The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

Monday, July 12, 2010




The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
Robert E Howard
(Compilation published 2002, stories written 1932-1933)

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing. - "The Tower of the Elephant"

Fantastic.  I'm so delighted I got around to reading these, and I'm actually glad I didn't do it sooner.  There are certain styles, especially dated styles, that I've grown to enjoy over time.  This book contains the first thirteen Conan stories, in the order they were (probably) written.  I don't know that I would have been able to understand or appreciate the prose and the undercurrents of these stories if I were hung up on the scantily-clad females.

There are plenty of such women, but I find it actually honest, on a certain level.  Howard has created a complicated war-torn world, in which plenty of its fairer denizens are used as pawns by the men around them.  Many of them are happy to stay with Conan in return for protection, and that seems reasonable in the circumstances.  Let me put it this way: it was less sexist than I was anticipating.  I got tired of the more than occasional mention of the weakness of “girlish strength”, but there were clever women and vicious women, silly women and brave women scattered throughout.  None of them wore very much, but Conan usually didn't wear much either.

It is a product of its time.  The stories are unthinkingly racist here and there, until I came upon one story in particular so over-the-top in revolting description and behavior that I felt embarrassed just reading it.  Even that story [The Vale of Lost Women], though, in the last third, had beautiful moments and amazing description.  Reading the appendix, I found that Howard scholars believe that this story was a botched attempt to blend Howard's interest in Westerns into Conan's world, with the black-skinned Kushites standing in for “Indians”.  I'll let you guess how horribly awkward that gets.  It was not even accepted for publication until the 60's.

There are lots of other amusing bits that date the writing, for example a decidedly odd understanding of evolutionary theory is scattered into Conan's speculations on the origins of some of his supernatural foes.

Overall, I was struck by the beauty and dark humor of the writing.  I really enjoyed the poetry in some of the pieces, and the fantastic descriptions (despite spotting a few 'favorite' phrases used over and over).

Before midnight they crossed the Ophirean border and at dawn the spires of Khorshemish stood up gleaming and rose-tinted on the south-eastern horizon, the slim towers overawed by the grim scarlet citadel that at a distance was like a splash of bright blood in the sky.
 - "The Scarlet Citadel"

The writing is extremely visceral.  Not just the violence of battle, but the constant sensuality of all the characters, men, women, things from beyond space, was surprising to me.  I can understand both why these were popular from the time they were written and inspired an entire sub-genre of fiction.

In my current experience, though, that aspect of it, the sense of vibrant life, has departed from much of modern fantasy, even sword-and-sorcery itself.  Part of this is the decline of using female characters as sexual objects, and that I certainly can't complain about.  I found it amazing, though, that in tone some of the stories almost have more in common with modern romance or erotica than with modern fantasy. 

Left alone...she realized how much the protection of the Cimmerian had meant to her.  There intruded vaguely a wonderment at the mad pranks of Fate, that could make the daughter of a king the companion of a red-handed barbarian.  With is came a revulsion toward her own kind.  Her father, and [her captor], they were civilized men.  And from them she had had only suffering.  She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there were an ulterior motive behind his actions.  Conan had shielded her, protected her, and – so far – demanded nothing in return.
 - "Iron Shadows in the Moon"

She was no longer a princess, but only a terrified girl.... In her frantic fear she had come to him who seemed strongest.  The ruthless power that had repelled her, drew her now.
For answer he drew off his scarlet cloak and wrapped it about her, roughly, as if tenderness of any kind were impossible to him.  His iron hand rested for an instant on her slender shoulder, and she shivered again, but not with fear.  Like an electric show a surge of animal vitality swept over her at his mere touch, as if some of his superabundant strength had been imparted to her.  - "Black Colosuss"

The unabashed sexuality, while hardly ever moving into something openly sexual, was kind of great.  These belong to a very masculine tradition of adventure that unapologetically embraces battle for the sake of combat, sexuality for the sake of lust, and death as a constant threat.  It's not what I want to read every day, but it's a powerful experience to explore these lands for a while.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

8 comments:

Taranaich said...

First of all, welcome to the world of Robert E. Howard! Your words on unabashed sexuality, and Howard not being as sexist as feared, rings true. Barbara Barrett & Amy Kerr, two Robert E. Howard scholars gave a presentation about Howard's treatment of women in his stories, and how they differed from contemporary pulp authors of the time. They make a very convincing argument that even Howard's "weaker" girls are strong, in that they are survivors. Though Conan rescues them, they have to endure horrendous torture, terror and exersion, and they endure through their vitality and desire to live. I wish it was online, since it's a great read.

It's important to remember that Conan was Howard's "meal ticket," so to speak: a lot of the very pulpy elements were included specifically to appeal to magazine editors in order to land a sale. The Conan stories epitomize this, especially the likes of "Iron Shadows in the Moon," "Xuthal of the Dusk," and "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula": they're very definitely put in because Howard discovered that putting in sexy girls in various states of undress and constantly opining for a big man to save them.

What's curious is that Hoard *despised* this treatment of women. He often talked in letters how he could have a girl undergo cruel torture and danger with abandon, yet he couldn't depict scenes of extreme violence with the same excess, because the audience is more accepting - titillated, even - by the former. In the very best Howard stories, women are either strong characters, or they don't appear at all.

Here's a letter Howard wrote to his friend Harold Preece in regards to historical women:

http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/06/howard-what-he-really-thought-of-women.html

"Vale" is, I think, a difficult case, mostly because it is indeed very easy to see it as a "white vs black" story due to the language and circumstances. However, when one looks at it from a broader point of view - of civilization vs savagery - it's actually pretty interesting. All the talk of Livia being unsafe among black men isn't necessarily because they were black, but because black people at that period were barbarians - much like Howard's Cimmerians. I think if Howard set the story in the Pictish Wilderness, it wouldn't differ much at all, despite the Picts being white.

