John C. Wright on Robert E. Howard, Conan, and Pulp Adventure
Reading this article reminded me why I used to blog so enthusiastically. Wright, who is quite the successful author himself, has really done his homework and unpacks what made Howard's barbarian so unique at the time he penned his adventures (and why he's inspired so many imitations ever since), in his article regarding The Phoenix on the Sword.
This is not a story about a schoolgirl remembering a stolen kiss from an older boy and contemplating her delicate pastel emotions. This is a tale of bloodshed, of eldritch shadows, of rough men ready to die but full of roaring life. Such savagery seems bright only against a sufficiently dark background.
The barbarian of gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth here is set against the shadow haunted cosmos of Lovecraftian weirdness, striding continents overturned by the cataclysms of Theosophists, and conquering cities doomed by Spenglerian cycles of history. Such a figure has a strange but clear appeal to it. Here is the old idea of Achilles’ bargain, who accepts a short life as the price for a glorious one.
The tale is romance. Barbarism is romanticized here just as we also see in A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and just as we also see in pirate stories or yarns of the Old West, where the Sioux or Apache are portrayed as savage but honorable warriors, graced with a rough chivalry surpassing the utilitarian cunning Spanish or British colonists. Again and again, Conan is said to have a vitality and strength civilized men have forgotten how to find.
The cruel reality of savage life is, of course, is passed by without mention. Such injected realism would defeat the story’s purpose and cheat the reader, who is looking for the cold shock of excitement that comes from the mingle hope and nostalgia of glamorizing the past.
These works are for boys and for men who have not lost the enthusiasm of boys. These works are for readers who are justifiably weary of the cobwebby regulations, courtesies, and falsehoods of polite society, nannying, nagging, and the dreary minutia of a corrupt civilization.
Such boys, spirits untested, stare at the wild expanse of untamed nature, and wonder if they are equal to the task of conquest; such men, spirits unbowed, see the corruption of overfed cities, dirty with centuries of ill-gotten wealth, and yearn for fires from heaven to overturn them in acts of unearthly cleansing.
At such times, man and boy alike is wont to call on the spirit of barbarism to refresh his soul, to remind him of the simple and manly truths of strength and steel, of straight talk and plain passion, and how men must fight if the horrors of night are to be kept at bay.
It is certainly worth the time to read the full post at Castalia House.