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Posts Tagged ‘Conan the Barbarian’

Vocabulary Fun

March 30th, 2008 No comments

In an earlier post about Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, I mocked the latter’s overuse of such obscure words as “rugose” and “squamous.” (Another Lovecraft standard: “eldritch.”)

One of Howard’s own favorite words, however, was garden variety: “supple.” The one thing Hyborian Age gals (both types: royalty and whores) had in common was the suppleness of their limbs and even their spines. Sometimes they were “lithe”…but not without being supple.

Typical Zamoran street conversation:

“Why, Octavia, you’re looking quite supple today!”
“Of course, silly! Now, how about some whoring?”

Which is not to say that Howard wasn’t fond of enriching his word power. He liked the word “thew,” as in: “Conan rubbed Turanian jojoba oil into his bronzed thews to keep them supple.”

And it wasn’t enough for the Cimmerian to stab someone with a dagger, when a “poinard” was handy.

But if Howard had any word that was the equivalent of Lovecraft’s “squamous,” it was “sward.” The Hyborian lands were simply blanketed with grassy swards. That is to say that they were swarded. You couldn’t toss a poinard without it landing in a sward.

Thankfully, they were not rugose.

Conan The White Supremecist

March 28th, 2008 No comments

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.


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.

Late Night With Conan O’Barbarian

March 21st, 2008 No comments

I’m in the midst of rediscovering Conan, the bronze-thewed barbarian hero created by Robert E. Howard. On a whim, I’d picked up the first trade paperback collection of Conan comics from Marvel’s old black-and-white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. I’d read Marvel’s regular color Conan comic book for some years back in the day, but never bought the magazine (which, as it didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code, featured more graphic content). I found myself enthralled by the book and its heady mixture of gut-spilling action, palace intrigues and mostly-naked wenches. Roy Thomas, who was responsible for Marvel’s involvement with the character, did a helluva job adapting Howard’s stories and adding his own.

Here’s a choice page from the book: a surprisingly well-timed bit of humor. (Yes, it’s a bit misogynistic, especially the last line, but in context of the story it’s not undeserved.)

I’m not certain how I first encountered Conan. I saw both of the feature films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger on their initial release. (Who’d’ve thunk that Conan the Barbarian would’ve had such a profound influence on California politics?) I also owned at least some of the popular paperbacks, which I’ve subsequently learned were barbarously rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp. And, as I mentioned, I read the comics for years, mostly during the long period featuring the pirate queen Belit. (Belit appeared in only one Howard story, but Thomas took advantage of a gap in its chronology to greatly extend her involvement in the title.) I’m not certain why I started buying them; it may have simply been part of my Dungeons and Dragons phase. However, I do recall that Conan was the one comic I followed that my mom also read. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve pondered the implications of that.

After plowing through the first volume of The Savage Sword of Conan, I decided to go back to the source material and purchased one of the newer trade paperbacks of Howard’s original texts. I have not been disappointed.

One thing that has struck me about the short stories is just how much they have in common with the horror work of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries and correspondents, and it’s obvious that Howard started off aping him, especially whenever he refers to “cyclopean ruins” and “the nighted gulfs of space.” (However, so far in my reading he has yet to use the words “rugose” or “squamous.”) While Conan’s foes are often giant snakes or ape-like creatures, a great many of them are straight from the Cthulhu playbook: shapeless horrors derived from degenerate civilizations or from beyond the stars. However, Howard is a much better wordsmith than Lovecraft, and he does a terrific job bringing the lusty Hyborian world to life.

Conan himself is a curious figure. Make no mistake, he’s a mercenary, a thief and murderer a thousand times over, but he also adheres to a moral code and inevitably defends the weak against the strong. It’s also clear that Howard sees his barbarism as morally superior to the behavior of so-called civilized men. But man, you do not want to piss him off. As Howard notes in “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

I’m about halfway through the first short story collection, and have waiting for me a second volume of The Savage Sword of Conan. By Crom!