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.


A letter between writers

Whether it’s Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, or David Lindsay to E H Visiak, reading letters between writers, you often find things getting a little formulaic. So, if you ever get caught in a writerly correspondence (highly unlikely, nowadays), here are all your epistolary requirements met:

Dear [fellow writer]

First of all, apologies for not having replied to your previous letter sooner. You know how life is!

[Then, either this paragraph:]

Thanks for the copy of your latest book. A work of genius, though few of course will see it. Critics are, in the main, dullards. As for me, it has left my head so full of thoughts that I cannot set them down just yet. A second read, and a bit more leisure, will allow me to do so. Now, of course, you must immediately set about writing something new! The world awaits your next masterpiece!

[or this paragraph:]

Commiserations on your continued efforts to find a publisher. Publishers are, in the main, dullards. It will, I am sure, one day soon find a home.


As for my own writing, I have been rather lax of late. All this business with moving house, and so on. You know how life is! I will endeavour to do more!


[your name, in a slightly less formal version than in the last letter, till you hit on a pair of silly nicknames for one another]


Why I like… Clark Ashton Smith


The first Clark Ashton Smith story I read was “The Empire of the Necromancers“. A friend, not wanting to actually lend me his precious copy of Lost Worlds Volume 1 (the Panther paperback edition with the Bruce Pennington cover), let me read it for the half hour it took him to take a quick trip up to town. I chose to read “The Empire of the Necromancers” because, besides being the first story in the book, it was short enough that I was likely to finish it before he returned and took the book back.

I was instantly — not hooked, but bewildered. I had never read anything like it. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and I think I only managed to retain my readerly equilibrium by telling myself the story’s strangeness must be due to its being written in the 1930s. Having since read a good deal of old & classic fantasy, I still find Clark Ashton Smith’s writing irredeemably strange, and now know it’s not because he belonged to another age, but because he was that timeless, ageless thing, an individual with a genuinely unique imagination — a rare thing, even among what should be the most imaginative group of writers, fantasists. It’s only among the likes of Mervyn Peake and E R Eddison that Clark Ashton Smith really meets his match.

CAS_LW1_frontThe strangeness is all there in “The Empire of the Necromancers”. The story opens in the desert, as we follow two sorcerers, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, as they are exiled from the city of Tinarath for the practice of necromancy. Used to reading sword and sorcery tales in which the sorcerers are the villains, it was strange enough to follow this peculiar pair as if they were the tale’s heroes, but this was merely the first of many strangenesses in Smith’s story. Heading south, the necromancers encounter the skeleton of a horse and its rider, and set about reviving the dead mount to carry one of them. (Such practical use of nefarious power!) Then they continue to Yethlyreom, a vast, dead city, in which centuries of mummified nobility are waiting to be brought back to life to serve Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and to people their undead empire.

(Such names as Tinarath and Yethlyreom, I’d soon learn, were due to the influence of Lord Dunsany, not just on Clark Ashton Smith, but on the entire fantasy field, and only absent from my then-current fantasy reading because it had already become passé to imitate Dunsany’s long, poetic-sounding names. Dunsany, like Poe, was obviously an influence on Smith, but even Dunsany would never have created a necromancer called Sodosma.)

CAS_TalesofZothiqueOnce the two necromancers have their empire up and running, Smith’s story takes an abrupt turn. So far, the necromancers have been the protagonists. Now, we are introduced to a far more Smithian hero, in the shape of Illerio, the last Emperor of Cincor (of which Yethlyreom was the capital). Illerio is an even more surprising hero than the necromancers, because he is dead. Undead, in fact. Raised from oblivion by Mmatmuor and Sodosma, he is just beginning to resent the fact, in his slow-minded way. In snatches, Illerio plots with Hestaiyon, his eldest ancestor among the throngs of reanimatees. A formidable sorcerer in his own day, Hestaiyon remembers a dark secret in the depths of the palace, a door that opens upon a set of steps that descend into an ever deeper darkness. It is through this doorway that the undead emperors of Cincor descend to their second, final, irrevocable death from which no necromancer can recall them — but not before slicing up Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and enchanting their sundered body parts with a magical immortality to ensure they suffer properly for the indignity to which they put the emperors of Cincor.

Normally, I wouldn’t recount the full plot of a story I like so much, as I wouldn’t want to take the pleasure of discovering it from a new reader. But this doesn’t apply to Clark Ashton Smith stories. Once you get to know Smith, you realise that almost all his tales end in the same way: everyone meets their doom. The dead, if resurrected, long to return to death; the living, meanwhile, achieve a frequently arcane, and generally ironic demise. In a sense, there is no story. A Clark Ashton Smith tale starts with a note of doom and continues ever downwards.

