Thursday, January 26, 2006

Barbarian Chic

I thought I'd provide a link to short Washington Post review of Del Rey/Ballantine's The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan. These are Robert E. Howard's Conan stories without the rewrites, pastiches, and finsihed fragments that got published with Howard's completed stories during the 1960s and 70s.

I devoured the Conan stories in 8th grade, both the good and the bad (yes, there's good Conan stories, almost always written by Howard himself), and then returned to them in 2004 when I realized I couldn't talk about the late 20th Century sword and sorcery fantasy's indebtedness to Victorian Britain’s infatuation with the Vikings without talking about Conan (this was for a MLA panel on the 19th and 20th Century reception of Old Norse literature and I began with the idea that the self-conscious medievalism of Pratchett's The Last Hero and Holt's Who's Afraid of Beowulf? was linked to Victorian medievalism. I knew it in that gut-level way of knowing things and my diss. director agreed, so I ran with it. Among other things, I learned that while medievalists and medievalismists regard H. Rider Haggard's Eric Brighteyes as the best modern novel written in the medieval Icelandic saga style, it's considered by fantasy scholars to be one of if not the first sword and sorcery novel.

But then there's Conan. Howard grew up reading Victorian adventure stories and Haggard was one of his favorite authors (we might also recall that in King Solomon's Mines, Sir Henry Curtis an Englishman of Danelaw ancestry, is described as a Viking warror during the climatic battle). While Howard's usually connected with the Celts by the handful of scholars who study him, I kept finding Viking references in his letters and other writings. And, well, there's "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," one of the earliest Conan stories, in which Conan tells his Aesir friend that he feels much more akin to the Aesir and Vanir (Howard's Hyborian Age proto-Scandinavians) than he does to his own Cimmerians peoples (Howard's Hyborian Age proto-Celts). Turns out, Howard plays with the Vikings nearly as much as the Celts, though most scholar's haven't picked up on that because Howard's friends wrote about Howard as a Celtophile.

Any way, Michael Dirda's review is short and good. I'm not saying Howard's a literary great, but at his best, he's damn good. At his worst, well, the man made a living, during the Depression, as a pulp fiction writer, churning out everything from boxing stories to erotica. And yes, he was a racist and a sexist. But his writing's not fluff. He was engaged in a long running debate with H.P. Lovecraft over the issue of civilization vs. barbarism, with Lovecraft seeing civilization as our salvation and Howard seeing it as our weakness. Their letters make fascinating reading. And these philosophical debates made their way into Howard's writing, as Dirda explains:
Yet without making grandiose claims for them, Howard's Conan chronicles are also a bit more than that. They are, as Patrice Louinet demonstrates in his forewords and afterwords to these three volumes, studies in the clash of Barbarism and Civilization. In Howard's grim and all too realistic view, the barbarians are always at the gate, and once a culture allows itself to grow soft, decadent or simply neglectful, it will be swept away by the primitive and ruthless. As a character insists in "Beyond the Black River," the most deeply felt and complex Conan story, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. . . . Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."
Regardless of what one thinks of Howard, his writing, and his philosophy, only Tolkien has had as much influence on 20th Century fantasy. In fact, while Tolkien didn't create "high" or "epic" fantasy and while Howard didn't create sword and sorcery, the two subgenres were reshaped by them to such an extent they are the two fathers of modern fantasy literature.

Via Neil Gaiman

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