Tolkien Gestures Book 2: Conan the Barbarian

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre, to see if it’s previously elusive merits can reach out to me and free me from my raygun and alien-led predjudices. This week, we are trampling our enemies beneath our sandled feet, and hearing the lamentations of their women.

I guess it started badly. The tome-like collection of stories that is the edition i bought of Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian starts with a long, dry history of the ancient peoples of Hyboria and the rest, linking their genealogies to that of the “known” tribes of antiquity. It should be a fun bit of pseudo-history, but it’s more like those bits of the Bible where people begat other people and it only makes sense if you read it several times and in context. Note to editors: put this stuff at the back of these sorts of the books, not the front. Thanks.

Its not like it’s hard anyway. Even a cursory skim through the stories will tell you that in ancient Europe, people were largely European and in the “right” places. In Ancient Egypt they were Egyptian, India, Indian, and so on. The culture of the Conan stories is very much that of taking place in a stylised, fantastical version of recognisable lands and peoples, which makes it easy to picture the environs and peoples the stories are about. Its a useful (and very valid) shorthand in what are, after all, a series of short stories rather than a narrative whole.

But i had problems with Conan. I think its the women, actually. The crude, one-dimensional sketches of various ethnic groups is very much of its time, ranging from from weak to downright offensive to modern sensibilities, but its the women that got to me. See, for a run of about 5 stories in a row you have a white princess (or similar) kidnapped and despoiled by swarthy foreigners (of some ilk or other) only to be rescued by Conan to be his latest conquest. Whether she wants to or not. This reaches a nadir with a character who is pretty much explicitly described as kidnapped by Conan from a slave market to be a discardable sex toy, but she’s cool with that – because while she doesn’t actually have any say about being his latest sex toy (being a woman), at least he’s better at it than her previous masters. Its an exceptionally weird moral stance and there is only so much you can forgive under the fig leaves of “well it’s pulp” or “hey, it’s the style of the stories”.

This theme repeats itself, to greater or lesser degrees of setting my teeth on edge, several times.

Now these are – because its to do with women and they’re only there to be rescued or menaced (with tentacles, on occasion!) and to be there for some nookie when Conan has run out of people to kill – often comparatively minor subplots, but it niggled me, and sits in the background, and i can’t shake it. He’s very cavalier with his male characters too, they pretty much all die, if they’re not Conan, often in bloody and occasionally amusingly arbitrary ways. I guess if women are there to be used as disposable love toys, men are equally disposable cannon (well, sword/spear/etc) fodder, and maybe that’s equality of a sort in the face of excessive reader-power-fantasy, which really seems to be what we are talking about here.

And finally, whilst I’m feeling mean, we come to Conan himself. He’s not really a character, is he? I mean, there is no sense of what he wants, (sorry, apart from sex, and treasure) and no sense of ambition or desire from him (apart from for sex and treasure) and in many ways he’s curiously passive; moving from roving band to roving band, normally over the bodies of former colleagues, casually slaughtering his way though the world with nary a care. Now maybe there is a point here; after all, Conan is a “pure” character; he says what he thinks, he does what he wants, and is starkly contrasted with most of the other civilised characters who get mixed up with ambition and duty and honour and all that sort of stuff. And that may well be Howard’s point – that there is an almost laudable honesty to being true to yourself, and a criticism of the compromises and corruption of “civilised” life. But i find that interesting in characters, and that’s kind of missing from Conan.

All that said, there was one story I flat-out loved, which was People of the Black Circle. This brings us a strong female character, and actor in the story in her own right, and more importantly, a more pro-active, dynamic Conan interested in more than a magpie-like obsession with loot, along with the general plus points of a vividly realised locale, and bloodthirsty drive to the story. It really clicked, showcased what works about the Conan setting and oddly i think reading order comes into play here; if it had been earlier in the collection i think I’d got through some of the others with less mental niggling because I’d seen what it could do.

In the end, i think i just couldn’t buy into it enough, couldn’t forgive it’s faults not all of which can be dismissed as age. It may be as much my issue as the texts, there’s enough of my geeky buttons being pushed as when i read something equally cavalier about sex and race like say, Lensman, that lets me push through to the “fun” and the “merit”. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss Conan, I can see it’s enduring attractions even as I feel a little immune to them, and more than anything I’m left with a nagging fear that that will be the biggest problem going forward.

Next up: The first part of T H White’s Arthurian cycle, The Sword in the Stone.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com.

