Conan the Barbarian and the Godless Worldview

A couple of years ago decided I wanted to read the early Fantasy stories that created the modern genre. I started with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and George MacDonald. Talk about a contrast. If C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are the fathers of modern fantasy then George MacDonald might be thought of as the Grand Father of modern fantasy. The influence on C.S. Lewis in particular is obvious. I found it interesting to realize that the modern fantasy genre was largely an expression of the Christian religious experience of these founding fathers.

But this isn’t the whole tale, of course. There was also an atheist informed strain of fantasy that co-existed side-by-side with the fantasy stories given birth out of the religious experience. I wrote an article on H.P. Lovecraft a while back talking about how he channeled his atheist worldview into his stories and the result was cosmic horror: the awful realization that the “God” of this universe is uncaring and malevolent. Ironically, this means the darker fantasy genre is also an expression of religious experience.

More recently I decided to read Robert E. Howard, particularly his Solomon Kane and Conan stories.

I am not a fan of Conan, I’m afraid. At least for the first several stories that Howard wrote, I felt like they were all derivatives of each other. Every story followed the same plotline:

The Conan Standard Plot

  1. There is a woman
    • She is always white, though she might be fair or tan
    • She is always the daughter of a king or high noble man
    • She has usually been captured by some evil civilized man that has taken her as his play thing. (Apparently peasant girls never get captured by designing men)
    • Most of the time her hair is brunette (Update: I did this from memory and got this one backward. I rememered it was usually one color, but apparently got it wrong. My deep apologies to my rebutter who couldn’t get over my mistake here. ;) I’m afraid Conan means a heck of a lot more to him than it does to me.)
    • She never has a personality
    • She is scantily clad
  2. Conan shows up for one of the following reasons:
    • He’s trying to rob someone
    • He’s trying to assassinate someone so that he can take what is theirs
    • He just happens to be wandering along for no reason
  3. The woman meets Conan and can’t help but notice how massive and attractive he is. She then does one of the following:
    • She’s already with him at the beginning of the story for no reason
    • Falls for him
    • Tries to use him to free herself but doesn’t really like him, though she admits to herself how handsome he is
    • Tags along with Conan because she needs a big strong man to protect her
  4. Conan and the woman then decide to explore some horrible place full of danger. Inevitably, there is some Lovecraftian horror that will attack them. [1]
  5. The very little the woman is wearing comes off at some point as she is captured, tries to get away, is tortured, or something else.
  6. Conan then protects the woman from this horror and will manage to save her. During this fight, the following will take place with only minor variations:
    • There will be large amounts of blood and gore.
    • Heads will fly or be smooshed
    • Conan will single handedly kill all human’s nearby except his woman. (This often involves killing some other attractive woman that he also wanted, but she was evil, so no go. “Evil” here always means “not letting Conan keep the other woman.”)
    • He will receive no wounds.
    • Then Conan will fight off some Lovecraftian horror and almost die. (Conan is apparently human-proof but not Lovecraftian proof.)
  7. Then one of the following will take place to end the story:
    • If the woman was trying to use Conan, he’ll decide not to force her to keep their deal – you know what it is — because murderous thieving barbarians, unlike their civilized counter parts, stick to a code of ethics concerning women, if they want to.
    • The woman likes Conan and will insist on sealing the deal just as the story fades out.
    • The woman claims she doesn’t like Conan but he knows better and then it pretty much ends just like b but with her “pretending” to fight him off.

You have now read all of the first 13 Conan stories.

If Lovecraft’s horror was a channeling of his atheist beliefs to their logical conclusions, so are Howard’s Conan stories in their own way. If nothing in life matters and death is its only relief (Howard committed suicide) then Conan’s view of life is the correct one:

Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content. — “Queen of the Black Coast”, Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales, May 1934.

Live your life fully as you see fit. Don’t worry about morality beyond what it benefits you. Eat, drink, make love, and draw blood for tomorrow we die at the hand of some unbreakable cosmic horror. This is the moral tale of Conan the Barbarian.

Notes

[1] The Conan stories ostensibly take place within the Cthulhu Mythos and many early drafts actually mention the names of the Cthulhu “gods.” Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were pen pals and Howard wrote numerous Cthulhu mythos stories.

