The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

michael-moorcockI’ve never really got Michael Moorcock, not in the same way I feel I ‘get’ my favourite authors, like Ballard, Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, David Lindsay or Clark Ashton Smith. I feel I know where, for instance, Ballard is coming from, what drives his writing, even though Ballard’s upbringing in pre-World War II China, and his adolescence in a Japanese POW camp, is utterly unlike my own — perhaps even because of this difference, as then the story is so much more easily presented as a ‘myth of writerly origin’, and so therefore more understandable. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know Moorcock’s ‘myth of writerly origin’ that, though I’ve read a fair smattering of his books — Wizardry and Wild Romance, the early Elric books, the Corum books, the Hawkmoon books, the Kane of Old Mars books, The Black Corridor, Gloriana, The Golden Barge, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, The Deep Fix, The Coming of the Terraphiles, and the interview book Death Is No Obstacle — I still don’t have a sense of where he’s coming from, as a writer, what he means as a writer. (This is perhaps just a peculiarity of mine, but I do respond better to authors who seem to be writing as a means of dealing with the aftermath of some originating crisis, however vague. Moorcock has always seemed free of this, leaving me feeling I’ve got nothing to grab hold of.)

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

Nevertheless, Moorcock’s been a constant presence. When I began to venture away from the Doctor Who books in our local WH Smiths to the adult SF & Fantasy section, I found it fully stocked with Moorcock. Moorcock introduced me to Hawkwind — he mentioned them in an interview in Imagine, the D&D magazine, so I checked them out. (An interview in which he also seemed to be rather dismissive of role-playing games, just as he seemed, on a first read, to be dismissive of fantasy in Wizardry and Wild Romance. I was beginning to feel Moorcock wasn’t entirely on my side.) Hawkwind got me into Ballard, though I could have got into Ballad just as easily from Moorcock himself; and Moorcock was also the reason I read Fritz Leiber and Robert Holdstock and Mervyn Peake. Plus, how could I resist those Elric books, with their Michael Whelan covers — and titles like The Weird of the White Wolf or Sailor on the Seas of Fate?

Nevertheless, he remained a mystery. Which is why, when I heard he was writing a mix of autobiography and fantasy trilogy beginning with The Whispering Swarm, I knew I had to read it. Perhaps the answer to Michael Moorcock was to be found in there.

And… some answers were. (But it is only the first in a trilogy, after all.)

Let’s start with the obvious one. Perhaps one of the reasons Moorcock never quite snapped into focus for me like the more monomaniacal Ballard is that he’s always been switching between states. He bashes out sword and sorcery novels in three days, then spends years on long literary series, like the Colonel Pyat books (which I gave up on). Which is he, then, the fantasy pulpster or the literary novelist? Why, both of course:

“I was already conscious of two different kinds of author in me. One was practical, able to make money commercially. The other was predominantly analytical, experimental and not at all commercial!”

(He also says, “Balzac was one of my heroes because he did reams of hackwork before doing reams of ambitious, innovative fiction.”)

It should be obvious, really, that Moorcock is all about swinging between two opposites — just think of the eternal battle between Law and Chaos in the Eternal Champion books. Is this the image of Moorcock’s own inner world? It quickly becomes clear that Moorcock, in The Whispering Swarm, is also struggling with a need to achieve a balance of sorts. He even achieves it at one point in the novel:

“By 1969 I had everything in some sort of balance. Two lives, two wives, two children, two careers…”

michael_moorcock_whispering_swarm_gollancz_coverOf course, this isn’t necessarily Michael Moorcock the writer speaking; it’s the narrator of The Whispering Swarm. Who is also called Michael Moorcock, and who shares a lot of biography with his author. Both grew up in post-WWII London, both begin editing Tarzan Adventures at the age of 17, both go on to write SF and sword & sorcery, and to edit New Worlds. Precisely where the real and the fictional Michael Moorcock part ways it’s difficult to tell. Mostly, Moorcock is free with his use of real people’s names — and there are plenty he rubs shoulders with in 50s and 60s London, from Colin Wilson (“People had brought Colin and me together because they saw us as enfants terribles but we didn’t have a lot in common. I got on better with Colin’s friend Bill Hopkins”), Barrington Bayley, actor Jon Finch — which is perhaps why it took me a moment to work out who Jack Allard was. Jack Allard, who in the book is a close ally in Moorcock’s vision for the revamped New Worlds, Jack Allard who’d spend his childhood in German-occupied Guernsey… And then there’s Rex Fisch, and Jake Slade… JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, and John Sladek, of course! Why this slip into such obvious pseudonyms? Perhaps so Moorcock is a bit more free to talk about them, though why a judgement such as this, of Allard:

