Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Guardian Strikes Back

Crom, more nonsense from my favourite UK rag.

Now, I neglected to comment that Alison actually like the stories, especially "Red Nails," "Queen of the Black Coast" and "The Tower of the Elephant" - however, she doesn't seem to view them as anything more than boy's own adventures.

I'm perfectly willing to let people just enjoy Howard on that level: that's how the vast majority of Howard readers do, after all. However, it's when people say that's all there is with Howard - that there is no subtext, no literary, mythological, theosophic or spiritual overtones, no allusions, no symbolism - that I must act. I champion Howard precisely because he's an author that works on both levels: capable of great complexity and literary satisfaction, but also just as some of the best ripping yarns of them all. To say Howard is only one or the other is to rob him of one of his greatest strengths, the ability to be read on multiple levels.

Just in case it gets lost, here are my comments:

So many things to address...
First of all, the idea of Howard being "pure pulp fiction" is technically correct, but that certainly does not mean it's bereft of depth. Dozens of books, magazines, journals and hundreds of essays and articles have been written over the past fifty years - only Tolkien studies rivals the sheer amount and quality of critical analysis out there. Indeed, part of the genius of Howard is that his prose is so powerful and easy to read that the more subtle theosophic, philosophical and symbolic allusions can be missed if you don't know what you're looking for. So while you can just read Conan for the surface elements of a fun, rollicking ride, it does him a great disservice to say that this is all Howard could do.
Secondly, I can't agree with the assessment on Howard's treatment of women. To modern eyes enjoying the deserved fruits of feminism and liberation, certainly Howard's heroines can jar - but not only was this written in the 1930s, just a few decades after women one the vote and when they believed physically incapable of manly pursuits (intellectual and physical), this is set in a feudal milieu. Howard's Hyborian Age was consciously evocative of modern history, precisely because Howard intended it to be a period lost to prehistory before the rise of man. It's just a sad fact of history that women have been treated inequally for much of it.
Even so, I feel you don't give Howard enough credit for Valeria. Sure, she looked to Conan for some comfort, but guess what - so did every MALE companion. It wasn't just because Conan was a man, but because he was Conan, one of the mightiest warriors of the age. Anyone, man or woman, might subconsciously put their hand on his muscular arm.
Due to the modern generation's sensitivity over racial issues (which I feel comes from a good place, though sometimes people tend to go overboard) I can understand people's problems with Howard's racism. However, I think it's more productive to remember the positive depictions of minorities Howard wrote about: N'Longa, Ace Jessel (Howard wrote more boxing stories than fantasy stories, and the sensitive, kindly Ace is the only one who's a world champion), John Garfield, Juan Lopez, and his many noble Muslims & Sikhs are worthy of note in a world when lynching was part of everyday life.
However, I have to ask if you were reading the same Conan stories as me, as the vast majority of villains were in fact white. Some memorable ones are dusky, olive or black, but this idea of "the whiter the skin, the more noble or desirable" is simply not born out by the stories. Indeed, the lily-white Vanir and swarthy (but still white) Picts are some of Conan's greatest enemies, while he's a great ally and commander of the Black Corsairs (who are black).
By the way, that sentence you cringe at - "in this accursed city ? where white, brown, and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds ? who can tell who is a man, and who is a demon in disguise?" - That's said by one of the VILLAINS of the story. Since you readily admit that you're a product of your time, it seems redundant to then point out your problems with Howard's attitude to women and race, since they should be celebrated for their comparative progressiveness.
As for why you think they're so highly rated, I can only think that you're just not looking hard enough. If even "The Tower of the Elephant" didn't make an impact on you, I guess you're probably never going to get it. That's fine: there are plenty of masterpieces of literature that left me cold, but I don't automatically question their worth just because I don't see the appeal.
Chewtoy: interesting that you speak of Haplogroups, since that's generally what Howard means by "race." He views the Celts, Norse, Picts, Mediterraneans, Slavs, Persians and others as different races, even though they're all "white." Mark Finn agrees in "Blood and Thunder," and puts forward that by "race," Howard was meaning something more to the modern term "ethnicity."
HudsonP: I find it interesting that you consider Lovecraft and Smith to be greater in terms of theme, plot and content, since I think of the Weird Tales trio, Howard was the best at precisely those things. Lovecraft was probably the best at atmosphere and Smith the best wordsmith and character writer, but Howard was equal if not superior to Lovecraft in symbology, and the same for Smith in theme. They're all fantastic for very different reasons, but even in the Conan stories, I find things that are simply unmatchable by the others.
ManofConstantSorrow: please cite where you get this idea of Howard being particularly developmentally arrested. If it's from 30-year-old data like Dark Valley Destiny it's invalid, as that has been practicaly shot to pieces in recent Howard research (Gary Romeo notwithstanding, and I lament that this article links to his flawed essay "Southern Discomfort", giving the impression that this is the current belief in the Howard scholarly community). Howard was not a retarded adolescent, he was likely to be clinically depressed: he talked of suicide decades before his mother's death, and the current thinking is that his mother's death is not the cause, but merely one factor among many that cause him to pull the trigger.
Then again, considering you can't even be bothered to check what the names of his best stories are (do you not have google or wikipedia where you are?) I can't help but think you don't take Howard seriously at all. Certainly you say as much about his stories, which aren't really meant to be judged on any level beyond puerile adolescent wish fulfillment. All I can say is, if that's all you see, then that's all you'll get out of the stories.
FriedEggHead: the '70s texts are not just "edited" for political reasons they're bowdlerized and mangled elsewhere for no discernable reason. The Del Reys merely restored them to their appearance in Weird Tales, which have been reprinted in Fantasy Masterworks and Gollancz. Most of the language is actually profanity, though to modern eyes, it's practically quaint. There really is very little difference in terms of racial "cleaning up" outside changing a few words, and nagger never comes up.
In any case, Alison, I really hope you go on to read more Howard. Though some of the best Conan tales rank with the best of Howard, that doesn't mean he also wrote far superior stuff, very little of which is tainted with the unfortunate problems of period racism & sexism. "The Best of Robert E. Howard" from Del Rey are a good jumping-off point.
If nothing else, read Dark Agnes. Howard wrote two full stories, "Sword Woman" and "Blades for France," and she makes Valeria look like a flower petal. The original Red Sonya in "The Shadow of the Vulture" is also practically proto-feminist. If you didn't already know they were written by a 30's Texan, you'd swear they were written by a radical '70s feminist.
Alison has kindly responded, so there's hope for her yet. More than the Magster, anyway: haven't heard a peep from her since Maggiegate, which is a shame.

