Conan and the Critic

Friday , 22, December 2017 24 Comments

It is an eerie thing to reread the half-forgotten stories treasured in one’s youth. For better or worse, the hold haunts never look the same. The worse happens when eyes grown cynical with age will see tinsel and rubbish where once glamor gleamed as fresh and expectant as the sunrise in the Garden of Eden. And, to the contrary, the better happens when one discovers added layers of wonder, or deeper thoughts to savor, than a schoolboy’s brain can hold.

So I decided to read, in their order of publication, the Conan stories of Robert E Howard. I was not a devout fan of Conan in my youth, so some stories I had read before, others were new. But in each case I was surprised, nay, I was shocked, at how much better they were than I recalled.

In this space, time permitting, I hope to review each tale as I read it, starting with Phoenix on the Sword. But before any review talks about what Conan is, let me tell the candid reader what Conan is not.

As with HP Lovecraft’s spooky tales or with the adventure yarns of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the unwary reader often confuses the popularized and simplified versions of iconic characters, Cthulhu or Tarzan, with the character as first he appeared in the pages of a pulp magazine. Tropes now commonplace, endlessly copied, at the time were stark and startling and one-of-a-kind.

The original character who is later taken into a franchise or revised for comic books, film and television, or who is copied or reincarnated by the sincere flattery of lesser talents, is inevitably more raw and real than such dim Xeroxes of Xeroxes. These franchise writers, imitators, and epigones rarely do justice to the tale they copy, some, for whatever reason, do grave injustice.

And, of course, certain writers of modest talent and no memorable accomplishment delight to assume the pen and mantle of the art critics and connoisseur in order to diminish the stature of author they cannot match. They do a deliberate injustice to iconic characters, and further muddy the perception.

Here, for example, is a quote from the loathsome Damon Knight. If the reader is surprised I use so harsh a word for this well-known figure in science fiction, please reflect that he is not well known for any creative writing, only for his ludicrous claim to be a critic:

The Coming of Conan, by Robert E. Howard, is of interest to Howard enthusiasts, who will treasure it no matter what anyone says, and to students who may find it, as I do, an intriguing companion piece to L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring.  Howard’s tales lack the de Camp verisimilitude – Howard never tried, or never tried intelligently, to give his preposterous saga the ring of truth – but they have something that de Camp’s stories lack; a vividness, a color, a dream-dust sparkle, even when they’re most insulting to the rational mind.

Howard had the maniac’s advantage of believing whatever he wrote; de Camp is too wise to believe wholeheartedly in anything.

This book contains the only fragment of a Conan story that I remember from Weird Tales – Conan tippy-toeing along a ledge with a naked girl held by the hair, and then dropping her carefully into a cesspool – which turns out to be neither as isolated nor as insignificant as I had supposed.  Another naked lady friend of the hero’s, in another episode, winds up hanged to a yardarm with a rope of jewels; and for that matter, hardly anyone, man or woman, squeaks through the Conan saga without some similar punishment, except Conan himself.

All the great fantasies, I suppose, have been written by emotionally crippled men.  Howard was a recluse and a man so morbidly attached to his mother that when she died he committed suicide; Lovecraft had enough phobias and eccentricities for nine; Merritt was chinless, bald and shaped like a shmoo.  The trouble with Conan is that the human race never has produced and never could produce such a man, and sane writers know it; therefore the sick writers have a monopoly of him.

 

It would be a tedious task indeed to wade through this mass of sticky and malodorous bullshit to rebut each sly insinuation and answer each peevish insult as it deserves.

We need not dwell long here in the chamberpot of Mr. Knight’s performance as a critic. I am content with noting that there is not a word of actual criticism anywhere in the passage. It is merely a stream of insults against Robert E Howard, calling him everything from unintelligent to maniacal to emotionally crippled to sick, with occasional flippant insults against Mr. Howard’s fans and admirers, not to mention studied insults against other luminaries of the field.

(So is the candid reader to dismiss unread THE MOON POOL and SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN and THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, which were seminal works of science fiction and fantasy, on the grounds that the author thereof was chinless and bald and shaped like a shmoo? Is the reader not to judge the work of Homer and Virgil and Milton until the details of their jawlines and coiffeurs are known?)