“I eventually realised that the only fiction he liked was his own. Meanwhile, he wrote brilliant, lyrical, existentialist stories which were a bit like Ray Bradbury, a bit like Graham Greene and were as original as anything the genre had ever seen…”

— shouldn’t be made quite freely of the real J G Ballard, I don’t know. It doesn’t surprise me that Ballard would only really be interested in his own fiction, monomaniac of the imagination that he was. Moorcock does provide an interesting insight into my own ability to ‘get’ Ballard but not Moorcock, though, when he says of Allard:

“He had read very little, preferring to get his culture via the screen or from the radio…”

It’s obvious, from reading the early chapters about Moorcock’s youth, that I’ve more experience of Ballard’s cultural background than I do of Moorcock’s, even though Moorcock was raised in London (where “It seemed as if I could live my entire life in a bubble less than half a mile across and find everyone I wanted to meet, everything I wanted to do!”). In an odd way, Moorcock’s culture, so thoroughly rooted in the ephemeral indigenous literature of the day, is more distant, because of the Hollywood-isation of culture generally. Moorcock grew up reading about all sorts of dashing heroes, from highwaymen to schoolboys to cowboys, I’ve never heard of, whereas I’ve seen many of the films Ballard grew up on.

But there’s something more fundamentally different in the type of artist — or imagination — that Moorcock has. As opposed to those monomaniacs of the imagination, like Ballard, who I find it easier to ‘get’, Moorcock is deliberately diffuse:

“I was already fascinated by the way modern mythology took characters from different eras and put them together.”

After all, the fundamental symbol of Moorcock’s imagination is the Multiverse — or, as it’s presented here, ‘Radiant Time’:

“Most philosophers see time as a line disappearing into infinity, past, present, future… Others have it as a circle, which is much the same thing, except theoretically you return to the beginning and start all over again. All representations of time are some variation on this simple idea. But the truth is time radiates, just as light does. Let the physical world be thought a dimension of time!”

Whereas the likes of Ballard or Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith are constantly honing a single idea, a single obsession, Moorcock seems to be going the opposite way. As someone says in The Whispering Swarm of the forces opposed to Alsacia:

‘They see their salvation in simplicity and purification, but the world is not simple. Nor is it easily purified. God made it complex and mysterious. They want to obey man’s rules, not God’s.’

WhisperingSwarm_USAh, yes, Alsacia. All this rambling, and I haven’t got started on what the book’s about. Woven in amongst the autobiography in The Whispering Swarm is a fantasy. In this fantasy, young Michael Moorcock finds an area of London untouched by the blitz, peopled by a ragtag group of ‘Actors, vagabonds, cheapjacks, rum pads and balladeers’, most of whom dress like figures from English history, including highwaymen and cavaliers, not to mention a certain well-known trio of French Musketeers. There’s also a bunch of monks, the White Friars, who have a number of interesting treasures in their possession, including a chalice which, when lit by sunlight, seems to contain a sort of dancing hologram fish, and a vast cosmolabe which fills a room. Alsacia is also known as Sanctuary, which is what it offers to people of all beliefs and persuasions — not to mention time zones — but it is not always there. Once he’s visited it, Moorcock finds that, when he’s not in it, his hearing is bothered by a sort of tinnitus, a constant muttering of voices he comes to term ‘the whispering swarm’. Alsacia becomes a second home — literally, as he sets up a ménage there with the highway-robber Moll Midnight, when he needs to escape from his ‘real’ home life. It is, like Tanelorn in the Eternal Champion books, a neutral ground, a longed-for place of balance.

But it is not a place of escape. Throughout the book, Moorcock is constantly questioning the nature of Alsacia, and whether he should be going there. Is it a delusion? Is it immoral? It gives him almost as much domestic trouble as he’s escaping from in his real family — a family he longs for when he’s away from them as much as he longs for Alsacia when he’s not there. It’s difficult to decide, in fact, what Alsacia represents, as it isn’t a fantasy refuge from reality (he quite often spends his time there hacking out fantasy books, just as he does in the real world).

