Conan: The Worst Barbarian EVER

Tuesday , 5, September 2017 11 Comments

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.

11 Comments
  • Robespierre says:

    By the primitive jungle laws that had guided his youth, Tarzan of the Apes was under no responsibility to assume the dangerous role of savior . . . This child of a nameless tribe in an unknown world might hold no claim upon the sympathy of a savage beast, or even of savage men who were not of his tribe. And perhaps Tarzan of the Apes would not have admitted that the youth had any claim upon him, yet in reality he exercised a vast power over the apeman – a power that lay solely in the fact that he was a child and he was helpless.

    TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE (pg 104)

    I didn’t have a Conan example at hand, but you mentioned Tarzan, and that passage made my eyes water . . . I mean, my contacts must have been acting up at the exact moment I read that passage.

  • H.P. says:

    Conan was not a good guy, by our standards. He did have his code, something we tend to admire. One reason he works so well as a pulp character is that REH tended to put him in situations where he acted heroically. (Farnsworth Wright also pushed REH to sand down Conan’s rougher edges.)

    • Jeffro says:

      “Conan was not a good guy, by our standards.”

      You have not persuaded me on this point. I honestly can’t see it.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “REH tended to put him in situations where he acted heroically.”

      It was not just a tendency.
      Multiple times REH made Conan the blessed champion of good god Mithra against evil god Set.

      Why is it so easy for some to find parallels between Sauron and Satan and Gandalf and angel of god in a fantastical pre-Christian Middle-Earth yet so hard to find parallels between Set and Satan and Mithra and god in a Science fictional pre-Christian Hyborian age?

  • A. Nonymous says:

    Conan sucks.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    This

    “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.”

    and this

    “Conan behaved the way he did in order to conform to what normal people of depression era America could find inspiring.”

    are not mutually exclusive.
    In fact specific to Tarzan and Conan it is not “entirely beside the point” but in fact inclusive and the point.
    Howard and Burroughs were literally and intentionally tying the heroic virtues found organically within Nobel Savage Tarzan and found historically within /OurBarbarian/ Conan with the virtues of normal Americans.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Someone once asked what the heck he was supposed to make of the scene where La, queen of Opar, works herself into a frenzy of sexual frustration trying to seduce Tarzan–who doesn’t react *at all.*

      I pointed out that ERB had two basic ways to interpret the Noble Savage meme on this subject:

      Either the Noble Savage is a tomcat, and fidelity is a product of Civilization’s Corrupting Influence,

      OR

      The Noble Savage is naturally–instinctively–monogamous, and *infidelity* is a corruption imposed by Civilization.

      Now. Which way would sell books in the first third of the Twentieth Century? And not have any future books banned from countless households across America?

      I wasn’t really that cynincal, but the point stands…

      • Hooc Ott says:

        “I wasn’t really that cynincal”
        Borroughs had no idea about his own future success while writing Tarzan.
        How could he have?

        As you say La of Opar was in a sexually frustrated frenzy. Don’t think he was thinking about countless American households censoring him when he wrote that. Also he wrote everyone on Mars naked.
        He wrote his romance the way he did because he thought them to be true.

        • Terry Sanders says:

          The fellow I was “corresponding” with (apa comments–kinda like this, but with snails) wouldn’t have paid attention to that argument, so I went for Lowest Common Denominator.

  • Bruce says:

    Poul Anderson described or invented a viking town where the king was whoever fit in a huge chair. Their king was either a giant who would lead them to victory, or a fat guy who would stay at home and not cause trouble. Christian virtue is a transfiguration of ancient Greek and Latin virtu, which was virility, and by extension a great warrior, and by extension a good steady hoplite who held his place at the shieldwall with his comrades when the spears hit, and by transfiguration a good Christian whose virtue shone throughout his life. Howard was stretching things, but not all that much.

  • john silence says:

    Conan The Rapist meme mainly comes from “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”. Now, restrain your reaction for a moment and try to imagine how your average lefty, pro-feminist SFF reader would see that tale. Consider also that it is one of the earliest tales in the first Del Rey volume, an most folks nowadays start their howarding with those volumes.

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