When Mr. Knight dismisses Conan as someone who does not exist, he betrays a faulty understanding of what writing fiction is about. This disqualifies him from his pretense of being critic.

Fiction writers are not newspapermen nor are we scientists, attempting dispassionately to portray the world as it is. All art is abstraction and exaggeration. The pen both ornaments reality and pares away distractions, to hone things down to their essentials. Adventure yarns contain romantic characters, that is, larger than life heroes and villains, meant to embody ideals and archetypes. The things are writ large to bring to our weak eyes what might otherwise escape us.

Just as characters in a horror story act more frightened and more helpless than real people would, those in heroic tales act more bold and forthright. This is because that is what the story is about. It is what story telling is. Stories are about the things in which we believe.

In scoffing that the truly wise believe wholeheartedly in nothing at all, Mr. Knight further disqualifies himself. He is no fit critic. I doubt he a fit member of the human race. The comment is either rank hypocrisy or a grotesque self confession.

Mr. Knight’s trick of merely asserting, without proof and without honesty, the shortcomings in the inner heart of a man he never met is a simple game, and anyone can play it. For example, a hypothetical unscrupulous commenter could claim that what Mr. Knight’s crooked comments betray about Mr. Knight’s own masculinity, when he so unconvincingly dismisses as unreadable the portrayal of a romanticized yet savage fighting-man like Conan, a figure of rugged proportions and gigantic passions, as some sort of impossible and unrealistic product of sickmindedness, is too obvious to bear repeating. The gelding hates the virile.

Does he likewise dismiss the portrayals of Achilles, Aeneas, Roland, Beowulf, Zorro, or any other man of action from myth, history, or story? No?

For another example, were a hypothetical commenter to play his game, he might loftily assert that one need make no comment about Mr. Knight’s obsession with a naked woman being dunked in a cesspool, which is, tellingly, the only fragment Mr. Knight remembers from a tale he read in the magazine. It is something only an sexually deviant mind would sees as interrelated. That another woman in another story is hanged as a pirate, or that other men and women in adventure stories suffer hardships, goes beyond merely being dishonest, smarmy and slimy rhetoric. It is an unwitting self confession. The neurotic invariably accuse others of his own neuroses.

Such things would be easy enough to write, were our hypothetical commenter to be as unfair to him, as Mr. Knight was to Mr. Howard.

Lest we be accused of unfairness, let us must amend the harsh statement above that no one remembers Mr. Knight’s failed fiction career. After herculean effort, I was indeed able to bring to mind a single story written by Mr. Knight: a short story called ‘To Serve Man’ made into a respectable episode of Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE, and parodied in THE SIMPSONS. It is, of course, a shaggy dog story, whose sole twist is based on a pun in English, which for some reason is the same language in which the space aliens write their cookbooks. There is not even the smallest trace of plot present, nor any memorable character, human or alien, nor any real science fictional speculation. It is basically a campfire tale a boy scout might tell to spook his fellow campers. One would think a man whose sole contribution to the art of criticism was obsequious love letters to authors he wishes to magnify or verminous libels against authors he seeks to demean would have attempted more serious craftsmanship.

The sad thing is that such character assassinations need only score a glancing blow to do their work. Even if the honest reader is disgusted that creatures like Mr. Knight are willing to libel a skilled author who commits suicide, and is appalled that Mr. Knight would spit on a man’s good grave merely in order to mock his work, and even if this reader thinks Mr. Knight is overstating the case, rare indeed is the reader able to see that the whole thing is false from stem to stern. We give even liars the benefit of the doubt. We assume there is a grain of truth beneath the libels.

Such a reader is likely to absorb, unquestioned, in his unconscious mind the impression that Conan is a simplistic figure from a boy’s adventure yarn, a caricature of schoolboy dream-dust, unintelligently portrayed, a guilty pleasure at best. None dare to admit he is one’s favorite character, and, even if beloved, none will say Conan is to be taken seriously. After all, the wise man believes nothing, does he not?

Such a reader will picture Conan as a man in a bearskin loincloth, inarticulate, grimacing, with a shapely dancing girl clutching his knee while he cleaves the skull of a devil-beast or giant snake with a bloody ax.

