The complete transcript of the long awaited meeting of the minds between Jon Mollison and “Grim” Jim Desborough is finally here! (Heck, the audio is here, too. And despite what you’ve heard, it’s perfectly listenable as far as I’m concerned!)
One bit that I want to home in on here is this confusion surrounding characterizations of Conan’s character. Here’s Jon Mollison with his take on the matter:
JM: Well I would object to your characterization of Conan as an immoral character. He certainly embraces the pagan virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and fortitude.
JF: Yeah, I didn’t mean to put across the idea that Conan was immoral, just that he was kind of irreligious.
JM: I’ve heard him described as well…and again I’m not necessarily…well I’m writing from a Christian perspective but, you know, the morality’s where it’s at, brother. And whether it’s the pagan or the Christian, which you know there’s, like I said, the pagan virtues were the first four that the Christians tapped into. But yeah, I hear this, “Well, you know The Shadow is not a moral man,” well, he was a dark avenger that was providing justice in a world and a time where justice was hard to come by because the justice system had been so thoroughly corrupted by injustice. And I don’t consider him a murderer. He was delivering justice. And by the same token, I’ve heard people say about Conan, “Well, he raped.” Find me an instance in the Robert E. Howard canon of Conan raping a woman. He did not do it. All of his quote “conquests” were ready, willing, eager, and able, and when it comes to his thievery, in most cases the people he was stealing from were not good guys, and well deserved to have whatever they had stolen from them. He was forced to…and this was situations where he became a pirate. Look at the ships he preyed on. The ships he preyed on as a pirate were ships of the followers of Set, the Stygians. So you have to be careful here, and you have to look with a more careful eye than the history that has been painted by the people who want to dance upon the grave of the pulps, and who had a financial and vested interest – I’m looking at you, Damon Knight – in trying to denigrate them specifically because they wanted to feast upon their corpses. Upon the corpse. Well that sentence got away from me but you get my point.
Characters like Tarzan and Conan are heroes first and foremost. The fact that Tarzan is some wild jungle man raised by apes…? That’s secondary. The fact that Conan is this red-handed barbarian…? That’s really secondary, too.
What’s primary to these characters…? Their character. And Tarzan is every inch the Victorian gentleman. And Conan at his core is an amalgam of a whole range of real life figures drawn from depression era Texas. These characters were not created in a vacuum. They were made by people that were very much citizens of their time. And they were created to entertain people that were just as sincere and unconscious of the Christian culture they were bred in. To maintain their likability, these characters had to walk a very fine line in order to remain true to their concept while still being relatable to their audience.
What happens when you filter these creations through the standards of a later era, one that is divorced from their cultural roots…? You get something completely different, usually in the name of “realism”.
Usually when this subject comes up, there’s always going the be someone that starts pontificating on Rousseau’s noble savage or Robert E. Howard’s opinions on the dynamics of decadent civilizations. This is all entirely beside the point.
Look at real life barbarians. Based on what you know about them, what are the chances of one of them graciously deciding to let a girl off the hook when she changes her mind about a deal in which she offers her body to him in exchange for deliverance? And again, based on what you know about them… what are the chances of any of them becoming small government conservatives that avoid unnecessary wars and ensure justice for the poor when they find themselves a king of a modest sized empire?
It’s nil, ya’ll. Conan behaved the way he did in order to conform to what normal people of depression era America could find inspiring.
And that’s why he’s the absolute worst barbarian ever.