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Conan The White Supremecist

March 28th, 2008

I’m very nearly through the first volume of collected Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, and as I approach the end I’m finding myself somewhat disillusioned. While it’s really no great surprise, it’s still a disappointment to see ever more blatant racism creeping into the later stories.

As I mentioned, Howard was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and the latter was certainly no friend of what he termed “mongrel throngs.” For that reason, Lovecraft’s work can be a teeth-gritting read at times; one occasionally has to stick one’s mental fingers in one’s mental ears and mentally hum “la-de-de, la-de-da.” The racism can’t be condoned, but it can be put in context of the time it was written.

For some reason, I hoped that Howard might be better. And for a while, I managed to fool myself. Sure, the misogyny was obvious enough; aside from Belit the pirate queen, the only women in a Conan story are simpering frails and evil seductresses. (To Howard, you’re either a princess or a slut.) But aside from the odd reference here and there to Conan’s whiteness, racial comments seemed largely lacking.

Then I got to “The Pool of the Black One,” in which the barbarian faced a lost city full of fiendish, black giants. But even here it seemed Howard had left himself some plausible deniability; as he made it clear “these tall ebony beings were not men,” but rather taloned monsters.

All such delusions were shattered in “The Vale of Lost Women,” in which a white woman named Livia is held prisoner by a dark-skinned tribe in the part of Howard’s Hyborian world modeled on Africa. When Conan, who has somehow made himself the chief of a rival tribe, visits the king, Livia sees a chance for salvation:

His appearance was alien and unfamiliar; Livia had never seen his like. But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.

Urgh.

She pleads her case to Conan, who at first seems uninterested in her plight:

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs–that a white woman is their slave! Very well!”

Well, it’s certain that Livia is one white sheet from a rally, but surely Conan could care less? What matter the color of a warrior’s skin, to a man who values only the strength of a sword arm? Er, um…

“You said I was a barbarian,” he said harshly, “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man…”

And there it is. Sigh. For all their enlightened savagery, it seems that Cimmerians have the same hangup about miscegenation as 1930s Texan fantasy writers.

Perhaps it was asking too much to hope for a less repellent racial attitude. Of course, one can chalk it up as a product of the times and try to move on to the next good bit of bloodletting. But damn, it’d be nice to read some early 20th Century fantasy and not feel like a son of a bitch.

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