Thursday, 20 January 2011

Good Scot/Bad Scot: A Sextet of Links

I've decided that whenever I see a good link or a bad link on the internet, I'm going to deliver both in the same post.  This way I hope to maintain a balance of good news and bad news, rather than get mired down in negativity or positivity.  For the debut, I'm not going to do two links, but six.

Bad Scot will be represented by red text, Good Scot will be represented by blue text.

Since I like to end on a good note, I'll start with the bad: Vincent Schroder's nice overview of Conan the Barbarian, which explains why there's more to it than "Hurff durff Ahnold sucks."

A point of criticism heard is that the movie is that it's sexist and overly macho yet one of the strongest characters is female (and feminine!). Valeria is a cunning warrior, trusted to bring up the rear when they escape Doom's temple. She's smarter that Conan and Subotai ("You don't even have a rope!) and very spirited. It's these qualities that make Conan and Subotai respect her (and Conan fall in love with her) and it makes the viewer see her not as the token female or love interest but as a hero. Or shero, if we're talking Arnocorps.
The female slaves are used "for breeding" but that's not any more degrading that having the males fight to the death for others' entertainment. Life's as fleeting and happiness is as precious in this movie regardless of sex.

Right on!

Unfortunately, it also happens to have this perplexing bit:

Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. All three main actors are athletes, she's a dancer. Calling her a love interest doesn't do her character justice. She's as fierce a warrior as Conan and Subotai and a much better thief. Conan falling in love with her is the biggest difference of character compared to the original stories and it's for the better.

Well, that's an interesting idea.  I fail to see how Conan didn't fall in love with her namesake in "Red Nails," so I broached the question.  Vincent's response:

There was not nearly as much time or attention spent on that aspect in Howard's short stories. While Conan thought of her more than of his usual wenches, I'd hardly call it love.
That aspect simply wasn't explored in Howard's stories. Living with your mom all your life would do that to you, I suppose.
I'm not even going to dignify that last sentence, but seriously?  Seriously?  Conan was smitten with Valeria.  He travelled miles south into hostile, dangerous territory to find her.  He was filled with admiration for her ability.  The man was willing to die for her.  "Thought more of her than his usual wenches" - yeah, not exactly glowing admiration for the character, is it?

That aspect simply wasn't explored in Howard's stories?  Yeah, if you forget "Queen of the Black Coast," and Khemsa/Gitara in "The People of the Black Circle," and Valerius/Tamaris in "A Witch Shall Be Born," and Amalric/Lissa in the Tombalku fragment...

So, suffice to say I disagree with this getleman.  Sadly, he isn't alone.

Milius captures the world that Robert E. Howard created perfectly... The thing I really love about Conan is that the filmmakers treated the source material with the respect that it deserves. Milius and Stone approach the character with the same kind of reverence that Richard Donner brought to Superman.

Suffice to say, I disagree most profoundly.

The most perplexing one of all is Kill Caesar's review of Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer:

As companion pieces, they are inseparable. I highly recommend experiencing these gems of early ‘80s fantasy. The sound design of the first is awful, and the second is missing the sex and gory violence of the first, but the production value increases with the second. Max von Sydow appears for a terrific scene in the first. Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, who claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women, is in the second. Those cameos alone make this worthwhile viewing.

It’s more than just that, though. Conan the Barbarian gave way to comics and novels, as well as influencing the fantasy genre to this day.

Well, by Jove.

Let's cleanse our palate with a good blog, where a gentleman known only as Keith discusses "The Shadow Kingdom":

The intriguing part of the story, for me at least, is the depth at which Howard shows us Kull's thoughts.  Kull wonders which is the real Kull, the monarch "who sat on the throne or was it the real Kull who had scaled the hills of Atlantis, harried the far isles of the sunset, and laughed upon the green roaring tides of the Atlentean sea."  This brooding is provoked of course by Kull's discovery of the Serpent Men and the masks they don to deceive people for evil means, something he had already encountered in his courtiers, albeit in a less literal sense.

Another thing common to young adults and teens is the fear that they can't cut it as an adult.  This is a fear that can return later in life when a person experiences a major upset, often but not always the loss of a job or business.  Affirmation that a person can function as an accepted member of adult society is one of the purposes of a rite of passage.  Entire books have been written on this topic.  I have to wonder if Howard was feeling some of that uncertainty about this time in his life.  I know he made a deal with his father to give writing a try for one year and if at the end of that year he wasn't making a living, he would find a regular job.  Kull has thoughts along these lines more than once in the story.

The first incident occurs during the brooding quoted in the paragraph above when Kull thinks of himself as "the futile king who sat upon the throne - himself a shadow."  The second occurs at the climax of the story when Kull and Brule have escaped a trap in which the serpent men have disguised themselves as his council in order to assassinate him.  Hurrying back to the council chamber, they find the real council in session with a serpent man disguised as Kull himself.  For a moment Kull wonders "Do I stand here or is that Kull yonder in very truth and am I but a shadow, a figment of thought?"  Maybe I'm reading too much into the text, but it sounds to me as though Kull is experiencing a little insecurity.  Not something you would expect from a Howard hero.

