Was Conan a murderer? Pshaw, I say!
When thrown out into the Twit-Box arena as red meat to the lions, the question of when Conan committed murder elicited two responses. One of which was flat out wrong, the other of which…it’s complicated, baby.
In the first case, The Tower of the Elephant, Conan most certainly does not murder the mouthy thief-slash-exposition dump at the outset of the tale.
‘What!’ the thief roared. ‘You dare tell us our business, and intimate that we are cowards? Get along; get out of my sight!’ And he pushed the Cimmerian violently.
‘Will you mock me and then lay hands on me?’ grated the barbarian, his quick rage leaping up; and he returned the push with an open-handed blow that knocked his tormenter back against the rude-hewn table. Ale splashed over the jack’s lip, and the Kothian roared in fury, dragging at his sword.
‘Heathen dog!’ he bellowed. ‘I’ll have your heart for that!’ Steel flashed and the throng surged wildly back out of the way.
As clear cut a case of self-defense as ever there was. The thief throws the first blow, and draws steel first too. No judge in the world would convict Conan.
Speaking of judges, the second example cited occurs in Queen of the Black Coast, the tale in which Conan meets and loses his one true love, Belit,1980s episodic action TV style. Early in the story, Conan kills a duly appointed judge in cold blood. Or does he? Decide for yourself. Conan tells the tale himself:
“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.
“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts.”
Again, I claim self-defense on the part of the Cimmerian. Wrongfully arrested by a corrupt local authority and threatened with death by imprisonment, the man cut his way free. That the local Argosian authority in the early part of Queen of the Black Coast is more earthbound than the immortal local authority that rules the ruins which lie along the banks of the Zarkheba river later in the tale changes nothing. Had the man threatening Conan been a Stygian sorcerer instead of a Greek-analog, nobody would think less of Conan, but stick him in a toga and hand him a gavel and suddenly he doesn’t deserve killing? I think not.
Conan Lives Matter.
Conan did the right thing in this case…or did he?
Consider that all of the action you read above occurs off-stage. All the reader knows for sure is that Conan was running from the long arm of the law. While he might not have been a murderer or a rapist, Conan was an unrepentant liar. Conan was the kind of liar and excellent judge of men capable of inventing a tale on the spot carefully crafted to play on the sympathies of a ship’s captain who admits, “the courts have fleeced me too often in suits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love.”
Consider that Conan barely escapes from the literal slings and arrows of the Argosian law enforcement by brazenly commandeering Captain Tito’s ship. He needs the Tito to agree to let Conan sail with him. Yes, Conan threatens blood and slaughter, but the Captain recognizes that détente with the muscle-bound barbarian would be the prudent action and graciously allows Conan to sail with them by paying his way through steel and sword. Which he only does after hearing a story that tugs on his merchant-heart strings.
Does the mere fact of Conan’s actions appearing off-screen fully exonerate him? Perhaps not, but in the eyes of this civilized writer’s view on crime, Conan has yet to be proven guilty by way of anything other than the word of a man known to be given to tall tales and expedient half truths. That’s not enough to convict Conan.
Some may point to later in the story where Conan spends time as a reaver and pirate. Again, you have to go back to the source text for context:
THE TIGRESS [Belit’s ship with Conan aboard] ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered. Tomtoms beat in the night, with a tale that the she-devil of the sea had found a mate, an iron man whose wrath was as that of a wounded lion. And survivors of butchered Stygian ships named Belit with curses, and a white warrior with fierce blue eyes; so the Stygian princes remembered this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore crimson fruit in the years to come.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Conan’s career on the high seas, consider for a moment that this one paragraph has launched a thousand misconceptions about Conan. Those eighty-nine words convey more adventure and action than most 300-page modern novels. Implicit within that one small paragraph readers project countless tales that serve to inflate Conan’s legacy in countless ways. Whatever you think of Conan himself, be he rapist or lover, killer or justice incarnate, thief or adventurer, there is no denying the power of Robert E. Howard’s writing to convey vast riches of information all out of proportion to his word count.
Returning to the defense of Conan, consider that what Conan engages in here in this paragraph is not so much piracy as it is privateering. Shem, the native land of Belit, had long standing grudges against the Stygians upon whom the Tigress preyed. Granted, the Tigress operated without a written letter of marque, but against the backdrop of the Hyborian age, we should not let that omission cloud our judgment. The Tigress, with or without Conan, delivered to the Stygians only what the Stygians had visited upon others for generations.
Such seaborne adventurous activities may be savage and bloody, but calling them murder does a disservice to freedom fighters the Hyborian world over.
It also does a disservice to read so much wickedness into the vast spaces created by Howard’s talent for impressionistic writing. Perhaps the Achilles heel of Howard’s incredible writing is that it opens the door for lesser men to read their own failings and weaknesses into the great man’s work. Be that as it may, just as the world would be a poorer place without the talents of a man who could slap paint to canvas like Vincent van Vogh, the world would be far poorer place without a man who could bang out words on a typewriter like this description of Conan’s funeral pyre for his late, beloved Belit:
AGAIN dawn tinged the ocean. A redder glow lit the river-mouth. Conan of Cimmeria leaned on his great sword upon the white beach, watching the Tigress swinging out on her last voyage. There was no light in his eyes that contemplated the glassy swells. Out of the rolling blue wastes all glory and wonder had gone. A fierce revulsion shook him as he gazed at the green surges that deepened into purple hazes of mystery.
Belit had been of the sea; she had lent it splendor and allure. Without her it rolled a barren, dreary and desolate waste from pole to pole. She belonged to the sea; to its everlasting mystery he returned her. He could do no more. For himself, its glittering blue splendor was more repellent than the leafy fronds which rustled and whispered behind him of vast mysterious wilds beyond them, and into which he must plunge.