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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Robert E. Howard & The Barbarian West

(as printed in the Comic-Con 2006 Souvenir Book, which featured a celebration of what would have been Robert E. Howard's 100th birthday)

Robert E. Howard and The Barbarian West

By Neal Romanek

Without Robert E. Howard, I might be living under a bridge somewhere, wondering where things went wrong. In creating Conan the Cimmerian, and with him, the entire swords and sorcery subgenre, Robert E. Howard started a chain reaction which lead to my writing this tribute and to the tradition of swordplay and adventure stories in which I have created my own adventures, characters, worlds, daydreams. For that, I am grateful.

However, Robert E. Howard’s contribution to the world extends beyond the scope of my own petty ambitions. When Howard’s first Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in 1932, the world was introduced – and I say this without exaggeration – to one of the greatest symbolic representations of Western Civilization in all of American literature. Conan, the conquering barbarian, is The West.

Unlike the creations of Howard’s pulp fiction godfather, Edgar Rice Burroughs – whose Tarzan and John Carter were upper class elites who conquered by their wits and charisma – Howard’s Conan won out through sheer iron will seasoned with daring and strength. Conan is essentially a white Northern European (the dimensions of Conan’s Hyborian world seem to have their primary inspiration in Bronze Age Europe), uneducated, who through military might and ruthless cunning wins riches and glory, and eventually becomes a king. He is born outside the world of cities and civilizations, lives outside the law, makes his fortune outside of any societyal structure or political process, then eventually, he becomes the law, the civilization, himself.

At first glance, Conan would seem to represent an age far removed from our own, but Howard himself admits to deliberately making him a pastiche of American types. He said of his most famous creation: “Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.”

Howard, creator of monster slayers, corresponded with writer H.P. Lovecraft, creator of nightmares and monsters, throughout his life. In one of his letters he said of his schooling:

“I hated school as I hate the memory of school. It wasn’t the work I minded; I had no trouble learning the tripe they dished out in the way of lessons - except arithmetic, and I might have learned that if I’d gone to the trouble of studying it. I wasn’t at the head of my classes - except in history - but I wasn’t at the foot either. I generally did just enough work to keep from flunking the courses, and I don’t regret the loafing I did. But what I hated was the confinement - the clock-like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered himself or herself in authority over me, with the right to question my actions and interfere with my thoughts.”

Though Conan the Barbarian was a character whose adventures were set in the fictional world of the Hyborian Age, “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas", his historical antecedents are the Celtic barbarians who reassembled the Roman Empire in their own image. The word “barbarian” comes from the Latin “barbarum” which literally refers to anyone not a Roman citizen – an outsider, one walled out of the privileged system of classical civilization and the centuries of entrenched power that it represented.

The western European mindset achieved its dominance over the rest of the world in the 20th century though its blind, almost obsessive, exploitation of technology. The idea that a tool – whether human, mechanical, or philosophical – is the key to amplifying the will of the individual, and so magnifying that individual’s power exponentially, truly is great creed of the West. The simplest, most enduring symbol of that power, is the sword. Throughout the Conan stories – those by Howard and the continuing stories by Lin Carter and L. Sprague Decamp - the barbarian Conan is aided by specialists of all kinds – thieves, wizards,warriors and worse – but they are all ultimately tools for his use. Again and again he confronts the world of magic and sorcery and spirit, and again and again proves that his will and ego and personal power can triumph over these dark spiritual forces. Alien and unknown worlds and peoples are not to be understood, they are to be defeated – or, at best, used.

Conan, born into a fantasy world, never heard the axiom “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”. In the Hyborian Age, a man keeps power only as long as he is able to enforce it by his strength of arms, and this has been a philosophy that western powers have applied for a thousand years – sometimes to great financial and political success in the short term. But the idea that “might makes right” is essentially a myth. Empires never last. The conqueror nevers stays on his throne. The victim inevitably becomes the perpetrator. The young warrior becomes the resentful old man. We love Howard’s stories – and others in the genre – because the myth of permanent physical victory over darkness is something we all wish were true. We would love to solve a problem, like Conan, by cutting down every one of our enemies to the last man – figuratively if not literally.

The psychoanalyst will say that the Conan character – all of Robert E. Howard’s characters – is the manifestation of a control fantasy, and there has already been much written about Conan’s sword versus Thulsa Doom’s serpent. That Howard committed suicide when learning of his mother’s fatal illness, shows that he grappled intensely with the problem of life’s wildness and unpredictability, the lack of power that we must all come to terms with. But ultimately Howard was a product of his culture and his times – and his homeland. That was the wellspring of his characters, not his neuroses. Howard’s creations resonate with the American psyche perhaps even more deeply now, than they did in Howard’s lifetime. Note Howard’s character Solomon Kane, a Puritan adventurer whose eternal quest was the destruction of the monsters of foreign lands. Kane was the direct inspiration of Vampire Hunter D. and the 2004 film interpretation of Van Helsing. In someone else’s hands, Kane might be a loathesome witchburner or one of Hester Prynne’s judges, but Howard makes him a hero, a bringer of order. More fascinating still is Howard’s creation Francis Xavier Gordon, also known as “El Borak”, a Texas gunslinger who goes adventuring in the Middle East. The modern resonances there need little commentary.

In the same year that Howard committed suicide, Nazi Germany attempted to show at the Berlin Olympics, that a specific type of European ideal could conquer all challengers and that the Third Reich would usurp classical Rome in glory and power and possession. The barbarians were finally running the show, and were determined to run it from now on. Howard had criticized the fascist politics of his friend H.P. Lovecraft, but it is a deceptively short leap from being a barbarian outsider to declaring that all others are the barbarian outsiders. It is uncomfortably easy to notice, in hindsight, that in Conan’s wild adventurer lurk the seeds of the fascist ideal of conquest and the triumph of personal will. Jesse Owens punctured Hitler’s Olympic dream soundly, but it would be another ten years before the world would unite to dismantle the rest of his dangerous fantasy.

After Robert E. Howard’s death, H.P. Lovecraft said of his friend’s characters that “he himself is in every one of them”. It is worth noting how much we – and I mean “we” in the West - are in every one of them too.

Happy birthday, Mr. Howard! And thank you.


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