Hey, not half bad.  I also love how he mentions "not something you'd expect from Howard" all the time, proof positive that Howard heroes were not, in fact, one and the same, and the stories are not, in fact, variations on a theme.

Sword and sorcery has been dismissed by its critics as shallow and cliched, without depth, power fantasies of social misfits and closet homosexuals, and mind candy or softcore porn for adolescent boys.  What "The Shadow Kingdom" is, at least as I read the story, is a reflection on identity.  While this is certainly an issue of adolescence, it's also an issue that concerns everyone at most stages of life, to a lesser or greater degree. Furthermore, I see it as a meditation on the meaning of life, especially the role one will play in that life.  Until he sets out to eradicate the serpent men, Kull is lost, searching for meaning after achieving his goal of becoming king and finding it unfulfilling. I'm fairly sure Howard didn't consciously set out to create a new form of literature when he wrote "The Shadow Kingdom", but on some level was dealing with the issues in his life in the best way he knew how: by fictionalizing them.  Creating sword and sorcery was to some degree incidental.  That's a pretty impressive legacy, to create a new genre with those themes at its core.  Not bad for "escapism", huh?  So the next time you hear someone dissing sword and sorcery as not being real literature or worthy of serious consideration, give them a copy of "The Shadow Kingdom." 

Now that's good stuff.  I hope to see Keith tackle more of the Kull stories in future.

Next, a short but sweet post from Johnny Murdoc:

Lately, I’ve been reading Robert E. Howard’s early Conan the Cimmerian (also: barbarian) stories. Howard’s a fascinating guy who had a whirlwind talent for crafting adventure stories. He wrote hundreds of pulp stories before committing suicide at the age of 30. There are stories about Howard that suggested he was so excited to write that he would literally yell out the words as he pounded him on his typewriter, a wonderfully romantic way to illustrate writing. While reading the introduction for the first volume collecting Howard’s stories as he wrote them, I was impressed by the follwing quote from Queen of the Black Coast:
“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.”
Culturally, like Tarzan, we tend to think of Conan as an idiot. Personally, I like that he makes his first ever appearance in a story sitting at a table, writing.

He calls Conan "the Cimmerian," he picked an anecdote that has evidence for its existence, he quotes a great line from the stories, he uploads two of Mark Schultz's best illustrations: what a guy! It's so gratifying to know that, for all my constant whinging about people not getting the details of Howard right, there are plenty of people out there who do.  I should post more about that.

Finally, a glimmer of hope from the dank troll-infested doldrums of the Internet Movie Database:

I just finished reading one of REH's original Conan stories called "Phoenix of The Sword. Ever since I started visiting this forums and reading assessments on REH's Conan mythos posted by various experts on this forum like Tsotha-lanti, finn-palm, and Taranaichasaurus(I might have misspelled that) just to name a few, The mythos seemed interesting to me and then I got interested even more when I started wiki-ing the character. So I decided to finally read one of the stories today since I figured I'd use my head for something before heading to work today lol.

Anyway, I finally got to read this on the AoC wiki since the stories are still in the Public Domain and I must say that this was a pretty good Conan story. I was surprised that this story(which I believe is said to be the first Conan story) was set during Conan's time as King. I thought the conspiracy plot to kill Conan was pretty interesting and the plot of how Conan seems to be struggling to be a good King while being excellent as a fighter. What really won me over though was how good REH is at describing things and making you feel like you were there without overdoing it like J.R.R Tolkien did with Lord of The Rings. He really knows how to paint a picture in the reader's mind that's for sure. Another good thing about this was the dialogue and the way various characters spoke in rhyme or riddle at time like the quotes at the beginning of each chapter just reels me in and successfully keeps me interested.

Did Anyone else feel the same way when they read this story?

It's always heartening to see new fans of Robert E. Howard, a real shot in the arm.  Just goes to show, for every three links I could complain about, there are three more I can commend.


  1. the good scott blue and the bad scott red, ummm, very politically incorrect in Spain

  2. My apologies, Francisco: an inadvertent reference to the Red Terror, or something more recent?

    In any case, I was using blue to indicate calm, and red to indicate anger. I didn't mean to utilize any political allusions (if one applies it to Britain, my use of "good Scot blue, bad Scot red" might indicate Conservative Party sympathies, which I cannot possibly comment on!)

  3. no apologies necesary Al
    it comes from the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) the republicans controlled by socialists and communists were the reds and the falangistas from the fascist politic party Falange española the main supporters of the nationalists right wing rebels wore dark blue, blue marine in Spain, shirts
    although I consider myself republican I don't like neither of them

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