Thursday, 19 July 2012

Connor Coyne's Oberservations on Conan

I thought I'd share this interesting little link by author Connor Coyne (what a name!) which discusses Howard in context with Tolkien. I can't seem to log in to comment, so I'm going to take the liberty of doing so here.
Of course, Connor is only discussing The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and so he still has some great stories to look forward to should he wish to go on to the next stories.

In terms of the writing: Tolkien’s epics took place in “Middle-Earth” which had hints of but little direct connection to the present world, while Howard’s Conan stories took place in the Hyborian Age which was explicitly placed in a period of barbarism and empire-building that occurred between the fall of the continent of Atlantis and the rise of the ancient civilizations we know; these explicit references are most conspicuous in names we recognize from legend and history: Argos, Corinthia, Himaleya, Zimbabwe, and others.  Not only did Tolkien write novels, but he envisioned all of these novels being joined by subject matter and common history into an organic whole. Howard works were almost uniformly short stories, and while it is possible to read these as part of an organic whole, he preferred an episodic presentation that emphasized narrative unreliability.  Tolkien was quite comfortable deferring to magic as accounting for miraculous events; Howard posits a sort of invisible cosmic ground-state which makes magic-seeming events possible. Tolkien’s gods are unassailable, unreachable, and in fact, only angelic (and demoniac) messengers for a higher power that is only mentioned by name once. Howard’s gods intrude upon the world, and do battle with mortals in a way that is not only corporeal, but which expands the definition of the physical rather than constricting that of the spiritual. And so forth.  There are many differences.

 While it is indeed not as explicit as in the Hyborian Age, Tolkien's Middle-earth is indeed set in the distant past of this world. Also, it's the Himelian mountains, not "Himaleya," and Zimbabwe was later rendered Zembabwei in "The Servants of Bit-Yakin," but I left my pedant-lock key on as I was typing.

The most significant difference, however, I thought, is the different take on morality. I recall Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, at least, saw much significance in his Catholicism, and that the various ranks and orders of beings, good and evil, in Middle Earth, was a validation of the Catholic cosmological order via Tolkien’s own thoroughly British upbringing.  Whereas in Conan, while morality is present, it is subjective, in flux, and almost post-modern.  The main conflict is not so much good vs. evil as barbarism vs. civilization.  The chief difference here between barbarism and civilization isn’t any notion of mercy, or compassion, or empathy, or cooperation; it is a difference of regimentation, and as a result, barbarism doesn’t dissemble. So we are meant to relate to the barbarian, and not the sorcerers, monarchs, pirates, and monsters with whom he contends.
In fact, Conan himself is often not sympathetic, although he probably has something closer to what we’d call a “conventional” morality than most of the other characters. But he’s not above, say, genocide (as in “Vale of the Lost Women”).
I definitely disagree that Conan was advocating genocide in "Vale." Obviously Conan's at his most dastardly in this story, but the destruction of the Bakalah by the Bamula is really little different from the endemic warfare of countless historical tribes throughout history. Obviously hardly morally defensible, but there's a difference in degree here. Conan hates the Picts more than any other people, but you never hear him call for their extermination as king despite him being entirely capable of doing so.

Curiously, this solved a big problem I have with most high fantasy: How is it that characters meant to embody all that is good and pure — to the extent of making huge personal sacrifices to save the world — are grim killing machines. And I don’t even mean “the good soldier” so much; you don’t see hints of pathos or PTSD after Aragorn, or Drizzt Do’Urden, or Aslan, or whoever kills their 999th orc. This is most often explained away as “all members of X race are evil,” and maybe that passed as acceptable in the decades surrounding the Civil Rights era, but in 2012 it seems deeply troubling on even casual examination. Other high fantasy strategies to reconcile this seem equally wanting.

Tolkien wrestled with the matter of the orcs all his life, but the reason you don't see hints of pathos or PTSD after Aragorn because this is a world where evil is practically a quantifiable matter, and an entire race is evil explicitly because they were "created" (or rather, abducted and raised en masse) by a supremely evil being, that perversion of life and robbing of free choice being considered one of Morgoth and Sauron's greatest crimes. Aragorn can sleep at night because he knows that if he doesn't, all he loves will be lost or destroyed. That said, there's definitely an element of regret when it came to the Haradrim and Easterlings, who were either deceived or actively enthralled to Sauron.

Conan partially solves this problem by making the protagonist consistently erratic and violent (though surprisingly, never amoral). I never see him as embodying all that is good and pure, but rather all that is barbaric and pure, and this makes his internal logic plausible. It also gives some measure of cover to Howard writing as a product of his time and place, which is to say, often much more explicitly racist than Tolkien ever was (we’re talking about a man who grew up in rural Texas boom-towns, and witnessed lynchings).
There is no evidence Howard ever personally witnessed a lynching, but the sheer pervasiveness and virulence of racism in the world during that time period and environment means that Howard's views must be properly contextualised.