She links to that damned "Southern Discomfort" in the article, though: that bloody essay has brought nothing but trouble to Howard scholarship, most notably in Maggiegate. Gary has done some fine essays, true, but there really needs to be a response to the article on the 'net, if only for reasons of balance. Because SD is the only article really about Howard & Racism on REHupa, it gives the impression that it's "the party line," so to speak, which is extremely problematic.

That ManOfConstantSorrow's turned up before, though: I think he's the guy that said there hasn't been a single great novel written by someone under 35, which explains how "juvenile" Conan is, since Howard died five years before the Literary Worth Deadline. It's a crock, of course.

I think there's something about the UK which is somewhat more hostile to Howard than in the US: I don't know why this is. Many times I come across someone who, when I mention I like Robert E. Howard, will say something along the lines of "yeah, he was a nutcase, wasn't he?" or "you do know what he was like in real life, right?" I'm wondering if this is the result of Conan Unchained (how I loathe that documentary) or if there was something in the UK itself which fueled this impression.


  1. what's a haplogroup?

  2. Haplogroups are the names for different groups of DNA coding that scientists use, that can sometimes give an indication of ancestry. For instance, Haplogroup R1b3 is most common in Ireland, and has been linked to the Ui Neills. It's basically a fancy, scientific way of determining family relationships.

  3. I wonder why so many reviewers characterize Howard as shallow--maybe it's because they miss it in his headlong action sequences. Or maybe it's because they've only seem to have read his Conan stories.

    The Conan stories do possess literary depth--I don't see how you can read "Beyond the Black River" or "Red Nails" and think otherwise--but it's mostly subtext. Maybe if Alison were exposed to "The Shadow Kingdom" or "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" she'd understand that Howard wasn't just writing pulp action.

  4. The comments are often amusing, especially the grammar pedant going line-by-line through some of Howard's clumsier sentences and suggesting how he should've improved them. You can do this with any work, and it almost always proves nothing--for a writer on a schedule, not every sentence can be perfect, or the story would never get done; heck, even "great work", lovingly crafted, have their clunker sentences. Because writers are human too.

  5. Brian, that's a good idea. Apparently, Allison didn't finish reading "The Chronicles of Conan" (though I don't know which stories she did/didn't read), so while she has read "Red Nails" she might not have read "Beyond the Black River."

    As an aside, isn't it infuriating that a female character can be awesome in every way, yet if there's even ONE mention of her looking to Conan to help, that apparently ruins everything. Valeria is better than half the action heroines of TODAY, let alone the 1930s.

    Gotta agree on Alberich, Taran. He's a mini DeCampista in the making, isn't he? I haven't read his "improvements" but I'd be willing to bet it would be the same sort of "improvements" De Camp made.

  6. Being British you should absolutely write an angry letter to the editor about this, mayhaps you will even get it published..

    Madam, I wish to disagree along the strongest of terms about your recent article... < Said in a John Cleese Voice.

  7. Bah, I may be British, but I'm no English dog! :P

    In any case, who knows, perhaps I will. In a John Cleese voice, no less!

  8. blinks, blinks

    Uh, yeah, he did use the term "race" where we would use "ethnic." People did, back then. All the time. I think the term "ethnic" was invented by his time but unsurprisingly did not spread instantly.