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But, this is only book one. After rather too much (in my opinion) questioning the nature of Alsacia, then going there, then vowing to give it up, then giving in and going back only to start questioning again, Moorcock gets involved in a trans-temporal adventure to rescue King Charles from execution in Oliver Cromwell’s day — something Moorcock enters into despite his own political beliefs (‘the day a tyrant was made answerable to his people, the world was set on a very different course. The idea of the modern democratic republic was born’), but more from a feeling of fellowship with the various highwaymen and exiled cavaliers he falls in with. They need Moorcock for his ability to travel the ‘Moonbeam Roads’ that connect Alsacia with various bits of our history — as well as histories not ours (as evinced by an early adventure where Moorcock aids Moll Midnight in highway-robbing an armoured tram).

My favourite parts of The Whispering Swarm were the obviously autobiographical elements I could recognise: Moorcock’s time taking over the reins of New Worlds and gathering a stable of like-minded writers around him, while participating gleefully in swinging-sixties London. The fantasy novel part took longer to fire, for me, and it was only really at the adventurous conclusion that it really hit upon a story, rather than an endless questioning of the nature of Alsacia, and Moorcock’s own moral doubts about his relationship with it. I look forward to the second volume, though, in the hope it will illuminate, if not the mystery of Alsacia, then at least the mystery of Michael Moorcock.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.

On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:

‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’

But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)

But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:

‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’

(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)

Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:

‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’

But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:

‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’

Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.

Conan the Hero

I recently read L Sprague de Camp’s seminal anthology, Swords & Sorcery, published in 1963, which was perhaps the first mass-market book to define the genre. De Camp followed it with a number of similar volumes, but the first contains fiction by Poul Anderson, Robert E Howard, Lord Dunsany, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, H P Lovecraft, C L Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. I love Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, and I love Clark Ashton Smith‘s decadent-fatalistic fantasies too, but the story that struck me as the most purely sword & sorcerous, and which most made it clear why its sword-swinging protagonist deserved to be the hero of his own tale, was Robert E Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Whereas Leiber’s tales are carried along as much by their playful wit and comic undermining of the heroism of their twin leads, and Smith’s by an archaic word-magic and a deep sense of the cosmic un-heroicism of all human beings, Howard’s writing leaves you in no doubt that Conan is meant to be read as a hero, not an ironic comment on one. And this, to me, seems very much what sword & sorcery, at its purest, should be about. It is hero-fiction.

Much has been made of Howard’s invention of Conan — though perhaps “discovery” is a better word, because in Howard’s own words:

“I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely 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…” [Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Dec 1933]

As Anthony Storr points out, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, a period of apparent creative sterility can be the necessary precursor to a sudden burst of major creation, as a lot of work is being done unconsciously all the while, and although the actual details of Howard’s creation of Conan (his first Conan story was in fact a rewrite of a previously-rejected King Kull story, and many of the subsequent tales went through several drafts, rather than simply “flowing” into being) it certainly seems that the feeling, at least, that Howard is describing was true: in a way, Conan arrived like the solution to a creative problem Howard had been chewing over for some time, and the fact that his first tale was a rewrite of a story initially featuring a different character even seems to back this up. Where King Kull failed, Conan succeeded, and continued to do so. It is as though Conan simply encapsulated that much more of what Howard wanted to say.

So what was the creative problem Conan was designed to solve?

Every author has, in their imagination, an image of the world as it appears to them, and those that create heroic characters can be seen as doing so as a means of finding the perfect person to exist in that world, and to meet its various challenges. (Colin Wilson, in The Craft of the Novel, puts forward the idea that all novels can be seen as thought experiments in how to live, and shows how, for instance, George Bernard Shaw only truly found himself as a writer when he discovered a type of hero who embodied his worldview.) In a way, then, the hero and the world the writer creates can be seen as answering each other.

Take the first Conan story, “The Sword on the Phoenix”. Howard begins by providing us with a villain who is in many ways similar to his hero. Ascalante is plotting to remove Conan from the throne of Aquilonia, and though this may seem a villainous thing to do, we learn that Conan himself has only recently removed the previous king by violent means, so it can’t be mere intent that separates our hero from his opposite — Conan’s Hyperborea is a savage world, and getting to the top by murder is an entirely valid thing to do. Having learned of Ascalante’s plans, we shift to a scene with Conan, which parallels the scene with Ascalante in several ways. Ascalante, for instance, is introduced in the presence of the closest thing he has to a confidante (an enslaved sorcerer, the Numidian Thoth-amon); Conan, meanwhile, is introduced in the company of his closest friend, Prospero. Another minor parallel is how the talk, in both scenes, touches briefly on poets (one particular poet, Rinaldo, is involved in the plot to kill Conan). Ascalante is dismissive of the breed:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.”

