A Unified Theory of Conan

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I’ve been writing about Conan off and on since the first movie came out, and we all wondered how Milius could have gotten the character so glaringly wrong. As I’ve been thinking about Conan I’ve come to be aware of the fact that Conan wasn’t just the character Howard happened to be writing about when he was really hitting his stride as a writer — Conan is the most fully realized of Howard’s many heroes. Words like “realistic”, “well-rounded”, or “iconic” aren’t applied to Bran, Kane, or even the brooding Kull — at least not with much frequency. But though rightfully viewed as “larger than life”, there is a lot of depth in Conan — he represents a type that goes way back.

Back, some might say, to “the abysses of bellowing bestiality through which humanity [has] painfully toiled.” [Coming of Conan the Cimmerian p292] In Absinthe Pie #5 Bo Cribbs wrote an essay in which he spoke of aggressive tendencies in humans, and how they could probably be traced to our pre-human ancestors. Citing from Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis about the work of anthropologist Robert Dart, he suggests that Australopithecus africanus was an ancestor of modern man and that he was a killer who instinctively used tools to kill. Dart’s evidence was baboon skeletons found with crushed skulls at the same sites as the Australopithecus remains. The skulls all bore the “characteristic double depression” fitting the distal end of an antelope humerous, which were also found in quantity, though no other antelope bones were. One Australopithecus skeleton showed the effects of being hit by the same type of leg bone — a millions-year-old murder, whether driven by anger or competition or whatever. Man arose from the primates because he was a killer — killing preceded the standing erect, the receding snout –most significantly, perhaps, the emergence of a large brain. You could say we had our Cain before we had our brain.

This basic instinctive capacity for violence needs an outlet, and that is why violence in stories, whether it be books, movies or video-games, will always be popular.
Novalyne wrote about Bob:

One thing he wanted to stress was that stories had to be real and important; the characters-real people with real problems, important problems. He was sure, he said (and he was right), that I wondered how Conan could be a real person, but I needed to remember that deep inside every man there was something of the barbarian, something that civilization could not destroy. A man reading his story about Conan, then, would feel again in the depth of his being those barbaric impulses; consequently, Conan acted as they felt they would act in similar circumstances. [OWWA – pp 106-107]

These “barbaric impulses” are actually much, much older — they are animal impulses. And the male who is most capable of doing violence — he is the alpha male. In the social circles of our fellow primates, the alpha male is easy to distinguish. He gets the pick of everything — females, food, whatever. The other males may wish to displace him, but can only do so when their power — their ability to commit effective violence — exceeds his. As humanity has evolved, the cave-man chief gave way to the tribal leader, the tribal leader gave way to the king, and kings gave way to premiers and presidents.Yet we still have people who strike us as natural leaders, like George Washington, or Winston Churchill, or Jack Kennedy. Still, one can have all the aspects of an alpha male and have no desire to lead.

Bernard Knox writes in the introduction to Homer’s ILIAD:

To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of gods. Such people the Greeks called “heroes.”[. . .] Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessel humanity is capable of superhuman greatness. [HI p45]

Howard’s writing has been compared to Homer’s in a number of places, and the similarities are not limited to characters and war-time settings. Speaking of his infamous anti-Conan broadside several decades later, Robert Bloch noted:

. . .I do know that it was rude and presumptuous of me to so captiously denigrate an obvious archtype (sic); I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “The race of man dearly loves a lord,” and most readers dearly love a superhero.

Superhero, or “hero” capable of superhuman greatness — we might be splitting hairs here. Fritz Leiber famously considered Conan a superman — the Lancers quoted him thus:

Conan is the superman — or super-barbarian rather — into whom the prolific Robert Erwin (sic) Howard was best able to inject his furious dreams of danger and power and unending adventure, of combative and sexual prowess, of hot impulses instantly followed, yet, a fighting man’s code never broken. Conan is a true hero of Valhalla, battling and suffering great wounds by day, carousing and wenching by night, and plunging into fresh adventures tomorrow.

H. R. Hays, writing a review of SKULL-FACE for the New York Times, (“Superman on a Psychotic Bender” — incidently, it’s hard to read this title the same way after watching a few Futuramas) noted:

Howard’s heros were [. . .] wish-projections of himself. All the frustrations of his own life were conquered in a dream world of magic and heroic carnage.

Hays has been widely derided among Howard fans for suggesting Howard’s writing was “the immature fantasy of a split mind” and it logically paves the way to schizophrenia, but is the above comment so different from Leiber’s take? We all seem to agree with Lovecraft’s comment that Howard’s stories stand out because he is in them. Rusty Burke once wrote:

I have it on no less authority than Novalyne Ellis that Bob did believe, with absolute conviction, while he was writing the story. Afterward, it was just an idea, just another story. But while he wrote — he believed it. That remark about Conan standing behind him, telling him the stories as he rushed to type them out, is no metaphorical bullshit. You can tell that those stories are coming as much from his guts as from his head. [S 42]

So, this injection of furious dreams straight from the gut, this wish-fulfillment of great prowess — where does that come from? I have said before, and will say again, it helps to look at the developmental theories of Alfred Adler. Adler suggested a universal conflict when a baby comes to realize that while he is helpless, the other human beings around him are not. On the contrary, they have powers of movement, of food production, of speech. A male child, wishing to be the alpha male, soon realizes his father is the one that stands in his way. It is not the mother that is at stake — it is dominance over the world. It is common, says Adler, for the infant to “overvalue” the size and stature that enables one to open a door or move heavy objects. He also learns to desire the ability to give commands and have them obeyed. He says “a desire to grow, to become as strong or even stronger than all others, arises in his soul.”
We know that in the Howard household, the doctor was a formidable presence, reeking with power. We know that Howard’s relationship with his father was sometimes strained. And I don’t want to make too much of this, but we know that at some point in his toddling or pre-toddling years, when he was just gaining the power of self-locomotion on foot, Bob was struck by an illness that forced him to be bed-ridden for a time. Might this not have caused a hiccup in his normal development, so that he continued to overvalue the power and stature he was yet to develop, well on into his later years?

