The Tao of Conan
Why everything you think you know about Conan is probably wrong
By Dale Rippke
[This essay originally appeared in REHupa #199, June 2006]
He was not merely a wild man; he was part of the wild, one with untameable elements of life; in his veins ran the blood of the wolf-pack; in his brain lurked the brooding depths of the northern night; his heart throbbed with the fire of blazing forests.
– Excerpt from “Black Colossus,” by Robert E. Howard
The single most frustrating aspect of being a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian is the myriad of reader’s subjective opinions as to the values that Howard’s character embodies. It’s not as if he wrote the Conan stories to be so opaque that any interpretation could be considered valid. I’m positive that Howard knew exactly what Conan’s character traits and motivations were and thus described him acting in a reasonably consistent manner across the entire series.
So what happened? Why is there so much confusion as to who and what Conan was?
The single biggest contributor to this confusion is the absolute plethora of pastiche material that has been added to the Conan saga since Howard’s suicide in 1936. The first pastiche offerings by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter set the tone for all the subsequent works, since they were incorporated into the Conan mythos as having equal standing to Howard’s own yarns. The DeCamp/Carter stories moved away from Howard’s vision by offering their own sanitized version, emphasizing Conan’s “heroic” qualities (like his “rude chivalry” toward women) and minimizing his more distasteful aspects. They also tended to present Conan as being more cerebral than Howard’s instinctual barbarian. However, they were just novices compared to what was to come next.
The biggest offender in almost every way was Marvel Comics. Their version of Conan was almost a completely different character than Howard’s vision. Oddly enough, quite a bit of this came about because of an agenda forced upon Marvel Comics by being a member of the Comics Code; they had to present Conan as a positive role-model. This presented writer Roy Thomas with a bit of a tightrope to walk in order to keep Conan somewhat true to what Howard envisioned. Conan still killed his enemies (something other Comic Code heroes weren’t allowed), but it was always shown as self-defense; he wasn’t allowed to murder anyone, anymore. Some people may argue that this wasn’t a big change, but it completely altered Conan’s personality and motivations. Other changes to the Conan character came about by Thomas taking bits of history, events from stories, and throwaway character quirks and spinning them into a consistent, homogenous whole. To add to the confusion, Thomas was eventually allowed to adapt the DeCamp/Carter stories into the Marvel series, with wildly varying degrees of success. Soon after Thomas left the series, it rapidly fell into a static, bland mess that slowly shifted Conan into the role of a defacto superhero; a veritable Hyborian Age boy scout. Even Thomas’s return late in the series couldn’t prevent it from running off the rails and collapsing under it own gigantic mythology.
In the meantime, dozens of pastiche novels of wildly varying quality were released, as well as a couple of motion picture that further confused the issue. Is it actually any wonder that people don’t know who Conan really is?
The other main contributors to this confusion are the consumers of Howard’s yarns, from casual fans to Howard scholars. The casual fan is generally uninterested in Robert Howard, considering him to be just the first in a growing number of Conan scribes; all equal in their eyes. It really doesn’t matter if they are reading Dark Horse Comics, Marvel Comics, or any of the pastiche authors. All they are really interested in is the adventures of the Conan character.
At the other end of the spectrum are Howard fans and scholars. They want to discover the true nature of Conan solely through the writings of Robert Howard (a position I absolutely endorse). The weird thing is, even limiting the playing field to Howard doesn’t seem to make the confusion go away. This seems to be due to one main reason; there is a pre-existing bias that exists due to reading the comics or pastiche material first. This has a tendency to contaminate and eclipse Howard’s characters and world with the ideas from the earlier readings, thus leading to inaccurate comprehension of the material.
What perplexes me is that most people seem to be wholly ignorant with this state of affairs, and usually tend to project the blame out onto Howard’s stories; citing inconsistencies, opaque motivations, and the general belief that Conan is “everything to everyone”. This is something that nearly every Howard scholar (myself included) is guilty of. It’s also human nature to try to create order in our own minds out of all of this sometimes contradictory information. Frequently, the end result is a type of myopia; you literally can’t see the forest because of all the trees. We all project personal bias and become locked into a subjective paradigm of belief that is extremely hard to discard.
