Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Robert E. Howard and Meditations on Manliness

I write about bears with primitive faults and failings and even if I am nothing but a cub writer, still the faulty characters I make are more real than most of the young intellectual fools with their egoist hooey. I mean my characters are more like bears than these real bears are, see. They’re rough and rude, they got paws and they got tummies. They grumble and they hug; break the fur of teddies and you find the bear, roaring and red-pawed. That’s the way teddies are.
- Robeart E. Howard, letter to Teddy Clyde Smith, week of February 20, 1928.

I was planning on doing a post on Robert E. Howard for his birthday, but couldn't think of anything to write. What is there left to say that hasn't been said over the past 107 years? There are some very interesting ones from Jim Cornelius, Todd Vick, SFGateway, Read at Joe's, Kaijuville, Temple of the Sun, and naturally the Robert E. Howard Forums, but I couldn't think of a "hook." Luckily fate intervened and provided an excellent opportunity via a Rob Bricken article on Io9.com: 11 Preposterously Manly Fantasy Series:

What makes a book series manly? Is it the action? The violence? The lack of female characters? Is it male wish-fulfillment? Misogyny? Or a combination of all these things?

What makes a book series manly? Well, I have an idea of that...

First, let's see what the dictionary says:

man·ly  (man'le)
adj. man·li·er, man·li·est
1. Having qualities traditionally attributed to a man.
2. Belonging to or befitting a man; masculine. See Synonyms at male.
In a manly manner.
 - The Free Dictionary
: having qualities generally associated with a man : strong, virile
: appropriate in character to a man <manly sports>
 - Mirriam-Webster
manly (adj.)
c.1200, "human; characteristic of human beings," from man (n.) + -ly (1). Sense of "possessing virtues proper to a male person" (resoluteness, steadfastness, reliability) is from early 13c. Meaning "masculine" is attested from late 14c. Old English had werlic "male, masculine, manly."  - Online Etymology Dictionary
Definition of manly
adjective (manlier, manliest)
  • having or denoting those good qualities traditionally associated with men, such as courage, strength, and spirit: a manly torso of perfect proportions
  • (of an activity) befitting a man: honest, manly sports
 - Oxford English Dictionary

[man-lee] Show IPA adjective, man·li·er, man·li·est, adverb.
having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength or bravery.
pertaining to or suitable for males: manly sports.
Archaic. in a manly manner.
before 900; Middle English  (adj., adv.); Old English manlīc  (adj.), manlīce  (adv.). See man1 , -ly

man·li·ness, noun.

Manly, manful, mannish mean having the traits or qualities that a culture regards as especially characteristic of or ideally appropriate to adult men. Manly is usually a term of approval, suggesting traits admired by society, such as determination, decisiveness, and steadiness: a manly acceptance of the facts; manly firmness of character. Manful also a term of approval, stresses qualities such as courage, strength, and fortitude: a manful effort to overcome great odds. Mannish is most often used derogatorily in reference to the traits, manners, or accouterments of a woman that are thought to be more appropriate to or typical of a man: a mannish abruptness in her speech; She wore a severely mannish suit.  See also male.
 - Random House
 Mike Conley, 19th Century Boxer and Overly Manly Man

Action, violence, lack of female characters, male wish-fulfillment, and misogyny are not only nowhere to be found in these definitions, but implicity opposite to what the dictionary terms as "manly."

Quotes from great thinkers regarding the nature of "manliness" seem to corroborate:

