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Posts Tagged ‘Conan: the Definitive Collection’

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Mr Prez himself, Barack Obama, is a big fan of Conan the Barbarian and has a sizable collection of Conan comics. It’s one of those things which seems so natural once you’re aware of it, isn’t it? The imposing physical presence… the grim personal magnetism… the ferocious code of personal honour… peas in a pod, I tell you, peas in a pod.

I should probably stop being snide about Obama, who is not someone I have serious issues with, and write some more about the Cimmerian himself, who… well, Conan may be a fictional character who’s been dead for many millennia, but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to risk writing snotty things about him. Yes, he’s that hard.

And possibly he doesn’t really deserve it. After reading various Conan stories over the course of nearly thirty years – many of them pastiches written quite recently – not long ago I took the plunge and embarked upon Conan: The Definitive Collection, which contains the original tales written by Conan’s creator, Robert E Howard, back in the 1930s. (The word ‘definitive’ is potentially questionable, given that at least two stories from the centenary edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan don’t appear – but I will resist the urge to digress, for once.)

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Most people’s view of Conan has been shaped either by the Marvel Comics version of the character so beloved of the Commander-in-Chief, or the movie incarnation so memorably embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger (I suspect we may safely dispense with Jason Momoa’s contribution), so to go back to the original source of the character would probably come as a shock. I am perhaps lucky in that I never really read the comics and didn’t see the movie until after I’d read a few Howard stories, so I always had a sense of how Arnie wasn’t quite getting under the character’s skin.

On paper there’s really not much to be said about the Howard Conan: the stories comprise a partial biography of a warrior living in a prehistoric but still semi-civilised world vaguely recognisable as our own (the geography is a bit different). After a chequered career as a thief, pirate, and mercenary, he rises to the throne of one of the major nations of his day, and… well, Howard never revealed whether his Ever After was happy or not.

The consensus about Howard’s writing is that this is pulp fiction, perhaps of a superior quality, but still ultimately pulp. And this is probably true: there is no great invention or artifice in the conception or construction of the stories. They are formulaic on a number of levels – the plots usually boil down to a confrontation between Conan with his massive sword and an unspeakably degenerate wizard of some stripe, more often than not featuring a fight between Conan and a big monster of some kind (usually an ape or a snake). It’s possible to view some of the later stories as expanded new takes on the earlier ones – Red Nails and The Slithering Shadow share most of their plot elements, as do The Scarlet Citadel and The Hour of the Dragon.

Even the actual storytelling gets quite repetitive: you find yourself playing a game when reading these stories which I used to think of as Conan Bingo, mentally looking out for the stock words and phrases Howard routinely deploys when describing his hero – not a single description of Conan goes by without an appearance of at least one of the following: wolf, thew, massive, square-cut mane, panther, iron, corded, muscles, frame. (Conan’s love interest of the week, by the way, usually snags at least a couple of: lovely, slim, lithe, pale, figure, alabaster.)

As you can probably imagine, the politics, sexual or otherwise, are fairly unreconstructed in all of these stories. Howard’s Conan isn’t the grunting thicko that Arnie sometimes gave the impression of being, but a sharp and wily customer with various talents beyond hacking people to bits – he speaks numerous languages and is a whiz at commanding an army. (He appears to have a solid grasp of neo-con financial management, too, judging from a few hints in the stories, but Howard never got around to writing Conan the Free-market Economist.) Most men he meets are instantly cowed by and jealous of him, while most women… well, you can probably imagine. He is not unlike James Bond in chainmail, in short.

The comparison with Bond is not quite as flippant as I may have made it sound, because I think both Robert E Howard and Ian Fleming were writing about a kind of idealised archetype of masculinity – from their own cultural perspectives, of course. Bond and Conan are both ruthless killers and bon viveurs, as well as being sexually magnetic – fantasy figures, it goes without saying. The difference is that Bond is an imperial figure, intent on preserving a cultural system, while Conan is a more American figure, representing freedom and individual self-reliance (his creator was a Texan, after all).

The parallels run further – both confront evil masterminds with outlandish henchmen, both are worldly polymaths, and both the Conan stories and the original Bond novels are quite staggeringly sexist and racist by modern standards. You quickly lose track of the number of references to shady hook-nosed easterners, yowling woolly-headed negroes, and so on. There’s never any suggestion of Conan himself even considering relations with a woman of a different ethnicity, and one of his few points of honour is his reluctance to let other ‘white women’ be despoiled by the other races.

Considered all together, this is perhaps why Robert E Howard is one of those very influential writers most serious critics are sniffy about. Even those who can find something positive to say about the verve, colour, and narrative strength of his storytelling qualify this by saying it was all a result of inborn natural talent – the implication being he never really thought about what he was doing.

I’m not sure I would go so far, and I do think it’s interesting that Howard is mostly held at arm’s length when his contemporary and correspondent HP Lovecraft is, to a significant degree, feted as a major literary figure. Lovecraft’s best known fiction is as formulaic as Howard’s, albeit in a different way, and it is just as uncomfortably racist, if not in fact moreso. The only thing that keeps Lovecraft from being sexist, one suspects, is the fact that he seems rather reluctant to write about female characters at all.

The links run deeper – there’s a Lovecraftian influence on some of the Conan stories which seems indisputable. One of the first stories, The Tower of the Elephant, has an encounter between the Cimmerian and an honest-to-Gawd extraterrestrial very much in the Lovecraftian mould – this creature is called Yogah, from the planet Yag. Mentions of blasphemous cities inhabited by dreadful, pre-human creatures also crop up in a number of stories (Queen of the Black Coast, for one). While Howard did write what some have classified as Cthulhu Mythos stories, none of them feature Conan (except to the extent that all his protagonists are to some degree interchangeable – wolfish, with iron, corded muscles, etc), which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame. What Lovecraft’s stories lack in narrative drive, Howard has by the gallon – and while the mythology and supernatural elements of the Conan stories sometimes feels a bit vague and underdeveloped, that’s the last thing you can say about the Mythos. A full collaboration between the two of them would surely have been a match made in weird pulp heaven.

But I digress. I really don’t think you can dismiss Howard as a guileless hack while continuing to acclaim Lovecraft as a great literary one-off. Many of the stories are formulaic, but that doesn’t detract from the energy and verve with which they are written. And every now and then Howard transcends his own formula and produces something of undeniable quality: the astonishingly vivid sequence in A Witch Shall Be Born depicting Conan’s crucifixion, for instance (practically the only thing from the original stories to make it into the movies), or the atypically bleak and downbeat tone of Beyond the Black River (Conan wins a Pyrrhic victory as an outpost of civilisation is overrun by savages).

And above all the stories have the smack of sincerity about them – their politics may be unacceptable these days, but the politics itself is implicit in what are primarily adventure stories. Provided you bear in mind these stories are the product of a different era and sensibility, there is still much to enjoy here (especially if you pace yourself and don’t splurge on the whole set in a few days). These stories and this character must have lasted for a reason – and, when you consider that, the whole question of exactly how good a writer Robert E Howard was becomes just a little bit academic.

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