In any case, if you think this is less sexist than you were fearing, you'll definitely enjoy what's to come in The Conquering Sword of Conan and The Bloody Crown of Conan. You have Yasmina, Zelata, and Valeria to look forward to: Valeria herself is a more badass heroine than most 21st Century "action girls," let alone contemporaries.

Lindsay said...

Wow, thanks for the comment! I've been reading through a lot of early fantasy that I had somehow missed previously.

The introduction to the edition I have in hand talks about Howard putting in scantily clad women to get the magazine cover image when he needed the money. I actually enjoyed the girls in both "Iron Shadows in the Moon" and "Xuthal of the Dusk", although the, ah, girl-on-girl violence in the latter was a bit gratuitous. ;)

The thing about "Vale", is not even so much the plot, but that the descriptions are so awkwardly repugnant by today's standards. They're not presented as barbarians, not warriors like Conan, but as revolting savages. It's somewhat mitigated by the fact that Conan gets along perfectly well with the tribe he is working with, but still... I'm not trying to say anything about Howard, just that this story is dated to say the least.

I did enjoy the book very much overall, though I trust you'll forgive me if I don't go immediately to the next: my local library just came through with The Best of CL Moore...

Taranaich said...

No problem, Lindsay. There's a wealth of great early fantasy that deserves attention, especially Howard.

I can easily sympathise with the racial language being difficult to get over. I know I had immense difficulty with it on first reading, even with prior warning. But ultimately, as you say, it's just a different time, and judging a person living 80 years ago with modern standards isn't exactly fair.

Still, Howard managed to rise above it every so often. There's a very powerful horror story he wrote called "Black Canaan" which features a hypothetical slave uprising in the deep south during the time of slavery: while there's racist dialogue and the like, Howard portrayed the blacks' plight in a way rare for the time. Apart from the "African Savage" stereotype, the prevailing stereotype of the African American back then was of the dumb, happy-go-lucky uncle Tom, perfectly content with his lot as a slave and inferior to the white man. Howard portrayed the blacks as resentful of their station, and their desire to be free is a human and understandable one. To modern eyes, Howard was indeed racist, but for the time, he showed some remarkable anti-racist sentiments too (though, sadly, they're rarer than his anti-sexist sentiments.)

It's more remarkable to me that a white dust-bowl Texan of the 1920s & 30s could write sympathetic black people at all. The "evil savage black man" was sadly commonplace in pulp fiction, but the noble, sensitive, sympathetic black was much rarer, and Howard had more than a few: Ace Jessel being the most notable, but also N'Longa of the Solomon Kane stories, the black couple in "The Hills of the Dead," Goru from "Wings in the Night," and a few others scattered throughout.

Certainly take your time with Howard. The stories were originally put out over the course of months in the magazines, after all: savour them! C.L. Moore's a real treat, one of my favourite authors.

Erin Snyder said...

@Taranaich: "But ultimately, as you say, it's just a different time, and judging a person living 80 years ago with modern standards isn't exactly fair."

I don't think she was judging Howard at all. She was judging the story and how well it held up, which is certainly fair game.

Taranaich said...

That's true, but again, I think it can be problematic to apply modern mores to a story written so long ago.

Erin Snyder said...

Not at all, Taranaich. If the question is whether a story holds up, it's an important aspect to consider.

Just as it's important to consider a book in the context in which it was written, it's also important to reflect on how well it's aged. This is especially true when presenting writing as entertainment, as opposed to merely weighing its scholarly value.

Taranaich said...

Just as it's important to consider a book in the context in which it was written, it's also important to reflect on how well it's aged. This is especially true when presenting writing as entertainment, as opposed to merely weighing its scholarly value.

See, here's the thing: I don't think the problem with "Vale" isn't that it's "aged," but that modern sensibilities mean that we're more sensitive to certain things, especially racialist implications. As such, it's easy to be obfuscated from what the story's really about.

However, "Vale's" setting is an important factor in understanding the story. This is a story of a white, civilized woman among black savages. She can't be left among them not because they are *black,* but because they are *savages.* That was simply the state of the world in Howard's fictional time: blacks, like the Cimmerians and Picts, were savages, and civilized white women were not safe among them.

Let's swap things about. Let's imagine a mighty black hero, like Charles Saunders' Imaro, traveling to the far north to Asgard. He lives among them, and becomes the chief of an Aesir tribe, despite being black: his strength and might has led him to a place of esteem even in this strange land. When visiting a rival tribe, who are violent, cruel men ruled by an obese, monstrous, bear-like chief, he finds another black woman, a noblewoman of semi-civilized Zembabwei. Knowing that a black woman among white savages is not safe, he ambushes his foe, and seeks to bring her back to Zembabwei. He initially plans to hold her to her bargain - having had his fill of "white sluts" - but realises that to hold her to the bargain would've been like rape, and he has never taken against his will. He eventually kills some Northern horror, and takes her home.

This shows that the story is just broader than simple black against white, but civilization against barbarism. Howard often showed barbarism in a slightly less unfavourable light than decadent civilization, but he certainly didn't have any illusions about the reality.

The Bakalah are described in horrible terms, but that's because *this particular tribe* is described as loathesome and repugnant. Howard describes other black heroes in similar terms to Conan, especially in the aforementioned "Hour of the Dragon". Conversely, he describes his Picts - who, again, are white - as almost sub-human savages.

That said, I'd be interested in knowing what your qualifiers for a story to have "aged" would be.

THOMAS said...

I really enjoyed your review. You showed great appreciation for Howard's genuine strengths while pointing out his flaws in a kind, non-condemning way. I'm kind of in awe at the degree to which you succeeded in that, actually.

Post a Comment