In this life-long fight, to be waged by every one of us singlehanded against a host of foes, the last requisite for a good fight, the last proof and test of our courage and manfulness, must be loyalty to truth — the most rare and difficult of all human qualities. For such loyalty, as it grows in perfection, asks ever more and more of us, and sets before us a standard of manliness always rising higher and higher.
 - Thomas Hughes, in The Manliness of Christ‎ (1880), p. 29.
Str. You fancy that this is all so easy: Well, let us consider these notions with reference to the opposite classes of action under which they fall. When we praise quickness and energy and acuteness, whether of mind or body or sound, we express our praise of the quality which we admire by one word, and that one word is manliness or courage.
Y. Soc. How?
Str. We speak of an action as energetic and brave, quick and manly, and vigorous too; and when we apply the name of which I speak as the common attribute of all these natures, we certainly praise them.
Y. Soc. True.
Str. And do we not often praise the quiet strain of action also?
Y. Soc. To be sure.
Str. And do we not then say the opposite of what we said of the other?
Y. Soc. How do you mean?
Str. We exclaim How calm! How temperate! in admiration of the slow and quiet working of the intellect, and of steadiness and gentleness in action, of smoothness and depth of voice, and of all rhythmical movement and of music in general, when these have a proper solemnity. Of all such actions we predicate not courage, but a name indicative of order.
Y. Soc. Very true.
Str. But when, on the other hand, either of these is out of place, the names of either are changed into terms of censure.
Y. Soc. How so?
Str. Too great sharpness or quickness or hardness is termed violence or madness; too great slowness or gentleness is called cowardice or sluggishness; and we may observe, that for the most part these qualities, and the temperance and manliness of the opposite characters, are arrayed as enemies on opposite sides, and do not mingle with one another in their respective actions; and if we pursue the enquiry, we shall find that men who have these different qualities of mind differ from one another.
 - Plato, Republic: Statesman
Life is too short to be little. Man is never so manly as when he feels deeply, acts boldly, and expresses himself with frankness and with fervour.
 - Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, Chapter II
 Let us not listen to those who think we ought to be angry with our enemies, and who believe this to be great and manly. Nothing is so praiseworthy, nothing so clearly shows a great and noble soul, as clemency and readiness to forgive.
 - Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero

Therefore, a more dictionary-correct answer to the question of what may make a fantasy series "manly" would be something along these lines:

A fantasy series having the traits or qualities that a culture regards as especially characteristic or ideally appropriate to adult men, usually as a term of approval: courage, strength, fortitude, virility, bravery, resoluteness, reliability, spirit, determination, decisiveness, steadiness, acceptance of the facts, firmness of character. 

Now, the first thing that comes to mind is that none of those traits are qualities are by any means exclusive to the male gender, and that women or boys who display such "manly" things as courage or determination are not said to be unfeminine: it is merely that these ideals are traditionally associated with masculinity and men, and that men should aspire to such ideals in their daily lives. Indeed, the fact that the original 12th Century definition of "manly" according to the Online Etymology Dictionary was "characteristic of human beings" - man as in mankind, rather than simply male gender - belies the notion that something being "manly" is an inherently human thing, not just male. The definition may have changed, but the sentiment remains.

From that point of view, several of the ideas Rob puts forward seem not just non-manly, but actively anti-manly. Action and violence are certainly present in a great many "manly" works, but the presence of those things don't make it manly, it's the approach to action and violence that does. Many horror stories are violent, but that doesn't necessarily mean the violence is linked to a person's capacity for heroism. The lack of female characters is immaterial, and from a certain point of view, counter-intuitive - how can one describe something as "manly" in the traditional masculine sense if there is no traditional femininity with which to compare and contrast? Male wish-fulfilment is, again, another that is present in manly works, but like the action and violence, is not as important as the place: a properly manly fantasy series should inspire a male reader to be better, to take on the good qualities of the heroes, in addition to providing escapism and the sheer joy of adventure.

But of all the traits Rob puts forward, none seem to be as aggressively anti-manly as misogyny. Again, let's have a quick look at the dictionaries:

noun \mə-ˈsä-jə-nē\
: a hatred of women
miso·gy·nic \ˌmi-sə-ˈji-nik, -ˈgī-\ adjective
mi·sog·y·nist \mə-ˈsä-jə-nist\ noun or adjective
 - The Free Dictionary
noun \mə-ˈsä-jə-nē\
Definition of MISOGYNY
: a hatred of women
miso·gy·nic adjective
mi·sog·y·nist noun or adjective
mi·sog·y·nis·tic adjective
Origin of MISOGYNY
Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman — more at queen
First Known Use: circa 1656
misogyny (n.)
1650s, from Modern Latin misogynia, from Greek misogynia, from misogynes "woman-hater," from miso- (see miso-) + gyne "woman" (see queen).
 - Online Etymology Dictionary


Definition of misogyny

[mass noun]
  • the hatred of women: she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny


mid 17th century: from Greek misos 'hatred' + gunē 'woman'
 - Oxford English Dictionary
[mi-soj-uh-nee, mahy-]
hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.
 - The Free Dictionary

So for a series to be misogynous, it would have to have an active hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women: this would make it distinct from sexism which is prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping of a gender, and much more likely what Rob was going for. I would say that if any manly series has elements of actual misogyny, they are faults rather than boons: either intentional (as in deliberate character or cultural flaws) or unintentional (as in the author's subtext). These books may view women as inferior to men in one respect or another, but any hatred would be ambivalence at most, usually manifesting as hatred of certain stereotypical aspects ascribed to females. Out of Rob's list, there are unfortunately several which could be considered sexist, but few seem outright misogynist.

