I may have come under fire for wasting everyone's time yesterday, but hopefully this'll be more worthwhile. Unlike Arthur Knowledge, the commentators of this article appear to be intelligent, reasonable human beings who happen to be grossly misinformed. It is my duty as a Howard fan to correct and enlighten them on several key issues.
The place: Discover Magazine Blog. (Why is it always the sources that are supposed to be informed and intelligent that end up getting things the most wrong?). The gentleman in question is Razib Khan, but a certain chap named Leviticus says some things that are just... Well, you'll see.
As elsewhere, I'll post a copy of the comment I left, and then put my response after each paragraph. Feel free to mosy on over yourselves.
But honestly this is not a franchise I’d have thought would be up for a “reboot,” but here we are.
Whyever not? Conan's a big franchise: scores of books, dozens of comic series, RPGs, video games, board games, action figures, television series and cartoons - yet there hasn't been a Conan film for 27 years. I'd even say we're overdue for a reboot.
They’re campy and silly, but generally fun if your tastes run toward juvenile, or, you are a juvenile.
Conan the Destroyer, certainly. But Conan the Barbarian aspires to something more than simple campy fun: it's chock full of Nietzche allusions, and homages to Kurosawa, Kobayashi and Eisenstein. Not to mention Poledouris' score is one of the very best ever composed. It isn't completely successful, and it's a flawed film, but it's on a whole other echelon from "Destroyer." Besides, too much sex and violence for juveniles - or, more importantly, too much symbolism and too little dialogue, so they'd probably get bored.
If you haven’t read Howard’s original stories, I’d recommend that you do. Sure, they’re as cheesy as you’d expect pulp fiction to be, but still really good
The Library of America, Penguin Classics and tons of critics, authors and scholars seem to think they're pretty good.
Robert Howard is best read with a sense of humor.
Definitely when you're reading the comedy stories, which account for a significant proportion of his work: the hilarious adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan and Breckinridge Elkins outnumbers all his fantasy fiction combined. Funny stuff.
Howard is one of those poor souls who is most amusing when trying to be serious or dramatic. But Howard intended his works to be serious, and I think the movie actually lightened things so if the new movie is more serious it would reflect a return to Howard’s vision.
... Oh, you mean all his work is amusing. Even the stuff that's full of dark horror, cynical observations, and heartwrenching tragedy. Ok. Well, I guess the guys at the Library of America and Penguin Classics, not to mention countless scholars and literary analysts, seem to be suffering under some sort of delusion that Howard's work actually *is* quite serious. Hell, even Howard's critics appreciate his ability to turn a yarn. I'd love to see what you think was so allegedly amusing about the relentless cynicism and bleakness of "Beyond the Black River," or "Worms of the Earth," or "Red Nails."
It will be interesting to see how modern movie makers deal with Howard’s misogyny.
What misogyny? The same misogyny that had Howard cast a female warrior as the closest thing to Conan's equal, who's described as being one of the fiercest warriors of the Hyborian Age, man or woman? The same "misogyny" that had him create multiple strong female characters who can wield a sword, politik, lead, debate and act in bravery just as effectively as any man? The same "misogyny" that had Howard lamenting writing things like "I am nauseated at the injustice of life in regard to women" in his letters? The same "misogyny" that compelled Howard to write a 1,000 word letter responding vehemently to the idea that there are no great women in history, citing countless examples ranging from Greek poets to modern suffragettes?
Do not presume that Howard's concessions to pulp mores in creating damsels in distress for his more commercial Conan stories has any bearing on Howard's very forward-thinking approach to women. I can't see a misogynist writing the likes of "The Isle of Pirate's Doom," "Red Nails," "The Shadow of the Vulture," "Sword of the Northern Sea," and especially "The Sword Woman" and "Blades for France," all of which feature intelligent, sympathetic female warriors every bit the equal - frequently the superior - of their male counterparts.
Howard was a pedantic, nerdy, and twisted soul, much like his fans at fantasy/sci-fi conventions, who as a grown man continued to live with his mother until he committed suicide.
You do realise that grown men living with their families was considered pretty normal back in 1930s Depression-era Texas, right? Especially considering Cross Plains was a small town of around 1,000 people, but the oil boom meant that number exploded to 10,000, leaving very little real estate for singles? And that REH was his mother's primary caregiver, considering she was suffering from terminal tuberculosis? That if REH didn't take care of her, she would've been shipped off to a sanitorium, which is as bad as sending her off to die? And that Howard had experienced suicidal tendencies from an early age?
