Thursday, 6 March 2014

Bite-Sized Blog: On Conan, REH and The Times In Which He Lived

“Crom!” It was an explosive imprecation from Conan’s lips as he started up, his great fists clenched into hammers, his veins on his temples knotting, his features convulsed...

In case anyone's wondering: I've not been up to much due to an attack of bruxism, which has resulted in me biting into my left cheek to the point where it feels like someone takes a pair of pliers to my jaw muscles every hour or two. Luckily it's starting to heal now, though I'll be needing gumshields and whatnot. Stayed in most of the last week washing my mouth with benzydamine and whisky.

Hopefully nothing interesting's happened in my absence, like a new Conan movie that's actually an adaptation of one of the original stories being announced with Patrice Louinet taken on board as advisor. 

Because that would just be the worst timing ever.

I'm still not 100%, but dammit I'm going to get through this!

The Origins of Strength

In the meantime, a few articles caught my eye as I rested my overworking jaw muscles (thank goodness I like porage!) While news on Conan the King has been light, there's been no small amount of discussion on the 1982 film.

A modern more gore-obsessed director might focus on the sword impacting his mother’s neck and blood spurting out, but this film understands that the true impact of this scene is on Conan’s emotional world.

“I always like it that he doesn’t look at her. He looks at his hand, because that’s all that’s left,” says Milius. “And he (Thulsa Doom) looks at the blade, because steel is true.” Thulsa understands the Riddle of Steel. Conan is yet to learn.

Would it be a bit mean of me to point out that a blood-spurting animatronic head for Conan's mother was made, but like a few things in the production, was cut because the effect didn't work? Still, there's an interesting point here:

What Thulsa reveals is that strength is not an external power, but an internal one that Conan received in his early life trauma. The loss of his parents fueled something in Conan that allowed him to overcome all the trials of his life and drove him to build himself into a great warrior. He was wounded, but he has healed stronger.
This principle of healing stronger is at the core of strength training. When you lift heavy weights, you actually tear your muscles. Your body heals the damage by filling in the tear with new tissue, making the muscle bigger and stronger. It’s thematically fitting that Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the lead in this film, since he not only embodies the physique of Conan, but as a person lives this principle of strength.
It’s also fitting that Conan is crucified in the next scene. Crucifixion was actually a common punishment in the ancient world, but most modern audiences associate it with Christ. Although Christ’s crucifixion involved intense suffering, most Christians understand this suffering was necessary for His transformation, and ultimately lead something greater.
Similarly, only after confronting suffering for the first time did Buddha began meditating under the Bodhi tree. Before he saw death firsthand, Buddha was content to live as a Prince. Although not a necessity, suffering can be the catalyst for transformation.

Obviously I don't need to point out the differences in detail in regards to Howard's Conan and the Milius-Stone version, but it's noteworthy that the above analysis is applicable to both in different ways. In Howard's Conan, a lifetime of living in the harsh landscape of Cimmeria tears his muscles figuratively and metaphorically.

Later film versions of Conan have assumed the character is just about bad-ass fantasy action. While this adds to the appeal, in Milius’s version Conan’s strength comes from his emotional wounding. Doing the character of Conan without this would be like trying to write a Batman movie where his parents never died, or a Spider-man film where Uncle Ben never tells him that with great power comes with great responsibility.

The irony, it burns!

Most of the popular superhero films dominating the box office follow the central theme of Conan’s Riddle of Steel, with emotional trauma causing the hero to transform into a more powerful version of himself. However, unlike those characters Conan moves beyond his emotional wounding, to reach what Joseph Campbell calls in his classic work on myth the “freedom to live.” Conan knows killing Thulsa will end his quest, but he no longer needs the pain Thulsa caused to transform.
When Conan lifts Thulsa’s severed head over the crowd, rather than emphasizing the moment with the film’s powerful score, there is silence. We hear only the foley of Thulsa’s head rolling down the steps. Thulsa’s followers quietly disperse, extinguishing their flames in the water below Conan’s throne, a powerful visual metaphor for the end of Conan’s quest.
Conan rides off into the sunset. An image of Conan as a king teases a sequel, but at this point, he is a king within. Conan does not need trauma or wounding anymore, but he could never have reached his full power without it – without the riddle of steel.

One of the Conan moments I always go back to is one that never actually appeared in print until recently: the first submitted draft of "The Phoenix on the Sword."

