Monday, October 4, 2010

Conan redux: a young man's fancy turns to sword and sorcery

I'm going down a trail recently blazed on this very blog by Will Ludwigsen back in July, but I'm coming at it from a different angle. I want to talk about Conan as the product of, as they say, a young man's fancy.

Robert E. Howard, who created Conan (and Kull, and Solomon Kane) also created what we now call the sword and sorcery genre. He died tragically at age 30. That means that the canonical Conan (say that three times fast) was the product of a young man from Texas who never travelled, never married and knew little of the world beyond his own back yard. And yet he was able to synthesize the history he read, the violence he saw around him in Texas boom towns, and what his own imagination created into something that hadn't before existed.

The stories in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian reflect the rush of a writer staking his claim to a literary world of his own invention. The style is thick and muscular, simultaneously (as Will said in his review) primitive and sophisticated (my favorite line: "He smote him with the beef bone."). Much as Tolkein did for epic fantasy, Howard set the initial bar so high that few have equalled, let alone surpassed what he accomplished.

Yet it's also clearly the work of a young man. Most characters other than Conan are defined by a single quality, and are either good or evil, with little middle ground. In The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, Conan is the middle-aged king of Aquilonia, but none of the wounds and injuries he suffers as a younger man tell on him. There's no mention of any aches or pains, and the scars are simply marks of past adventures. Only an inexperienced young man in his twenties would imagine this as middle age. And his women, while not exactly shrinking violets (the pirate queen Belit trysts with Conan on deck, in full view of her crew), are also nothing like actual human beings, being once again defined by two simplistic qualities: how beautiful they are, and how quickly Conan gets them. Had Howard lived, I imagine his Conan stories would have grown in sophistication and depth to reflect his own life experience.

So what's my point? Simply this--he did the best he could, and with nothing but drive and imagination he created a whole new genre. And those are tools anyone reading this blog has to some degree. We often talk about what the books reviewed here mean to boys, and whether or not boys would like them; in this case, I want to use The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian as a challenge to cultivate your own drive and imagination, and apply it to creating something new. If an isolated young man in the middle of the Texas oil fields can create sword and sorcery, then what might you create?


Taranaich said...

I appreciate the sentiment of the post, but I have a few corrections to make.

First, Howard certainly did travel. He is known to have visited New Orleans, and Santa Fe and Carlsbad in New Mexico; in Texas alone he visited San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Galveston and Rio Grande Valley. That's quite a range.

Secondly, Conan is clearly a man made of sterner stuff than most. His wounds and injuries don't show because he's healed: he's a tough adventurer born and bred in the harsh wilderness. Look at all the old soldiers and adventurers in the world who were almost as fit and vital in their middle and even old age as they were in their youth despite suffering injuries and the like: Conan couldn't have survived as long as he did if he was still suffering nagging wounds and aches. Howard clearly knew the effects of injury on the human body: his father was a doctor. But a Conan wincing from old wounds is a Conan who wouldn't survive the adventure, where life or death is on a hair-trigger.

Then there's the assertion that men are "either good or evil": well, I can't say I agree. What about sympathetic villains like Khemsa, evil allies like Pelias, and neutral characters like Taurus and Nestor? Even considering the evil characters, they have perfectly reasonable motivations for their actions beyond "being evil for the sake of it."

Finally, the simplification of the women in the Conan stories is also very facile. If all a woman is judged by is "how beautiful they are, and how quickly Conan gets them", then how does one judge, for example, Zelata in The Hour of the Dragon? Conan certainly doesn't bed every girl in the stories, in fact, in many the idea of Conan bedding them doesn't even come up. I'm sorry you can't see the women as "real human beings," since I think Howard's best female examples are at least as well-rounded and nuanced as the Cimmerian himself.

I think Howard's Conan stories are rich enough with sophistication and depth, personally. It's all there: you just have to look for it. There's no guarantee Howard's work would've improved had he lived: for all we know, his creative juices could've been sapped, and he became a doctor instead. But these games of "what could have been" are all subjective, and given the great stuff Howard did leave, I think there's plenty to ruminate on, rather than muse on possibilities.

Bybee said...

Robert E. Howard is fascinating.

Alex Bledsoe said...


Thanks for reading, and for taking the time and effort to craft such a detailed response. Clearly you've spent an awful lot of time reading and thinking about Howard's work. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on most of your disputed points, though.


Howard is fascinating, isn't he? Have you seen the film, "The Whole Wide World?" It's a biography of Howard's later years.