That reader will be as surprised as I was on rereading these tales, particularly the earlier ones from 1933.

In the first Conan tale, Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is the king of a turbulent but rich and powerful nation, facing a conspiracy of embittered and ambitious nobles, weary of the burdens of rulership, and, in the fight scene, he is properly accoutered in cuirass, with shield and plumed casque near at hand.

The sole mention of any dancing girls, clothed or not, is when Prospero, the king Conan’s advisor, is cautioned to be on seemly behavior when visiting the court of king Numa.

However, Conan does cleave skulls, of men and devil-beast alike.

The reader is like to be surprised at this first tale at how badly untrue are critic’s dismissals of Conan as unintelligent, dreamlike, unreal, et cetera et ad nauseum.

The setting and tone in Phoenix on the Sword, are grim, the theme is trenchant, particular in the era when it was written, in the island years of peace between two world wars.

Both the background world and the foreground characters are expertly drawn is a few bold and simple lines, and both Conan’s world and Conan’s brooding figure continue to loom in the imagination, eighty-four years and counting since the time he stepped forth, brooding, blue-eyed and black-haired, melancholic, stark, huge and terrible, larger than life in the pages of Weird Tales.

But a proper review deserves its own column.

 

24 Comments
  • Jon Mollison says:

    The very fact that Lovecraft and Howard are among the most commonly imitated writers in American literature speaks volumes as to their skill and influence. These two giants created characters and settings that tapped into something deep in people’s experience or psyche’s, and as a result created whole genres of stories and built towering giants that dwarfs still clamber upon.

    I can think of only two other writers who exert such influence – Burrough’s Tarzan/Carter is still the model for superheroes, and Doyle’s Holmes never needs dusting off given that he sees such constant use.

    No one writes pastiches based on the writings of Damon Knight.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I recommend checking Mr. Wright’s website for his reviews of REH’s Conan stories. He has done two so far and they are worth reading.

  • Nicholas Archer says:

    “…the unwary reader often confuses the popularized and simplified versions of iconic characters, Cthulhu or Tarzan, with the character as first he appeared in the pages of a pulp magazine.”

    It’s funny John mentions this as just last month I saw a video where the Presenter discussed how most Lovecraftian Stories especially in more recent decades were actually Derlethian. Though from what I’ve heard the Novella titled “Equoid” is nether despite being based on the Cthulhu Mythos.

  • Vlad James says:

    Damon Knight is clearly the godfather of the legions of cretinous, small-minded professional critics around today, like the ones who praise NK Jemisin or The Last Jedi.

    And I only read the original Conan stories for the first time as an adult a few years ago, without the sheen of youthful eyes. I was nevertheless highly impressed by them as well as Howard’s abilities as a writer. There is also absolutely nothing easy or simplistic about a good adventure yarn. On the contrary, the relatively straightforward nature of the genre makes it more difficult to come up with something fresh and exciting, let alone enduring.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    C. S. Lewis wrote about the “critics” whose idea of a literary review was to psychoanalyze the author rather than bother reading the book. Apparently it goes back a ways.

  • Verl Holt Bond says:

    Wow! I just finished reading John C. Wright’s exquisite and victorious rebuttal to the critic (I refuse to give his name free publicity)who savaged the writers who have given me so much pleasure in my reading life. As far as I’m concerned Mr. Wright’s article is the equivalent to Churchill’s “Never surrender”, speech. A veritable call to arms for lovers of those authors. Well done, Mr. Wright. Verl Bond

  • Paul says:

    I’ve got to agree with John about Howard’s characters, and especially Conan. He is a much more intelligent man than most people think. That could apply to Howard as much as to Conan.

    Like Vlad, I only started reading the Conan stories recently, maybe a year ago, and they are so much better than I ever would have thought, given the way he’s been portrayed. My biggest inspiration has been The Second Book of Robert E. Howard, edited by Glenn Lord, which contains a lot of unpublished material.

    If anyone’s interested, I’ve been slowly making my way through The Second Book and writing reviews of what’s in there. Take a look at https://paullucaswriter.wordpress.com/tag/robert-e-howard/

  • TWS says:

    With the safe and homogenous modern world I wonder if we could produce a Howard today?

