In October of 2007, I wrote a post discussing the why Conan was still a resonant character for the modern reader. The character live in the psyche of the popular culture consciousness in a way that few other characters do. People who have never read a Sword and Sorcery tale, let alone a Howard tale, can provide some rough description of the character. That description may be reductive, but it will be a good rough sketch.
Since today is Howard's birthday, and because I think the post itself is a strong one that I don't think I can really improve upon, I have decided to reprint the article. I am only leaving out a preamble that discusses the Conan related products that were "recently" added to the marketplace. If you want to see a the prefatory paragraph and a list of the products, please feel free to read the original post as linked above.
I would like to make one brief comment before republishing the article proper.
In the original post, I wrote that both Herodotus and Plutarch wrote of the Cimmerian peoples, and that Howard's description of Conan's people fits nicely with those representations -- thus demonstrating Howard's seriousness in creating the world of Hyboria. The link to the classical history gives a kind of mythic historical weight to Howard's world that some other pre-historical Sword and Sorcery tales lack.
I wrote of the connection before I read Lin Carter's Golden Cities, Far. In the introduction to that book Lin Carter writes of the imaginary kingdoms that have appeared throughout fantastic fiction. Among these imaginary kingdoms, Carter includes the land of the Cimmerians. As Carter puts it:
The land of the Cimmerians was also popular. It was usually up on top of Scythia, or way over beside Hyperborea, or on the shores of the Frozen Sea. The Cimmerians -- who turned up in the 20th century in Robert E. Howard's popular stories of Conan the Barbarian -- were actually made up by old blind Homer. He seems to have invented them by getting the Welsh Cymry tribes confused with an obscure pack of nomads called the Gimri. As the Gimri were supposed to dwell north of the Black Sea, Homer and later writers assigned the imaginary nation of Cimmeria to that general region
Carter cites no authority for Homer's "invention" -- and even assuming that Homer is a single person is now viewed with skepticism -- rather in typical Carterian fashion, he provides opinion as knowledge. It is often entertaining, or sometimes enlightening, opinion, but opinion none the less. Even were it true that Homer created the classical understanding of Cimmeria, and thus provided the background for Plutarch's and Herodotus' later descriptions of the Cimmerians, it is of little consequence to my larger point. The fact that Howard's Cimmerians echo the Cimmerians of Plutarch and Herodotus is what gives them texture and realism, life if you will, that would be lacking without the context. Howard's research and intentionality shine through.
Patrice Louinet provides a nice discussion of the connections between Howard's description of Cimmeria and that of a number of historians/mythologists. In particular Louinet brings up Bullfinch's discussion of the link between Cambria, the Cymri, and the Cimmerians -- and quotes Howard (in a letter to Lovecraft) demonstrating that he willfully selected the semi-Celtic origin rather than a German or other European origin.
Now, on to the piece proper.
What's So Special About Conan?
In today's USA Today, Mike Snider writes about Conan's reemergence as a relevant subject in popular culture (hat tip to SF Signal for the story). There are those of us who comment about poplar culture who think that Conan has never been an irrelevant figure in society. How can a character who codified an entire literary genre become truly irrelevant? Every story about a sword wielding barbarian, no matter how trite or bad, is at some level inspired by Robert E. Howard's creation.
Conan is always lurking in the pop culture subconscious and I think that we do a disservice to Conan fans, both existent and emerging when we use Arnold Schwarzenegger as the archetypal Conan representation, as Snider appears to do in the article. Some like Arnold as archetype, but I find Conan to be one of the most underestimated characters in American literature (with Natty Bumpo being a close second) and the Governator's portrayal -- while fun -- lacks the depth the character actually has as a literary figure.
When it comes to depictions of unreflective low art, one need look no further than the commonly perceived opinions of Robert Howard's Conan stories. If you ask the average man on the street to describe a Conan narrative, you will likely be given a tale of lust and violence. In the tale Conan will rescue some half-naked maiden from some rampaging beast and the story will end with the woman becoming all naked as she swoons at the hero's feet. In fact, a great deal of Conan pastiche has been based on this very simple formula. The largest problem with such a vision is that it is not all that accurate. Are there tales of this sort in the Conan oeuvre? Sure, but there are also tales of visionary wonder.