To some degree this essay is a direct example of the paradigm of belief. I came to Conan through the agency of Marvel Comics. I was happy living this delusional existence; happy in my belief of all things Conan. Then I joined the Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHUPA). It didn’t happen right away, but slowly the scales fell from my eyes and I was able to perceive Conan in a truly different light. There were real, tangible differences between Howard’s barbarian and the guy in the comics. It was almost as if some of Conan’s more heroic aspects had gotten pushed out to the most extreme positions possible. Several of the Marvel Conan’s noblest qualities didn’t exist or were seriously muted in the Howard stories. Some of the more egregious differences are:
- Conan has an iron code of morality that he lives by.
- Conan only preys on people who deserve it.
- Conan protects the poor and the innocent from bad people.
- Conan would never, under any circumstance, kill a woman or harm a child.
This is just a small sampling of some of the facts that people argue are central to the character and mystique of Conan. The only problem is; there is almost no evidence of any of this in Howard’s writings other than that which people project onto it.
Let’s examine, as an example, the fanciful notion that Conan would never kill a woman. There are only about four references given by Howard over the course of the Conan series that address this issue. Examining these four passages, using Occam’s Razor and a bit of common sense should illuminate Howard’s intentions.
First clue is mentioned in Queen of the Black Coast. The ship that Conan is passenger on comes under attack by the black corsairs led by BÃªlit. Conan decides to feather the pirate ship with arrows, and as it closes, spies BÃªlit: “Conan drew the shaft to his ear – then some whim or qualm stayed his hand and sent the arrow through the body of a tall plumed spearman beside her.” On the face of it, it can be used to support the notion that Conan won’t kill women. It only real problem is that Howard shows it to be the result of a “whim or qualm“, which seems to be too unpredictable to easily fall in line with the rational that he would never, ever harm a woman.
The second comes from Xuthal of the Dusk. Conan’s woman Natala has been kidnapped by Thalis and is going to be killed, so that the Stygian can have Conan to herself. Natala points out the flaw in Thalis’ plan: “â€˜He will cut your throat,’ answered Natala with conviction, knowing Conan better than Thalis did.” This should actually kill that notion that Conan would never kill a woman. Howard doesn’t write that Natala hopes he will kill her or imagines that he will kill her; he states that she KNOWS he will kill her. Conan WILL KILL a woman under certain provocations. The murder of a girl under his protection is reason enough.
The third comes from The People of the Black Circle. Conan needs to camouflage the Devi and decides to take the clothes of a young woman nearby. The Devi worries that he is going to kill the girl for them. “â€˜I don’t kill women ordinarily,’ he grunted; â€˜though some of the hillwomen are she-wolves.’” There are a couple of interesting facts gleaned from reading that statement in context. First of all he is implying that under extraordinary circumstances he might consider killing women. Secondly, that circumstance has to do with women who intend violence upon his person. For the sake of argument I’m going to limit it to those women that he would find himself hard-pressed to defeat in battle or that have him at a disadvantage. We theoretically would have seen this happen in Red Nails if Valeria had been unable to kill Tascela; it would have fallen to Conan to try to try to take her out without becoming fried by her magic laser wand. It really only takes common sense to realize that Conan isn’t going to let himself be killed by a woman, even if he is adverse to killing them.
The fourth comes from Rogues in the House, and it seems to be the main evidence that people use to advance the idea that Conan will not kill a woman. In the story, Conan’s woman has betrayed him to the authorities, who have captured and incarcerated him. Conan escapes, and makes his way back to his ex-lover’s apartment. Instead of killing her, he takes her atop the building and drops her into the cesspool behind it. The main argument that Conan won’t kill women comes from the notion that “If she didn’t deserve death at his hands, then really, who does?” The problem is one detail that tends to mitigate this argument somewhat. There is an interesting passage that occurs during the scene that sheds light on Conan’s motivation. Conan enters the room and faces the girl. She begins to beg for her life as he stands there with a bloodstained knife in his hand: “Conan did not reply; he merely stood and glared at her with his burning eyes, testing the edge of his poniard with a calloused thumb. At last he crossed the chamber…” Howard uses this passage to illustrate Conan’s motives during his encounter with the girl. The overwhelming sense I get from it is that Conan entered the room fully intending to kill her and paused to collect himself for a moment. While she begs for her life, he is wrestling with his impulse to murder her outright (testing the edge of his poniard with a calloused thumb). In much the same way that he couldn’t bring himself to kill BÃªlit due to a “whim or qualm”, Conan can’t bring himself to murder his punk either. He assuages his need for vengeance by chucking her into a cesspool, instead.
