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.


In which I mingle with rock stars and academics…

Towards the end of 2009, I was invited to contribute an essay to a festschrift for Colin Wilson‘s 80th birthday in June of this year. Originally to be published by editor Colin Stanley’s Pauper’s Press, the project was taken on by O Books, and is to be published in May this year. I was invited because of my David Lindsay site, The Violet Apple, and so of course my essay was about Wilson’s writings on David Lindsay, and the enormous influence he’s had on the fact that Lindsay is still in print today.

Within the pages of Around the Outsider, I mingle with academics, writers, and several musicians, including the onetime bass player from Blondie, Gary Lachman, whose books (including A Secret History of Consciousness, and The Dedalus Book of the 1960s — which I used in researching my Lindsay essay) seem to me to be continuing very much in the spirit of Wilson himself; and also David Power, who has published a book on David Lindsay, David Lindsay’s Vision (which has an introduction by Colin Wilson).

There’s more about Around the Outsider at Colin Wilson World, and Colin Wilson Online, and it can now be pre-ordered through Amazon.


Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

This week I’ve mostly been reading a recently-released collection of book reviews by Colin Wilson, Existential Criticism, from Paupers Press. (If the title sounds rather dry, the contents are anything but, as I several times found myself laughing out loud.) After finding his first book, The Outsider, in a bookshop in Tunbridge Wells and buying it on an impulse, I was instantly hooked on Wilson’s writing, and went through a period of reading everything by him I could get my hands on. In those pre-internet days, when the thrill of the hunt was a large part of book collecting, this, combined with the wide range of Wilson’s interests, resulted in my reading books on subjects I’d not normally be interested in, such as serial killers (in often rather grisly detail), cult leaders, and UFOs. Then, almost as abruptly, I suddenly had my fill of Wilson, got rid of most of the books by him I’d collected, and read him no more. Or almost no more, because I’d occasionally dip in when he released a new book (I reviewed The Angry Years on this blog a few years ago), and have slowly been warming to him again. When Existential Criticism arrived in the post last Saturday, I sat down for a quick dip-in and soon found myself absorbed as I remembered all the things I’d liked about his work from before.

Colin Wilson’s writing is incredibly moreish. Every so often I go through my bookshelves, pulling off books, flipping through, and asking what it is the authors have that makes their writing work, and I always end up with a Colin Wilson book in my hand. Other writers may have a characteristic prose style, or a unique imaginative world, but Wilson writes in a straightforward manner, and his best writing is as likely to be his non-fiction as his fiction; nevertheless, he’s compulsively readable.

Existential Criticism by Colin Wilson

Why? It comes down, I think, to two things. The first is his intense interest in what he’s writing. Whatever he’s writing about, he goes at it like a hungry fox eyeing the fat rabbit on the other side of the field — wily, but determinedly singleminded. Wilson is also tremendously knowledgeable. At times, he seems to have read just about every book in existence — and not just the ones that would make him “well-read”, but the dregs, too, and read with no preconceptions, meaning he’s found value where others wouldn’t stoop to look, and been unimpressed by what others universally praise. There’s a real feeling of the stuff-of-life in Wilson’s writing. He’s willing to throw every element into the pot — and that means the tawdry, quirky, gossipy messiness of it as much as the idealistic striving. Whether he’s writing about murderers or philosophers, science or the occult, he accords it all equal value as a source of potential understanding, of ideas. (And this may be the reason he’s not as appreciated as he ought to be — his more culturally po-faced critics get embarrassed by his serious approach to things they think beneath them.) This leads to the second essential element that powers his writing, the easy-going confidence that is, perhaps, its most attractive quality.

But what was it that stopped me reading Wilson’s work? Weirdly, it’s the thing that Wilson himself would consider the most important element in his writing: the existentialism.

I don’t disagree at all with the philosophical element of Colin Wilson’s writing, which basically comes down to the idea that boredom, or the deeper feeling of purposelessness or meaninglessness, isn’t (as it was taken to be by Existentialists such as Sartre) an essential fact of human existence. It can be overcome, simply by making the effort. And the effort involves merely making yourself interested in something. The more intense the interest, the more meaningful life will seem. Wilson has obviously achieved this. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, identifies this finding a focus in life, this creating a meaning from the inside rather than waiting for it to arrive from the outside, as a key factor determining which of his fellow-prisoners survived the concentration camps of the Second World War.

As I say, I had no problem with this idea, and was happy for Wilson to bend every subject he treated round to it, as he inevitably did, so he could rehearse its main points. I had no problems, either, with him treating the writings of the likes of Rilke or Sartre — who I haven’t read and don’t intend to — as testing grounds for his philosophy. But it started to grate when he turned his attention to writers whose work I love, and almost always found them seriously wanting. H P Lovecraft, for example, was damned pretty thoroughly in The Strength to Dream. And though Wilson was a key figure in rescuing David Lindsay‘s A Voyage to Arcturus from near-oblivion, his interpretation of Lindsay’s work has, as a result, sometimes been taken as the only interpretation, one that seems to me quite reductive, particularly when applied to Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. All this began to grate on me, and the feeling returned when I read, in Existential Criticism (p. 57): “Borges is not a great writer because he is not a mature writer. He has remained in a kind of perpetual adolescence.”

Back when I first encountered these criticisms, I couldn’t get over them. I felt Wilson had missed the point, but overawed as I was at the time by his evident intelligence and confidence, I couldn’t bring myself to admit this. Instead, I gave up reading him. Now, though, I find it easier to simply say, “I beg to differ,” and read on, still enjoying the Wilson I used to enjoy, and taking the rest as a challenge to what I’ve since come to think. Because, yes, it’s easy to criticise Lovecraft for being a pessimist, for being overwhelmed by the threatening bleakness of the universe. And no, Lovecraft didn’t provide an answer to the existential problem of life’s apparent meaninglessness, but what he did do was encapsulate the problem in an entirely new imaginative form. This can only be regarded as a failure if you treat fiction as a form of philosophy. But I think it’s the other way round. Aesthetics contains philosophy, not vice versa. And this, I think, is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s strengths. Borges takes obscure philosophical ideas and plays with them as easily as a poet plays with words. Wilson may take this as evidence that Borges didn’t believe in anything with any conviction; I’d say it means Borges believed that the world is not one thing, with one single interpretation, but a manifold thing worthy of a million interpretations, none of which is wholly right nor wholly wrong — a multiverse rather than a universe — which is a very Borgesian idea (the Aleph, the Book of Sand, and Shakespeare’s Memory are also many-things-in-one), but also, surely, the same as the existential idea that “meaning is not in the world, but one’s head” (as my version of Alice puts it). In fact, if you want to get properly philosophical about it, it’s the idea William James (a frequent Colin Wilson touchstone) wrote about back in 1907, in A Pluralistic Universe.

In the Borges review, Wilson does go on to say that he enjoys Borges as a writer, just finds him lacking in an existentialist sense. Wilson has even dedicated a book to him (The Philosopher’s Stone), and has written stories in the Lovecraftian mode (“Return of the Lloigor”). So, I’m going to get over it, and carry on enjoying Wilson, having left him alone, I think, for too long.