The OF Blog: Fantasy Masterworks #8: Robert E. Howard, The Conan Chronicles Volume I: The People of the Black Circle

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Fantasy Masterworks #8: Robert E. Howard, The Conan Chronicles Volume I: The People of the Black Circle

Conan went up the stairs and halted at the door he knew well of old. It was fastened within, but his blade passed between the door and the jamb and lifted the bar. he stepped inside, closing the door after him, and faced the girl who had betrayed him to the police.

The wench was sitting cross-legged in her shift on her unkempt bed. She turned white and stared at him as if at a ghost. She had heard the cry from the stairs, and she saw the red stain on the poniard in his hand. But she was too filled with terror on her own account to waste any time lamenting the evident fate of her lover. She began to beg for her life, almost incoherent with terror. Conan did not reply; he merely stood and glared at her with his burning eyes, testing the edge of his poniard with a calloused thumb.

At last he crossed the chamber, while she cowered back against the wall, sobbing frantic pleas for mercy. Grasping her yellow locks with no gentle hand, he dragged her off the bed. Thrusting his blade back in its sheath, he tucked his squirming captive under his left arm, and strode to the window. Like most houses of that type, a ledge encircled each story, caused by the continuance of the window-ledges. Conan kicked the window open and stepped out on that narrow band. If any had been near or awake, they would have witnessed the bizarre sight of a man moving carefully along the ledge, carrying a kicking, half-naked wench under his arm. They would have been no more puzzled than the girl.

Reaching the spot he sought, Conan halted, gripping the wall with his free hand. Inside the building rose a sudden clamor, showing that the body had at last been discovered. His captive whimpered and twisted, renewing her importunities. Conan glanced down into the muck and slime of the alleys below; he listened briefly to the clamor inside and the pleas of the wench; then he dropped her with great accuracy into a cesspool. He enjoyed her kickings and flounderings and the concentrated venom of her profanity for a few seconds, and even alloed himself a low rumble of laughter. Then he lifted his head, listened to the growing tumult within the building and decided it was time for him to kill Nabonidus. (pp. 83-84)

Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, 21 tales written between 1932 and Howard's death by suicide in 1935, stand like a Colossus in the subgenre of sword and sorcery fantasy that followed. For his supporters, Howard's imagination burned like a meteor through the night sky, brilliant, dazzling, lasting all too brief of a time. Howard's detractors, however, deplore his seeming chauvinistic, capricious attitude toward women, and they would point to scenes such as the one quoted above as an example of how degrading this form of fantasy literature could be, not just toward women, but also toward the numerous real-world ethnic groups that Howard depicts in very slightly-altered form in his Conan the Cimmerian tales.

When I began reading this first volume of two (the other will arrive in a couple of weeks and I'll review it separately) on Friday, I had quite a few reservations. Oh, I had heard much about how vivid and "alive" Howard's tales were and that if read as simple adventure pieces, much enjoyment could be gained from them. But I was uneasy about learning of his casual references to "wenches" and his use of racial stereotypes. I feared that I might be in for a reading of a series of stories that, while certainly better-written than the imitative work, would possess the depth and meaning of a The Eye of Argon. After finishing this first volume, my reservations still remain.

Howard certainly had a flair for telling an action-packed, vividly-rendered tale in short story or novella form. His Hyperborean Age setting of an Earth tens of thousands of years ago that would serve as a clear mirror for the "distorted myths" that would follow, certainly allowed him much leeway in creating interesting backdrops for Conan's adventures. Depending on what the reader brings to the table, passages such as the long one I cited above can be thrilling, as the villains get their comeuppance in short order and Conan survives to fight for another day.

But for those like myself who have certain beliefs in regards to ethnicity and gender relations, Conan's tales present quite a few roadblocks to enjoying Howard's writing. The frequent mentions of naked or half-naked "wenches," many of them chained to slave masters or kings, serving mostly as props for Conan's enjoyment or as a weak-willed, weak-hearted damsel in distress for him to rescue, makes for a rather dated and sometimes repellent world-view that hopefully is fading into the past. I could not, as much as I tried, distance myself from my own views when reading these tales. While I could recognize Howard's ability to tell an exciting yarn, ultimately I was left thinking that most writers (John Norman being a notable exception) who have been influenced by Howard are at least writing tales that invert or subvert Howard's often-odious notions regarding race and gender.

Was this volume worthy of being called a "Fantasy Masterwork?" Despite my reactions to elements of his writing, Howard has had too much of an influence on too many writers over the past seventy-seven years for him not to be considered one. Whether or not one might enjoy his writings today depends on the type of baggage that the reader brings to the table. For myself, I can appreciate much of what he accomplished with these tales, but that I have reservations about some of his elements to enjoy them fully.


Nick said...

So how do you feel about HP Lovecraft? Because he's pretty bad on race as well - in a similar way!

MatsVS said...

