Monday, 4 October 2010

Guy's Lit Wire on Howard

A while back, Will Ludwigsen wrote a very good review of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian on Guy's Lit Wire.  His fellow blogger Alex Bledsoe has decided to add his own.

It's... problematic. Between the factual inaccuracies (like how Howard apparently never traveled out of his "own back yard") and the not very complimentary statements like this:

So what's my point? Simply this--he did the best he could, and with nothing but drive and imagination he created a whole new genre. And those are tools anyone reading this blog has to some degree. We often talk about what the books reviewed here mean to boys, and whether or not boys would like them; in this case, I want to use The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian as a challenge to cultivate your own drive and imagination, and apply it to creating something new. If an isolated young man in the middle of the Texas oil fields can create sword and sorcery, then what might you create?

It basically comes across like he's saying anyone reading this blog might do something better than REH.  It's the old "REH's work was immature, imagine what he could've done when he was older" thing.

I think Mr Bledsoe needs to give the books another read, myself.  With lines like these:

Yet it's also clearly the work of a young man. Most characters other than Conan are defined by a single quality, and are either good or evil, with little middle ground. In The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, Conan is the middle-aged king of Aquilonia, but none of the wounds and injuries he suffers as a younger man tell on him. There's no mention of any aches or pains, and the scars are simply marks of past adventures. Only an inexperienced young man in his twenties would imagine this as middle age. And his women, while not exactly shrinking violets (the pirate queen Belit trysts with Conan on deck, in full view of her crew), are also nothing like actual human beings, being once again defined by two simplistic qualities: how beautiful they are, and how quickly Conan gets them. Had Howard lived, I imagine his Conan stories would have grown in sophistication and depth to reflect his own life experience.

I have to wonder if he's reading the same stories I am.   Did he somehow miss how the villains of "The Phoenix on the Sword" all had independent, understandable motivations beyond "they're evil because they're evil"? If Conan was feeling aches and pains, he would be distracted and vulnerable - and dead.  Luckily, Conan's made of sterner stuff than the average soft-bellied middle-aged civilized man.  Gotta love Howard's women being "nothing like human beings": in fairness, he has clearly not read "Red Nails," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Black Stranger," The Hour of the Dragon or the other Conan stories with the best women, but at the same time, even in TCoCtC, women do not exist for Conan to "get them."

It all seems to smack of back-handed compliments.  Yet early in the article, Bledsoe says "Much as Tolkein did for epic fantasy, Howard set the initial bar so high that few have equalled, let alone surpassed what he accomplished."  Yet if few have equalled Howard, how could you possibly expect the readers of the blog to approach it?  Confusing.

I appreciate the good things Bledsoe says about Howard, but the inaccurate information and facile readings (seriously, not all middle-aged men who've been in the wars have nagging injuries, and it's quite clear Conan's a barbarian with pretty impressive healing qualities of his own) undermine it.  Hopefully he'll go back and pore over the stories with a more discerning eye, and read the other two Del Reys.  Maybe then he'll see just how much Howard has to offer beyond musing on "what could have been."


  1. it always seems to me that no one can resist these back handed compliments to Howard. It's almost as if they are really enjoying themselves.. but at the same time ashamed of themselves for enjoying it.

  2. It's almost as if they are really enjoying themselves.. but at the same time ashamed of themselves for enjoying it.

    I think so is spot on.

  3. You may well be right, Lagomorph. I used to have guilty pleasures, but then I wondered why anyone should be guilty about what they enjoy. I think I do have those pleasures which I don't consider to be great literature/cinema/art, but I don't see the point in being guilty about it. Just appreciate it for what it is without falling over yourself to explain why. That's my mantra.

  4. Not everyone can write like that. R.E.H. was exceptional, that's why he created the genre, swords & sorcery. No he wasn't a refined college boy, but if he had been formally educated that might've killed some of his raw creativity.

    Bledsoe gets a nice try but no cigar.

  5. I mean I suppose I probably fall for it too. I can't think of any specific examples, but I'm sure I do. Though I like to think that I don't, I don't put much stock in "reading into" anything.. I neither invest time in discovering a Freudian or Marxist bent to a book, or to history in general for that matter.

    but a lot of people do, they feel they have to explain why they do things that they do. Sure they will listen to Blind Gaurdian.. but only Ironically.. sure they will read Tolkien but only because it's a allegory for *Insert -Ism here* that they want to find in it.

  6. I've said it before here and I'll say it again-Sancha denotes a very different type of woman in the Howard Universe, showing that REH did not only write weak damsels in distress.

    And I know you have mentioned plenty of times AL-how many women Conan did not sleep with-I am sure that attitude is from the comics/pastiches.

    And how old were men like Ghenghis Khan, Edward Longshanks, Leonidas, Septimius Severus, and Hannibal- that all still led from the front?
    Conan beging able-bodied in middle age is not unrealistic.

  7. Is this the same Alex Bledsoe that writes those painfully on-the-nose "hard-boiled private dick swordsman" fantasy novels? I know criticism isn't the same as writing yourself but I don't think Howard's legacy is even remotely threatened by this guy.

  8. Atom, well, given how much REH hated school, I don't know if he'd like college that much. Who knows, maybe the frustration would feed his creativity. But then, that's back in the realm of "what could've been"...

    Lagomorph, nothing infuriates me more than "irony-hipsters." A pox on them all.

    David, Sancha's a very interesting character for many reasons, especially since she's one of a few alleged "damsels" who actually save Conan's skin. As for middle-age, I guess Mr Bledsoe mistakenly thinks that Conan should reflect the average middle-aged warrior, which is not how you should look at a guy who usurped the throne of the most powerful kingdom of the world. Far better to compare to the likes of those you listed. Alexander and Attila may well have joined those ranks had they not fallen to freak accidents and strange fevers (or, as the old conspirators think, murder). Conan is not your average middle-aged man - how could he be?

    Andy, I'm not aware of Mr Bledsoe's work, but something tells me you might be right. Just a hunch.

  9. I think that people who are incapable of spelling "TolkIEn" (or "Leiber") properly shouldn't be taken seriously when they write something about the Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery genre(s), period.