Despite the lengthy title of this post, I actually only spent one day teaching two of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian stories: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (free version here) and “The Tower of the Elephant,” both out of The Coming of Conan, the first of Del Rey’s collections of the original Robert Howard Conan stories (valuable collections, since for so long one couldn’t be sure that one wasn’t getting a reworked, non-authentic Conan story by some later hack–or so the intro to the collection generously informs me). I had taught several stories by Howard’s friend HP Lovecraft the two previous class days, including, of course, the classic “Call of Cthulhu.” I think my students were pretty sick of all these escapist/titillating/creepy fantasies for teenage boys of the 30s… but I had fun! Well, OK, it’s a bit depressing wading through all the racist and anti-immigrant paranoia in the Lovecraft stories, and Howard wasn’t exactly the most enlightened guy in the world– “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is basically a rape narrative, a barbaric “Taming of the Shrew” in which the ultra-masculine hero conquers the haughty temptress who “has it coming”. Sure, the girl gets away, because even Howard can’t let us become that complicit, voyeurs that we are–but it’s still one in a long line of such uber-patriarchal stories. Well, I wouldn’t be in my field if I weren’t capable of appreciating cultural products at the same time that I find aspects of their implicit (or explicit) ideology noxious. You have to try not to get carried back to your teenage-years too much, though…
Apart from dissecting said noxious elements, I would say that the most obvious element to examine in these stories is the figure of the “barbarian.” It is Conan, after all. Who better to look to for the figure of the barbarian in the 20th century? The introduction to The Coming of Conan is quick to point out that Howard was not a fan of the “Noble Savage,” whom he pictures living in harmony with others and nature, authentic wisdom dripping in pearls from his lips–but it is clearly the barbarians who come out at the top of the moral ladder in Howard’s view. Just as Rousseau [whoops, NOT ROUSSEAU! Sorry, my bad…], and later the Romantics, projected their ideals onto the “authentic” “primitives” of exotic lands, so Howard projects an early twentieth century imagination of an Übermensch onto a figure of barbarism. It is not so removed from the Romantics though– the National Romantics were as eager to found their constructions of Nationhood on their “barbarian” ancestors as they were to found them on the “authentic folk,” the native and contemporary rural “primitives.” The Viking was a favored barbarian figure for all the Germanic nations of the time (not too different even now, really…), which is why I included “Frost Giant’s Daughter” in my course, with its pseudo-Norse and Old English names. That said, let’s remember that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons would not have been eager to label themselves “barbarians.” Think of Viking art, or Skaldic Poetry– baroque, artificial, and “barbaric”to us in its abstruseness, it was that very artificial character which marked it as “Culture” in opposition to the monstrous and dangerous world of “Nature” for the Viking age Scandinavians (or so goes one interpretation). Some of Howard’s ideas of “barbarism” don’t quite fit, but are still interesting, when compared to these prototypical “barbarians.” In “The Tower of the Elephant” we find the barbarians explicitly characterized as taciturn and polite, while “civilized” folk can get away throwing their words about in an extremely offensive manner–because no one is going to split them down the middle for being impolite. Well, OK, the saga heroes can be fairly taciturn– but remember the proverb: “Only a slave gets revenge at once, a coward never” (OK, going from memory here– may be a bit off with my quote). You may kill someone for an insult, but probably not right away, and it is likely enough that you will kill someone close to him– or even more likely, start circulating scurrilous verse. The feud will have plenty of time to escalate to killings (for more info on how Bloodfeud works in the sagas, check out Bloodtaking and Peacemaking by Bill Miller). How about the Old English poem Beowulf? Well, the characters are anything but taciturn there. Beowulf and Hrothgar seem inclined to go on for HOURS, if we trust the poet. This eloquence (a true man is a master of both words and deeds!) has its roots in politeness, though (or is it that politeness has its roots in violence?). We learn early in the poem that a good king is one who invades enemy halls, overturns their mead benches, takes tribute from others–and protects his own people from those same horrors. When Beowulf comes to Hrothgar, he comes as an armed young man with a band of followers into the hall of a king who has clearly failed to protect his people. All the wordy, round-about, and very public conversations are necessary to keep the swords in their sheathes, to convince the people that there is no reason for bloodshed (a point I believe was first made for me by the late Nicholas Howe). So OK, there are some resonances with Howard’s vision of a martial, barbarian culture, but it is pretty different as well.