  • Ingot9455 says:

    On the topic of dilution-of-character, if you are of the age to be familiar with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, hunt up the ‘Turtles Forever’ movie.

    It contains a hilarious crossover between several of the different television versions of the turtles, highlighting their differences, until finally they must all return to Turtle Prime, the original comic book, in order to save their most distilled, primal essence.

  • SidVic says:

    I’m inspired. I will reread all the Conan stories! I was an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader as a youth. Found the genre super-sucky for last 20yrs and have resorted to used book stores for books published in the 50-70s. I never put it together that sci-fi had become converged (as VD would put it). I have been red-pilled and will now wade back in with eyes open.

  • Cambias says:

    The “shmoo”-shaped A. Merritt was a crime reporter and world traveler.

  • Causal Lurker says:

    Let’s see if I can set this in the correct phrasing:

    “Hai! Well played, Master Bard,” cried Conan, quaffing the dregs of his mead-bowl. He reached into his pouch, and like knuckle-bones cast the first two stones down the board: blood-deep rubies, each the size of a pigeon’s egg. “Fair reward for such a turn of voice!” Turning his fierce blue gaze up on the slinking, cringing opponent, he rumbled in amusement. “Were your scabrous hide not already stripped living from quivering carcass, I would set my knife to the task, upbraiding the gods for granting me such a feeble sacrifice. Begone before my mood changes.”

    The tavern resounded with discordant tones of laughter and scorn as the vanquished speaker crept, belly low and back to wall, toward the doorway and the enveloping night.

    Now I’ll need to get the complete works. First, one more look for “The Hour of the Dragon.”

  • Reziac says:

    I need to re-read those myself. A tale:

    A couple years ago I’d been reading some modernly-acclaimed work, and afterward felt a pressing need to wash my brain out with something rather more classical of mein. So I hied myself to Project Gutenberg, where by default everything on display is old, and read the first work my eye fell on.

    It happened to be a short western by the selfsame Robert E. Howard.

    I’d forgotten what a good *writer* he was.

  • Milo Weinrauch says:

    Fuck Damon Knight, I have yet to find anyone write like REH (or CA Smith) in this modern day of supposed “great writers”. Now of course it’s all 500+ page “fantasy opera” with I wanna be Tolkien smeared all over it. Even that guy borrowing the R.R. in the middle of his name, really? Sorry, chump, but you’re no J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ll be sure to have a paperback copy of Conan in my dead, cold hands when they put my carcass in the oven.

  • Ryan Martin says:

    Damon Knight fails to understand that no one wants to read about Bob the Barbarian because, unlike Conan, Bob’s tales are of the ordinary barbarian. Conan is EXTRAORDINARY, thus the reason his tales are told. Like the real life extraordinary men such as Sgt. York, Carlos Hathcock, Chris Kyle, the Red Baron or Chuck Yeager.

  • I knew Damon Knight for about the last dozen years of his life, primarily as a denizen of the old Genie BBS. Of course, I knew of him, since I’d been selling SF professionally since 1972. My contact with fandom and cons was sparse, as I’m not very sociable, and mainly worked through editors alone (Fred Pohl being the first of these, so I took an interest in Futurians stuff). He seemed like a nice enough old fud, with an obsession about apostrophes.

    But when Algis Budrys (a kind of acerbic old fud) started the print version of Tomorrow SF, Knight announced he would review every story in every issue on line, with special regard for Budrys famous Seven Points of writing. As it happens, I had submitted a long novella called “Almost Forever” to Tomorrow, which illustrated all seven points. Budrys had me make a few changes to highlight the points. Then he serialized the story, but under two different titles. Knight bit, noting that the first story had points 1 – 4, and the second points 5 – 7. Even when the truth was pointed out to him, he ignored it. It was kind of funny, two old fuds poking at one another in their twilight.

    My only response was the coin the word “she’sh” in Knight’s honor. He said it made him twitch. I freally had no idea who these people were, or why anybody thought they wwre somehow special. I didn’t join SFWA until I’d been selling professionally for 20 years. And quit 20 years after that, once I was sufficiently disgusted.