Conan has more respect for them:

“A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my sceptre; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.”

There are other similarities. Both Conan and Ascalante have small cadres of bodyguards who abandon them at a key point, and both have to face the same final trial alone. But of course the main point is that both are vying (one to gain, the other to retain) the kingship of Aquilonia — and, in a sense, Howard’s entire story-world.

There is a key difference between the two, the thing that makes Conan the hero and Ascalante the villain. Conan is a king, but is coming to realise that it’s not really what he wants. He made an excellent liberator, and slayer-of-kings, but now he’s on the throne, he feels hemmed in by responsibility. He’s not interested in exercising power for the sake of it, but wants to follow his own path, be his own man. Being a king seemed a good way of doing that at the time, but now it limits him. Ascalante, on the other hand, longs for power, and we can be sure he’ll enjoy tyrannising his fellow men as much as he can once he gets it. Ascalante is endlessly duplicitous, plotting to betray even his closest cohorts, while Conan is simply as you find him. If Conan doesn’t like you, he may lop off your head, but he won’t plot against you. And the reason for this difference is that Ascalante is civilised — is sick with the decadence of living at a remove from the pure, savage violence of the world in which the barbarian Conan was raised. Conan is a creature of instinct, appetites and action; Ascalante is a man of plots and plans, vengeance and resentment, greed and need.

This is a theme that runs throughout Howard’s tales. Civilisation, which provides comfort and security, separates men from true contact with the reality of life, and so breeds decadence, corruption, treachery, sorcery and perversity. Conan is a barbarian but is not uncouth — he may be brutal, but he is honest. He is intelligent, and cultured enough to enjoy a good poet, and to want to make an accurate map of the world as he knows it (which is what he’s doing at the start of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but he’s in direct contact with his instincts, and acts on them without doubt or reserve. His over-civilised enemies, on the other hand, brood and stew their instincts, twisting them into treacherous plots and plans, and perverse desires.

But creating two similar but crucially different characters isn’t enough. In heroic fiction, one character has to prove himself superior, not simply be more admirable. Howard doesn’t do the obvious thing (let them fight it out and have Conan prove himself the better man through sheer physical superiority) but instead has both Conan and Ascalante face a sort of ultimate test of their worth in his world. Hyperborea is a savage place, where often the sword is the decisive factor, but rather like the contemporaneous world of Hard-Boiled Detective fiction, it’s also a world beset by a bleak, Godless view of human life — a grim place of struggle and darkness, where at the ultimate its heroes may have to face the dread, cosmic void of utter meaninglessness. So, both Conan and Ascalante face a being from the “Outside” — a semi-Lovecraftian creature which represents the ultimate awful nature of inhuman reality. (In appearance it’s a giant, mummified baboon-demon, thus combining animal savagery and the supernatural spookiness of un-death.) Before it, the over-civilised Ascalante freezes in horror, but Conan connects with a “frenzied fury akin to madness”, a burst of inner vitality that saves him from his rival’s fate, and proves him to be the true hero of Robert E Howard’s world — a hero fit not just to face savage swords and evil sorcerers, but the bleak truths of the 20th century’s psychological ills, too.

Howard makes Conan credible through an intense belief in the truths represented by the character. Life to him is savage and brutal at heart, so a savage is the best sort to thrive in it, though the only philosophical stance one can take in the face of such a world is Conan’s grim fatalism. Conan is the hero because he and his world are perfectly matched. His knowledge of his world is gained partly through a hard-earned, wide-travelled experience, and partly through an innate understanding of its savagery — Conan regards himself and the wild beasts of Hyperborea as little different, so can think his way into defeating the dragon in “Red Nails”, for instance, by knowing how it will act, and using that knowledge against it. (For me, the most powerful image in all the Conan stories is the one that strikes the greatest contrast with Hyperborea’s savagery —  the ugly alien creature trapped in “The Tower of the Elephant”, a piteous thing longing, above all, for the release of death, because it is so alone. It is, oddly for something so alien, the essence of raw human feeling, totally unsuited to Howard’s violent world, but nevertheless an essential part of it.)

“The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in 1932, only two years after another writer addressed the clash between the individual (the hero) and the repressive nature of modern life — Sigmund Freud, in his Civilisation and Its Discontents. Freud concluded that, in the face of civilisation’s repressive forces, humankind could only lapse into neurosis (which could only be treated by psychoanalysis); Robert E Howard had a different solution — connection with the adventurous savage within, and redemption through sword & sorcery.