Some people wear their ignorance of the classics in genre fiction as some kind of badge of honor. Read something that didn’t come out just this year by one of the SJW Darlings? Never! What would be the point of reading something one couldn’t vote to win an award just so you can pat yourself on the back for having the taste to read a winner?
Well, you know, it turns out some of those old white men had some talent for writing too. After all, Talent knows no Race or Gender, right? Right? Oh, who am I kidding, the only SJWs who read this are looking for Social Justice Faux Pas that they can catalog and barf up should I somehow rise to any kind of prominence in the future. But these poor benighted fools have really missed out.
In this case, I just finished reading a complete collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. (I’d post the Amazon link, but it seems that this particular edition has disappeared from the Kindle store, but has not been deleted. There are plenty to choose from.) And I was surprised as hell at what I read.
Just say “Conan” and one of two images springs immediately to mind. The 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, or the ongoing Marvel Comic. One thinks of a bare-chested swordsman in a fur loincloth, with Frazetta-esque maidens in brass bikinis and silks clinging to his mighty thews. This is, of course, wrong. While it is true that in a few of his adventures in the more desert-like climates, he’s wearing breech-cloth, it’s described as silken, but for far more of his adventures, he’s wearing chainmail or even plate armor.
Conan got around. He’s been a thief, a mercenary, a pirate, led armies, and finally became king of one of the greatest kingdoms of the Hyborian age. And between those things he’s often lost it all and been a penniless wanderer.
The other image that comes to mind from those who have never read the originals is that as a barbarian, Conan is a simple brute. Again, not true. His Barbarian nature keeps his reasoning clear and unadorned with the gilding more civilized minds use to gloss over the cruder realities. Conan sees to the root of the matter, and cuts through the lies, sometimes literally. He is smart, a master strategist and tactician, and a natural leader of men. However, he is also imperfect as well. He is not a Marty-Stu by any means, and some of the stories actually center more on the point of view of other characters.
Yet another false image of Conan would be that he is a brutal ravager of women. But in fact, he is a consummate gentleman. About the worst thing he ever did was steal a kiss from a former princess, who suddenly realized she rather liked the idea. It makes sense, since while some of Howard’s attitudes were products of his age, he did, in fact, hold some feminist values – not today’s twisted form of feminism, but the actual idea that women and men can be equals. Conan even subordinated himself to a pirate queen in one story, and lost an invaluable treasure to save a slave girl from death.
Reading these stories made me realize that the Sword and Sorcery genre is eternal. Unlike Science Fiction, where reality has run roughshod over the imagined future, an imaginary past can never be superseded. The classics can be read today and be just as enjoyable as they were when they were first published. And among classics, Conan is king. Conan defined the Sword and Sorcery genre, which Howard virtually invented. His inclusion of dark gods and sorcery may have grown from his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, but his vision was very different. He and Lovecraft often disagreed, even on such subjects as the value of civilization. Imagine that today, people who fundamentally disagree maintaining an active and civil correspondence!
Howard could also write amazingly well. Almost every story had at least one word that sent me to my Kindle’s built-in Oxford dictionary. (“Debouched” for example, has nothing to do with “debauched”. It means (of troops) to march from a narrowly confined space to an open one.) Admittedly, I was pulled out of it a bit with descriptions of Jade and Ivory as building materials, and the occasional use of “ejaculated” as a said-word, but his descriptions were lush when setting the scene, and his action brimming with excitement, as if even he could barely wait for the next sentence as he wrote it.
Howard only wrote Conan stories over a short span of years. Unfortunately, as his mother, to whom he was very attached, slipped into her final coma after suffering for years with Tuberculosis, he shot himself. If he had been able to carry on, who knows what he might have accomplished. He was at the peak of his success when he ended it all.
By the way, Howard’s mythical Hyborian age, crammed in between two geological cataclysms that totally transformed the European continent, means that the descendants of the Cimmerians would eventually go on to become the Celts and the Irish. Yeah, Conan’s a Irishman. Red Sonja, incidentally, who never appeared with Conan, is Ukrainian.
And as for bare-chested barbarians, The one time it is mentioned, Conan’s chest is hairy. But that’s harder for comic artists to draw, I guess.