I have to say, Larry, I most certainly expected this reaction from you in concern to the misogynism and racism, and that's fair enough, but I had hoped that not more or less THE ENTIRE REVIEW should be given to the subject. After all, all literatur needs first and foremost to be put in a historical context, and in that regard. Howard really wasn't that bad. Indeed, some may even call him progressive as certain strong female characters were introduced.

Anyways, my disappointments aside, I am still looking forward to when it's the next part's turn in the spotlight!

Larry Nolen said...

Haven't tried him yet, Nick.


I said at the outset that I wouldn't be writing formal reviews, but rather reaction pieces of 500-1000 words, so there'll be several posts that revolve around a specific issue. As for calling Howard "progressive," let's just say that I thought about noting the time/place a bit more and had considered musing about how pervasive such odious thoughts on race/gender were. I really didn't think any of his female characters, at least in this volume, were "strong," but perhaps that'll be the case in the second volume.

MatsVS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MatsVS said...

Aye, that you did, Larry, and I apologize if I sounded antagonistic. Those capital letters were perhaps not needed.

And not even Belit? Or Valeria (or was she in part 2?)? I remember finding them quite impressive, though that could be my naïve 11-year old persona talking. :p

Oh, and for the record, I did intend to put progressive in quotation marks, as even though I never did find Howard particularly offensive in this regard, progressive would definitely be an overstatement.

Larry Nolen said...

Fair enough, plus I hope to address the mechanics of Howard's stories when I read/comment on the second half. As for the characters you name, either they left no impression on me or they don't appear until Part II, as I don't remember much other than the "wenches" shuddering and shivering while strong males clasp them to their manly selves.

Al Harron said...

First of all, I'm glad you've taken the plunge into reading REH.

First of all, I'd like to point out that many of the stories in the Fantasy Masterorks Conan volumes are based on edited versions of Howard's manuscripts, either from Weird Tales, or later editions. Most are alright, any that are listed as based on the Weird Tales copies are fine, but some are utterly butchered by ham-fisted editing. They're also put in an artificial chronological context. Overall, to get the "real" Howard experience, I'd recommend you go for The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan: complete, unabridged, unedited save for typos, based on the original manuscripts, plus essays by famed Howard scholars.

While there are many instances of the typical "pulp attitude" towards women, Howard was nothing short of ahead of his time in regards to women. Valeria is portrayed quite decisively as the closest any one person in a story comes to Conan's equal, to the point where Conan himself admits that he cannot disarm her whilst unarmed himself and live. Belit dominates "Queen of the Black Coast". Even the lesser heroines like Natala, Sancha and Olivia display spark and backbone that you just didn't see in the '30s. If you think these are mere "damsels in distress", look at the competition of the time: few such characters even get lines, much less dialogue, or chances to show some sort of spunk. Natala, probably the most timorous, frightful of Howard's girls, has enogh chutzpah to STAB the villain of her tale. How many pulp heroines can you say that of? Look outside the Conan stories and you find Dark Agnes, Red Sonya, Tarala the Briton, Helen Tavrel - all able warrior women cut from the cloth of Valeria (who you'll meet in part 2).

Regarding the racism, Howard was very ambivalent in his attitudes. For every glowing depiction of Nordic or Celtic pride, there are mentions of their darker and more despicable sides. His favourite race - the Picts - are heroes in some stories, antagonists the next, sometimes in the same story. By the same token, while there are many racist caricatures of blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans and Jews, there are also strongly sympathetic ethnic characters like Ace Jessel, N'Longa, John Garfield, Juan Lopez and Belit (who is a Shemite, or Hyborian Jew).

I also (naturally) disagree with your assessment that they are merely vivid, well-written adventure tales. At his best, Howard was capable of incredible subtlety and hidden depths. The biblical allusions of "Tower of the Elephant", the grand themes of fall and loss in "Queen of the Black Coast", the study of barbarism and civilization in "Beyond the Black River" push Howard from mere yarn-spinner into a true artist with unique voice. Beyond the Conan stories you get some true classics of many genres, be they Sword & Sorcery, historical fiction, horror, western or even boxing.

I myself have no time for racism or misogyny, in fact it's practically anathema to me. But frankly, anything I read in Howard that I find objectionable, I can overcome: because Howard, at his best, overrides the confines and deficiencies of his personality and his time. It's a shame you couldn't do the same, but I won't hold it against you.

I do have to ask what your particular problem with the term "wench" is. Here in Blighty at least, it's merely a rather amusingly quaint term for an attractive young woman, and at worst a promiscuous one. Does it have a different, more offensive meaning where you are?

As for whether Howard justifies his place in Fantasy Masterworks: you bet your sweet bippy, and not just for the influence he had on the genre. Then again, the FM series loses points for its baffling Moorcock fixation and unforgivable omission of Wagner and Merritt, so whatever.

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