Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Thing About Conan Is . . . By Todd B. Vick

What follows below is an extremely condensed version of the article I presented at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference in Seattle, Washington. The entire paper—in much greater detail—will be published in an upcoming edition of The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. The article is titled "The Mistaken Identity of a Barbarian: Conan, Hero or Anti-Hero?" For this post, I have added a few paragraphs & rearranged a few details. I highly recommend getting a copy of the upcoming Dark Man journal & reading the entire article to get a better understanding & more detailed account of why I think Conan has been mistakenly identified as a hero. 
      “Conan the Cimmerian is the hero of over two dozen stories by Robert Ervin Howard (1906-36).”[1] Thus begins L. Sprague de Camp’s introduction to Conan the Conqueror in 1967 and all subsequent Lancer and Ace editions. There’s no explanation for the claim, it’s just there—in print—for all to see. Of course, de Camp’s not the first to ever call Conan a hero nor is he the last. Many others have called Conan a hero.
The Frost Giant's Daughter
Illustrated by Frank Frazetta

      Through the years, and in the various media through which Conan has been presented, the character has been widely known as a barbarian hero. In fact, this description has been used so frequently over the last sixty or more years that Conan is almost universally considered a hero without question or further thought. However, closer examination of Howard’s most popular character raises several questions. Does Conan exhibit traditional heroic qualities that are demonstrated by other heroes from literature? And, what exactly is a hero? Is Conan something other than a hero?

     In the mid-20th century (1949), Joseph Campbell developed what is known as the monomyth.[2] Campbell examined mythology, folk-tales, and fairy-tales, as they had been handed down either orally or in written form for the last two-thousand or so years. Joseph Campbell’s research took an in-depth look into not only the hero’s journey, but the specific personality traits of heroes. According to Campbell's research, a hero undergoes trials and tests to emerge a better person. And a hero typically places others above his or her self.

      Additionally, a hero rarely ever acts independently and will always welcome reliable help. A hero is also typically not at odds with the law, and is usually merciful and not vengeful or wrathful. The hero also typically shares the spoils of his or her adventure with society (civilization).

Les Liaisons Dangereuse

According to early 20th century literary scholar Sean O’Faolain’s work titled The Vanishing Hero, the first European novel to be without a social hero[3] is Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuse, published in 1782. From 1782—with the publication of Les Liaisons Dangereuse—to the 1920s a type of ambivalence crept into fiction. Writers began to question social structures and the behavior of humans in their work. This also led to a change in the interest of not only the writer but the reader as well. They were both becoming “enormously interested in the emotional “tug-of-war between the ‘soul’ and ‘imperfection’” (xv).

     The previous formula in literature had been the struggle between the hero (the protagonist) and the villain (the antagonist). “The Hero, and his opposite number, the Villain, represented in the traditional novel conflicts which they more or less clearly defined” (xiii). The ambivalence that slowly crept into works of fiction began to divide “admiration and sympathy, virtue and pleasure” (xv). The hero and the villain slowly began to change sides, but no one at this stage in the history of fiction was willing to admit it.[4]

Conan the Cimmerian
Illustrated by Frank Frazetta
The interesting aspects of this gradual shift in literature reside in the writers’ angst against social norms, social contracts, social conventions that have, as they believed, been blindly accepted. This caused a shift in the perspective of the protagonist who is “about to discover that his opposite number is not the Villain but himself imbued by new and disturbing forms of discontent” (xx). The ideals in fiction shift from social-centric heroes who sacrifice themselves for the good of mankind and the well-being of others, to the anti-hero who acts according to his or her needs, to rise above social conventions which they deem are wrought with problems, thus needing to be exposed and/or changed. And thus, the anti-hero is created.

     The literary hero follows a specific pattern in a given story: a call to a type of supernatural adventure, facing trails in this adventure to emerge as a better person, and then returning home. All this is in service of the hero’s homeland and people. Thus, the hero gives his or her life to something bigger than self. While the details vary from story to story, these essentials are always present. Additionally, a hero rarely ever acts independently and will always welcome reliable help. A hero is also typically not at odds with the law, and is usually merciful and not vengeful or wrathful. The hero also typically shares the spoils of his or her adventure with society (civilization).