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9 comments

  1. I have to say, choosing the Prion “Conan the Barbarian” wasn’t a great idea to begin with. For one thing, the story uses the edited versions from Weird Tales, along with horrible titles (“The Slithering Shadow,” “Shadows in the Moonlight,” “Shadows in Zamboula,” “Jewels of Gwahlur”) and substantial editing in some stories. More bothersome is that it actually leaves out a number of excellent Conan stories due to copyright problems (Prion got in hot water for printing the stories without permission from CPI/Paradox): “The Black Stranger,” “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and “The God in the Bowl,” the first of which features two very fascinating female characters. It would’ve been better if you went with the three Del Rey/Ballantine books “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,” “The Bloody Crown of Conan” and “The Conquering Sword of Conan, or at least Gollancz’s Centenery Edition or the two Fantasy Masterworks volumes.

    That said, I’m rather astonished that it’s the women you have the biggest problem is with Howard’s women, when frankly, Howard’s women are among the strongest and most feminist of the time period. Many of the women are intended to be rescued, true – but they still show more backbone than most pulp contemporaries. Olivia sneaks into the middle of a hostile pirate camp to untie Conan from his bonds. Octavia makes her own escape from her cruel captors. Sancha rouses the lotus-drugged pirates to save Conan from supernatural horrors that would have most men fleeing in unthinking terror. Natala, that sex-slave you mention, actually makes a stab at the villain of the story with a dagger – true, it only makes a glancing wound, but it’s still better than the average pulp cheesecake.

    You grit your teeth about the woman’s lot in life in the Hyborian Age. Perhaps you’re meant to. The sad fact of the matter is, for most of human history, women were in an inferior placement from men. From near the beginning of civilization, women *were* sex-slaves, toys and pawns of men, and it’s foolish to think otherwise. Howard is just reflecting that injustice in history (one he despised, as he wrote in his letters), one that was rampant even in his time. Yet even so, Howard’s women are tougher than the average by virtue of simply surviving, as well as making active efforts, as shown above. That said, there’s another, more commercial reason for the weaker heroines – they got Howard more money. By putting in scantily-clad girls in danger of being whipped or menaced, it was more likely that the story would get the cover picture (along with a lurid illustration by Margaret Brundage), thus more money. The “five or so” stories in a row you mention are thus an example of Howard pandering to the public, sad to say.

    Finally, the notion that they were all to be Conan’s conquests: this is actually unclear. Out of all the Conan stories, Conan unambiguously has sex with only two women (Belit and Yasmela). Everyone else he only kisses, or doesn’t actually have any sexual interest in at all (Taramis, for example). Conan’s sexual conquests are greatly exaggerated on a story-by-story basis. You mention Yasmina as a strong female character – what of Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, the only character – male or female – who comes close to being Conan’s equal? What of Belit, who is the most feared and notorious pirate of the Hyborian Age, who could easily have killed Conan had she not decided to take him as a consort? What of Yasmela, who may be terrorized by the hauntings of Natohk, but is still in complete control of her kingdom and respected by the men of her court? What of Zelata, the wild witch who assists Conan in his journey to retake his kingdom? What of that Westermarck matron, who was tough as old nails?

    I think you might be interested in the following essay by Barbara Barrett and Amy Kerr about the feminist qualities of Howard’s women, which includes some of his Conan women:

    http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=5437

    Regarding Conan’s characterization, I think you’re being deliberately obfuscating. “There is no sense of what he wants”? He wants adventure, to seek out the wonders of the world, to experience life, and all it has to offer. He says as such in many stories, most notably “Queen of the Black Coast”. “No sense of ambition or desire from him”? Again, read the stories again, where he speaks of his ambitions and desires. However, he doesn’t have one driving ambition in his life – how many people truly do? – but they change and evolve as he changes and evolves. In one story, all he wants is wine, women and song. As he grows older, so his desires change: he wants to be a leader of men. Then eventually, an old fancy to become king becomes true ambition, as he makes a strike for the throne of the mightiest kingdom of the world. Pretty interesting character, in my mind.

    It’s just a shame that your niggles mean you could only enjoy “The People of the Black Circle,” but strange since there are other stories in the collection that have none of the racial or sexual problems of other stories. What about “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” and “Beyond the Black River,” none of which feature any ethnic characters or women at all? They’re also considered some of the finest Conan stories, too. It’s strange you don’t mention them, is all.

