C is for… Conan the Barbarian

The Letter C
This post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

I read a wide range of fiction, and I try to be respectful and open-minded about different genres written from different historical viewpoints. I don’t always succeed. I can’t stand Vanity Fair, for example, yet it’s one of those canon books that are on must-read lists.

So it was in this spirit that I approached the Conan the Barbarian stories.

Today’s post is inspired by the letter C… and a Cimmerian Hero

Conan the Barbarian is a character that has managed to permeate popular culture. Some of the stuff in which he is featured is pretty banal, some of it is funny, some of it is transcendent. He’s popular for many of the reasons big, tough-guy characters are popular (like wish-fulfilment, escapism, and exploration of what power and strength are really about.) I’m not a big sword & sorcery fan, but when my Dad passed me over a collection of Robert E. Howard’s original stories I plunged in.

I enjoyed the stories for the most part – they are well-written, if a little overwrought at times. The plot rolls along at a fair clip, and of course you don’t really expect more from pulp fiction. I vastly preferred them to Lovecraft, who I truthfully find unreadable, though I do appreciate the legacy of Lovecraftian style fiction he left behind.

Of course there are issues, and similar issues are why I find the Sword & Sorcery genre to be so forgettable. For a start the stories are near identical, and there’s only so many trembling naked women tied to altars I can take. And that, of course, is the other issue. Whilst a quick scan around the blogosphere has shown many people willing to jump to Robert E. Howard’s defence, the truth is the stories are sexist and racist. Not in a hugely troubling way, and certainly no more so than many stories from the pulp genres, from that time period, and even stories today. But still: there are an uncomfortable number of wretchedly ineffectual women, whose main contribution to the stories seems to be losing their clothes, fainting or getting a bit lusty over our wish-fulfilment hero. Equally, like many fantasy books, blackness is cast as evil and whiteness is coveted. The beautiful women are mainly described as ‘ivory’, whilst there are a distressing number of ‘blacks’; faceless characters of little importance.

None of this is unique to Conan. Many of the ‘Boys Adventure’ anthologies I read growing up had a British-Empire-savage-cannibals vibe to them. At the time I found them a rollicking adventure and thought nothing of the subtext. These days I tend to wince when I stumble across a thoughtless reference to ‘natives’.

Other people have written on this subject more eloquently than me:

What do you think?