Rick Stump on the Pulps, the Hero’s Journey, and the Un-imagining of Conan!

Tuesday , 14, February 2017 16 Comments

Rick Stump picks up on a couple of recent topics we’ve touched on here: the abuse of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template in film, the way the industry relentlessly un-imagines characters from before 1980, and of course… Conan:

This is another reason the arc of ‘avenge my father’s murder’ is slapped onto the Conan movies; the writer’s want to motivate Conan, they want to give him a reason to pursue all these adventures, to travel to all these places, to fight all these creatures. They assume that for a man to conquer incredible odds and do incredible deeds of heroism he needs a motivation that is almost singular, one that would obsess an man. So they kill his father (and mother) in front of him.

But in Howard’s tales, why did Conan leave home? What drove him to be a mercenary in the frozen North, a thief in the desert metropolis, a pirate, a nomadic horseman, a soldier, a general, and a king? What great event forced him to leave his home village and put him on the path of the hero? Was it murder? Death? A lost love?

According to Howard, Conan walked the world because… he was bored at home. Conan wandered the land and sea, fought monsters and wizards, and became a mighty king all because he was restless and easily bored.

It seems legit. I joined the army very literally because I knew it would be hard and I wanted to be hard enough to do it. A friend of mine joined because he wanted to travel for free. Hundreds of reasons, all legitimate, all interesting.

Movies serve up the same sorts of characters over and over, but the old pulp stories…? They’re all kinds of different. This is especially aggravating given the extent to which the pulp are smeared for being “formulaic”. And yes, it’s true that Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars, A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar, Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon, Jack Vance’s City of the Chasch and E. C. Tubb’s Derai all follow the same sort of template in a lot of ways. But the differences! Each of those authors developed their own style, their own approach. And they did so while managing to come off as far less derivative than the Conan clones and the interminable “Tolkenesque” series.

This is a function of the pulps being more like a scene than an actual industry. You see the same kind of wild, unrestrained variety in the tabletop gaming blogs of the past ten years or so. There are so many parallels: cheap or virtual paper, a great many creators, and intense competition for attention. What sort of stuff rises to the top in that environment…? Formulaic isn’t it! Formulaic is only sustainable in the gatekeeping era. (Of course it comes at the cost of editors effectively burning through their seed corn…!)

But you look at the really great game bloggers– James Raggi, Zak S, Ron Edwards, James Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, Philotemy, the Alexandrian— they’re all characters! They’re all doing the same thing… but they all have their own spin on it. Their own voice. It’s awesome. A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and C. L. Moore were like that. That’s why we’re still reading them. That’s why so many people that came after them are seen as merely being a product of their times.

Rick covers much more in his post, however. Read the whole thing!

  • deuce says:

    Rick does good work. I absolutely agree, Jeffro, that inventiveness/imagination and sheer talent weigh more in the balance than any structure used.

    I’ve been seeing a lot of bashing on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey/Monomyth lately which I believe is misguided. Just because morons — in Hollywood, especially — use it as a crutch and an antidote for not having ideas, a familiarity with adventure literature or talent, does not mean the archetype doesn’t exist. You can easily parse out The Lord of the Rings or The Hour of the Dragon using Campbell’s structure. Both were written before Campbell ever published, just like so many other previous tales and legends which fit the archetype. I haven’t read everything by Campbell — in fact, hardly anything beyond his “Hero’s Journey” work — but I don’t recall him saying that every tale needed to conform to the structure. From what I recall, he admitted that there were examples where it didn’t.

    Short stories, which were typical of the pulps, don’t easily lend themselves to the HJ structure. If anything, individual tales are just single episodes in a given hero’s arc, if that. The same goes for an average movie, which makes it idiotic to try and shoehorn an installment of, say, “The Fast and Furious” into that mold.

    Making the Hero’s Journey template a whipping boy will in no way solve the problem of people writing crap. Should we memory-hole LotR or HotD because they conform too closely to the Monomyth structure? That’s ridiculous. BTW, has anyone noticed how many Leftists slam the Monomyth? It’s a lot. Just because Lefty filmmakers use it as a crutch to arrange their Leftist propaganda into a story doesn’t mean a conservative like Milius can’t also use it. Here’s some examples of Lefty criticism of the Monomyth:


    I’ve seen Lester Dent’s “Pulp Formula” touted a lot lately. It certainly has its good points, but I’ve seen a PLENTY of junk manufactured using it as well. Yet, I don’t see people piling onto Dent and saying nobody should ever use his formula.

