Sunday, March 20, 2016

Conan the Cimmerian

I have made it a habit over the last few years to collect what one might want to call fantasy/science fiction pulp literature classics, either at the local charity book fair or, sometimes, by buying collections outright from online book sellers. Examples include Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Venus series and, recently, Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories and the second book of Alan Burt Akers' Dray Prescot series.

Honestly I do not buy these books because I expect to be overwhelmed by their literary quality. I buy them because they are classics; they have influenced generations of fantasy and SF authors, movies and memes, and consequently I would like to get a feel for them. I also do hope that they are entertaining, and here I am actually quite flexible.

A work does not have to be politically correct, I can take it as a product of its time as long as the author is not, well, repulsively reactionary even for their own time. It does not have to be superbly imaginative if the story is gripping, and it does not have to have a superb story if it is at least imaginative in its setting.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, is rather predictable and formulaic:

10 Hero falls in love with princess
20 Princess gets abducted by villain or monsters
30 Hero battles against overwhelming odds to save his love
40 Just as the hero has rescued his love ... goto 20

But the stories are still fun to read because he is very inventive with the biology, politics, technology, culture and sociology of the Martians and Venusians, and apart from the recurrent damsel in distress theme his stories are actually quite okay even from a contemporary political perspective.

His Mars (Barsoom), for example, has green, red, yellow, white and black races. The really evil ones are the greens, blacks... and the whites. And when their evil leaders are defeated... even they can reform, under the leadership of one of their own race. Shocker - the black Martians do not actually need a white master to be civilised! And the kind of 'good' Martians we are supposed to identify with are the red ones... which are the product of interbreeding between whites, blacks and yellows. Clearly Burroughs was not a race essentialist or particularly concerned with racial purity. What is more, he did produce a later Barsoom novel with a fighting, self-confident heroine, defying his readers' expectations.

So now let's talk Conan, because that was the last series I read through, in the sense of buying a two volume collection of all the stories written by Howard himself, meaning not including any of the, shall we say, extended universe stories added by later authors.

I was hoping to find that, like the ones written by Burroughs, the Conan stories are cheesy in some way but that they would have their charm. After all, they were a great success in their time, many people still seem to like them, and they definitely inspired many additional novels, movies and computer games set in the same world. But to be honest, I was kind of disappointed.

For starters, the writing is just atrocious. Howard uses the same few words over and over again, and if you read several short stories one after the other it can be quite grating. If somebody walks onto the scene who is "pantherish", "tigerish" or "wolfish", we know even before the mention of scars, "square-cut" black hair, and unusually large body size that we are dealing with our hero. We meet a woman Conan finds attractive? Expect her to be "lithe" and "supple", with "ivory" skin and "foamy" hair. Yes, nearly every single one of them is described with these four words. And no, I have no idea what is meant with foamy hair. Maybe they had perms in 50,000 BC?

The only insult anybody in the Hyborian age knows is "dog", so it is sometimes used twice in the same short paragraph and certainly a dozen times per story. In general one gets the feeling Howard liked wild cats, hated dogs, and found snakes icky, because the evil sorcerers nearly always use snakes or shape-shift into snakes.

I wrote above that I can accept some retrograde views as a product of their age, and admittedly this guy wrote in Texas in the first half of the 20th century. But still, you know, there are limits. The racism just drips from the pages. Black Africans are always depicted as needing a Caucasian leader (usually Conan or, if an evil leader is required, some proto-Arabian) to function; East Asians are consistently characterised as alien and inhumanely unemotional; and Native Americans, here called "Picts", are represented as cruel savages.

Then there is Conan himself. Of course, Conan is a barbarian, sometime mercenary and thief, and his stories are violent. One comes at these works expecting a scenario where Conan is a killer with a code of honour; like, yes, he steals treasure, conquers a kingdom, and murders villains and their henchmen, but he would not hurt e.g. an innocent civilian. One can identify with that kind of hero in an escapist fantasy. And that is clearly the idea here, in theory:
"But rude though he is, he possesses a sort of primordial chivalry and an innate reverence for womanhood that make him wholly fascinating." (Farnsworth Wright)
In practice, however, Conan is hard to root for. His code of honour is pretty much an informed attribute because it is rarely in evidence. In The Vale of the lost Women, Conan commits genocide against an African tribe because he suspects its leader was going to betray him. In Queen of the Black Coast, the pirate queen Belit is introduced as massacring entire villages; when he meets her, Conan joins her, with the clear implication that he spent the next few weeks helping her commit more genocide.

In Rogues in the House, he has been betrayed by his ex-girlfriend. Very nobly he does not kill her for that, because a hero does not kill defenceless women, right? So he just dumps her into a pile of refuse... after he has just ambushed and murdered her new boyfriend in the staircase, who did not appear to have anything to do with her betrayal and probably did not even know who Conan was. And, of course, he spends several stories sexually harassing and (it is implied) raping his 'love interests' du jour.

Yeah, Conan is pretty much a villain himself.

And that brings us to the last point, the underlying world view of the author. It becomes clear both from the biographical appendices and from the stories themselves that Howard had a very dim view of civilisation (as he understood it) and adored barbarism (ditto):
"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilisation is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always triumph."
I am not sure how that works in practice. If Conan were to face a Roman legion during one of his genocidal pillaging tours, or perhaps a battalion of musketeers, whose weapons are necessarily the product of civilisation, there can be little doubt who would triumph. But clearly we are here not in the realm of reasoned discussion but in that of naked ideology. Howard found civilisation corrupt, and that is how he consistently characterised it in the Conan stories:

Any law or political system merely serves to provide cover to abusers, thieves, and despots. The idea is that everybody is constantly fighting everybody else anyway, only in civilisation this fact is hidden, and the fight is therefore unfair. As the corrupt aristocrat Murilo says to the corrupt priest Nabonidus in Rogues in the House: "This Cimmerian is the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly."

Cynical, yes. What fascinates me is that I see here an interesting parallel to right-wing libertarian / objectivist thinking. In both cases, the world is seen in black and white, with a stark contrast between worthy and unworthy. In both cases, there is a permanent struggle between people with varying degrees of this worthiness - strength in the case of Howard, some ill-defined creative spirit or business acumen in the case of the libertarians. In both cases, weak and unworthy people have built the state purely with the intention of robbing the worthy of what should rightfully be theirs.

And in both cases, destroying the state with its complex rules and compromises would return everything to its simpler, honest state. It is very clear that in Howard's eyes, no corruption and no evil are possible in a state of barbarism, when personal honour replaces law and personal strength replaces political power. (What happens when two inherently decent people have different understandings of what is honourable is left as unclear as what happens when two super-rational objectivists have conflicting interests; I guess it is just assumed that such a situation is impossible.)

In summary, there were about four deal-breakers here, each of which alone would have soured the reading experience for me. I do not quite understand what people found and continue to find so inspiring in the Conan stories.

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