Update: Don’t miss this hilarious rebuttal to my post over at this blog! Apparently only half of the first 13 Conan stories follow the above formula. Oh my! I stand corrected. ;)

22 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian and the Godless Worldview

  1. Ditto for James Bond. Except in the modern world you have to be gainfully employed to be anyone, even if you are cruel and violent. That’s why he never loses his job, no matter which rules he breaks. Rambo doesn’t need a job, so he is like Conan, and thus less popular. Being independently wealthy is also acceptable. Spiderman is ok, but only because he is in college.

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  3. Seriously…you spent the time to outline the Conan books? More stamina than I have. I don’t find many authors or filmmakers much better. Eastwood before hereafter, John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Grissom on CSI — I mean, they may not all be cutting peoples’ heads off and having their way with scantily-clad women, but their worldview is not much advanced over Conan’s. Men are tough, testosterone-driven, might is right, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, no one really has family, bars are their churches etc. etc.

  4. Bruce, Hugh Nibley once discussed the ancient pagan story of Baal and Ashteroth. Sounds like there are similar themes to the Conan story. Today, we have James Bond and a long list of heroes with no morality except “I love, I slay and I am content.” It’s the same old struggle that has been going on for millennia: Satan convinces us that there is another way to find happiness besides the one way, which is to follow the Savior.

  5. Interesting. I would dispute some of your simplification of Conan (it looks like you’ve been reading L. Sprauge DeCamp’s “revisions” that were published as though they were the originals, and I can immediately think of at least three Conan tales that don’t fit that formula – for example, “The God in the Bowl”), but I don’t really care for Conan all that much, so I’m not that interested in hashing out the details of the Conan formula.

    Solomon Kane, on the other hand, is an amazing character. I did a review of the Howard Kane corpus here:
    http://inmediasrays.blogspot.com/2006/12/definitely-not-conan.html

    I’d be interested in your take on those tales, since you mentioned you were reading those as well.

  6. Ivan,

    First, you are right that I am over simplifying to both make a point and to be humorous. I didn’t really intend this as an English paper.

    However, that over simplification (such as the God in the Bowl execption?) isn’t much of an over simplification. And I’m pretty sure I read the originals.

    Solomon Kane is one of my favorite characters. Many feel that Conan was Howard’s most inner self. His idealized self. I think Conan tells us what Howard personally believed.

    I’m not sure what Kane tells us. The character is likeable, a decent guy, never takes advantage of women — even when they are offering, and his greatest love in life is to do God’s will.

    I also love that he’s torn over method. Do the ends justify the means? Is it right for Kane to use blasphemous magic to fight evil? But if he doesn’t, what is he to do?

    Conan is the Comedian and Kane is Batman, I suppose.

    I’m looking forward to the movie and hope they don’t ruin it.

  7. “I am not a fan of Conan, I’m afraid. At least for the first several stories that Howard wrote, I felt like they were all derivatives of each other. Every story followed the same plotline:”

    I have to say, I found your list not only over-simplified, but outright incorrect in many respects. Even if it’s over-”simplified” to make a point, you quite clearly seem to forget the fact that half of the Conan stories don’t even apply to many of the bullet points. Five of the first thirteen Conan stories don’t even make it out of the stalls, since there are no female characters in them.

    So I don’t clog up your comments, I’ve decided to address it here:

    http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/12/alleged-conan-formula.html

    Honestly, are you *sure* you’ve read the stories?

  8. Bruce, you are in deep trouble. You have stirred the Conan defenders. It’s kind of like when Gandalf goes into the Mines of Moria and awakens the Balrog. All is lost. Fly you fool, fly!

  9. Hey, nothing like a little controversy to stir things up. :) Merely saying things supportive of the LDS Church just wasn’t cutting it any more. I had to get *really* controversial and dis on The Barbarian Man. :P

    Does this mean we’re going to get “Conanacled?” ;)

  10. I’m not a big Conan defender, but I am an REH authority, and Al’s reply is right on the money. Conan is arguably Howard’s most commercial property–meaning, he wrote it specifically for Weird Tales, and with certain elements added in to ensure its placement in the magazine. As such, there are things present in REH’s Conan that don’t really show up anywhere else–the cringing slave girl, for example. Compare some of the women in Conan to the female lead in A Gent From Bear Creek or Sword Woman and you’ll quickly see that “one of these things is not like the other.” Conan is the anomoly in Howard’s writing, not the standard. He wrote 23 Conan stories–not even one tenth of the total number of stories he wrote. It’s a relatively small sample. I just want to make sure that no one is tarring and feathering REH with that rather narrow brush.