    The overriding thing to keep in mind when using any system is: junk in, junk out.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, I mean, wasn’t Campbell mostly just the last gasp of the structuralists trying to apply Claude Levi Strauss to a narrative template for analytical purpose?

      • deuce says:

        “Last gasp”? As in they were “defeated” by anti-Western, postmodernist nutjobs like Foucault, Derrida and Chomsky? I don’t worship the structuralists, but if we’re starting from “The postmodernists/anti-structuralists were more right than than the structuralists”, we should probably agree to disagree and leave it at that.

        I just can’t get over how people think Campbell somehow forced the Monomyth on everyone. If anyone did, it was the media/Hollywood. All this, despite the fact of so many Leftist academics hating the Monomyth. Leftist “creatives” use the Monomyth DESPITE the fact that it, being structuralist, is in direct opposition to postmodernism/poststructuralism which underlies so much Leftist ideology today. The Monomyth presupposes some kind of hardwiring in the human mind. That goes directly against the Blank Slate dogma of Locke that led to such boons to humanity as Marxism and third-wave feminism.

        If the Monomyth was total BS, it wouldn’t be so easily applicable to works like Lord of the Rings and Hour of the Dragon. That doesn’t mean it can or should be applied to every situation or any type of story. Some idiot attempting to impose the Monomyth on a locked-room mystery is going to end up with crap.

        Bitching about the Monomyth rather than just accepting the fact that many people play with it while being midwits at best, is like saying we should ban all tools because someone tried to use a hammer to turn a screw. You’re blaming the tool, not the moron.

    • Good column from Rick Stump. I had read some Conan stories, but never some across this particular insight before.

      I agree with him about the lazy writing caused by the so called Monomyth, a theory I have heartily disliked from the get go.

      My dislike of the Monomyth comes from one thing; lazy writers always insist a hero be reluctant to be a hero. That he hears the call, refuses, and then is forced to be one.

      This worked fine for Spiderman, who as a selfish jerk until his Uncle Ben died.

      But now I have seen it applied to Aragorn son of Arathorn in the film version of Lord of the Rings, where is does not sit correctly. Certainly there was no reluctance on the part of Solomon Kane, of Conan, of John Carter of Mars, or even of Sherlock Holmes to go do deeds of derring do when the game was afoot.

      I think all this reluctant hero jazz is because of the sin called sloth.

      I do not mean the sloth of the hero. I mean the sloth of the writer. It makes him blind to the virtue of zeal.

      The slothful writer cannot imagine Don Diego de la Vega donning the mask of Zorro merely because he sees a wrong and wants to right it. The writer slothful cannot imagine anyone leaving a comfortable life and climbing Mount Everest because the writer is a creature of comfort. So he makes every hero the Count of Monte Christo, just to pry him off the couch.

      Just my two cents.

      • deuce says:

        “I agree with him about the lazy writing caused by the so called Monomyth, a theory I have heartily disliked from the get go.

        My dislike of the Monomyth comes from one thing; lazy writers always insist a hero be reluctant to be a hero. That he hears the call, refuses, and then is forced to be one.”

        Mr. Wright, with all due respect, I don’t think you read Campbell very closely. Or are you letting Leftists call the shots on this?

        Campbell NEVER made the “refusal” the primary feature of the Monomyth, despite what you and others keep stating. The Leftists are the ones who fixated upon that one element and have flogged it mercilessly in service to their agenda. Here are quotes from Campbell himself showing that the “Reluctant Hero” was never the chief attribute of the Monomyth:

        “The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus…”

        “Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless…”
        “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure…”

        Even this breakdown of the Monomyth from uber-Left UC Berkeley admits that the hero can be perfectly willing:


        Saying that the Hero’s Journey formula somehow REQUIRES a “reluctant hero” is tilting at windmills, at best.