 The carven door closed behind the Poitanian, and Conan turned back to his task. He paused a moment, idly listening to his friend’s retreating footsteps, which fell hollowly on the tiles. And as if the empty sound struck a kindred chord in his soul, a rush of revulsion swept over him. His mirth fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly old, his eyes worn. The unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him. Dropping his lion head in his mighty hands, he groaned aloud.
    Then lifting his head, as a man looks for escape, his eyes fell on a crystal jar of yellow wine. Quickly he rose and pouring a goblet full, quaffed it at a gulp. Again he filled and emptied the goblet, and again. When he set it down, a fine warmth stole through his veins. Things and happenings assumed new values. The dark Cimmerian hills faded far behind him. Life was good and real and vibrant after all – not the dream of an idiot god.

Perhaps in removing this section, Howard realised Conan had overcome this trauma, or at least, it didn't consume him quite as mightily as it did as a younger man full of gigantic melancholies. Conan's "origin story" was leaving the bleak, dark hills of Cimmeria and entering the vivid, glittering civilizations to the south: only alluded to vaguely, never crystallised in a Conan: Year One style by Howard. And just like Batman after he adopted the cowl, Conan leaving Cimmeria is a different person from the boy who broke a wild Cimmerian bull's neck and stormed the walls of Venarium.

Conan the Barbarian and the Great Depression

Sometimes it would be nice if people could understand the differences between Book Conan and Film Conan, because it gets a bit annoying when someone makes a really good post, only to mar it with some gaffe.
Those born after the Great Depression are lucky to never have lived through such a tragedy. Destitution, poverty, organized crime and a severe malaise dominated once wealthy nations as they struggled to regain their financial footing after the 1929 stock market crash. The rural town of Cross Plains, Texas was devastated by the financial crisis in ways that weren’t all that different from Wall Street. Consequently, Cross Plains writer Robert E. Howard transmogrified the darker elements of life in Depression-era America when he created what may be literature’s most beloved anti-hero: Conan the Barbarian.

Mythic elements form the basis for Howard’s Hyboria, the imaginary, ancient continent where the Conan tales unfold. Folkloric locales not withstanding, these stories overflow with existentialism, political power dynamics and an overall misanthropy ripped from pre-World War II newspaper headlines—the aftermath of World War I, the exploits of Al Capone, and of course the Great Depression. Even Conan’s iconic muscle-bound appearance was inspired by champion pugilists like Jack Dempsey. Thanks to a local oil boom, Howard had seen his formerly quaint town turn into a bustling, crime-ridden urban area that attracted all sorts of sketchy opportunists. Unscrupulous criminals and drunken oil workers became ubiquitous in Cross Plains, and the the writer’s idolization of boxing champs took on an almost religious reverence.

It starts off really well. Then...

Howard’s Conan stories originally appeared in cheap pulp fiction magazines aimed at working class audiences who weren’t typically well read. With swashbuckling violence, graphic sexuality and an orphaned protagonist who witnessed his parents’ murder, Conan mirrored the complex pathos that often haunted those profoundly affected by the Depression. Howard turned soul crushing trash into literary treasure, and his works became some of the most popular pulp features to run during the 20s and 30s. The alchemy of Howard’s writing is comparable to the efforts of Depression-era scribes like John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes, as well as many pre-WWII folk and jazz artists whose personal experiences with poverty inspired heartfelt, nuanced works that spoke of the human condition in ways which continue to resonate far beyond barriers of class, race, and time.

Did you spot it? 

But again, it just shows the importance of acknowledging the time and place in which Howard lived.

I Can't Even Spell Omnivorous

The stories have their burly interest and are certainly of historical value to the genre, but the problematic elements tend to swallow them whole. And that’s probably why the adaptations, like the eighties film or the comics, loom large in popular memory; they allow us to embrace what there is to take from the original text while removing the bitter racism (Howard once refused to use human pronouns for a mixed-race gentleman he met), sexism, and other elements that are no longer acceptable. (Thank the Lord!)

(I had attempted to comment on the blog, but it was acting up, so hopefully the omnivore won't mind me responding here.)

Oh, you're breaking my heart, omnivore. Needless to say, I disagree strongly with your assertion that the problematic elements of the original stories swallow up the good elements, but we've been there before, so there's no point belabouring it.

It’s enough to make Howard, a man who once refused to use human pronouns to refer to a mixed race gentleman, revolve in his grave.

The statement I believe omnivore refers to was a private letter to H.P. Lovecraft, where he actually *does* use a human pronoun, and you have to remember who it is he's talking to. He never talks like this in his correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith, for example. As for mortuary revolutions, well, Howard has written stories with people of colour as the protagonists ("The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux," "The Thunder Rider" etc) or as heroic supporting characters (N'Longa preeminent among them). And for all their problematic characterisations at times, there are a much larger number of named non-white characters in one Conan story than anything Tolkien wrote in Middle-earth. What's worse, to see people of colour represented stereotypically, or to see them barely represented at all? It's a tough question.