    All of that aside, I do recognize your formula for its rather generic elements. It sounds more like an indictment of Conan pastiches than REH’s Conan himself.

    Enjoy the Solomon Kane. I would also recommend King Kull to you, along with Howard’s Crusades tales. His historical fiction is among his best writing of all.

  11. Bruce may have read the originals, it’s just that I first read Conan tales presented as the “originals” by L. Sprauge De Camp, only to find out he had done some “polishing.” I then found versions that actually were the original tales, and while I still didn’t care for them, they were a little better and had less of what Bruce talks about above – though as Mark states, it seems the Conan tales by other authors follows that formula pretty well. With Howard, it seems he had two types of Conan tales – on one side, the formulaic quick sale, and on the other side more serious tales written because he wanted to write them.

    Also, when you say “the first 13″ – that could be taken several ways. L. Sprague De Camp published them in what he determined was the “chronological” order, even though Howard wrote them in no particular order (his first Conan tale took place when Conan was older and a King). Some collections publish them in order of original publication, and others publish them in the order they were written (and including unpublished tales). So that might also have some effect on it all.

    As for the Solomon Kane movie – it’s been released in theatres pretty much every where but the USA. Reviews have been mostly positive. It’s available on Region 2 DVD. Yet the filmmakers can’t get financial backing to release it in the USA. I’ve been waiting for the movie for a long time. Maybe I’ll actually get to see it sometime.

  12. Ivan,

    First of all the ‘pattern’ was meant for humor, not a critical analysis. However, now that you’ve brought it up, I went back and looked it up and apparently I read some of the original, some Sprauge polished versions, and even one or two that were just an outline from Howard before Sprauge wrote them. But most of them came from “Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” which I thought was originals, but I might have been wrong. So I have this conglomeration in my head and little or not interest in sorting it out.

    But you have to understand how it felt to read these stories. I started to groan “oh, gee, I haven’t seen that element before” within just a few stories.

    Examples from the ones *least* fitting of the pattern:

    “The Phoenix on the Sword” – No woman, but Conan has stolen a kingdom (variant #2) and there is an assassination attempt on him that involves summoning a Lovecraftian horror (variant #4).

    “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” – Conan meets a naked woman (variant #1 and #5) who casts a spell on him to force him to chase her down for you know what (variant #7). Then her Elder God brothers show up to rob him (Variant #6) and the end result is that Conan is so tired out at the end that he almost dies.

    “The God in the Bowl” – No woman, but starts out with Conan attempting to rob someone. (Variant #2). Then Conan kills a bunch of people and faces off with a Lovecraftian horror (variant #4). I can’t remember this one very well, but I think Conan easily kills the Lovecraftian horror not realizing what it is and then flees for his life when he realizes what just happened. (Variant #6)

    “The Tower of the Elephant” – No woman, but Conan decides to rob someone (variant #2) and ends up having to confront Lovecraftian horrors in a tower. (Variant #4 and 6).

    “The Scarlet Citadel” – Conan has stolen someone else’s kingdom (variant #2) and it gets stolen by an evil wizard (variant Lovecraftian horror #4 so that he can save ‘his’ kingdom. Part of his motivation is that this pretender is stealing Conan’s poor little harem and he must save them (variant #1, 5, and 6)

    The other 8 of the first 13 follow my pattern much more closely but with some variations. For example, the Queen of the Black coast has a woman with a recognizable personality, sort of, plus she can hold her own in a fight, sort of. Rogues in the House does not have Conan protecting the woman because he’s mad at her for turning him in. He kills her lover and gives her a mud bath instead. You get the picture. But that feeling of “been there done that” is awfully strong throughout.

    Howard is an excellent writer to be sure. Even derivative stuff like this is sparkling with energy and with that sense of “you are there.” And Solomon Kane is one of the all time great characters. It might be that Kane seems less derivative to me because there were fewer stories written with that character.

    The rebuttal posts points out that I read the worst of the stories since they were the early ones. This is probably true too. I won’t actually be reading the rest, so it doesn’t really matter to me. I have the Conan pattern seared into my mind already, regardless of whether or not I read the originals or Sprauge polished versions.