        JCR:”But now I have seen it applied to Aragorn son of Arathorn in the film version of Lord of the Rings, where is does not sit correctly. Certainly there was no reluctance on the part of Solomon Kane, of Conan, of John Carter of Mars, or even of Sherlock Holmes to go do deeds of derring do when the game was afoot.”

        I wholeheartedly agree that Aragorn’s character was violated in the WETA movies (as was Faramir’s).

        I truly doubt that John Carter ever felt doubt, since he, apparently, never felt fear. The reader first sees Solomon Kane and Holmes when they are in their mid-20s, if that young. What transpired before we don’t really know.

        When it comes to Conan, at least in THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON, we do see him “refuse”. This gets into the nature of “refusal” in the Monomyth. It’s not that the protagonist is — necessarily — a “Reluctant Hero” in the modern, Leftist sense. It has to do with the refusal to follow one’s “destiny”, so to speak.

        Conan was already in one state of “refusal” when the novel starts. In all three of the REH “King Conan” tales, Conan faces rebellion/usurpation/invasion. In all three, it is mentioned that he doesn’t have an heir. That becomes a Greek chorus in HotD. Conan has steadfastly ignored/refused calls to marry and produce an heir. That has resulted in massive suffering for his kingdom. It happened in “The Scarlet Citadel” and again in HotD.

        In THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON, Conan is told by Zelata, speaking for the gods, that he must “find the heart of his kingdom”. He does not do this. First, he talks about forming a rebellion. Then he decides to just ride to Poitain. Before he can do so, Hadrathus tells him of the Heart of Ahriman. FINALLY, Conan accepts his destiny. By doing so, he defeats the Nemedians and wins his bride.

        If every “Reluctant Hero” is the result of a slothful writer, what do we make of Bilbo or Frodo? What of Ebenezer Scrooge? I’m sorry, Mr. Wright, but you are letting the Left set the rules and move the goalposts in this instance. Some kind of a “refusal” can be a good thing near the beginning of a tale, serving to show the reader something about the hero’s character (not all refusals come from a lack of zeal) or something about the nature of the adventure ahead.

        Lest anyone think, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I believe the Monomyth is infallible or that it should be used for every tale, I’ll just quote a wise man here:

        “Following it [the Monomyth] SLAVISHLY is a great way to generate a mediocre, derivative story — although you could do a lot worse than to do that for a first draft, just so you have a working plot to rewrite. True craftsmanship comes from referring to the Hero’s Journey to keep your story on track and paced properly as it moves through its story arc, while charting your own independent path.”

        Campbell never said to follow the Hero’s Journey slavishly. He simply pointed out how the human mind keeps wanting to tell — and hear — hero tales told in a fairly stable order and fashion.

        The Left, as it so often does, has fastened upon something initially good or neutral — the Monomyth — and twisted it almost out of recognition with their fetishization of the “Reluctant Hero”. I see no reason to just give them something that has been the birthright of the human race since the beginning of time.

      • deuce says:

        “Good column from Rick Stump. I had read some Conan stories, but never come across this particular insight before.”

        If you’re referring to the “insight” that Conan left Cimmeria because he was “bored”, that doesn’t necessarily hold up. Here’s what REH had to say in a letter written near the end of his life:

        “There are many things concerning Conan’s life of which I am not certain myself. I do not know, for instance, when he got his first sight of civilized people. It might have been at Vanarium, or he might have made a peaceable visit to some frontier town before that. At Vanarium he was already a formidable antagonist, though only fifteen. He stood six feet and weighed 180 pounds, though he lacked much of having his full growth.

        “There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir…”

        Nowhere is “boredom” mentioned there or elsewhere in the REH Conan yarns in regard to why Conan initially left Cimmeria. It’s a mystery that Howard never revealed.

        What I do know from reading every REH Conan story scores of times, is that the Cimmerians, as a people, were confirmed homebodies. Basically nobody in the stories had met a Cimmerian other than those hwo had been to Cimmeria or within raiding distance of its borders.

        Conan’s wandering grandfather was an anomaly, and even he seems to have been forced out of his (southern Cimmerian) tribe before wandering. In fact, being outlawed/forced out is fairly common amongst REH’s Gaelic and proto-Gaelic heroes, starting with Kull and going on up through (at least) Cormac Fitzgeoffrey.