    • dwgrampus /

      Hi, thanks for the comment – especially its a long one. I will have to defer to your vastly superior knowledge, but to answer at least some of your points….

      the edition was the once i could get off amazon – simple as that. my knowledge of fantasy as a whole is very slim (and conan even slimmer) and like i said in the review, its choppy and out of order and i can’t not but admit that it colours the impression i have of the material. and of course with 20 books to read (as well as my normal “non-fantasy” reading i honestly can’t spent the time reading the whole list which i guess is always going to run the risk of the odd miscarriage of literay justice.

      however, on the issue of attitudes towards women in some ways it puzzles me because there are worse out there, and for instance, i’m a big fan of Lovecraft, who is much of offensive, when you think about it. However, whatever the reason, and whatever the counter examples, it did stick in my mind as i was reading it, and i couldn’t shake it.

      conan’s character i’m not sure i’m obfuscating (which would imply an agenda, which i don’t have) but i found his somewhat elemental nature offputting. Theres numerous cases (one in Queen of the Black Coast, as i recall) where he just leaves earlier colleagues for dead with no look back and whilst it may be self-preservation still…i dunno, dehumanises him as a character. again, i’ll concede that with more order to the stories, this may be less of an issue, but even then the nature of the stories seem to be new assocaites every time and it makes everyone feel pretty disposable from Conan’s perspective.

      i didn’t “only” enjoy People of the Black Circle – i really, really enjoyed it. it took all the strengths of the writing (i should probably have said that Howard is a very punchy writer) and none of the niggles. i think a lot of it may be the crappy edition, the lack of order to the stories, but i can only really write the experience i had!

      • Fair enough, dw. Hopefully this won’t sour you on Howard’s other work, which doesn’t suffer nearly as much from the problems you cite. I think you’ll enjoy Kull: Exile of Atlantis and Bran Mak Morn: The Last King.

        I forgot to mention my admiration for your quest into delving into fantasy. I was in a similar position as you as a teen: I read tons of science fiction, but for some reason fantasy left me cold, unless it was an adventure by Doyle or Burroughs. Then, I delved into the Fantasy Masterworks series, and started to “get it.” Since then, I’ve been much more appreciative of the genre, though not towards the fantasy that held me off before (Dragonlance, Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth and whatnot).

        Anyway, I think White’s The Sword in the Stone will be an interesting change of pace.

  2. I’m also pretty surprised that you disliked it this much. I came to Conan expecting dire rubbish, and found shockingly-intelligent fantasy. Conan is cunning, not an Arnold-like thug, and the plots are closer to Fritz Leiber than the John Milius films.

    As an early stop on your Tolkienery, I have to say, if REH’s treatment of women really bothers you, you’re going to have some serious issues with everyone else. I’m not going so far as to say he was particularly liberal or progressive, but he’s loads better than many, many authors that followed.

    Unsure if this was in the collection, but “Beyond the Black River” is one of the finest fantasy stories written, full stop. (http://www.pornokitsch.com/2010/07/underground-reading-beyond-the-black-river-by-robert-e-howard.html)

    (I also hate all the “history of the hyborian age” bollocks. REH had a near-Lovecraftian ability to evoke themes and moods – wasting time writing dry essays on the dullest of world building. Just drives me nuts.)

    • dwgrampus /

      i may have spent too much time on the niggles – but it explains why i didn’t enjoy these stories as much as maybe i should. like i said above – Howard is a cracking writer and i find it hard to explain why this sort of “got in the way”. but i can’t deny that it did.

      i certainly wouldn’t say i thought it was rubbish…and when it was good, it really was good.

      but yeah, niggles.

    • Jared, “The Hyborian Age” essay wasn’t intended for publication, which is why it’s so dry. Howard was using it as a tool with which he could keep the stories grounded in his universe. They aren’t meant to be engaging stories – Howard wrote exposition in a far more exciting, poetic manner – they’re simply meant to be a guide for the stories.

      • *By which I meant, Howard’s notes: he also wrote “Notes on Various Peoples” and many synopses where he mapped out what characters were where. These weren’t meant to be the stories, and they weren’t even intended to be seen by the public at all.

    • Sometimes the dry worldbuilding is handy for the writer to just keep senses of space and relationships etc; in context. I’m pretty sure I read that essay as part of the old TSR Conan game and was very dry. Sounds from what Al Harron says years after he died Howard was subject to the ‘he wrote this on a napkin’ posthumous exploitation (or ‘Herberted.’)

  3. Dion /

    I’ve had difficulty getting into Conan. I picked up the second of the Fantasy Masterworks edition for a quid a few years back, but have only managed the first four stories. They just didn’t grip me in the way I’d hoped. Reading some of these eloquent defences though I’m inspired to give Howard a second chance. He’s moved back to the top of my Book At Bogtime stack.

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