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.

The Big Sleep

BigSleepPenguinI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.