Indeed, I'd say that Howard's original stories do a fair bit of the highlighting and subverting of racial politics: look no further than "Beyond the Black River" for an example of how the popular "White Man's Burden" narrative was turned on its head and shown for the sham it was. He portrays Conan as a friend and ally to slaves, and supports freedom of religion to ethnic minorities in "The Hour of the Dragon." Back in the '30s, the prevailing idea was that black people were perfectly happy and content being subject, second-class citizens: Howard recognized the resentment and frustration at their lot in life. To wit:

"In the last analysis, I reckon, I have but a single conviction or ideal, or whateverthehell it might be called: individual liberty. It’s the only thing that matters a damn. I’d rather be a naked savage, shivering, starving, freezing, hunted by wild beasts and enemies, but free to go and come, with the range of the earth to roam, than the fattest, richest, most bedecked slave in a golden palace with the crystal fountains, silken divans, and ivory-bosomed dancing girls of Haroun al Raschid. With that nameless black man I could say:

    “Freedom, freedom,
    Freedom over me! —
    And before I’d be a slave,
    I’d lie down in my grave
    And go up to my God and be free!”

That’s why I yearn for the days of the early frontier, where men were more truly free than at any other time or place in the history of the world, since man first began to draw unto himself the self-forged chains of civilization. This is merely a personal feeling. I make no attempt to advocate a single ideal of personal liberty as the one goal of progress and culture. But by God, I demand freedom for myself. And if I can’t have it, I’d rather be dead.

 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca December 1932"

I would never attempt to say some of the things Howard's written aren't profoundly offensive to modern sensibilities. I do, however, appreciate that there were times he showed solidarity and empathy to folk from mixed, in interracial relationships, and different ethnic lineages, especially considering how horrendous the times were (warning for graphic and disturbing imagery)

Instead, the most interesting thing about Conan the Barbarian is how it highlight, subverts, and reinforces (in various ways) the racial politics of the generic fantasy setting which the remarkably racist Howard undoubtedly influenced.

Again, it's pretty presumptuous of a pale Scottish person like me to cry foul on calling Howard "remarkably racist" but rather than risk further sticking my foot in it, I'll just provide links to someone much more erudite and eloquent (not to mention experienced):

"Of Chocolate-Covered Conans and Pompous Pygmies"
"Die, Black Dog!"
"Multicultural Fantasy"

Enough grousing on my part, let's talk about where I agree:

"This means that, so very and unfortunately rarely for a big fantasy film, we get to see men of color as the heroes, rescuing the oppressed, getting the girls, and looking cool (if unhappily so)."

Absolutely, and it bothers me immensely that this continues to be the case. How many more of these pointless retreads of Faux Medieval Europe are we going to get when the fantasies of Africa, Indonesia, Australia, the Americas and elsewhere are largely ignored? I'm looking forward to the adaptation of Dan Simmons' "The Terror" because of that book's exploration of Inuit cosmicology, and I even loved the idea of "The Age of Hobbits" (now "Clash of the Empires") which boasts a cast entirely consisting of POC.

There's a really irritating hypocrisy in Hollywood when it comes to stuff like this. When a film is mostly white, there's rarely any incentive to insert any characters beyond a token POC, always a sidekick or friend, never the lead. But when a film is mostly, for example, black, there's this ultimatum that unless white characters are inserted for the sake of "diversity", it doesn't get made at all. That's why Red Tails took so long to be filmed, and why we still don't have Danny Glover's Toussaint biopic, or Charles Saunders' Dossouye (which was changed into Amazons). And it is why we have one Alien God of Colour in Space Asgard, but no sign of a technologically hyper-advanced African nation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after eight films.

For what it's worth, I still think Jason Momoa could have been a fantastic Conan with a better director & story. While a lot of the appeal of Conan is in that id-driven sensibility, there's a lot more nuance in there, and I think Jason was very capable.

I think that's enough for me before I start getting jaw pains: hopefully things will get back up and running. Till next time!


  1. Hero of the Federation6 March 2014 at 22:59


  2. This is what you get when you allow a totalitarian ideology to take over a culture, EVERYTHING ever produced has to be "re-examined" to ensure that it complies with the reigning dogma.

    The same process occurred when pagan countries were converted to Christianity. We haven't grown above the State Religion concept of the Middle Ages. Christianity was simply replaced by Political Correctness.

    Out latter-day witch-finders don't deserve to be seriously debated, they deserve to be told to take their religious fanaticism and bugger off.

    1. "[Group I don't agree with] don't deserve to be seriously debated"

      And this doesn't sound like a "totalitarian ideology" to you?