I’ve been pretty interested in the emerging phenomenon (well, “emerging” over the last 20+ years…) of the so-called “expanded universes”, from Star Wars, to Star Trek, to Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer (I think “Expanded Universe” is a term coined by the Star Wars franchise, but I apply it indiscriminately, being the open-minded guy that I am). We might see the Conan complex as an early example of this, especially considering the fact that for several decades it was only the “expansion” that was widely available. Comic books, paintings, movies (including a new one), rewrites of Conan stories, and new original novels (including some by the author of the Wheel of Time series) made sure that everyone know roughly who Conan was. Personally, I prefer the original stories, but the whole complex is pretty interesting. This figure of the “barbarian” clearly holds a lot of power for us still– look at our movies, or heavy metal music!
Well, I will likely post on Conan again one day– but for now I’ll end with a note about Howard’s writing of the stories and his inspiration in the idea of the “ancient world” that a bookish young man would have had in the 1930s. The introduction cites Howard’s tendency to “lose” the character in his stories, in particular in the Kull stories (which I haven’t read), which had less of a pseudo-history surrounding them. For Conan, on the other hand, Howard wrote out several pages of a “world history” (which you can find in the appendix to The Coming of Conan) which served to give him an “accurate and realistic” ground for his stories (check out the introduction to the book for a more thorough discussion). I’m a big fan of “sub-creation” (Tolkienian or otherwise–though I suppose this isn’t the term Howard would use, is it?), so this is one of my favorite parts of the whole Conan corpus. Apart from my predilection for “thick worlds” (to misappropriate some Geertzian terminology), I think the enabling effect of this “world creation” on Howard’s creativity is interesting in light of the stories that circulate about Conan’s own agency in the writing of these stories. Authors often talk about characters who “write themselves”– I’ve been advised in writing courses and at writers conferences to develop my characters sufficiently that, while writing the actual story, the characters themselves will surprise me with what they do. There are all sorts of things we could get into here about subjectivity/agency, the divided self, etc, but I don’t have time for that (another time, maybe). In any case, Conan was apparently an unusually virulent case of this phenomenon. The version given in the “Making of” special on the DVD of the Schwarzenegger movie tells us that Howard was writing one night when he felt Conan behind him, telling him to write, or else he would cleave him in two. This occurred night after night, until a whole bunch of stories were written. Well, it’s colorful, at any rate. I don’t know whether it is just a bit of apocryphal creativity, or actually from an account by Howard, but I’ll re-quote one version Howard gives, which I found in the intro to Coming of Conan: “…the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen– or rather, off my typewriter– almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-telling.” (pp. xxi-xxii) The history which enlivens the character and gives him agency is a pastiche of pseudo-historical bits (like the faux-Norse in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)– but it is real enough, apparently. Maybe we could think of it as the image of antiquity, or maybe discourse of antiquity, which Howard grew up with and was embedded in, speaking through him– a more explicit dramatization of the fact that, while we are the ones who “speak language” and who create texts, we are also “spoken by” that language and that intertextual world– since it pre-exists us, and we can only speak or create ourselves by virtue of that pre-existing system, which both enables and constrains.
Well, writing this went on longer than it should have, and I have midterms to grade, classes to teach, an abstract to write, and job applications to send out, so I’d better go. The last picture (a sketch I did a few months ago) is available in various forms on DeviantArt (follow the link and click on the “buy print” button in the right top corner. CONAN SAYS DO IT!!!!).