No, not Conan O’Brien
Conan the Barbarian.
Yes, I’m going write a serious post about Conan the Barbarian.
Robert Ervin Howard shot himself dead in 1936. In his thirty years of life he had written over a hundred short stories for pulp fiction magazines in the boxing, historical fiction, fantasy and western genres. He is remembered mainly for stories based around Conan, which formed the genesis of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Like JRR Tolkien, he fused action, legend and history to create a modern fantasy form. However Tolkien created a world that was like a great mountain to be climbed, an ascent made by his protagonists into heroism. Howard’s world was more like a sea, with the protagonists conquering one wave, only to be thrown to the foot of another.
Fundamental to Howard’s writing was his attitude towards civilisation. The rhythmic rise and fall of civilisations in his fantasy world flowed from the oil booms he saw growing up in Texas. The booms drew out the worst in people, and he viewed the rise of civilisation as leading to the degeneration of its people and its inevitable decline. Conan the Barbarian is a foil to the civilisations he travels through. Where civilisations are in crisis, Conan is unperturbed. He is a typical noble savage character, despite being obviously White.
Conan is appealing first for his hyper-masculinity; his body ripples with great muscles, he is fast and strong and dangerous, his senses are keener than any civilised man’s senses can be, he is shamelessly ambitious and blunt in his desires. The last part is what gives him some enduring appeal, because Conan is kind of existential character. He is true to himself and honest in his dealings with others. However he isn’t a good person. In the Rogues in the House (1934) Conan is described by a corrupt nobleman as, “… the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly.” In Red Nails (1936) he and a love interest slash side kick Valeria are asked to help exterminate the last members of a tribe, to which he replies, “We’re both penniless vagabonds, I’d as soon kill Xotalancas as anybody.” Yet Conan doesn’t suffer existential angst to any great degree, he accepts his own death and that others wish to kill him with equanimity since he often wishes to kill them too. He revels in his freedom from what “one should” do without any anxiety since his desires are so primal. After killing the rest of the Xotalancas he says, “Well, this cleans up the feud. It’s been a hell of a night! Where did these people keep their food? I’m hungry.”
Conan is a masculine ideal. It’s an unobtainable ideal, of course, but he is built from typically masculine traits such as strength, power, ambition, honesty and courage. He is a particular type of masculine ideal though: the outsider. He’s a barbarian in civilised lands, or at least foreign lands. His outsider status seems to be what allows him to steal and murder openly, he is not attached to the societies he comes across and perceives them only in terms of what he can get out of them. He carries some code of honour of his own though, he is confused at the thought of fighting Valeria since she is a woman, and believes in the diety Crom. Yet mostly he is a self-defined individualist, and an incredibly successful one at that. Perhaps the greatest appeal of Conan is the triumph of the individual over society.
Hunting with the Bow and Arrow by Saxton Pope (1875-1926) describes hunting bears, cougars, deer and other American game with bows. This was done partly to collect museum pieces and also as an anthropological study of the effectiveness of bows as hunting weapons. The first chapter deals the subject of another anthropological study, the last Yani Indian. Pope learned to hunt from Ishi, the last surviving member of his stone age hunter-gatherer tribe. His description in some ways matches that of Conan, “His apparent age was about forty years, yet he undoubtedly was nearer sixty. Because of his simple life he was in physical prime, mentally alert, and strong in body.” Ishi is of course an outsider in western society, yet he knows it by its effect on his people. The Yani not only had their land taken, but they were massacred, and the few remaining elderly relatives eventually die, leaving him alone. He ends up walking into civilisation starved and terrified. He is coaxed into eating and drinking by an anthropologist and ends up being given a job as a janitor.
The contrast with Conan is obvious. The true “noble savage” is bewildered and terrified in the face of civilisation, and the civilised are brutally superior when it comes to violence. Digging deeper, Ishi is quickly assimilated into civilisation; studied by scientists, cared for by doctors and given a job. He also remains bound to his people who he believes exist within a spirit world. Unlike Conan he doesn’t break free of social bonds by becoming an outsider, instead he is placed near the bottom of society. Conan only manages to rise from the depths of society by his own superhuman abilities, abilities that don’t exist in reality. True outsiders are shunted to the bottom, while the insiders rise to the top. The outsider fantasy might be appealing to our sense of individualism, our sense of self or base selfishness, but it’s an escape from a reality that rewards conformity.
Yet Ishi is a good person, unlike Conan. He spends most of his life caring for the few members of his tribe left on the small amount of land left. While terrified of White people on contact, once he trusts them he is kind, teaching them of his dead people and their culture. He remains proud of his culture and his philosophy of life, so he is also a kind of existential character, true to himself and others, he’s just a much nicer person to be true to.