Howard was no more "twisted" than many creative souls. Artists, authors and poets have a much higher suicide percentage than the rest of the population. Howard was part of that percentage, just like van Gogh, Woolf, Plath, Hemingway and others. Nobody calls them "twisted."
Oh, and calling Howard fans "pedantic, nerdy and twisted"... well, if in doubt, resort to ad hominems. Nice. Classy.
One interesting aspect is the way that the world Conan lives in incorporates elements of various ancient civilizations and peoples from various continents, yet the blend is not jarring. Schwarzenegger, Wilt Chamberlain and Makoto Iwamatsu can all hang out together in a vaguely Central Asian locale and it doesn’t seem weird.
If the setting is the Russian steppe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea 5000 years ago (which it seems to be), then the various racial groups and levels of civilization are really not that unreasonable. The setting is well within the range of the megalithic builders and neolithic city builders. The only jarring note is the presence of West African blacks. But, Hollywood thinks that all Africans are Yoruba and that they always have been Yoruba.
The film is set in the fictional Hyborian Age, a hypothetical time before the dawn of modern history and the Ice Age, which Howard intended to be the original of myths and legends. The Aesir and Vanir of Norse Mythology, for example, are rendered as two warring tribes of Viking-like warriors whose battles are mythologized as the struggles of gods. Conan's Cimmeria serves as the foundation for the Cimmeria of Greek Mythology, which was in turn considered the origin of the Gaels and Cymric tribes of Britain.
(And personally, I find the presence of men who transform into snakes a mite more jarring than a few displaced black people)
“With a leap that would have shamed a hungry tiger, Conan sprung upon the back of the writhing dragon.”
“Conan soon grew tired of native women.”
Read the Conan books decades ago but still remember those corny lines.
Neither line appears in any Robert E. Howard story I've read: you've probably read one of the horrible books written by subsequent authors.
A note: this actually hasn't angried up the blood at all. In fact, I think I'm getting a bit more used to it. I responded, and didn't get annoyed.
This all reminds me of another Person Who Was Wrong On The Internet that I didn't respond to who found Howard's work to be hilarious. Kameron Hurley says the following about Howard in 2004:
So, I have a confession…
I read Conan novels.
Yes, that’s right. The old-school Robert Howard Conan books with the lurid covers of gigantic barbarian man slaying Nameless Terror. Now, I know better than to read these books. I occasionally tote one of them with me on the train and giggle my way through my morning commute. Conan books, like Stephen King books and Neil Gaiman’s highly entertaining American Gods, are “train books.” They’re the sorts of books that make for easy reading on the train (if I had to count the number of copies of The Davinci Code I’d seen people reading on the train, I’d have lost count a long time ago). Are these “brilliant” books? Paragons of English literature? Will they join the English canon? Aside from, perhaps, an obligatory King book, no, they probably won’t. But damn they’re fun.
And honestly, after getting through Women and Madness, several Balzac books, and enough Hemingway to shake a stick at, we all need our candy.
Subsisting primarily on Conan books, with all their sexism, overt or subtle racism, cheesy dialogue, simplistic plots and macho-masculinity, and have I mentioned the sexism? probably isn’t good for one’s psyche. Am I a fiction elitist? No, I’m a reading elitist. I think you should read as many sorts of books possible — from Howard to Hemingway; from Morrison to Woolf; and if you’re not reading erotica and epic fantasy with your Balzac, well — you’re missing out.
Since this is 2004, she can perhaps be forgiven for not predicting that Howard's work would be inducted into the Library of America and Penguin Classics merely half a decade later, but even then, surely the supplementary material for the Del Reys, with Patrice Louinet's fantastic analysis of the literary, mythological and philosophical sources which gave rise to the Conan stories, not to mention Rusty Burke's analysis in Bloody Crown, would give her a better idea.
Then she follows up here, in a post called "On Magical Negroes, Helpful Slave Girls, And Other Fantastic White Creations":
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the old Howard novels because I find them so incredibly non-PC that they become ridiculously funny. The sexism and racism are overt – there aren’t even any Magical Negroes. There are only Primitive Black Beasts and/or Savage Natives. The Magical Negro stereotype hadn’t come into fruition.
What, did she forget all about N'Longa? Does she even know N'Longa exists? Or Ace Jessell, Saul Stark, Kelly the Conjure-Man, Nakari and other black characters who don't conform to the "Primitive Black Beasts" or "Savage Natives" stereotypes? Not that N'Longa's a Magical Negro either (such a term is too simplistic and paltry to describe the character) but come on. Also, what "Howard novels"?
