Heh, no I’m not reviewing one of those posts from Warren Ellis’ blog**. However, I am reviewing something regarding Conan.
A few months ago I realized, with some surprise, that I didn’t really have a lot of experience with the genre of Sword & Sorcery. I’ve been a life long fan of fantasy in general but my tastes, for the most part, leaned toward epic or high fantasy genres, rarely dabbling in low or dark fantasy. I’d read some of the Conan books that were published in the late eighties and early nineties when I was in high school but it’d been years since I read them last. With some S&S anthologies coming up in the future, I decided to read some of the works of notable people to in the S&S genre, such as Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, and, of course, Robert E. Howard. So, it was while cruising through Barnes & Noble I picked up a collection of REH’s first, original Conan stories that had been published in Weird Tales.
Michelle saw me doing this and, of course, gave me a look.
There are many things that can be said about the works of REH in Conan the Barbarian: The Original, Unabridged Adventures of The World’s Greatest Fantasy Hero.
I think the simplest thing to say is that it was written for an earlier time, when ideas like women owing men their bodies, that “no means yes”, women are evil and to be defeated/not trusted or weak and in need of rescue, and non-whites are, if not simple savages, evil, incompetent, or simply lesser than whites were prevalent.
Like I said, an earlier (more racist/misogynistic) time.
A common theme in the Conan stories is that women are either evil temptresses out to lead men to ruin through the use of their looks and sex; weak, incompetent victims who constantly find themselves in need of rescuing; and/or trophies to be acquired whether the woman wants to be owned or not. Conan’s active reinforcement of these memes happens in a number of ways. He is the foil for the evil woman, triumphing over their dangerous femininity with his masculinity (and gigantic thews). While the temptress may score early successes against Conan by using her wiles against him, Conan always manages to see through the ruse and is thereafter immune to her female ways, even if she manages to trick other men to do her bidding. Female villains need not necessarily go against Conan but are still present, such as in “A Witch is Born”, where the evil twin of a queen takes over the country to lead it into depredation and oppression (her lover is Conan’s main opponent in this story), or “People of the Black Circle” where a woman seduces the servant of some evil wizards to his doom by making him believe that he should help her kidnap and murder her queen.
In Conan’s world it is a wonder that women manage to die of old age because, if you went by his stories, they are constantly getting themselves into some kind of trouble and needing to be rescued. Women are, when they aren’t an antagonist, victims of one form or another (even fulfilling the role of the woman in the refrigerator in “Queen of the Black Coast”). Whether they be escaped slaves, queens, or the one woman who might have some kind of self-agency (Valeria, a lesser female version of Conan, from “Red Nails”), women are simply not capable enough to not be threatened by men and, therefore, require being saved by men. As he is the main character of the stories, more often than not Conan is the one doing the rescuing which leads to the third meme regarding women.
Women are objects, simple as that, and when you look at them in that perspective then it’s easy to see why they need rescuing all the time; they’re merely getting stolen and need to be stolen back. In almost every story in the collection a woman comes into contact with Conan, is kidnapped away, and Conan must rescue her. It’s not for her sake that he rescues her, or because it’s the right thing, but because he wants her for her looks and, really, for the sex that he alludes to. She’s nothing but an outlet for his desires and if she were taken away from him, his desires would be frustrated in their goals, and if there’s one thing that Conan can’t stand it’s to let someone get in the way of what he wants.
And, as far women are concerned with Conan as an individual, Conan should be labeled a class-five menace to all things female. Conan walks into the room and women are doomed; if they don’t literally throw themselves at him like Belit in “Queen of the Black Coast” (who jumps his bones within minutes of getting him on-board her pirate vessel), they almost always come around and find themselves happy to be claimed by the Cimmerian by the end of the story, even if they start out fearing or loathing him. Conan also practices a little rape ideology in that he often espouses the idea that because he has rescued them, he now owns them whether they like it (usually the state of things) or not or, simply by the act of forcing a passionate embrace and kiss on her, he can turn her protests of “No!” into enthusiastic “YES!”. The only times the main female in a story didn’t willingly offer herself up to Conan was in “A Witch is Born”, where the good queen is in love with another man, and “People of the Black Circle”, where the queen is saved from being taken into captivity by Conan by the timely arrival of a large force of horse riders in service to her; even with “People of the Black Circle” the queen would’ve gone with Conan, because of how masculine he is, but her sense of duty to her people was too strong to be overcome. Every other time, by his looks or his actions, women fall over themselves by the end of the story to give themselves to Conan as his masculinity overpowers any sense of self they have, becoming simply an addition to his greater whole.