So what does all this have to do with Robert E. Howard? Well, Rob naturally includes one of his characters in this preposterous list of manly fantasy series:

2) Conan the Barbarian
The hulking, muscled barbarian known as Conan is male wish-fulfillment at its most basic: Conan is a killer of evil men and monsters, adventurer, thief, mercenary, pirate, king, and lover of ladies. Although he's giant and muscled, he still has the agility of a panther, which serves him well on the battlefield and in the bedroom; he's also genuinely smart and cunning, which many of his foes underestimate (and sometimes his media portrayals, too). Despite being a barbarian, he has a rigorous code of honor, making him more or less the ultimate man. And before you start comparing Conan to Gor, it should be noted the concubine Conan slept with he eventually married and made queen, and besides, she was a badass with a bow and arrow, fending a few would-be assassins. The Conan series has plenty of princesses in peril, but Conan's main love interest wasn't one of them.

Now, off the bat something needs to be cleared up: Rob is referring to fantasy series, and unless you've been living under a rock, Conan has had no less than eighty-odd books published over the years. Ergo, the dreaded Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment does actually apply, in that the vast majority of those books are pretty much written under the Girls, Grog and Gore statute.

My intense dislike of PAWF (pronounced as a derisive exhalation) has been made clear elsewhere, as well as the fact that Howard's Conan was significantly less an example of this than later books. As if to throw Conan a bone that he doesn't need, Rob mentions Conan's concubine-turned-queen, though he doesn't name her (Zenobia), and suggests Conan slept with her (he didn't, and wouldn't even have the opportunity, what with him trying to escape from the enemy king's stronghold and all), and brings up her dab-hand with the bow and arrow (actually crossbow, and something introduced in the pastiches, but that's neither here nor there). It's just a shame Rob doesn't mention that Howard's treatment of women in servitude or servility is directly antithetical to that of Gor (Gor treats female slavery in a positive light, Howard finds slavery of any kind despicable and hateful), and that he doesn't mention any of Howard's other great females (Belit, Valeria, Yasmina, Zelata, even) or those in the rest of the franchise (there's a lot of love for Isparana, Karela, Grace Jones' Zula and of course Red Sonja) but, again, this is about the Conan franchise in general, not just Howard - though frankly, I don't think any Conan pastiches would portray slavery of any kind as a good thing, even in a purely fantastical and mutually consensual mindset as in Gor before it went off the rails.

And therein lies the problem: when someone accuses Conan of being anti-intellectual, sexist, misogynist, Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfilment, if you base it on the Conan franchise as a whole, they may have a point: Sturgeon's Law being what it is, it was inevitable that not all 80 Conan books were going to be winners. This is why, despite my preference for inclusion among the Conan fanbase, it is imperative that Howard be placed in a class above, not just because He Was First, or that He Was Best, but because you cannot judge the politics and themes of a sprawling franchise like Conan when there are so many authors. You have people with such wildly differing backgrounds, politics, beliefs and writing styles as L. Sprague de Camp, Björn Nyberg, Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, Karl Edward Wagner, and Roland Green, ranging from short story collections to full-length novels, often self-contradictory (Conan the Valorous and Conan of Venarium even have different names for Conan's parents), and of wildly differing quality. Like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and others, the original is frequently very different from the whole.

Conan isn't the only one on the list, of course: David Gemmell's Drenai saga is there too, and I think he kind of misses the point of Druss; funnily enough, I actually think he gets Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser aright, though again, there's more to the appeal than the "boys will be boys" aspect; and he lists The Lord of the Rings, despite the vast female readership out there. I think I get what Rob's trying to say with his article, but his equation of manliness to misogyny is not helpful.

So if not those things, what does make Conan - and Howard's work in general - manly? There's no denying that Howard was an extremely masculine writer, and that he wrote a lot of stuff that's masculine. But is Conan manly because he fights a lot of monsters, slays a lot of sorcerers, beds a lot of wenches, or drinks a lot of grog? No, not at all: such things are only manly to the boy or the beta male, the male so preoccupied with achieving dominance, command and strength that they fail to acknowledge the true test of manliness that alpha males pass. Those elements are means to an end, tools of manliness: the sinews, not the brain or the heart.