    And yes, I’ve read the Conan tales (and much else by Howard) in their original form. They were brilliant. To Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and Doyle, I’d add Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, because Superman is as important as Tarzan, Holmes, et al.

  • LastRedoubt says:

    The only thing I remember by Knight is “a is for anything” and a more poisonous and unpleasant read I find hard to recall, at least of book length works I have actually finished.

    As to Budrys, he at least had some interesting stories I still remember years later.

  • LastRedoubt says:

    I am not sure I’d call them Conan like but “thunes Vision” is a collection of short stories that you’ll find well worth your time.

    Not having read David Drake’s Fantasy, Vox Day’s the last witch-king to me reads like fantasy Slammers stories, though often with a lot more humor. The first story is pretty straight up dark, but the second would shock most of the SFWA crowd as they’d never believe it came from him. Wardogs coin borders on hysterical, and deadly serious, sometime at once.

  • Were-Puppy says:

    I’ve been a fan of REH for decades.
    The criticisms that Knight is pushing forth I had always attributed to De Camp. Knight is using the same talking points that you will find De Camp used all the time.

    They both can GFO for all I care. I don’t read either of them but REH still gets regular rotation.

  • Jason Merrell says:

    Try Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane” tales.

    The short works are the best place to start, both “Death Angel’s Shadow” and “Night Winds” are available for Kindle.

  • There are two Damon Knight novels I recall reading. One was his A.E. van Vogt pastiche about an amnesiac superman called BEYOND THE BARRIER.

    As someone who wrote a Van Vogt pastiche myself, I can solemnly assure you that it is not as easy at it looks both to maintain a manic energy of bewildering revelations, paradoxes, and reversals, but also to unwind the Gordian slipknot adroitly enough to make all the seeming lapses and quirks in the plot retroactively make sense.

    Could Knight do it? He most certainly could not. Like many a would-be Professor Tolkien trying his hand at the epic quest genre without understanding its heart, all Knight did in his failed experiment was copy surface features of Van Vogt.

    If in some place Knight manfully and honestly saw his own shortcomings and manfully and honestly retracted the distortions, false accusations, and withering criticisms littering his famous hit piece on Van Vogt, ‘Cosmic Jury-builder’ I am unaware of it.

    To me, Knight’s embarrassing failure to accomplishing a writing task he so ignobly and unfairly claimed was done badly by another man — a man whose performance he could not meet, no, not by half — is a living lesson, worthy of Aesop, of the folly of criticizing without understanding what an author has done, or is trying to do.

    A FOR ANYTHING starts with a fascinating science fiction premise: what happens when the perfect duplication machine can make an exact replica of anything or anyone, animal, vegetable, mineral?

    However, Mr. Knight merely assumes, for reasons never made clear in the book, that human society would instantly revert to savagery once all material goods could be endlessly replicated from any original, and that the society to grow out of it would be a cruel class system, with originals at the top, and clones as slaves.

    Even as a child, I laughed at the idea that the laws of economics would suddenly stop working. The designers of original manufactured goods, intellectual property, any original engineering for which no pre-existing original exists, and all services, would still be controlled by the law of supply and demand, not to mention the energy needed to run the replicator machines. Being able to clone workers against their will might drive the price of wages down, but then, even the lowest wages can buy any amount of any material goods whatsoever, including endless replicas of the replica machine.

    Like I said, even as a child I knew enough to know that in the world of free lunches, there really ain’t no such thing, and the idea of instantaneous relapse to slavery-based feudalism is one that would seem feasible only to a Marxist, or some other crackpot who believes scarcity is imposed by society, ergo that without scarcity, society collapses.

    Of the plot or characters, I fear I remember not the smallest jot.

  • Skyblue2525 says:

    “So I decided to read, in their order of publication, the Conan stories of Robert E Howard.”
    Looking forward to Wright’s series about Conan! Having never read Howard’s Conan stories, now might be a good time for me to read along.
    The next post in this series is http://www.castaliahouse.com/conan-phoenix-on-the-sword/.
    The third post is http://www.castaliahouse.com/conan-scarlet-citadel/.

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