  13. In a similar vein, while I enjoyed David Eddings Belgariad books, in a way, I found the great immortal protagonist wizard Belgareth depressing. The problem was, while he was a fantastic sorcerer working tirelessly and selflessly, and putting himself in harm’s way, to save the world, he had gone astray in his (relative) youth and for that there was no forgiveness from his sorceress daughter Polgara. While the books were more full of gods than lovecraftian horrors, it was still a gospel without saviors. And as such, there were no hard commandments, therefore no repentance and therefore, forgiveness had no meaning. And as far as I read, she never forgave him for his errors of youth. (may have happened in the following series… never read that far) It was sad, because no matter how much good Belgareth did, there was nothing he could do to make up for his sins.

  14. Wow Zen! Good point! I’ve read the series when I was younger and failed to get that all out of it at that time. But I can see you are right.

  15. I have also been endlessly amused at the love of ancient prophecy, and a corresponding lack of prophets giving these prophecies. Or if they do give prophecies, that is about all they do, and usually they are weirdly vague. I remember a Buck Rogers episode that aired when I was a kid. It ended with the amazing revelation that someone was a NEW PROPHET! But no one seemed to stick around to hear anything he actually said – they were immediately off for their next adventure.

    There is a fair number of ancient prophecies (usually just about some doom, and only good for an adventure or quest), a few seers and prophets, but a dearth of theologies and commandments. I think a lot of fantasy authors yearn for prophecy, but don’t know what to do when presented with a real source, or what it would really be like. To be fair, not all of this is the fault of an atheist worldview… some of it is just ignorant of what genuine prophets are like.

  16. Err, Conan doesn’t steal the kingdom in Phoenix … Anyway, I really thought you were going to open up a comparison to various hack attacks on the Book of Mormon and move on from there. ;)

  17. Stephen,

    I don’t recall Conan stealing the kingdom in the story, but I thought he had already stolen it as a starting part for the story. (Thereby being a variant of the pattern.) The problem is that there are two King Conan stories in the collection and I get them confused. So maybe I’m mixing them up in my mind.

  18. Prior to Phoenix, Conan is a successful military commander. He is betrayed by a king going senile and mad and flees. After some adventures, he is brought back by a faction and becomes king. But to say he stole a kingdom is a gross characterization of what happened.

    Otherwise, well, if you’ve read the entire post on the other blog devoted to what you had to say (and the general dismissal in the comments “oh, he is a Mormon, that explains it” sort of thing), you’ve gathered that you probably went a little far astray.

    http://www.robert-e-howard.org/NemedianChroniclers2REV.pdf is worth a look, just for fun.

    Anyway, even the best intentioned humor can go astray. ;)

  19. Stephen,

    Reading Conan was for me an exercise in “Groan! Oh my gosh, I’ve seen this in one of the previous stories three other times now!” for exactly the reasons I gave. I lost count of how many times the elements on my list happened in one variation or another.

    I was a little surprised you think that my lampooning of Conan ‘went astray.’ Can personal tastes and reactions ‘go astray?’ That was news to me. It almost like you think there is some sort of serious critical analysis going on. *Shrugs*

    And certainly our rebutter is free to point out that 5 of 13 stories didn’t have a woman. (Note, as I counted it, it’s actually 9 of 13 that included a woman and followed that part of the pattern. Our rebutter cheated to make Conan look less repetitive.) But deciding that this means my humorous exaggerations went ‘too far’ is at best a subjective taste in lampoonings.

    “But to say he stole a kingdom is a gross characterization of what happened.”

    Or more likely it’s bad memory of someone that just doesn’t seem to place as much importance on Conan as you seem to.

    Besides, it’s for fun. You’re taking it way too seriously, my friend. If making fun of Conan offends some people, I’m afraid they need to probably re-prioritize their lives. Time to let this one go.

  20. Since Conan fans are already offended, I think I’ll pile it on.

    Who would win in a fight, Thundarr or Conan?

    Find the scientifically determined answer here.

    Here are the top 5 reasons why Thundarr could kick Conans tail any day of the week.

    5. Even a 2 dimensional cartoon woman like Princess Ariel has more depth than all of Conan’s personality-less babes combined. Plus she does magic.
    4. Okkla the Mok could kick Conan’s tail all by himself, even while accidently breaking things and being used for comic relief.
    3. Conan pees his pants every time he comes across magic. Thundarr seeks it out and destroys it.
    2. Real men ride horses and make Tarzan like war cries.
    1. One word: lightsaber (aka Fabulous Sunsword) ’nuff said.

    Now, having stirred the pot even more, it’s time for *me* to let this one go too. ;)

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