Like most authors, whether they write literature or Literature, Howard's writings reflect his own thoughts, experiences, and education. The writing reflects the aesthetic tastes of the author, or his/her understanding of a prospective audiences literary tastes. What makes something worth reading again and again is when an author satisfies those with "lower" tastes while providing them with some food for thought. Howard is no exception. In fact, I was surprised while I was rereading the first published Conan story, Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword to find that the author seemed to be hinting at a theory of the value of literature and its role in society.
Howard's Hyborean Age is a mythic world filled with magic and wonder, but it is also a world based on the history of the real world. Howard combined multiple eras of history so that societies whose "real world" existence is separated by centuries could co-exist narratively. Conan's own people, the Cimmerians, are based on a very real historical peoples. Both Herodotus, in his Histories, and Plutarch, in his Lives, mention the Cimmerian peoples (called Cimbri in Plutarch). In The Phoenix on the Sword, Howard appears to expect his audience to have at least a little understanding of the historical Cimmerians in his conversation of the role of literature in civilization. Conan, as protagonist, must hold ideas which the reader sympathizes with for the particular narrative of Phoenix to work.
So what kind of people were the Cimmerians? According to Plutarch they were a people who were pillagers and raiders, but not rulers.
For the Cimmerian attack upon Ionia, which was earlier than Croesus, was not a conquest of the cities, but only an inroad for plundering.
Herodotus, Histories, I, 6
What did they look like? According to Plutarch:
Their great height, their black eyes and their name, Cimbri, which the Germans use for brigands, led us merely to suppose that they were one of those races of Germania who lived on the shores of the Western Ocean. Others say that the huge expanse of Celtica stretches from the outer sea and the western regions to the Palus Maeotis and borders on Asian Scythia; that these two neighbouring nations joined forces and left their land... And although each people had a different name, their army was collectively called Celto-Scythian. According to others, some of the Cimmerians, who were the first-to be known to the ancient Greeks... took flight and were driven from their land by the Scythians. Plutarch, Life of Marius, XI
What was their temperament? According to Homer:
Thus she brought us to the deep-Rowing River of Ocean and the frontiers of the world, where the fog-bound Cimmerians live in the City of Perpetual Mist. When the bright Sun climbs the sky and puts the stars to flight, no ray from him can penetrate to them, nor can he see them as he drops from heaven and sinks once more to the earth. For dreadful night has spread her mantle over the heads of that unhappy folk. Homer, Odyssey, XI, 14
It is Homer's description of the Cimmerians that Howard uses in Phoenix to describe the mood of the people and to separate Conan from his kin. When Conan is asked why the Cimmerians are such a brooding people, Conan responds:
“Perhaps it’s the land they live in,” answered the king. “A gloomier land never was – all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys.” – Phoenix on the Sword
The average Cimmerian is a dour and towering barbarian who destroys civilization then returns to his gloomy homeland only to begin the process again later. Howard's typical Cimmerian is similar to that of the classical scholars, and presents a figure most unlikely to advance the literary arts. But this is where Conan differs from his kin. In
The Phoenix on the Sword is the tale of a plot to assassinate King Conan, a plot organized my a Machiavellian figure named Ascalante who desires to assume the throne. Ascalante is the product of civilization, but he is the antagonist of the story and so Howard uses his opinions of the Arts as a way to separate him from the audience's sympathy. When he describes a poet who has been brought into his conspiracy he describes the poet in pejorative terms. These terms evolve as the narrative moves from unpublished draft to final published form. Ascalante originally expresses his disdain for Rinaldo (the poet) in a long description:
“Rinaldo – a mad poet full of hare-brained visions and out-worn chivalry. A prime favorite with the people because of his songs which tear out their heart-strings. He is our best bid for popularity.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)
By the time the story is published the description is changed to the very brief, "“…Rinaldo, the hair-brained minstrel.” [Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword(published)]. In the published form, Howard leaves out the value of Rinaldo's participation in the plot because it is redundant with information presented later in the story. When Ascalante is asked what value Rinaldo has as a conspirator, Ascalante's response is similar in both the published and unpublished text, but his hatred of Rinaldo is made more clear in the draft than in the published text:
“Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they openly sing The Lament for the King in which Rinaldo lauds the sainted villain and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but the people snarl.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)
“Rinaldo – bah! I despise the man and admire him at the same time. He is your true idealist. Alone of us all he has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a peaceful land. He thinks he sees barbarism triumphing over culture. He already idealizes the king Conan killed, forgetting the rogue’s real nature, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils under which the land groaned during his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they open sing ‘The Lament for the King’ in which Rinaldo lauds the saintly villain, and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but at the same time wonders why the people are turning against him.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)
