirate, horseback raider, mercenary. He is clever and speaks (and reads!) many languages. He can keep his head in any difficult situation, and he's not one to back down from a fight. He is not a particularly virtuous or honorable person. Almost every character is self-centered and savage in some way, and he is no different. But he can be our hero in part because we don't usually see him actually engaging in savage acts of piracy and the like (most of which take place offstage) and in part because there is just no malice in him. He would think it beneath him to harm the weak; he would think it beneath him to back down from the strong; he will absolutely kill anyone who tries to kill him; he is savage and uncivilized in his tastes and interests; but he's never out to make life worse for anyone who isn't bothering him. He lives in a primitive and savage time, and he is primitive enough and savage enough to handle doing so; but we see in him the human potential for extraordinary things.

The most vivid and remembered scene in all of the Conan mythos is found in "A Witch Shall Be Born". The story itself is not generally considered one of the better Conan stories. I found it interesting, but it is the case that Conan is almost a secondary character for most of it and the demon Thaug seems thrown into it just to make it weirder. But in the course of the tale, the Kothic mercenary Constantius attempts to kill Conan by crucifying him in the desert, where under the terrible sun he slowly works free of the nails of the cross, the Tree of Death. But his crucifixion is less like the crucifixion of Christ and more like the binding of Prometheus, and when he works his way free, he inevitably returns the favor to Constantius. Many of the stories are about the savagery underneath our veneer of civilization, about the fact that all of our civilized life teeters on a cliff and could easily be destroyed, whether by Cataclysm or our own degeneration into softness; but the same thing that makes us potential savages also makes us hard to kill, and makes us able to survive in the most unlikely circumstances. Conan, savage though he is, works as a hero because we see in his savagery not malice but our own capacity to survive.

Favorite Passage:  From "Red Nails" (part of the joke here is that Conan does in fact become a Hyborian king in other stories, published much earlier but chronologically later in narrative time):

'Skin your teeth in that pear. It's food and drink to a desert man. I was chief of the Zuagirs once -- desert men who live by plundering the caravans.'

'Is there anything you haven't been?' inquired the girl, half in derision and half in fascination.

'I've never been a king of an Hyborian kingdom,' he grinned, taking an enormous mouthful of cactus. 'But I've dreamed of being even that. I may be too, some day. Why shouldn't I?' (p. 442)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian, Prion (London: 2010).