Language and writing were made available. He was taken to the East, a great prize, where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets: the poetry of Khitai, the philosophy of Sung.
- Conan the Barbarian
Contrary to the monosyllabic, illiterate brute of popular culture, Conan in Conan the Barbarian is a highly educated and knowledgeable warrior. He was introduced to philosophy, poetry, tactics and strategy by his owners, quoting military maxims when prompted, and contemplating introspective musings on life and death.
Is this intellectual side of Conan a reflection of Robert E. Howard's creation?
After his time on the Wheel of Pain and in the Pit Fighting circuit, Conan was taken east to be further trained and developed as a warrior. He is given access to literature, philosophy, poetry, and taught language, all while in chains, or kept inside a cage. Whenever he isn't training, fighting, or being "bred to the finest stock" of women, Conan appears to spend his time reading "the deepest secrets" such as "the poetry of Khitai," and "the philosophy of Sung."
Robert E. Howard's Conan also became acquainted with other languages, philosophy, poetry, religious studies and history. However, he was not trapped in a cage at the time, and the works were not made available to him: he had to seek them out for himself. Because the realms of Conan's knowledge are so wide, it becomes necessary to divide them into fields: the sciences, language, the arts, and philosophy. First, let us look at the philosophical aspect of Conan.
Conan the Philosopher
On his adventures, Howard's Conan discovers, and recalls, many encounters with such subjects and their experts. Some of the first were Zamorian wise men and philosophers:
On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight - snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Tower of the Elephant," p70
“They lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world. I’ve heard the wise men of Zamora talk of them.
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Vale of Lost Women," p295
We also know that Conan has at least heard the theories of the Nemedian skeptics, which appear to be a school of philosophers which reject the notion of an afterlife:
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care.
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "Queen of the Black Coast," p131
In addition to his breadth of knowledge on Pelishti language, art and culture, he knows of Pelishti wise men:
The wise men of the Pelishtim know how to increase the span of their lives for hundreds of years. I've seen some of them myself.
- The Conquering Sword of Conan, "The Servants of Bit-Yakin," p41
Though Howard wrote of Khitai's mysterious nature, there's no reference to philosophy being a particular import of the nation. Exactly what the "philosophy of Sung" may be is unknown, but there are two possibilities for its inspiration. The first is that it refers to the concept of Sung in Tai Chi:
Sung (pronounced soong) means to completely relax mentally and physically; releasing any tension in the mind and body. The muscles, tendons and ligaments, the joints in the back, shoulders, neck, hands and legs, and all other body parts such as the chest and belly must be sung. Equally consequential, the mind also must be sung whereby there is no thought. Once they are sung, each joint and muscle is dropped individually towards the ground. In this condition each joint can move independently of the others. In other words, one's hands can move independently to one's feet, and each hand and each foot independently of each other. So when one moves, each joint is pulled downward by the body's weight and then bounces back up. This creates internal pressure within every movement, engendering a flow of momentum through the body. The mind in the state of sung must flow along with the momentum, enticing Chi to flow freely through the body. When the body moves effortlessly without pause the Chi moves freely.
At all times the mind, Chi and the earth must be connected with every movement created by the body. One's Chi and weight must be sunk to the Tan Tien and thus to the ground; it denotes one's connection to nature, and one comes alive with this spirit. Sung is the most important part in Tai Chi practice. Without it, one's Tai Chi is nothing, merely becoming another physical movement like all movements people do in their daily routines. It is formidable to be sung in Tai Chi, even for Tai Chi experts, as it is easy to introduce tension and use muscle strength when performing the Tai Chi forms. In self-defence, if one's muscles tense they contract, and this will restrict an extending strike forward. Tension also impedes the flow of Chi and blood, and makes movements clumsy and heavy, whereas in a relaxed state one can extend one's arm smoothly. In Tai Chi even at the point of impact there is no muscular tension.
Sung is also an indispensable precondition for the cultivation of Chi. When one is in a state of sung mentally and physically there is much more Chi, and the body becomes more supple, elastic and resilient. In sung one easily sinks downward and all of the joints open up in the Tai Chi posture. One is at ease and alert, calm and focused, and can move loosely in the Tai Chi forms and with much energy. The centre gravity is lower, resulting in greater physical and mental stability and balance.