In both descriptions the poet is shown to be a blind idealist. Rinaldo, it appears, cannot look beyond the Cimmerian stereotypes as presented by Plutarch and Herodotus. Howard doesn't require the reader to have those preconceptions, but for the reader who has read Herodotus and Plutarch the stereotype becomes even clearer. Also by editing down the prose the author, either willingly or at editorial command, displays an amount of trust that his audience can reach the proper conclusion that barbarism typically destroys the valuable within civilization. What is interesting is that while Rinaldo is a conspirator, the poet is an antagonist, he is not a villain. He is a blind a foolish idealist, not acting in his own self interest. Ascalante even goes on to describe Rinaldo's motivations:
“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism, rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)
“Because he is a poet. Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and the future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight – which after all he is! – rising to overthrow the tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)
Ascalante specifies what kind of idealists poets are. They seek an imagined perfect society, and will always look for it no matter how good the society they are currently in happens to be. But this is Ascalante, the Machiavellian civilized man, and his opinion about what the value of the poet is. For him the poet is an easily manipulable puppet. What about the barbarian turned king, the protagonist, and oft argued proxy for the author? (It should be noted that many argue that Conan often reflects Howard's own views, this is not an original assertion on my part.)
Conan adores the poet, and understands the criticisms. He is aware that the poet's plays are leading many among the people to despise him, but he too is persuaded of the need for justice. When his chief adviser, Prospero, discusses disdain for Rinaldo, Conan comes to the poet's (and poetry in general) defense. The text is near identical in the published and unpublished format.
“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rhymes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter, for he has hear ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished first submitted draft)
“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rimes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)
For Conan, the atypical Cimmerian, poems and the arts have more power than weapons or royal authority. Not only that, but it is right and just that this is the case. Conan, the barbarian, is the defender of the value of literature, while Ascalante, the civilized man, sees literature as only a tool used to manipulate the foolish. Conan would seek to discuss the past and future, the ideal ones, with the poet, while Ascalante would merely use Rinaldo to destroy what he opposes. Conan's conflict between desiring a free press and swift justice, and the eventual melee that will result because of his favoring of the press, are made clear in the poetic prologue to the final chapter of the narrative.
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs – I was a man before I was a king. – The Road of Kings – Phoenix on the Sword (published)
Surprisingly, Conan's love of literature and the arts, and his defense of them, is so deeply rooted that he initially refuses to kill Rinaldo when Rinaldo attacks him. He still believes he can reason with the poet, it is only when he is left no other alternative that he kills the poet (the text is identical in both published and unpublished forms).
“He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open hand sent him reeling to the floor.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)
“He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back, lifting his ax.
‘Rinaldo!’ his voice was strident with desperate urgency. ‘Back! I would not slay you ..’
‘Die, tyrant!’ screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.
Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered and Conan reeled back against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which gripped his wound.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)
What is interesting in the narrative is that of all the conspirators, there are twenty in all, none are able to injure Conan with the success of the poet. The poet has both damaged Conan's regime and his body and yet Conan was ever reluctant to, though in the end capable of, slay his greatest enemy.
“’See first to the dagger-wound in my side,’ he bade the court physicians. ‘Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.’
‘We should have hanged him long ago,’ gibbered Publius. ‘No good can come of poets..’” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)
What does this tell us of Howard's thoughts regarding the arts? We know that Conan loves them, but we also know how they were used to manipulate the populace and how his own love for them almost cost him his life. Is Howard trying to discuss how Plato's critique of the poets is a good one, while at the same time defending the possible nobility of the poet (as Aristotle does in his Rhetoric)? I think these are questions intentionally posed in the narrative (I know...never guess at intentionality), and make it clear why Conan's first story The Phoenix on the Sword was so compelling to readers when they first read it.
It should be noted that the story was originally submitted as a Kull tale, though I have yet to analyze that draft like I have these two subsequent writings. The Kull version was rejected by Weird Tales and the final (rather than the first) Conan version was the first appearance of what has become a culturally iconic figure.