But there's more:
9) I own almost all of the Howard Conan novels. And I enjoy them. I find them deeply funny.
Ok, my blood pressure might be getting onto a simmer, but... what Howard Conan novels is she speaking of? If she means the Del Reys, then it's preposterous to say you own two of three collections by saying "almost all" as if there's some vast collection out there. If she means short stories, then why did she say novels? Collecting the original Howard stories isn't hard. In 2005 you could get them in volumes of two (Fantasy Masterworks) or three (Del Reys) with pretty reasonable availability.
Or, she's talking about the Lancers/Bantam/Tors. In which case, she has zero business talking about "Howard Conan novels." What "Howard Novels"?
She seems to be incapable of reading the stories she claims to have read, too:
Why yes, I’m a sucker for women with swords… isn’t everyone?
One of the big issues I have with a lot of ye olde Sword & Sorceress type stories is that the women hauling around the swords just aren’t that scary. I can’t explain this except to say that, you know, I’m a fan of the cheesy awful that is Conan, and… I’m looking for a heroine that can kick the shit out of him.
Best Served Cold‘s heroine, Monza, is that heroine.
You mean like Valeria? Who Conan knew he couldn't disarm and live to tell the tale? Or someone like Dark Agnes, with her almost preternatural affinity with the sword? Or Red Sonya, who's the competent partner in her companionship with the giant drunk Gottfried von Kalmbach and seems much more likely to kick his arse than the reverse? You know... characters written and created by Robert E. Howard? Hell, does she even know about Dark Agnes, Red Sonya and the like? Actually, I don't know if I want to know what she thinks of Dark Agnes, Red Sonya and the like. All I can say is, I hope she hasn't, because if she has, and she's still writing this tripe about Conan and Howard. And let's not get into all the other kickass Sword-and-Sorcery heroines out there like Jirel...
But then, I found this bombshell:
Epic fantasy is great. I read it. I write it. It’s candy. It’s where you stop for a breather between the Brontes and Tolstoy.
Because there’s got to be a pit stop along that highway.
There is a kind of story laid, not in the world as it is or was, but as – to an armchair adventurer – it ought to have been. It is an adventure-fantasy, laid in an imaginary prehistoric or medieval world, where magic works and the scientific revolution has not taken place. Or perhaps it is in some parallel universe, or in this world as it will be in the distant future, when science has been forgotten and magic has revivied.
In such a world, gleaming cities raise their shining spires against the stars; sorcerors cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spririts stalk crumbling ruins; primeval monsters crash through jungle thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on bloody broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor. In such a world, men are mighty, women are beautiful, life is adventurous, and problems are simple. Nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine. Such a story is called “heroic fantasy” or sometimes, “sword-and-sorcery.”
The purpose of heroic fantasy is neither to solve the problems of the steel industry, nor to expose defects in the foreign-aid program, nor to expound the questions of poverty or intergroup hostility. It is to entertain. It is escape reading in which one escapes clear out of the real universe… Heroic fantasies combine the color, gore, and lively actin of the costume novel with the atavistic terrors and delights of the fairy tale. They furnish the purest fun to be found in fiction today. If you read for fun, this is the genre for you….
There are still.. many readers who read, not to be enlightened, improved, uplifted, reformed, baffled by the writer’s obscurity, amazed by his [sic] cleverness, nauseated by his [sic] scatology, or reduced to tears by the plight of some mistreated person, class, or caste, but to be entertained.
So let’s have some fun, OK? Frickin’ relax. And start writing some fiction, instead of snarling at it.
Aaaah. She's a Lancer girl. Now it all makes perfect sense: how Howard's work isn't really "good" fiction, how his stories don't have any deeper symbolism or meaning, how Howard wasn't really a very good writer anyway... it's because of De Camp. AGAIN.
So, what to do? Should I bother responding to posts that were made several years ago, when the author of said posts may well have forgotten all about them? Perhaps. Brian Murphy discussed "Epic Pooh" after a good twenty-odd years. Michal Wojcik took apart "Loincloths, Double Ax, and Magic" after thirty years of its publication. Hurley's blog posts might not be as public or damaging as those my compatriots have discussed, but perhaps even after so much time, they need to be addressed. Or perhaps I should save my blood pressure and pick my battles.
What to do, what to do...
(And does Conan of the Isles count as one of the "Howard Conan Novels"?)