Again and again, in story after story, the dead and the living mix, briefly, in their macabre way, then join one another in oblivion. The poetry of his tales — and it is as poetry they are best appreciated — most often lies, macabrely enough, in the manner of that final death. A willing descent into the abyss for Illerio and his ancestors; a drowning in jewels for the greedy Avoosl Wuthoqquan; Christophe Morand returning to the embrace of a life-draining lamia from whom he has just been saved. (Love and death, in Clark Ashton Smith’s world, are frequently inseparable.) There are exceptions — for instance, the alienated human poet Theophilus Alvor finding love in the (five) arms of an equally alienated princess from another planet in “The Monster of the Prophecy” — but most often it is as Fritz Leiber puts it: “I can hardly think of a Smith story, the principal theme of which is not death.”

young_CASEvery writer needs a defining anecdote that sums up their uniqueness. With Smith, it is the fact that he withdrew himself from school and set about educating himself, primarily by reading an unabdridged dictionary all the way through several times, paying particular attention to the etymologies of the words.

Somehow, he remembered it all. Smith’s primary aim was to be a poet. Wilfully anachronistic, he not only set about making a name for himself as a lyric poet in an age that was about to embrace the modernism of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound — and doing so at the boy-genius age of 19 — but also set about making himself a Decadent poet, remotely tagging himself onto the already dying Decadent scene in San Francisco, when European Decadence, as a literary movement, had ceased to be fashionable about twenty years before.

WT_Apr1938And as if being a Decadent poet wasn’t showing enough disdain for the Modern Age, when Smith wrote for the pulps (which he did, prolifically, for about a decade) he wrote what must surely be some of the most uncommercial fiction in the most uncommercial, archaic style, but still managed to become one of Weird Tales‘s most popular regulars, through, I can only conclude, the sheer strangeness of his imagination.

And then, at the height of his success, finding that he didn’t need the money from pulp-writing anymore (he’d had to support his ageing parents, and now both of them were dead), he stopped writing fiction and turned to his new love of rock-carving, producing weird little primitive-looking statuettes with names like “Antehuman Grotesque”, “Lemurian Ghost”, and “Sorcerer Undergoing a Bestial Change”.

And, of course, he returned to poetry.

CAS_LOSmith wrote what is, for me, the greatest of all fantasy poems, the stupendous blank-verse “The Hashish Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil”, with its torrent of dream-visions building to a crescendo of horror, and an ending borrowed from Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There’s also “Nero“, a monologue in which the insane pyromaniac Roman Emperor, watching his city burn, regrets he can’t do the same to the universe itself. Among his shorter lyrics, “Lunar Mystery” has a particularly beautiful word-music, and “Nyctalops” is a good example of Smith’s use of fantasy/horror imagery to achieve an effect of enchanting, unsettling strangeness.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I think it is strangeness that is the key to Clark Ashton Smith. He felt a kinship with his fellow pulp-writer H P Lovecraft (with whom he corresponded from 1922 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937) in the need to capture, whether in fiction, poetry, sculpture or painting (Smith painted weird little scenes of alien plant-life) a glimpse of something utterly otherworldly. But, although he wrote a few Lovecraftian horror tales, and did desire at times to unsettle his readers, Smith was never as bleak in his outlook as the Gent from Providence. For Lovecraft, the otherworldly was terrifying, because it proved the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence. Smith may have been disdainful of the petty endeavours of his own age, but found great beauty and meaning in the strangeness of the otherworldly, in the freedom of his imagination from the merely mundane. He felt:

“…a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra-terrestial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings and stories.” [Letter to HPL, 24th Oct 1930]

Smith’s beloved death, and the world of the dead, was just another realm of the imagination, another otherworldly place in which to achieve the ultimate “escape from the human equation”. [Letter to HPL, 16 Nov 1930]

Ambrose Bierce (who disappeared shortly before Smith entered the San Francisco literary scene) once said, “A jest in the death-chamber conquers by surprise.” Smith, who had a very dry, very dark sense of humour, might well have replied, “But of course it is death itself that is the jest.”

If it is, then only the dead are really in on the joke — the dead, and their fantasist-laureate, Clark Ashton Smith.

(The best place to find out more about Clark Ashton Smith is The Eldritch Dark, including a gallery of his paintings and rock-carvings.)