However, the real reason I'm doing this post is to give proper praise to this:

...this being “low fantasy” did not prevent it from engaging in poetic, powerful language and grand philosophical themes. Although action-oriented in the manner of (though with much better craft than) TSR-fare, there is a tightly controlled correspondence between the words and actions of the characters.  Conan typically prevails because he is typically direct and straightforward; his battle prowess is as much a symptom of this transparency of character as it is his upbringing. Other characters weave byzantine plots only to dramatically fail when they learn that the realities the universe has created for the villains are no more stable than the “realities” they use to trap their victims. A sort of cosmic version of “getting caught in a lie.” There’s a lot of lush, powerful, rich, almost pungent imagery here, but beneath the beautiful writing is an ongoing discussion of Things That Matter.  And also interestingly (I’m using that word a lot) this comes forth all the clearer in the “weaker” Conan stories — those featuring little plot except an extra-dimensional monster and a naked damsel — because the Big Questions continue to get play even when the pulp clichès ride heavy.  So the lesson there, I suppose, is that I can depart from a “high fantasy” writing style without abandoning, or even mitigating, thematic depth.

Couldn't agree more, Mr Coyne.


  1. I observe that PTSD doesn't hit all soldiers, even those in the relentless unending battles that are the best means of producing it -- which also happen to be scarce in Middle Earth. Short pitched battles can produce it, but not as well. "Soldier's heart" was produced more by the relentless campaigns in the waning days of the American Civil War rather than the earlier battles.

    1. A valid point, Mary. One also has to consider that modern society's views on just about everything are very different to those of pre-industrial civilizations, so naturally modern opinions on war and a soldier's response are likely to differ based on the time period.

    2. You might be interested in this article by Gwynne Dyer about the rise of PTSD among American soldiers:

    3. I'm very leery of the conclusion given the respective records of US and UK's dealing with mental health issues. I also note the article doesn't mention how many UK soldiers also fail to shoot to kill (I've seen and read reports which claim similar numbers to the US) nor does it mention WW2 US soldiers were also highly reluctant. Still, I'm not a modern military historian.

    4. I recommend Stolen Valor by B.G. Burkett & Glenna Whitley against the claims that makes about Vietnam.

      I merely observe now that a man who claims to behave as he does because he is PTSD Vietnam vet does not have to be telling the truth about any of it.

  2. Dear Taranaich,

    Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts, with which I generally agree. I bit of background: I'm spending the summer reading some fantasy literature in preparation for launching my own epic fantasy project, and I hadn't read any of the Conan stories... this seemed to be a massive gap in my background, so I put it on the list. I'm certainly ankle-deep in this vast ocean, and I originally wrote these comments informally to a friend, then thought "what the hell," and put them up on my blog.

    Anyway, I think your most meaningful disagreement with me is on the charge of genocide, and you've got a point here... I meant simply to point out that Conan was not written to provide an archetypal "moral center" to Howard's stories in the manner of a lot of fantasy heroes. Words like "violent" or even "vicious" could still apply, but I may have gone a bit far in using the word "genocide." I had read that Howard had witnessed lynchings as a child on Wikipedia, and it's my bad for not following that up with a better source, either.

    Obviously, every writer must be considered in context of their own time and place (I always think of Pandarus' line at the end of Shakespeare's Toilus and Cressida, in which he wishes everyone in the audience to contract STDs), and this problem is going to be more conspicuous in great works that outlive their authors for generations. If I'm going to point fingers here, it would be at some more modern fantasy writers who haven't taken a more circumspect, complex view of race and races than authors who were writing in explicitly racist and segregated societies. That's just lazy writing. We cannot say the same for either Tolkien or Howard. On the other hand, while I understand what you're saying about Tolkien struggling with the question of Orcs (and of Middle Earth's equivalent of "colonized peoples"), or contextualizing Howard's physical and mental descriptions of black characters, their attitudes do date them in a way that creates a certain amount of dissonance being read in 2012.

    My main point here, which I still think is valid, is that Howard is less dated than Tolkien in this way: by not establishing Conan as a moral authority -- by establishing him as someone whose subjective desires includes good and evil actions, rather than someone who always strives for defined, objective good or evil -- it's easier make the same allowances for the author. This is, frankly, a way in which Howard's writing is more nuanced and sophisticated than Tolkien's (although I think Tolkien's writing abilities are also often underrated).

    On a last note, I definitely understand that Middle-Earth is based on the real world... I guess I just feel that rupture between the primary and secondary worlds is more visible and examined in Howard.

    Anyway, thanks so much for responding. I wasn't sure if anyone was going to see that post, and I certainly didn't expect this erudite, challenging response!

    1. Not at all, Connor, I'm just pleased to find such a good write-up.

      I'm in agreement with you regarding the contextualisation, especially the dissonance, which is definitely a problem I won't deny people have.

      My main point here, which I still think is valid, is that Howard is less dated than Tolkien in this way: by not establishing Conan as a moral authority -- by establishing him as someone whose subjective desires includes good and evil actions, rather than someone who always strives for defined, objective good or evil -- it's easier make the same allowances for the author.

      Ah, I see your point now, and I do agree. I think Conan does start tending more towards good actions over the course of his life (sort of like how you become more conservative, perhaps), but he doesn't become a paragon of virtue for its own sake.

      On a last note, I definitely understand that Middle-Earth is based on the real world... I guess I just feel that rupture between the primary and secondary worlds is more visible and examined in Howard.

      Definitely. I think the difference is that Tolkien was making a "false mythology," whereas Howard was making a "false history." In connecting their worlds to our own, Tolkien went a linguistic route, while Howard went an anthropological route.