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.

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2 responses to “No, not Conan O’Brien

  1. Al Harron February 13, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Fascinating read, well done.

    A few points:

    – Howard wrote well over 100 stories, in fact over 300. Pretty amazing considering he was only writing professionally for about a decade.

    – While Conan during his thief/mercenary period is certainly a scoundrel, he is very different both as a young man and as a wise king. As a young man, he fully expects a Queen to get involved in the fighting: yet how can that square with his reluctance to engage Valeria in swordplay? How can Conan be capable of great pity, empathy and compassion in “The Tower of the Elephant” yet display monstrous violence and callousness in “Rogues in the House”? How can he be so judgemental and dismissive of royalty and civilization in “People of the Black Circle” and then feels a sense of civil responsibility to “his people” in Aquilonia during “The Hour of the Dragon”? Simple – character growth.

    Conan started off as honourable and noble, but contact and influence from civilization sickened and darkened his soul: eventually, he overcame this, and became a pretty benevolent leader and monarch. The Conan of “Queen of the Black Coast” and “Rogues in the House” was a bad man, but the Conan of “The Tower of the Elephant” and the King stories was practically a saint in comparison.

    – You seem to consider Conan to be “an unattainable ideal” and to have “superhuman abilities that don’t exist in reality.” I beg to differ. History is filled with examples of heroism, bravery, martial prowess, physical strength and endurance that matches or even exceeds anything Conan did.

    – The implication is that the individual’s triumph over society is mere escapism: how, then, can one account for individuals who have changed the course of history? Even without going into the “Great Man Theory”, it’s undeniable that certain charismatic, intelligent and powerful individuals from “the outside” have had tremendous impact.

  2. machina February 20, 2010 at 6:00 am

    Thanks for the reply Al, this is a bit late because I’ve been busy.

    I couldn’t find any definitive number of stories, and depends whether you count published and unpublished, so I just went with a low number to be on the safe side.

    I hadn’t read about the overarching narrative in that sense, so thanks for that. I guess I am somewhat biased as I like Conan as a rogue or mercenary because I like the complexity of the character. He seems a better guy in The Tower of the Elephant, but he is close to killing a guy for insulting him. Part of the problem with saying he’s not a good person is that it begs the question of what “good” is, and in some ways Conan is simply following his cultures morality in strange lands.

    I think outsiders can have tremendous impact but I think they generally do so by conforming to most of the rules of the societies they wish to gain power within. Take Napoleon for an example, he came from the outside France and ended up ruling it, but did so by rising within the established career paths for leaders. By the same token, empires are often built on the established power structures of conquered lands. I think with Conan he manages to impose himself on societies, although I think this is more clearly illustrated in By This Axe I Rule! I’d be interested in hearing what you think is a real world analog of Conan.

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