by John Holbo on August 31, 2015

The Barbarian, that is.

My friend Josh Glenn commissioned a bunch of folks to contribute very short appreciations under the heading, “Crom Your Enthusiasm”. R.E. Howard stuff, then. But also C.L. Moore, Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Ashton Clark Smith, others. You get the idea. (Some ringers in there.) So check it out, especially if you like all that old Margaret Brundage art! Who doesn’t?

So I tried to enthuse about Crom in 300 words! I wanted to bring out how Howard’s Conan, that thick-thewed template for much ‘sword and sorcery’ that follows, is very much in Lovecraft’s ‘weird’ line. Here is Lovecraft’s well-known semi-definition:

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space …. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point… The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

That fits many a Conan tale. In fact, it’s what keeps Conan from just being a bully. The official line is that, being a healthy active, outdoors-y sort of Cimmerian, he spends his time actively slaughtering generally weaker humans for fun and profit, all panther-like. It’s sort of fun to imagine being panther-like, like that. Then again, that would be awful. So that’s not what we ever see, although, by hypothesis, it’s what he does. In the stories he is reactive and just barely holding out in virtue of his panther-like-ness against some foul beast from the stygian pit du jour. So you get fantasy boldness and brutality, freedom from civilization and constraint, without the guilt that tends to attend slaughtering the weak for fun and profit. Such, such are the moral conveniences that breathless and unexplainable dread, like clockwork, affords.

I hadn’t read any Conan for years. By Crom, I enjoy the stuff!

So what do you think about Conan?

In far from utterly unrelated news, I’m reading through Genealogy of Morals with my students. It’s like Barbarian Old Home Week, hence way more alarming than anything in Bechdel’s Fun Home. From Essay 1:

In the wilderness they [these barbarians] make up for the tension which a long fenced-in confinement within the peace of the community brings about. They go back to the innocent conscience of a beast of prey, as joyful monsters, who perhaps walk away from a dreadful sequence of murder, arson, rape, and torture with an exhilaration and spiritual equilibrium, as if they had merely pulled off a student prank, convinced that now the poets once again have something to sing about and praise for a long time to come. At the bottom of all these noble races we cannot fail to recognize the beast of prey, the blond beast splendidly roaming around in its lust for loot and victory … We may well be right when we hang onto our fear of the blond beast at the bottom of all noble races and keep up our guard. But who would not find it a hundred times better to fear, if he could at the same time admire, rather than not fear but in the process no longer be able to rid himself of the disgusting sight of the failures, the stunted, the emaciated, and the poisoned?

What line or passage from Nietzsche’s collected works offends you the most? (That’s a tough one!)



jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.31.15 at 2:13 pm

Did you omit E. R. Burroughs and Leigh Bracket accidentally or intentionally?
Tarzan, John Carter and especially Eric John Stark could be as brutal as Conan, though superficially more civilized.
Are you familiar with Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream? Spinrad wrote it as a response to the very things that are mentioned in the last quote. Which he identified as a not very subtle undercurrent of fascism in S-F and Fantasy.


AcademicLurker 08.31.15 at 2:37 pm

I first encountered Conan through the later stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (as well as the comic books and, later on, the Ahhhnold movie).

It was a revelation when I finally got around to reading Howard’s original stories about 11 years ago. They’re much better than the pastiche. What I think is most impressive about them is their rollercoaster-like speed. They never stop moving from the first sentence to the last.


Colin R 08.31.15 at 2:49 pm

Conan is fun. I like the Howard stories, but also the Dark Horse interpretations and expansions on the stories. They do about as well as you could do, I think, at making Conan stories for modern sensibilities. Of course they always have to take care to make sure that you know that all of the hundreds or thousands of people that Conan kills deserve it–if they’re not worshiping horrible inhumanities from beyond, then they’re just cowardly backstabbers who use civilization to mask their own viciousness.

I like your piece. Some of the stories though, I don’t know how they fit. In Queen of the Black Coast I guess the mysteries of Belit and the horrors up the river distract you from the fact that our hero is engaged in years of murder and pillage. But in The Frost-Giant’s Daughter his barbarous wants are pretty front and center. And the best story always seems to me to be Rogues in the House, where the conflict doesn’t seem so otherworldly; it’s between men who act like beasts, and the beast that acts like a man.


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 2:54 pm

“Did you omit E. R. Burroughs and Leigh Bracket accidentally or intentionally?”

It wasn’t my project so I was not in a position to omit in either fashion. I am very confident no deliberate sleight to, say, Leigh Brackett’s significance was intended. She really should have been in there, ideally, since, unlike Burroughs, she’s important yet not generally known. Ah, those old A. G. Anderson covers to Planet Stories.