Another possibility I'd put forward that Sung is a Hyborianization of the Song Dynasty. While the Song Dynasty has a rich and varied history, of particular interest to discussion is its connection to Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquest. For all the faults I have with the film, it does do a good job with the names.
Both Milius' and Howard's Conan learned of philosophy, history and poetry - but the crucial difference is that Howard's Conan did this of his own free will. Since Conan was never a slave, he was never "taught" these things, so much as he absorbed them in his adventures throughout the Hyborian Age.
"What Is Best In Life?"
Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
Mongol General: That is good! That is good.
Of all the quotes in Conan the Barbarian, this is probably the most recognizable. Yet despite John Milius being famed for his strong dialogue, the most famous quotation in a film with many great lines isn't a Milius original. This quotation, it has frequently been pointed out, is a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Genghis Khan:
From the China to the Aral sea one master reigned. Rebellion had ceased. The couriers of the Khan galloped over fifty degrees of longitutde, and it was said that a virgin carrying a sack of gold could ride unharmed from one border of the nomad empire to the other.
But this administrative activity did not altogether satisfy the ageing conqueror. He no longer relished the winter hunts over the prairies. One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness.
"The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you," responded the officer after a little thought, "and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares."
"Nay," responded the Khan, "to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet - to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best."
- Harold Lamb, Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men, p112
The earliest form of the exchange can be found in The Secret History of the Mongols:
"The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you,
to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears,
and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters."
“"The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters"
- Two translations of Secret History of the Mongols
The underlying meaning and importance of a quote is defined by context: the original quote in The Secret History of the Mongols may not have been intended to depict the Khan in a flattering light. Then again, Lamb's use of the phrase may have been part of his "warts and all" depiction of the conqueror. Considering we don't truly know of Genghis Khan said it at all, it's one of those phrases that we can attribute as possibly legendary.
John Milius was an admirer of Genghis Khan, and one of his many pet projects is a biopic of one of the greatest conquerors of the ancient world. Another admirer of the Khan was Robert E. Howard.
Central and north Asia has furnished some great conquerers, the greatest the world has ever known.
Atli Khan, Tchingniz Khagan, Othman the Great, Beyizid the Great, Timur Ilang, Akbar, Kublai Khan; the list is a long one. And it is a list of great generals and mighty monarchs.
And the mightiest of them all was Temujin, Tchingniz Khagan, whom men call Genghis Khan, “Great king.”
Most historians, delving slightly in the annals of history, place Alexander the Great, Iskander Akbar, above Genghis Khan in rank. They ascribe the Mongol’s success to vast hordes of wild Tatars and Mongols, who overcame the enemy by sheer force of numbers and ferocity.
Let us consider Alexander the Great. There is no denying that he was a great general. But king Phillip of Macedon had already organized, armed and drilled a mighty army when Alexander came to the throne. The armies of Greece and Macedon were the best armed, the best drilled in the world at that time. Alexander had as enemies the half-armed, undrilled hosts of wandering barbarians and the armies of Persia. And the Persians, the wealthiest and most luxuriant people of the world at that time, were becoming effeminate.
Genghis Khan, on the other hand, was not even accepted by his own people.
Direct heir to the Mongolian throne though he was, he was forced to fight his way. His own tribe opposed him. He had rebellious chiefs, hostile Turkish tribes, Tatar bandits, and Tungusi raiders to overcome. Yet his fifteenth year found him seated on the combined throne of Tartary-Mongolia.
He united Tatars, Mongols and Tungusi and from them he made an army.
At first the army did not exceed a hundred thousand warriors and with that force he conquered rival tribes and crossing the Chinese wall with torch and scimitar, put himself on the Chinese throne.
Alexander the Great never encountered such obstacles as Genghis Khan did. Genghis Khan had opposing him, and his armies; China, then the great Eastern nation; the crafty Jelairs and other Tukish tribes; many hostile Tatar tribes; the wild, savage tribesmen of the Himalaya mountain and the plains of the Thian-Shan, the ancestors of the Turkomans and Afghans. And Genghis Khan conquered them all and built a mighty empire
- Robert E. Howard, Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, 4th November, 1923
"Tchingniz" is the spelling used in Robert W. Chamber's The Slayer of Souls, a book Howard regarded highly, so we know he read other works dealing with Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan himself appeared in Howard's "Red Blades of Black Cathay," co-written with Tevis Clyde Smith, where he is treated as a powerful, charismatic villain. Indeed, considering Howard was a fan of Harold Lamb, he may well have read Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men, where he might've come across that very quote.