What, then, do I consider the most manly moments of the Conan saga? I'd say it's the moments where Conan's sheer humanity shine through: humanity, as in that aspect of the person which is said to define our species. Compassion, courage, strength of character and mind, resolution.

Here's one, from "The Devil in Iron":

Conan stood paralyzed in the disruption of the faculties which demoralizes anyone who is confronted by an impossible negation of sanity. He doubted neither his sight nor his reason, but something was monstrously out of joint. Less than a month ago only broken ruins had showed among the trees. What human hands could rear such a mammoth pile as now met his eyes, in the few weeks which had elapsed? Besides, the buccaneers who roamed Vilayet ceaselessly would have learned of any work going on on such stupendous scale, and would have informed the kozaks.
There was no explaining this thing, but it was so. He was on Xapur and that fantastic heap of towering masonry was on Xapur, and all was madness and paradox; yet it was all true.
He wheeled to race back through the jungle, down the carven stair and across the blue waters to the distant camp at the mouth of the Zaporoska. In that moment of unreasoning panic even the thought of halting so near the inland sea was repugnant. He would leave it behind him, would quit the armed camps and the steppes, and put a thousand miles between him and the blue mysterious East where the most basic laws of nature could be set at naught, by what diabolism he could not guess.
For an instant the future fate of kingdoms that hinged on this gay-clad barbarian hung in the balance. It was a small thing that tipped the scales - merely a shred of silk hanging on a bush that caught his uneasy glance. He leaned to it, his nostrils expanding, his nerves quivering to a subtle stimulant. On that bit of torn cloth, so faint that it was less with his physical faculties than by some obscure instinctive sense that he recognized it, lingered the tantalizing perfume that he connected with the sweet firm flesh of the woman he had seen in Jehungir’s pavilion. The fisherman had not lied, then; she was here! Then in the soil he saw a single track in the loam, the track of a bare foot, long and slender, but a man’s, not a woman’s, and sunk deeper than was natural. The conclusion was obvious; the man who made that track was carrying a burden, and what should it be but the girl the kozak was seeking?
He stood silently facing the dark towers that loomed through the trees, his eyes slits of blue bale-fire. Desire for the yellow-haired woman vied with a sullen primordial rage at whoever had taken her. His human passion fought down his ultra-human fears, and dropping into the stalking crouch of a hunting panther, he glided toward the walls, taking advantage of the dense foliage to escape detection from the battlements.
 - "The Devil in Iron," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p305-306

Here we see Conan absolutely overtaken by fear of the unknown, a fear beyond even the barbarian's superstitious anxiety of the supernatural, to the point that he runs as fast as his legs can carry him in unreasoning panic, just as he did at the close of "The God in the Bowl." But then, the merest thing causes him to halt - a bit of torn cloth belonging to the woman he sought, and believed to be on the island. Consciously it was Conan's desire for the woman and hatred for whoever took her, but when you think about it, would that be enough to break Conan out of his panic? Might there not be something more fundamental there causing Conan to risk his life for her, a basic human desire to aid a fellow human in danger? After all, a pirate such as him wouldn't want for women, and he could easily have given up, but something in him - a "sullen primordial rage at whoever had taken her" - overrode that, as well as his preternatural fear. After all, not only was this woman taken, but she was on an island that filled Conan with existential terror - but perhaps Conan knew that whatever he was feeling, she was too - possibly more so. And so Conan's human passion (perhaps compassion?) defeated his ultra-human fears, as he went back towards the nightmare city. He couldn't leave Octavia on that diabolical island any more than he could leave the Conajoharans to the Picts:

"Shall we try to break through?" asked Balthus, trembling with eagerness. Conan shook his head. He stood with his arms folded, his head slightly bent, a somber and brooding figure.
"The fort's doomed. The Picts are blood-mad, and won't stop until they're all killed. And there are too many of them for the men in the fort to kill. We couldn't break through, and if we did, we could do nothing but die with Valannus."
"There's nothing we can do but save our own hides, then?"
"Yes. We've got to warn the settlers. Do you know why the Picts are not trying to burn the fort with fire-arrows? Because they don't want a flame that might warn the people to the east. They plan to stamp out the fort, and then sweep east before anyone knows of its fall. They may cross Thunder River and take Velitrium before the people know what's happened. At least they'll destroy every living thing between the fort and Thunder River.
"We've failed to warn the fort, and I see now it would have done no good if we hadn't. The fort's too poorly manned. A few more charges and the Picts will be over the walls and breaking down the gates. But we can start the settlers toward Velitrium. Come on! We're outside the circle the Picts have thrown around the fort. We'll keep clear of it." They swung out in a wide arc, hearing the rising and falling of the volume of the yells, marking each charge and repulse. The men in the fort were holding their own; but the shrieks of the Picts did not diminish in savagery. They vibrated with a timbre that held assurance of ultimate victory.
Before Balthus realized they were close to it, they broke into the road leading east.
"Now run!" grunted Conan. Balthus set his teeth. It was nineteen miles to Velitrium, a good five to Scalp Creek beyond which began the settlements. It seemed to the Aquilonian that they had been fighting and running for centuries. But the nervous excitement that rioted through his blood stimulated him to superhuman efforts...

... Balthus said nothing as he looked down at the pitiful forms in the road beside the burning wain. Both were young, the woman little more than a girl. By some whim of chance the Picts had left her face unmarred, and even in the agonies of an awful death it was beautiful. But her soft young body had been hideously slashed with many knives - a mist clouded Balthus' eyes and he swallowed chokingly. The tragedy momentarily overcame him. He felt like falling upon the ground and weeping and biting the earth.
"Some young couple just hitting out on their own," Conan was saying as he wiped his sword unemotionally. "On their way to the fort when the Picts met them. Maybe the boy was going to enter the service; maybe take up land on the river. Well, that's what will happen to every man, woman and child this side of Thunder River if we don't get them into Velitrium in a hurry."
 - "Beyond the Black River," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p84-85

Conan didn't need to do any of this: by his own admission, the fort was lost, and it looked extremely likely that all of Conajohara would be lost too. And as he said earlier in the tale, it little bothered him who he worked for, as long as he was paid ("It's nothing to me," the other retorted. "I'm a mercenary. I sell my sword to the highest bidder. I never planted wheat and never will, so long as there are other harvests to be reaped with the sword...") Why bother risking his life to save the settlers? Because that's just what people do - they help each other if they can. This is even more apparent in the story's sequel, "The Black Stranger":

"What will you do when you get back to Zingara?" Conan asked. She shook her head helplessly. "I do not know. I have neither money nor friends. I am not trained to earn my living. Perhaps it would have been better had one of those arrows struck my heart."
"Do not say that, my Lady!" begged Tina. "I will work for us both!"
Conan drew a small leather bag from inside his girdle.
"I didn't get Tothmekri's jewels," he rumbled. "But here are some baubles I found in the chest where I got the clothes I'm wearing." He spilled a handful of flaming rubies into his palm.
"They're worth a fortune, themselves." He dumped them back into the bag and handed it to her.
"But I can't take these -" she began.
"Of course you'll take them. I might as well leave you for the Picts to scalp as to take you back to Zingara to starve," said he. "I know what it is to be penniless in a Hyborian land. Now in my country sometimes there are famines; but people are hungry only when there's no food in the land at all. But in civilized countries I've seen people sick of gluttony while others were starving. Aye, I've seen men fall and die of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food.
"Sometimes I was hungry, too, but then I took what I wanted at sword's-point. But you can't do that. So you take these rubies. You can sell them and buy a castle, and slaves and fine clothes, and with them it won't be hard to get a husband, because civilized men all desire wives with these possessions."
"But what of you?"
Conan grinned and indicated The Red Hand drawing swiftly inshore.
"A ship and a crew are all I want. As soon as I set foot on that deck, I'll have a ship, and as soon as I can raise the Barachans I'll have a crew. The lads of the Red Brotherhood are eager to ship with me, because I always lead them to rare loot. And as soon as I've set you and the girl ashore on the Zingaran coast, I'll show the dogs some looting! Nay, nay, no thanks! What are a handful of gems to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?"
 - "The Black Stranger," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p164-165

Conan doesn't ask for anything in return: he freely gives away fabulous jewels to a now-penniless noblewoman and her charge, just because he knows that they need them more than he does. After all, shining baubles are a means to an end for Conan: to sell them for red wine and good meat, and the intangibles wealth brings. And of course, there are always more jewels to be pilfered:

At the very ledge the brute paused in mid-flight - and Conan saw it too - Muriela, with the jewel chest under her arm, stood staring wildly in the mouth of the tunnel.With a triumphant bellow the monster scooped her up under one arm, snatched the jewel chest with the other hand as she dropped it, and turning, lumbered back across the bridge. Conan cursed with passion and ran for the other side also. He doubted if he could climb the stair to the higher arch in time to catch the brute before it could plunge into the labyrinths of tunnels on the other side.
But the monster was slowing, like clock-work running down. Blood gushed in torrents from that terrible gash in his breast, and he lurched drunkenly from side to side. Suddenly he stumbled, reeled and toppled sidewise - pitched headlong from the arch and hurtled downward. Girl and jewel chest fell from his nerveless hands and Muriela's scream rang terribly above the snarl of the water below.
Conan was almost under the spot from which the creature had fallen. The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but the writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the edge of the span near her. One falling object struck on one side of Conan and one on the other. Either was within arm's length; for the fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the edge of the bridge, and Muriela clung by one arm, her face turned desperately toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of despair. Conan did not hesitate, nor did he even glance toward the chest that held the wealth of an epoch. With a quickness that would have shamed the spring of a hungry jaguar, he swooped, grasped the girl's arm just as her fingers slipped from the smooth stone, and snatched her up on the span with one explosive heave. The chest toppled on over and struck the water ninety feet below, whither the body of the servant of Bit-Yakin had already vanished. A slash, a jetting flash of foam marked where the Teeth of Gwahlur disappeared for ever from the sight of man.
 - "The Servants of Bit-Yakin," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p44-45

Conan is faced with what many would consider a dilemma. On one side, the jewels he has worked months of conspiring, politicking, climbing and fighting for, that would bring untold power and lifelong riches to he who would dare to take them. On the other, a dancing girl, no different from any other, who's annoyed and hindered Conan for much of the adventure. Who does he choose? For Conan, there is no choice, for not only does he fail to hesitate, he doesn't even spare a glance to the treasure of the ages teetering on the edge of oblivion. Months of deception and weeks of travelling all for naught, and it never even occurred to him to let the girl fall so he could gain what he worked so hard to achieve.

Conan followed her through, and then threw the gold catch behind them. They stood in an ornately furnished chamber, empty but for themselves, and she drew him to a gold-barred
window, through which he saw trees and shrubbery.
“You are strong,” she panted. “If you can tear these bars away, you may yet escape. The garden is full of guards, but the shrubs are thick, and you may avoid them. The southern wall is also the outer wall of the city. Once over that, you have a chance to get away. A horse is hidden for you in a thicket beside the road that runs westward, a few hundred paces to the south of the fountain of Thrallos. You know where it is?”
“Aye! But what of you? I had meant to take you with me.”
A flood of joy lighted her beautiful face.
“Then my cup of happiness is brimming! But I will not hamper your escape. Burdened with me you would fail. Nay, do not fear for me. They will never suspect that I aided you willingly. Go!
What you have just said will glorify my life throughout the long years.”
He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind, even his love-making was violent.
“I’ll go,” he muttered. “But by Crom, I’ll come for you some day!”
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p120-121

It's easy to see why this passage is manly in a masculine sense, full of the romance of a Sabatini adventure. But what strikes me is Conan's fierce appreciation of Zenobia: she put herself at considerable risk in breaking Conan out of captivity, showed great intuitiveness and guile in dispatching the guards and appropriating a suitable weapon, and was fearless throughout. A misogynist would be affronted, maybe even appalled, that he was made so helpless that he needed to be rescued by a mere women: not Conan. He merely admired her "practical intelligence" and that she "knew horses and weapons." So impressed was Conan by this seraglio girl, he promised to make her Queen of Aquilonia: we never do learn if he made good on that, but since "The Hour of the Dragon" is very much the last Conan tale, it would be a fitting end.

All these passages are masculine-manly, but there is one profound moment in "The Tower of the Elephant" which epitomises human-manly to me:

As Conan came forward, his eyes fixed on the motionless idol, the eyes of the thing opened suddenly! The Cimmerian froze in his tracks. It was no image – it was a living thing, and he was trapped in its chamber!

That he did not instantly explode in a burst of murderous frenzy is a fact that measures his horror, which paralyzed him where he stood. A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to doubt his senses. He knew he was face to face with a demon of the Elder World, and the realization robbed him of all his faculties except sight.