Spinrad’s book I do know. Fantasizing about barbarism is not quite the same thing as fascism, but obviously there’s a connection.


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 2:57 pm

“But in The Frost-Giant’s Daughter his barbarous wants are pretty front and center.”

Fair enough, but that’s more a case in which she bewitches him. She draws him by magic. (Remember, the old guy who remembers seeing her as a youth and howling because he couldn’t follow her lure, because he was too severely wounded?)


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 3:03 pm

I’m not saying it’s ethically on the up-and-up, just that Howard does have an instinct for moral extenuation via supernatural circumstance.


Colin R 08.31.15 at 3:14 pm

True, and I think FGD was one of the earliest stories. It was also rejected for publication, so Howard must not have had that talent fully formed yet.


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 3:19 pm

Thinking about it more, I do like my observations that hobbits and barbarians are always obliged to play against type. Hobbits, by nature passive, are surprisingly active. Barbarians, active-types, are always just reacting.


William Berry 08.31.15 at 3:22 pm

Bookmarked– will read later, at leisure, with pleasure.

Can’t wait to check out the Lovecraft (“At the Mountains of Madness”) piece. What a tragedy that Guillermo del Toro couldn’t get support for his movie project.*

*And, also, that he didn’t get to design and direct the Hobbit movies. Oh, well.


AcademicLurker 08.31.15 at 3:25 pm

Hobbits, by nature passive, are surprisingly active. Barbarians, active-types, are always just reacting.

So “Bilbo the Barbarian” poses a logical paradox?


William Berry 08.31.15 at 3:29 pm

Also, too, if anyone has not seen “The Whole Wide World”, a movie about Howard, I recommend it. Vincent D’Onofrio, who is nearly always awesome, is awesome.


Colin R 08.31.15 at 3:29 pm

Yes, that is true, I like that! And part of my problem with the Jackson films, especially The Hobbit: Bilbo is disappointingly passive in them, the Dwarves are far too active. In The Hobbit, Bilbo deals with pretty much every situation single-handedly after Gandalf peaces out on the edge of Mirkwood. Dwarves and Elves are mythic and larger than life, but they are barely ever active players. Not so different from Ents, they’re people whose time has mostly passed, and don’t do much unless a Hobbit is there to nudge things along.


JimV 08.31.15 at 4:01 pm

When I read about staffs made from the Living Tree of Death versus the Black* Hand of Set, or Red Nails, I know somebody has been dreaming under a Black* Lotus.

This reminds me of a previous thread that involved movies of books compared to books. I don’t know how you capture Howard’s prose in a movie. The Conan movies certainly have not (according to me, but I’ve only seen the trailers).

The tradition is alive in the Black* Library (Warhammer and Warhammer 40K). Most of that are poor imitations, to my taste, but Dan Abnett manages to combine it with more realistic (i.e., identifiable to me) characters.

* (In which Black refers to the Stygian depths of the abyss where no light shines, without racial connotations – I hope and tell myself.)


afeman 08.31.15 at 4:38 pm

The Iron Dream presents a problem with reading something written well after the style of Adolph Hitler that will be obvious to anybody familiar with even excerpts from Mein Kampf: tedium.


Nick 08.31.15 at 4:55 pm

@ 14

I totally agree — Spinrad had his day, but he also had a pretty bad habit of going over-the-top in whatever style he was using. Bug Jack Baron is a good book that’s almost unreadable, owing to its frantic insistence that it’s hip as all hell.


bob mcmanus 08.31.15 at 5:18 pm

I am reminded by the Nietzsche quote and refs to the WT writers that Romance is adjectival. There are good discussions out there about how Ashton Smith achieved his effects. Maybe the Abyss is adjectival, eldritch.

I don’t know how you capture Howard’s prose in a movie.

Every tale confronts Conan with the philosopher’s fear that The Truth is Too Inhuman For Humanity. Conan survives each tale by sidestepping that, by being more beast than man.

My favorite shot in Okamoto’s Sword of Doom is Nakadai just sitting in a doorway while gf makes dinner. Nakadai is the barbarian at rest, staring wide-eyed into the Abyss, horrified and fascinated by the fact that he can’t stop staring into the Abyss. Sure you could film Conan. Arnie sweetheart didn’t work.

Guts in Berserk. Reinhard in LOGH.

Nah. These guys, many guys are just Achilles/Alexander, the Abyss tells them that the glory of the contest, the agon is all there is. But somehow I don’t think that is Conan.