Conan the Cimmerian
Illustrated by Frank Frazetta
While the anti-hero developed in literature as the new protagonist, an attitude of discontent progressively surfaced. Viewing society as a type of enemy—or at least something untrustworthy—the anti-hero trusts only him or herself. The anti-hero typically acts independently according to his or her own needs. Frequently, the anti-hero sees civilization and the social code as either hypocritical or in need of change, and finds no satisfaction in the social structures or patterns of society. Deprived of social sanctions and definitions, the anti-hero creates his/her own order or law of life. So how does Conan stack up? Is he a hero or an anti-hero?

     After Howard created Conan, he declared—in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith—that the character was an amalgamation of “the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, and honest workmen” (Howard 367-68) that he had encountered. Conan certainly reflected this diverse set of influences. In his career, Conan was a thief, a pirate, wanderer, and sometimes a mercenary. He also decries civilization and its weak men by demonstrating a strong angst about civilization.

     Howard often uses Conan as an indictment against civilization. This use reflects an ongoing debate Howard was having with fellow pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft. The debate, amongst the many other topics they discussed, dealt with the issue of barbarism and civilization; the merits and woes of each. Several ideas from this debate made its way on the printed page in the Conan stories. Howard frequently pits his barbarian against civilized men in the various Conan stories. And, of course, the civilized men pale in comparison. This is because they're described as soft and weak. Conan as a barbarian, will always be superior, civilization will always pale in comparison to Barbarism. Ironically, Howard uses a civilized character to say as much in "Beyond the Black River":
"'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'" (Howard 100) 
Additionally, a mere cursory reading of the Conan stories demonstrates that Conan is also an existentialist nihilist, a loner with no real attachment to anyone, and a character who maintains ulterior motives when he shows “loyalty” to any other character.[5] These actions are not the actions of a hero, but of a different kind of protagonist—an anti-hero. In the 1930s anti-hero protagonists were not near as pervasive as they are today. Moreover, the kind of protagonist (anti-hero) that Howard created Conan to be[6] was one that was 40 years ahead of its time.

It should also be noted that the term anti-hero does not mean against the hero. To eliminate any confusion, the anti-hero is always the protagonist in the narrative (story) who combats a real enemy (antagonist). Therefore, the anti-hero is not the antagonist of a given story/narrative. Way too many people have fallen prey to this confusion. In the end, Conan does not follow the typical heroic pattern or have the standard heroic characteristics. Rather, Conan’s autonomous behavior, nihilistic philosophy about life and strong discontent with civilization make him an anti-hero. But despite these glaring facts, Conan has been mistakenly identified as a hero for the last seventy to eighty years. With the evidence presented above, my hope is that we can put to rest the faulty idea that Conan is a hero and finally recognize his true role as an anti-hero.

[1] Howard, Robert E., and De Camp L. Sprague. Introduction. Conan The Conqueror. Twelfth ed. New York: Ace, 1986. 8. Print.
[2] Joseph Campbell. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Third ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008. Print..
[3] A social hero is a hero for society or for the people. This is equivalent to the previous classic heroes who experienced/endured their adventures for the people or for society.
[4] It should be pointed out that the roles of the characters do not change in literature, the protagonist (who was typically the hero) remains the protagonist and the villain continues as antagonist. The shift is a subtle one in literature where the protagonist begins to feel or act like the antagonist through a demonstration of discontent with society or himself. Even so, the antagonist is still present in the story, thus contrasting the two. Attitudes simply change within the thinking and actions of the protagonist.
[5] See my upcoming article in The Dark Man Journal for detailed examples from Howard’s Conan stories that support these claims.
[6] I do not think Robert E. Howard set out to intentionally create Conan to be a hero or an anti-hero. Conan is simply of reflection of Howard's experiences with various kinds of people in his life and a multifarious mixture of his opinions and philosophies. When applied to a character in a narrative, the end result is a protagonist who is an anti-hero.

Works Consulted for this Research:

Anderson, Jennifer Joline. The Antihero. Minneapolis, MN: Essential Library, an Imprint of Abdo, 2016. Print.

Brombert, Victor. In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830-1980. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1999. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Third ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: MJF, 1988. Print.