According to Howard, while it really isn’t in Conan’s nature to kill women, he will kill them under certain circumstances; if he is hard pressed in battle with one or if a woman murders someone under his protection being the two that we know about. While the girl in Rogues in the House certainly betrayed him, Conan escaped death, so she doesn’t really fall into either category of “women he would kill”. She instead lucked into a Cimmerian version of “no harm, no foul”, although it was a pretty near thing. Anyone who still believes that Conan would never, ever kill a woman is projecting his own bias. Howard frankly implies that Conan WILL kill women, given the right provocation.
All of which leads us back to the general theme of this essay. Since most people have a skewed idea of who or what Conan is maybe we should take a look at what Howard was attempting to tell us about his Cimmerian. It is my contention that Conan’s character is consistent across the breadth of the series and that Howard had a very clear conception of the character to draw upon.
Howard claims that he modeled his character after various men he knew; oilfield workers and the like. Each provided traits that made up the amalgam called Conan the Cimmerian. While this is a true statement on the face of it, the Conan character also contains elements that are pretty iconic, if not downright archetypical.
Arguments have been made in the past concerning the allegorical nature of the Conan stories; its overarching theme of civilization versus barbarism, collectivism versus individualism; the hooks that Howard hung his Conan tales upon. Stating the allegory in those simple terms does it much injustice. When you get down to it, true barbarism is not the antithesis of civilization. Barbarism is really nothing more than a simplified version of civilization. Howard’s idealized view of barbarism has nothing to do with reality. It goes down deeper. It goes back to a debate that is one of the oldest in the Western philosophical tradition, between Nomos and Physis (Fusis).
The principles of nomos were the bedrock of civilized Greek society. They consisted of artifice, order, rationality. Every civilized society, including most barbarous cultures, adheres to the concepts of nomos. Artifice is the imposition of man’s will upon the world around him, while order is the tool of control, and rationality is the explanation of why things work the way they do. All civilized societies that we know of operate out of a nomos paradigm. The nomos worldview is pretty much always collective, in that we generally all share the same outlook.
Howard’s view of the nomos reality was that since humans were flawed, then it stands to follow that any civilization based upon their perceptions would be equally flawed. The Conan stories plays upon the artifice of civilized culture and always presents it as being corruptible and in decline due to either the disparity between components of the culture (the power of haves over the have-nots) or because the security of the collective brings about a sort of ennui that attempts to fulfill its desires through decadence. This decadence brings about a weakness in the race that hastens it inevitable downfall. Civilization’s adherence to rationality also leads to its own destruction through dogma and a false sense of moral superiority.
Howard shows civilization in an entropic light. It always has a sense of decay, a whiff of corruption. He states in Beyond the Black River that: “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstances. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” In a very real sense, what this means is that civilization becomes so entrenched within its artificial laws and dogma, that it is unable to respond to the challenge presented by barbarism. Barbarism embraces the chaotic, the unpredictable, and the creative. It attacks civilization in ways that are impossible to prepare for as well as defend against. Civilization is limited by its own perceptions, while barbarism has no limitations at all.
In the Conan saga, the Cimmerian is nearly always presented as the catalyst that shakes things up; he drives the adventure to new places. He is the antithesis of civilized behavior, so it should come as no surprise that Howard seems to have based Conan upon the “Wild”; upon the principle of physis. It consists of nature, chaos, and irrationality. Conan definitely exhibits all of those traits. Howard plays up the nature angle by comparing him to different types of wild animal in nearly every story he wrote. He shows Conan exhibiting chaotic behavior, operating according to whims and describes him as “turbulent“. He proclaims Conan basic irrationality every time he operates instinctively. The character is practically a poster child for physis behavior.