The Whole Wide World is a very very great movie, or at least contains a great performance. The legend is that the movie contains the single hottest kiss in cinema history, available on youtube under “Zellwegger D’Onofrio kissing”. The 3 1/2 minute version is recommended.


afeman 08.31.15 at 5:22 pm

Though I did enjoy the faux commentary that noted the implausibility of a society developing jets, space rocketry, and nuclear weapons in the space of a few years.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.31.15 at 5:22 pm

After I posted, I realized that it was not your project, but by then it was too late to edit. I suspect that Spinrad was using a more generic definition of fascism than the academic definition.
My problem with Spinrad was the wild discrepancy in outlook throughout his books. Everything of his I read goes from positive and upbeat in the beginning to unremitting bleakness at the end.
That might work occasionally, but becomes annoying and a distraction after a while.


bob mcmanus 08.31.15 at 5:42 pm

As far as the Nietzsche quote and the last question, I am not easily offended, down here in the Abyss. The Shrub and the Shotgun Dick with a million Iraqi deaths to their self-perceived glory have not yet been refuted by the world.

Neither Love nor Glory are refuted by Ozymandias.


js. 09.01.15 at 12:23 am

I like that Lovecraft bit about ‘the weird’. I don’t really read this fantasy stuff, but I think I had something like that experience reading The Killer Inside Me (and to a lesser extent, other Thompson novels). But maybe I’m missing HPL’s point.


Theodidactus 09.01.15 at 2:24 am

By Crom, I loved your write-up!
I apply Howard to modern political discourse:


Jim Harrison 09.01.15 at 6:33 am

I’ve come to think that a valuable sociological idea is one that upsets people and is less wrong than you’d expect it to be, something like Halbwach’s theory of collective memory.


Jim Harrison 09.01.15 at 6:35 am

Ops! My comment belongs in the thread on nuance.


John Holbo 09.01.15 at 7:26 am

Either that or you are importing an implausible degree of nuance into a discussion of Conan, Jim.

‘Driving your enemies before you and hearing the lamentations of their women is a valuable sociological idea that upsets people and is less wrong than you’d expect it to be.’


Doctor Memory 09.01.15 at 1:39 pm

Jake@18: you might try reading “Little Heroes” or “Child of Fortune”, neither of which as I recall descend into bleakness at the end and both of which are excellently fun reads.


bartkid 09.01.15 at 6:34 pm

Doc Mem @ 25: What are your thoughts on He Walked Among Us? I’d like to think it was a non-bleak ending. I felt – just a smidge – that I was being had.


The Temporary Name 09.01.15 at 6:38 pm

Clark Ashton Smith as far as I know, not Ashton Clark Smith.


Peter T 09.02.15 at 9:20 am

Most of those women are in the service of Cthulu, to judge by the way they cling to the hero in a very hampering manner.


C Trombley 09.02.15 at 2:50 pm

You’re more coherent than you try to be. Your point about reactive barbarians reinforces your point about how Conan avoids just being a bully. Even though he’s out and about looking for trouble, when trouble finds him it’s never the trouble he wanted. Being reactive keeps him from being an unsympathetic bully or thug.

Controversial Opinion: Conan was a great movie (if it wasn’t, why have all the imitators sucked in comparison?), lacking only any similarity to the source material. Pretend they’re saying Conam and the movie is perfect.


afeman 09.02.15 at 3:54 pm

Regarding the movie, all is forgiven for “what is best in life?”


ragweed 09.02.15 at 7:24 pm

Cohen was a much better barbarian.


John Holbo 09.02.15 at 11:12 pm

For the record, the coherence that C Trombley seems to think was accidental: I meant all that.

Also, Conan was a great movie!


NomadUK 09.03.15 at 12:16 am

All my time spent on the Internet has been rendered worthwhile by my having seen the statement ‘Conan was a great movie’ made on Crooked Timber.

Conan was a great movie. Here’s hoping the proposed new one is worthy.


Lordwhorfin 09.04.15 at 12:40 am

OK, so dead thread, but I can’t help it. Conan I first found when I was 11 years old, because the bookmobile lady would not let me have The Andromeda Strain and instead allowed me to check out Conan of the Isles. Because there was a shadowy nude on the cover of TAS and COTI had a half-naked Barbarian cutting up a giant serpent. Don’t ask me, I’m not a bookmobile lady from 1978.

I totes agree with the writer above who notes the original is way better than the pastiche. Since I was always a completist little bugger, I immediately went and found Conan, the first volume in the Lancer editions. The essay Howard wrote on the Hyborian Age blew my tiny mind, and even in my tender years I recognized that “The Thing in the Crypt” and “The City of Skulls” were nothing like “Rogues in the House” or “The God in the Bowl.” It led me to the Mythos. I cannot unsee that which I have seen.


Jack Morava 09.06.15 at 2:14 pm

Erm… I don’t want to go off-topic, but I wonder how this audience feels about the worlds
of Robert E Howard et al, versus those of Jack Vance?

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