Friday 20 August 2010

Infamy! Infamy! A follow-up

A quick follow-up to Et Tu, Alan?, wherein I elaborate on an excellent point Monsterhoodoo and David J. West bring up.  Let's have a look at that first paragraph again:

How many times have you opened up a copy of Savage Sword of Conan to find some barbarian forcing a lithe Kothian dancing girl back into the hay, ignoring her feeble half-hearted complaints and taking his cue from the delirious ecstatic look that the artist has drawn onto her face, showing you that she doesn't mind really. In fact, she likes this sort of treatment. Sure she does. Anyone would enjoy being sexually assaulted by an illiterate musclebound oaf who stinks of bear grease. That's most people's idea of a good night out.

Now, I forgot to mention that Moore is clearly making the mistake/misinterpretation of assuming that the "some barbarian" is meant to be the hero.  Judging by his later "Conan the Rapist" remark, it's clear he's trying to say that Conan would be among them.  I can't recall Conan ever forcing any girl, lithe, Kothian or dancer, into the hay in Savage Sword (at least up to 84, I haven't read beyond yet) but I can recall many merciless, violent bullies who do.  And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the audience is supposed to be rooting for filth like Constantius the Falcon.

Does this look like the kind of guy the reader's supposed to root for?

Here's the thing you seem to miss, Alan: those "barbarians" forcing themselves on women?  They're meant to be the bad guys.  The reader is not meant to sympathise with them - in fact, I believe the use of rape is designed to make them into utter monsters.  And it works: there's little one can do to make a man more unforgivable than raping the heroine of the story.  Conan never forces himself on any woman (short of a goddess who's clearly using some sort of sorcerous aphrodisia while suffering a concussion after a hard-fought battle).  The closest we get is the "kiss while the girl bats ineffectually, then starts to snake her arms around him" motif, and that's hardly unique to Conan.

However, this phrase in particular stuck out.  "Anyone would enjoy being sexually assaulted by an illiterate musclebound oaf who stinks of bear grease."  Sound familiar?

Now, I'm pretty sure one could make the argument that Moore was trying to show this as unhealthy and psychologically warped, possibly even as a commentary on that exact idea of rape victims really loving it, as an example of the gap between comic superheroines of the '50s and the '80s (commentator Fredrik made the same conclusion).  I'm pretty sure this was Moore's intention: certainly one can't look on The Comedian as a "hero," since he's complete scum.  He's Constantius - he's a mote in the eye of mankind.  Silk Spectre isn't exactly a shining example of humanity herself, and a figure to pity as well as condemn and admire.  Yet people have accused Watchmen of being warped because of the mistaken belief that The Comedian is meant to be a hero in a classic comic-book form - a misconception that's as incorrect as saying that Constantius' rape of Taramis in The Savage Sword of Conan is meant to enforce the stereotype of women enjoying brutal rape.  Clumsy obfuscation at best, willful misrepresentation at worst.

It rings especially hollow when it comes up in criticism of Sword-and-Sorcery - why?  Because pre-modern societies were pretty damned horrible places for a woman.  Treated like a second-class citizen, property, sometimes barely even human.  So yeah, women were raped.  It's terrible, it's harrowing - but it happened.  Just like how some women are so twisted by this horrific act that they do, in fact, form an attachment to their attackers.  It happens.  Nowadays, rape is a mercifully rare occurrence (though as with so many crimes, it's more common than people think) and is treated as the terrible thing it is - but back in the bad old days when life was cheap, it was depressingly common. So if anything, the depictions of rape in Savage Sword are simply portraying the sordid reality of pre-industrial society.

One more thing: don't accuse Conan of being a rapist.  By his own word, he never took a woman by force.  There isn't a single case of Conan violating that word, and Conan's a terrible liar (see "The God in the Bowl") though he's a canny manipulator.  Hell, we never even see him be violent towards a girl beyond dumping one who nearly got him killed in an open sewer and being exasperated at some of his dimmer charges' decisions: if he's reluctant to turn a sword on a girl even in self defense (as in "Red Nails") what possible situation would see him kill another woman?  Indeed, in most cases where a female villain is slain, it is not by Conan at all, but by the secondary protagonist (Tascela slain by Valeria in "Red Nails," Salome slain by Valerius in "A Witch Shall Be Born.") Don't bring up "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" either: that has a lot of mitigating factors, and in any case, Conan never did rape Atali.  Secondly, don't you dare accuse Howard of saying that all women secretly like being raped, or even that the women in his stories enjoyed it, outside of isolated instances.  Here's an excerpt of a letter where Howard, in his usual impassioned vigour, explains exactly how he feels about the mistreatment of women:

When I see the actions of girls I sometimes think they deserve all that they get and yet again I am nauseated at the injustice of life in regard to women. Woman-beating, for instance, goes on a lot more than most people realize especially in regard to young girls. Getting down to basic stuff, when a man and woman alone, her only real protection against him is his better nature or weaker nature, which ever you prefer. It must be Hell to have to beg for everything you get, or to beg out of abuse or punishment. Obedience – discipline – gah, I dont believe I hate any other words as I hate those two. The taste of them is as the tang of dung in the mouth of me. As regards sex, you and I are lucky. Think of the disparity of Nature’s gifts. A woman gets on her knees to some bastard and begs like a slave whereas if the same bastard even made an off color crack to you or me, he would get the Hell knocked out of him with one smash. And another thing – if a man is a Hell-whooper among men, wading in without fear or favor, a real tough nut, one can pardon wife beating in him easier than in some shrimpish bastard who is afraid to look into the eyes of a real man, and exercises his inferiority complex by knocking a woman around.
- Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, November 1928

Keep in mind that Howard is clearly not advocating "Hell-whoopers among men" wife-beating in that last sentence, but showing the hypocritical double-standard of society in considering one type of wife beater "less objectionable" than another.  I know I can understand Howard's ambivalence to beaten women - I totally sympathise with their plight, but at the same time, am utterly frustrated that they've allowed themselves to get into such situations.  Yet, as Howard notes, who can blame them given the raw deal society has handed them?

And that's just how Howard feels about when women are beaten - imagine how Howard would feel about rape.  Hell, we don't have to imagine: we know from the letters.  Nearly every instance of rape I can find, Howard's either writing about the harsh reality of barbaric and civilized life (not glorifying it, like some people assert), talking about some heinous scandal in the news, or sarcastically "glorifying" it in one of his scathing satirical plays:

Mike: "... Women all have slave complexes - Hell, I guess centuries of rape and abduction implanted a love of violence in them so that they cannot distinguish love from mere mistreatment. Fondle a woman and she’ll cross you; beat her and she’ll cringe to you and love you. Thats why I can't respect the sex as a whole. Resentment, hate, vengeance! Those are the real great things of life. Meekness is a weakling's revenge and forgiveness is a coward’s refuge.”

Mike ends up stabbed by the very girl he's berating.  Serves him right.

Finally, here's some more on what Howard had to say on Harold Preece's "Women: A Diatribe":

I got a long letter from Harold and after much oration he says as follows:
“Women are damned good actors but damned bad friends.
“One step in the process of emancipating myself, mentally, has been the complete disillusionment of myself regarding women. Women have a tendency to make men effeminate and domestic; and I believe, therefore, that they are a hindrance to the full expression masculine personality. It is significant that the frails have never produced a single great philosopher, and that the really great women, whom this world has produced, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“The fickleness of woman is proverbial, one of the major themes of literature, in fact. A woman, generally speaking, has no conception of honor, or obligation except to her offspring; and she generally ceases to love her mate after the birth of the first child.
“Woman should be relegated to her proper place, and kept there. Let the men assert their rights, and not be daunted by powder puff or allured by hose.” Or words to that effect. I am preparing a scathing rebuke of which I shall probably enclose a carbon copy to you. 
 - Letter to Clyde Tevis Smith, December 1928

A scathing rebuke it was, and soundly destroyed Preece's silliness handily.


  1. Hmm. It appears your original post was aptly titled. "Et tu, Alan?" indeed. "What do you think of Mister Kettle, Mister Pot?"

  2. I don't know, the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get - and the more frustrated I feel that this goes way deeper than Moore himself. I can almost pinpoint the origin of every line: "blew his brains out" is almost verbatim from Dark Valley Destiny, for example. I wouldn't be surprised if, like John Howe, Moore read the entire thing. It's just another example of how far Howard scholarship has come since then, and how important it is to correct those past errors (and, of course, any errors Howard scholarship has made in the years since DVD too).