You'd think that these remarkable links would mean the line would be one of the most Howardian aspects of the entire film, excepting the direct lifts from the Conan stories. Yet I believe that Milius' choice of context actually transforms the words of one of history's greatest self-made men, into the encapsulation of what makes his Conan the diametric opposite of his literary ancestor: the credo of a man forged in slavery, mind and body dedicated to the will of others.
Let's analyse the scene in detail: the Mongol General's first words are his lament that his sons will never understand him. It's a surprisingly candid moment, one we might not necessarily expect - the idea of a great warlord expressing an emotional desire to communicate with his children - but from a certain point of view, it could take on an entirely different interpretation.
The news comes in that they've won again. Who they defeated, where they fought, the cost, the aftermath, all immaterial: what matters in context with the narrative is that they won, and that it was good. However, the general tests his men with the question of what is best in life. A Turanian Officer responds with the following:
The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
The General angrily rejects his proposition. But why is his answer wrong? Is he simply not recalling the correct answer, as written in some Hyborian The Art of War - the philosophy of Sung, perhaps? Or is it a more abstract question, where one must answer with their heart, and not their head? I suspect the latter.
I would venture that the Turanian's answer was wrong not because it truly wasn't "what was best in life," but because his answer emphasised the wrong thing - and, I believe, that aspect emphasised personal freedom. The open steppe is open to all: no gates, no castles, no roads, no keeps, just a great vista where anyone can venture in any way they wish. A fleet horse allows you to travel with speed, free from the constraints of your own fatigue and endurance. Falcons fly into the sky, even freer than you, but they will always return, like a loyal friend. The wind in your hair lets you feel your independence in a tangible manner, ever reminding you that you're free.
The General asserts that this is wrong, and looks to Conan for an answer. Conan dutifully responds:
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
Conan's answer emphasises destruction, domination, and sadism. No personal pleasures like the Turanian's steed, falcons and freedom: killing and terrorizing are the greatest happiness. Are we really to believe that the General thinks the best thing in life is to destroy your foes, watch as they flee in terror, and listen to the weeping of their families? I don't think it's that simple.
What I believe to be really going on in this scene is that the General's testing his men's military discipline. He is not truly asking what is best in life: he wants to instill a singular purpose in his men, to make them soldiers dedicated solely to defeating their foes. His concern for his sons not understanding him may not be the words of a sentimental old man, but the regret of a hardened general that his sons may not be the perfect warriors he desires. Real soldiers are human beings with human desires, but the General wants men willing to fight and die for their leader, without any personal feelings to distract or confuse them. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Thus, the Turanian answers incorrectly - one wonders if he was one of the sons who didn't understand his father - but Conan answers correctly. Of course he does. Conan is not a man any more. Decades of mindless, repetitive actions on the Wheel of Pain have rendered him a shell of a human being. Years of blood-letting in the pits has desensitised him to pain, or remorse, or any ideas on the sanctity of human life. And now, months, if not years, of indoctrination and tuition by his masters has replaced whatever knowledge, personality and humanity he had in his Cimmerian childhood with all the knowledge, history and philosophy of man's inhumanity to man. And thus, Conan regurgitates it all to the General in the form of a single sentence.
In short, Milius' Conan has become a robot, programmed to destroy at his master's command. His entire purpose in life is to deprive other people of theirs. He knows nothing - or at least, has long forgotten anything - about love, joy, sorrow, fear, or human emotions. Thus, the rest of the film can be argued as the tale of this Conan discovering what it means to be human, and that there's more to life than killing.
Eventually, Conan is freed, and his journey of discovery - or rather, rediscovery - begins. It is a compelling tale of the Bildungsroman style, but it is one that Robert E. Howard's Conan never undertook. He never needed to: he already knew what was best in life.
What would the real Conan's answer to the question be? What would Robert E. Howard's Conan say in response to the question, "What is best in life"? I'd wager something like this:
Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "Queen of the Black Coast," p131
No doubt even the General would be forced to admit the wisdom and eloquence in those words.