The subject of race is often a topic that comes up in these stories, which isn’t that surprising if you consider the period of time they were written in. REH was a writer for Weird Tales and a friend and correspondent with another writer for the magazine, Howard P. Lovecraft. HPL’s racism is fairly well-known, made evident in both his personal writings as well as his stories where anyone non-white is almost always the villain and/or some kind of hedonistic, heathen savage who happily worships the Great Old Ones, even if it means their doom. While not necessarily going to such an extreme, REH sometimes throws POC a bone by having Conan give them some kind of grudging respect, they are often seen as savages, little more than animals, whereas whites are responsible for the most advanced societies in REH’s world (Conan, also, is white).
What I find interesting is that the idea of civilization and society being inherently wrong, going against mankind’s true nature, is frequently featured in the stories as Conan is proud of his barbarian nature and mindset. More often than not it is the fact that Conan doesn’t live in civilization, that he’s constantly tested by nature and combat, that allows him to be successful; by not living in a city he possesses great stamina and capability (since he has to do everything himself) and his hard lifestyle is what gives him the skills to always win. By having such a hero, REH levels a criticism against civilization by stating that savagery and barbarism are superior, offering more freedom, yet it seems that the only people who benefit from such a way of life are white barbarians; non-white savages, when they appear in stories, are always antagonists or servants of one kind or another (Conan is frequently the chieftain of bands of non-Caucasian raiders or pirates).
As for Conan himself, what is there to say? He’s Conan, world-famous barbarian, rebel, bandit lord, pirate captain, raider, jewel thief, and warrior. Powerful in build and stature, there are few villains he can’t overcome on his own or whose downfall he doesn’t cause in some fashion. He’s also, in almost every story, an incredible asshole, untrustworthy, and little better than the people he struggles against. While there are times when he acts heroically, I wouldn’t necessarily always refer to him as a hero. Sure, he might rescue the woman in distress, but only because he wants to put his penis in her and own her or because she can get him something else (such as a ransom). There were a few stories where he did show some heroic qualities. He tried to defend, and felt remorse for the deaths of, the crew of the first boat he was on in “Queen of the Black Coast”. In “A Witch is Born” he is the loyal captain of the guard of the good queen and, in the process of getting revenge against the evil twin’s lover for crucifying Conan, helps liberate the city (although he does it by betraying the man who saved him from death on the cross). In “Beyond the Black River” Conan serves as a wandering ranger, protecting a kingdom’s borders against the savages who would overrun and murder its settlers. More often than not, Conan is a capricious, unscrupulous, selfish character who only looks out for himself unless he wants something from another person.
REH’s writing is pretty flowery in places, full of purplish prose. The number of synonyms for “muscle” he uses is truly staggering but he does have a way with describing combat.
Would I recommend the original Conan stories? Eh, maybe in an educational fashion, to get a feel for the original S&S stories. I can’t say that I really enjoyed many of them, I lost track of the number of times I rolled my eyes at either the writing or whatever was happening in the story (such as the one where a woman imitates a goddess’ oracle to trick some men and Conan wonders how she has any shame for not having respect for the gods…); the few I did enjoy were when Conan was, arguably, not acting like Conan in the rest of the stories.
So, read it to see where the Sword & Sorcery genre got its beginnings but be aware you might be shouting “FLAMES! FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE!” if you consider yourself any kind of progressive where it comes to feminism or aren’t a racist.
*The answer to which is, of course, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
**If you DO go to his website and look for one of those posts, DO NOT DO SO AT WORK AND ONLY IF YOU HAVE A VERY STRONG STOMACH. Also, I don’t want to hear about it afterward because you did it to yourself. It’s Warren Ellis, you’ve been warned.