And there was another development later. Tevis Clyde Smith wrote in his memoir of REH:

His mother had been his companion when the family had resided in one small Texas town, reading to him at a time when he could not leave his own yard without being bullied by a gang of older boys. Let one small boy brush against a bully half again his size, and see how he fares, let alone against a pack. The Howards eventually moved on, but the time spent in the little place left its mark upon Bob until the end, and was responsible for much of his bitterness. [Report on a Writing Man ]

What would be most hateful about this would be the feeling of helplessness, the rage that could not be sated, the unfulfilled hate. Bob would go on to build his body up so that, as he reported told his father, if anyone crossed him up, he could break his back with his bare hands. Howard was determined never to be helpless in someone else’s grip again — so determined, he spent hour upon hour punching bags, lifting weights, gripping springs, pounding cut wood with a sledgehammer. This is also, I think, the real reason he want armed so much of the time — he never wanted to be helplessly looking down the barrel of a gun in someone else’s hand. Power, stature — he still couldn’t get enough. He could never get enough. And he put this drive for power, and his hate, into his fiction. Leo Grin has written convincingly on this, and if you still doubt the premise, check out the “Revenge” story in Complete Letters Volume 1 [p 128-130]. This would make good fodder for the Cross Plains newspaper letters section.

Of the creation of Conan, Howard would write to CAS:

I know that for months I had been unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather, off my typewriter — almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. [The Last Celt p 57]

The historical record would seems to indicate some hyperbole here regarding the barren “months” — in fact Howard had only recently placed stories with Strange Talesc– but even a few weeks without an idea would be hell for a writer striving to earn some money. Novalyne wrote that periods of writer’s block would drive Bob “up a wall.” [One Who Walked Alone p 142] It would lead to feelings of despair, of desperation — and that old hated nemesis, helplessness.

In another oft-quoted letter to CAS he wrote:

Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian. [TLC 58]

We believed Bob implicitly on this for years, until Novalyne recounted this exchange:

He laughed. “No, but if somebody asks you where you get your characters. . . and they’re sure to do that. . . you always say, ‘He’s a combination of a lot of people I have known.’ That way, if your character is a damn fool, nobody will want to identify with him.” He stopped talking for a minute and ran his hand through his hair. “To tell the truth, I don’t know how a man gets a character for a story, anymore than I know how he falls in love. I don’t know if his characters spring full-blown from his head, or if he sees a man walking down the street and recognizes him instantly.” He looked at me, frowning. “I doubt any writer knows for sure where his characters come from.” [OWWA p 78-79]

But if the writer’s block left REH feeling helpless, what would be more natural than that his subconscious would create an alter-ego of supreme potency, unstoppable prowess, a superman hero? A Conan, in short? Conan’s primary characteristic is his prowess, his ability in battle. He is the death dealer par excellance. From the first Conan story:

With his back to the wall he faced the closing ring for a flashing instant, then leaped into the thick of them. He was no defensive fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the war to the enemy. Any other man would have already died there, and Conan himself did not hope to survive, but he did ferociously wish to inflict as much damage as he could before he fell. His barbaric soul was ablaze, and the chants of old heroes were singing in his ears.
As he sprang from the wall his ax dropped an outlaw with a severed shoulder, and the terrible back-hand return crushed the skull of another. Swords whined venomously about him, but death passed him by breathless margins. The Cimmerian moved in a blur of blinding speed. He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun, offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of death about him. [CoCtC p21].

Or listen to an account from Valerius in “A Witch Shall be Born” — one of only a few stories where we see Conan helpless, and where he soon becomes potent again to exact a fitting revenge on those who caused it:

I never saw a man fight like Conan fought. He put his back to the courtyard wall and before they overpowered him the dead men were strewn in heaps thigh-deep about him. [Bloody Crown of Conan p 267]

If we are to pick up anything from the “amalgam” comment it must be that these supposed “prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen” must all be pretty dangerous men, naturally dominant — not that the rest of Howard’s heroes were any slouches, either — in fact, the fight scene from Phoenix was originally written about Kull.

It is no accident that Conan uses the simple tools of war — a sword, a knife, an ax — and disparages the bow. Howard wanted his violence to be brutal, even primordial, for only so could it have the desired effect. Like man’s ancestors of the primal past, Conan even smites his enemies’ heads with a bone he’s been gnawing on, in “Rogues in the House” and again as General Conan educating a deserter in Nathan Bedford Forrest style. And for one of the most memorable scenes, he strangles the strangler Baal-Pteor with his bare hands. The usurper Arpello he also pitches off a roof barehanded in “The Scarlet Citadel.” You can’t get more basic than that.
One of the key features of Conan is his growth over the course of his life — a growth that Howard must have planned from the start, since his first efforts have both the old King Conan and the young thief Conan as leads. Most noticeably Conan becomes less headstrong, less reckless, and more considerate of other people over his career. It is in this growth that we see the hero in the Homeric mold become something more true to life — and more American. But I have written at length on both these topics before.

Conan tells Belit in “The Queen of the Black Coast”:

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of the battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I an content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

If Conan is a wish-fulfillment of Bob’s, perhaps here is where they differ the most. Conan is content is with the life he has, and Bob never was. Oddly enough, that revenge story (see above) ends on that note as well.