  3. Because that is what people always seem to single out-I make it a point when talking to people about REH to almost never ever mention the suicide-I talk about the stories and where they take you.

    Great post by the way.

  4. I hate to say but I've lost of a lot of respect for Moore over the past few years. He seems increasingly likely to ignorantly spout off about any number of subjects, not just Howard, because his ego seems to have run away with him, not that he was ever especially modest. He's still technically a very good writer, of course, but I find a lot of his observations laughable.

    His notion that characters like Conan would be rapists seems based more on his cynical assumption that "that's just how it would be if he was real", ignoring that Conan isn't real and can therefore be whatever his creator wishes him to be. Moore also likes to play armchair psychologist much like De Camp used to do - as you indicate, he probably got a lot of his analytical habits from De Camp and other such critics. What's actually on the page need not apply for Moore because he's too interested in looking clever by reading between the lines on everything.

  5. Well Andy, it should be remembered this was written in 1983. Howard as "Simple Escapist Fantasy With No Higher Aspirations" was more or less the official party line. The idea that there was more to Howard than muscular heroes, nubile lovelies and dastardly sorcerers was a comparative fringe extolled by the tireless works of Glenn Lord et al. "Conan vs Conantics" was a radical revolution then.

  6. Good post, its really reassuring to see Howards own thoughts from letters on this (great qoute that deserves to be quoted a thousand times over!). I agree with what you say, there is Just one thing: Conans statement that he never forced himself on any woman (that all he bedded actually wanted him) is the exact statement most abusive bastards out there use for them self. I think Moore tried to make a point of the fact that those S&S heroes took advantage of women and didnt even se it as a problem; all this as a part of a macho ideal that indeed make out a big part of the vulgar conception of Sword and sorcery in general and particulary of Conan. But again, it all comes down to Moores misinterpretation of Conans "loving ways".

  7. Fredrik, I agree that this is the sort of statement the worst sort of rapists use to justify themselves. That's up there with "she was asking for it" in my book. However, I think Conan is not one of those men.

    Here's the quote from "The Vale of Lost Women":

    ... though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent...

    ... The ways of men vary in different lands, but a man need not be a swine, wherever he is. After I thought awhile, I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you.

    Conan is equating sleeping with a woman in exchange for her freedom (when she would not under other circumstances) would be the same as raping her - and for that reason, he chooses not to when they meet again. Conan also refuses to take up Zabibi's similar offer in "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula." If Conan isn't willing to force a woman to sleep with him via compromise, then I don't see him forcing a woman the more violent way either.

    Conan is the damnedest bastard who ever lived, but he was always incongruously respectful of women in comparison to other men. No doubt a result of his Cimmerian heritage, where half the gods are women and the females fight with the males in battle.

  8. Great post and good points. It is important, as you say, to keep in mind Moore's comments are from '83, and appear mostly based on half-remembered bits, denigrating interpretations (DeCamp and others), genre pigeon-holing and a general public perception and misunderstanding of what a "barbarian" is.

    Alan Moore, like Robert E. Howard, remains a favorite author.

  9. A fair point, Michael: whether Moore was basing it on half-remembered elements or a thorough research of the time period, it wouldn't be anything like what we know about Howard today. Plus there's the whole "barbarian" kettle of fish, too: I remember there being just such an argument over at because "barbarian" in the Scandinavian languages is a very loaded word.

  10. a boy in my classroom in secondary school who took one of my comics said he was excited reading Savage sword...ehem he said the word erection, I don't know if is correct to say that in this site, in that case sorry... it was the comic adaptation of A witch shall be born...
    by the way I saw on tv a film of a gang of motorbikes in the first 70's where the heroes rape a girl in front of her father... it started actors like Dan hagerty and William Smith, Grizzly Adams and Falconetti...

  11. Don't worry about that particular term, Francisco. I try to keep this site fairly tame in terms of language, but it's a scientific term, so it's fine. Besides, I enjoy coming up with fun alternatives to The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television.

    That film sounds like Angels Die Hard: I haven't seen it myself, but it sounds like what you're talking about.

  12. yes it could be, the word angels appears in the tittle...