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Three: 1933-1936. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

_____. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York, NY: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2003. Print.

_____. The Bloody Crown of Conan. New York, NY: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2004. Print.

_____. The Conquering Sword of Conan. New York, NY: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2005. Print.

Lovecraft, H. P., and Robert E. Howard. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard 1930-1932. Ed. S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. New York, NY: Hippocampus, 2011. Print.

_____. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard 1933-1936. Ed. S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. New York, NY: Hippocampus, 2011. Print.

Lubin, Harold, ed. Heroes and Anti-heroes. San Francisco: Chandler Pub., 1968. Print.

O'Faoláin, Seán. The Vanishing Hero; Studies in Novelists of the Twenties. Second Printing ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957. Print.

Raglan. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.

Rollin, Roger B. Hero/Anti-Hero. New York: Webster Division, McGraw-Hill, 1973. Print.

Simmons, David. The Anti-hero in the American Novel: From Joseph Heller to Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Stendhal. The Red and the Black. Trans. Charles Tergie. Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library, 1981. Print.


JD McDonnell said...

I never really wondered whether Conan was a hero or anti-hero until now. I think that if a character is developed well enough they tend to rise above such things, but - yeah - Conan is definitely an anti-hero.

What about Kull though? I've read a number of Kull stories and they definitely seem more heroic but this could just be that Kull lived in what seems like a simpler and more dignified age. I used to suspect that both Conan and Kull were actually stories of the American South superimposed upon a fantasy world which was more appealing to REH's imagination, that the Kull stories were inspired by dreams of the pre-Civil War south and Conan stories inspired by the post-Civil War south. Now I have to wonder if maybe he was simply building around the idea of hero's and anti-heroes, that maybe Kull and Conan are the same character but moving in these two different directions.

Todd B Vick said...


I don't think REH was deliberately asking himself, when he created and wrote the Conan stories, "Should Conan be a hero or an anti-hero?" I think Conan is a strong reflection of things that were going on in Howard's life (especially his correspondence with HPL), and Conan might have been inadvertently created as an anti-hero. O'Faolain, in his book The Vanishing Hero discusses how writers did deliberately write their protagonists as characters who question societal conventions and norms, thus creating new types of protagonists, and this is what I think Howard was doing. Howard did not care for authority, he certainly desired a certain type of freedom, and he had some strong issues against civilization (specific aspects about civilization). I intend to take a much deeper look into Kull and Bran Mak Morn for future research, and I've already done so for Solomon Kane. So, be expecting more articles in the future about those characters. Another REH scholar who also attended the PCA/ACA and roomed with me at the hotel, carried on some extremely interesting conversations with me about Conan. These conversations gave me some excellent fodder for an upcoming article.

I have not looked at Conan from a post-civil war perspective. However, if you ever have the urge to do so and would like to write a paper about that idea, I'd be more than happy to present it here at Underwood No. 5.

So, be looking for these upcoming articles (or posts), unless a particular project that is on hold right now ends up doing what I hope it does - that will slow me down from these other articles, otherwise forward I go. Cheers!

Joe Keenan said...

Respectfully disagree. Conan was a gentleman, he doesn't kill the prostitute who betrays him in Rouges in the Hose, he throws her in a cess pit and guts the boyfriend. He also gave away wealth the the more needy in several stories if I remember correctly. He's not an anti-hero.

Todd B Vick said...


No disrespect taken from your comments, and no disrespect in my response. I think you missed the overarching point of the post. You cannot determine literary heroes and anti-heroes solely on the basis of morality. For every example you give me about Conan being a "gentleman"—something I'll address here in a minute—I can counter each one with a dozen examples of where he behaves just the opposite. Even so, like I said, this topic cannot be reduced to moral categories - there's so much more at play here. Now, calling Conan a gentleman would actually be an offense to Conan himself. He would see it as a weakness of character, especially since the behavior of a gentleman is a civilized code of behavior.

Also, your example of "not killing a prostitute but throwing her in a cesspool" is certainly not the behavior of a "gentlemen." She could have drowned. I'm not sure how you are defining anti-hero, but I can't help but think that you see it as a negative thing - as if the anti-hero is the antagonist or villain in the story, and this is simply not the case.