A character operating out of a physis paradigm would have to be anti-collective. Conan is an individual, not a part of the collective, and doesn’t buy into civilization’s laws and bullshit. By definition, Conan is completely amoral and self-centered. He functions as a law unto himself and even though he preys on civilization wholesale, he doesn’t come across as especially evil, since his victims are essentially corrupt. This tends to color him as a bright ray of light in a very dark world.
The biggest problem in making Conan a sympathetic character is that his motivations seldom come across as altruistic, and usually appear pretty self-centered. Howard needed to give the individualistic Conan a set of values that could supplant those of typical nomos behavior, yet not appear too amoral and self-serving. He tried to solve this by taking the physis model of the rugged individualist and moving it to its logical extreme. In my mind, Conan is based on the idea of the Alpha-male. The interesting thing to me is that it isn’t the human “top-dog” type of alpha-male, but one based on the way animals actually behave in nature (the Wild). He exhibits several different traits that belong to the “alpha-male of a pack” model.
The most obvious trait is that Conan always attempts to rise to the leadership role of any group that he is a part of by direct conflict with the group’s current leader. We see excellent examples of this in his fights with Sergius of Khrosha in Iron Shadows in the Moon, and with Zaporavo in The Pool of the Black One. The best example of this trait occurs in A Witch Shall Be Born. Conan usurps the command of the Zuagir tribesmen from Olgerd Vladislav in a scene that conjures the best elements of being the alpha-male of a pack of animals, right down to Conan’s statement that “There’s no room for a fallen chief on the desert. If the warriors see you, maimed and deposed, they will never let you leave the camp alive.” The apex of this trait is, of course, Conan strangling King Namedides to take the throne of Aquilonia.
Another trait Conan exhibits is his absolute refusal to ever submit to another person’s will. The man, in the entire saga, never once surrenders to an antagonist. He always goes down swinging, even when it seems to be in his best interests not to. He may leave a fight by tactical withdrawal, but he never submits or surrenders. In nature this would be considered “baring your throat” and its something an alpha-male would never do. He’d rather die first.
A third trait concerns the alpha-male’s responsibility to protect the members of his “pack” from outside dangers. Anyone who accepts Conan’s leadership status becomes a member of his “pack” and he will protect them to the point of laying down his life for them. This trait is most obviously illustrated by how fiercely he protects his women satellites, but also shows in his refusal to abandon his beleaguered tribesmen in The People of the Black Circle, even though they are howling for his blood. It even manifests itself in The Hour of the Dragon when Conan recognizes his responsibility toward protecting “his subjects” from the depravations of the invading Nemedians. This is an important trait in viewing the Conan character; he isn’t the king of the nation of Aquilonia as much as the people of Aquilonia are members of his “pack”.
The final trait is in regards to how Conan relates to the women of his “pack”. In nature, the alpha-male has the right to mate with any female of his choosing that enjoys his protection. And we sort of see Howard broach this issue several times in the series. The most obvious example is Octavia in The Devil in Iron. Conan protects her from Khosatral Khel and afterwards considers her to be “his woman”. Even the fact that she was only playing at being enamored of him doesn’t really faze him much; he still expects to have sexual relations with her. A similar scene appears in The People of the Black Circle after Conan rescued the Devi Yasmina from the seers of Yimsha and reestablished his protection. They eventually realize that she is no longer useful as a hostage, so Conan decides to keep her as “his woman”, and states quite frankly that she doesn’t have any choice in the matter. Even The Vale of Lost Women alludes to this a bit when Conan realizes that Livia doesn’t want to play by “his” rules and so gallantly kicks her out of the country because of the rationalization that she isn’t “the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas“.
Conan also exhibits a physis trait by acting in an appropriately chaotic manner in any number of situations. Howard knew that the Conan character needed to be unpredictable; He alludes to it all the time: “Barbaric men did strange inexplicable things“. The earlier argument about Conan killing women is a case in point.
When Conan decided, through a whim or a qualm, not to shoot BÃªlit, it was an act of unpredictability (it also skirts the edge of irrationality, since BÃªlit was the corsair’s leader and her death might have ended the fight). Chaos means unpredictability. Howard presented the scene between Conan and his punk in Rogues in the House as an act of unpredictability, since he wrote it to appear that the Cimmerian intended to kill her, only to change his mind at the last second. And lest we forget, in Black Colossus, Amalric describes Conan as being “the most turbulent of all my rogues!” Turbulent means wildly or violently unpredictable. It seems clear that Howard intended Conan to behave in such a manner.