The trunk of the horror was lifted and quested about, the topaz eyes stared unseeingly, and Conan knew the monster was blind. With the thought came a thawing of his frozen nerves, and he began to back silently toward the door. But the creature heard. The sensitive trunk stretched toward him, and Conan’s horror froze him again when the being spoke, in a strange, stammering voice that never changed its key or timbre. The Cimmerian knew that those jaws were never built or intended for human speech.

“Who is here? Have you come to torture me again, Yara? Will you never be done? Oh, Yagkosha, is there no end to agony?”

Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own. And suddenly all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by a great pity. What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidences of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian, he knew not why. He only felt that he was looking upon a cosmic tragedy, and he shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him.

“I am not Yara,” he said. “I am only a thief. I will not harm you.”

 - "The Tower of the Elephant," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p82

Beneath the Dark Barbarian that Towers Over All, under the skin of the Damnedest Bastard That Ever Lived, beyond the Unconquerable Primordial, there beats the heart of a human being, and here we see one of those most human of emotions: empathy. Even though Yogah is a being utterly alien to Conan's sensibilities - it's significant that Howard mentions that Conan has never seen an elephant before this tale - the central experiences common to all humans, to all living beings, unite us all. We all know pain of some sort or another; while the details and intensity vary, the emotion is there. Conan did not, could not, know the untold torture and cruelty inflicted upon Yara, but he did know the marks of the rack and the brand. Conan did not know what his true form was, but he knew that the maimed limbs were horrendous disfigurements of their true shape. And faced with this information, Conan's emotional reaction was not disgust, or ambivalence, but great pity and aching sadness.

And that's just Conan: Howard's work is full of manliness, be it masculinity, or humanity. One need only look at "Worms of the Earth" to see the tragic heroism of Bran Mak Morn desperately seeking to preserve and sustain his people in the face of destruction and degeneration; "The Iron Man" is imbued with the melancholic frustrations and subtle complexities of a seemingly simple man; "Sword Woman" shows the inherent empathy Howard holds for womankind, and applies traits traditionally considered "masculine" to a woman who does not lose her gender identity in the process. Howard was an incredibly masculine writer, and incredibly human writer. That's what makes his work remarkable.

Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard: a man and a human, who wrote works of men, and works of humanity.


  1. Very nice meditations on REH indeed.

  2. Replies
    1. Not at all, Kaiju, always good to see you drop by!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. To the anonymous poster who requested its deletion: I got the message, and it does look like fun!

    2. Perfect! Don't wait to long though, this sort of thing tends to vanish easily for obvious reasons.

  4. The salient "manly" quality of REH's Conan (dismissing the body of pastiche) is his sense of responsibility toward others. Conan may be a wanderer, a thief, a mercenary, but when he partners with someone, he has their back, and when he's a leader, he takes responsibility for others. I think of People of the Black Circle, where he's willing to put himself in danger to negotiate the release of "his" hairy tribesmen. Or Queen of the Black Coast, where he refuses to testify against a friend, because he's friend.

    As you correctly note, this is the behavior of the true alpha male (not a poseur) and it is thoroughly admirable. Society has taken to denigrating the "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" outlook — and does so at peril. "Manning up" is what it's all about and without values of loyalty, steadfastness, courage and the willingness to lay it on the line for "your people," you are nothing.

    Jim Cornelius

    1. Exactly, Jim, and so succinct I'm kicking myself. Your mention of Conan putting himself in harm's way to protect a friend or one of his people (be they a crowd of pirates or his soldiers) reminds me of that moment of "civic responsibility" in "The Hour of the Dragon," which is, I think, one of my favourite moments in the entire saga, as it's pure alpha male:

      Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man, to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the looting as in the days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule of a people which had already forgotten him? – why chase a will-o’-the-wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost for ever? Why should he not seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out another kingdom for himself? The world was entering an age of iron, an age of war and imperialistic ambition; some strong man might well rise above the ruins of nations as a supreme conqueror. Why should it not be himself? So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the phantoms of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was.

      And, of course, the beauty is that "manning up" needn't necessarily be exclusively male. I'm sure Jirel would be just as dedicated to her people as Conan was were she put in a similar situation.

  5. Thank you Al, great post! PS. I also have a man-crush on Mike Conley .

  6. This reminds me of a scene in the movie 'Fight Club' when Tyler said while looking at Calvin Klein underwear ad , "So this is how a real man's supposed to look like?"