        Here’s my speculation on why Conan went north rather than south when he first left Cimmeria:


  • Andy says:

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people, not morons, either, but many reasonably intelligent people, seem to have real trouble understanding that pulps and comic books aren’t the same thing. They talk about them interchangeably – “Oh, the Shadow was a comic book hero….”

    Not that there’s anything wrong with comics (and they certainly have their own problems to deal with) but it predisposes these people to think of Conan (and many others) as a comic book hero, therefore he needs an Origin Story just like Batman or Spider-Man. But no one ever watched a Clint Eastwood western and thought “But what’s his origin story?!” You just went with it, probably because whatever origin he had was something dull like “He left home and took odd jobs because he needed the money”.

  • deuce says:

    I totally agree about the lack of need for an origin story. It even applies in the comics, at times. Originally, Wolverine really didn’t have a true “origin”. I think he was better for it, in some ways.

    The Man With No Name has a lot more to do with Conan — and most of REH’s other heroes — than even Batman or the Punisher. I’ve compared Conan to TMWNN/Eastwood plenty of times.

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Some pulp heroes had origin stories that were related early (or immediately) in the series; e.g., Tarzan, Zorro, Doc Savage, and Captain Future. Other do not; such as, John Carter, The (pulp) Shadow, Hopalong Cassidy (the pulp character but also true of the movie Hoppy), Jimgrim, etc. In the original magazine serials the backstory of Doc Smith’s Lensman universe is not spelled out until the final novel; for book publication two prequel volumes make the origin story explicit.

  • H.P. says:

    One modern trope I really, REALLY despise is the “hero” refusing to pick up the mantle of heroism when society, the next village over, what have you is threatened, only to reverse course after his own family is hurt.

    And it is not in any way a paean to the importance of family. But rather it is rooted in the idea that the only reason someone could possibly want to fight is when someone close to them is hurt. Never for the greater good.

  • deuce says:

    That’s why you see so much of the “reluctant hero” now and for the last few decades. Audiences are implicitly being told that Western Civ isn’t worth fighting for. The whole idea that people have a DUTY to preserve what was given to them by their ancestors, and to hand it on to their children, is being thrown out. Which idea, of course, goes right along with the view of Leftists that Western culture is either stolen from somewhere else or is tainted simply by being Western.

    THAT is why Leftist writers have fixated upon and abused the concept of the “reluctant hero”, a concept that, as used now, isn’t explicitly part of the Monomyth. As we know from long experience, the Left twists every idea — that it doesn’t memory-hole — weaponizes it and uses it against the West.

  • Andy says:

    Yeah, that was one of the changes made in the LOTR movies that may have driven me the most crazy – Aragorn spends most of the trilogy shuffling along, feeling sorry for himself because everyone is counting on him to become king. Every time he appears to be turning the corner (e.g., promising Boromir, fighting for Helm’s Deep, taking the reforged sword), he immediately regresses. Only very late in the story, when Arwen gets sick and “her fate is tied to the land” (and Sauron taunts him about it through the palantir) does Aragorn realize he needs to get his ass in gear and just accept his destiny. It’s a remarkably uninspiring character arc because instead of making you appreciate Aragorn more, it makes you lose respect for him because it makes him out to be a coward who doesn’t stand for anything (how could someone so self-centered be a good leader…?).

    • deuce says:

      Yeah, it drove me nuts. Then again, the WETA agenda in those films is very much misandrist and anti-Western in several ways. They also did quite the number on Denethor and his sons. What a train-wreck. The main take-away is: Men (the gender most of all, but also the species) are weak and/or evil.

  • Alfonso says:

    The real reason so many authors push the reluctant hero is that they themselves are followers, not leaders or loners. They could never imagine setting out on an adventure or doing something because its hard or climbing a mountain. The hero needs an external motivation because the writer themselves would need an external motivation.

    • deuce says:

      I would agree that is probably the case much of the time. I would still argue that there is a lot of hatred of American/Western culture motivating the fact that the ‘hero’ doesn’t want to fight for that culture.

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