Irrationality is the other physis trait that Conan exhibits and this one is a bit harder to pin down, mainly because the word itself has negative connotations to the current way of thinking. Irrationality in the true sense means that the character exhibits thinking that has no logical basis as its source. Howard describes Conan as acting instinctively, putting action before reflection. In the Howard story The Devil in Iron, Ghaznavi of Khawarizm points out that the crafty Conan exhibits traits that are more aligned with “wild animal instinct than through intelligence“. Howard links Conan’s irrationality to his emotional state. He flees in horror from the decapitated body of the Son of Set that he slew in The God in the Bowl. His escape attempts in both Queen of the Black Coast and The God in the Bowl are set into motion by first slaying unarmed men who have pissed him off, rather than the more rational and logical choice of the armed men in the room.
It seems pretty clear to me that Howard intended Conan to be the antithesis of civilized behavior. He operates out of a completely different paradigm than the worldview of the civilized nations he wanders through. He interacts with the civilized mindset, but he never actually embraces it; he usually expresses disdain toward it. His rejection of the civilized worldview come straight out of The Vale of Lost Women: “Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling!“. Conan is not nomos. He is physis through and through.
Conan left Cimmeria, according to Howard, because of his intense curiosity to see the world and to experience life to its fullest extent. That is pretty much his mandate throughout the entire series. Conan isn’t about an unexamined life; its about the desire to “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 battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content” and “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”
Conan deals in death, but his reality is that he is constantly moving toward life. It seems like a paradox, but that’s really when he’s viewed from the nomos perspective. Conan is so enamored of living his life that he is will to risk it by flirting with death at every opportunity. Like any war veteran can attest; People only just exist – you don’t actually live life until you’ve laid it on the line. Conan lives his life like it’s nothing less than a dance with death.
One thing always perplexed me about the Conan saga was the fact that his becoming king seems to fly in the face of his physis paradigm. Even Howard himself seems to acknowledge problem in Hour of the Dragon, when Conan rides disguises himself as a Free Companion and rides through Zingara in pursuit of the Heart of Ahriman: “And more than looking the part, he felt the part; the awakening of old memories, the resurge of the wild, mad, glorious days of old before his feet were set on the imperial path when he was a wandering mercenary, roistering, brawling, guzzling, adventuring, with no thought for the morrow, and no desire save sparkling ale, red lips, and a keen sword to swing on all the battlefields of the world.” It seems that he is moving toward nomos worldview and perhaps he is to a degree. The important thing to keep in mind is the context. Conan becoming king of a civilized land is nothing less than Howard’s main theme of civilization versus barbarism written on a more personal scale. Barbarism is so potent that just one guy can upset the order of the civilized world.
All of this leads us back to the original point of this essay. The reason that people, authors and fans alike, don’t really “get” Conan is because they tend to look at him through nomos eyes. They feel the need to categorize him; to plug him into pre-existing pigeonholes. They change him to fit their comfort zone. DeCamp and Carter make Conan more rational; a nomos trait. Roy Thomas takes Conan’s unpredictable behavior and constructs a veritable iron code of behavioral traits; the very essence of nomos belief. And people buy into it.
Conan isn’t nomos. Howard certainly didn’t write him that way, or he wouldn’t have had to power to capture our imaginations the way that he did. Conan, when you get right down to it, fires up our imaginations because he is his own man. He doesn’t buy into civilizations bullshit; it doesn’t concern him much at all. He only exists to live his life on his own terms; live free or die. That is the real Conan.
Why is this important? On the overall scheme of things it’s probably too late to change people’s perceptions of Conan due to the flood of pastiche material out there. But at one time, a long time ago it was important enough that a Texan writer took the time to figure out how to present the ultimate icon of human freedom. It’s important to me to honor his vision of what was important to him.
I don’t really expect to change anyone’s mind by this essay. The reality is that it’s just my point of view. But I believe that it makes a valid point based on solid evidence. All I really want is to make you consider it for a bit. It’s the least I could do for Bob…