Tuesday, October 13, 2020

On Robert E. Howard's Conan

Even though I rarely play tabletop RPGs, I regularly listen to a few tabletop RPG channels on YouTube.  They are fun to listen to while painting, and I enjoy the design discussion even if am not currently deploying that knowledge anywhere in particular. In independent discussions about how to narrate combat effectively, both Professor DungeonMaster and Hankerin Ferinale (a.k.a. Brandish Gilhelm, a.k.a. Runehammer) made the same recommendation: read Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories. 

I have been aware of Conan as a cultural staple, as any child of the 80s should, but I had never read the source material. I have seen both Schwarzenegger movies, played the C64 game, and have vague memories of a single black-and-white Conan comic book that my brother and I somehow obtained. I probably wouldn't recognize it if I saw it, although I remember being jarred by the fact that the comic book character was clearly different from the one in the movies: more rogue than brute, but more on that later. I also recall spending time with my father's copy of Tomorrow and Beyond, a 1978 collection of science fiction and fantasy art that included plenty of Boris Vallejo barbarians.

I was intrigued by Professor DungeonMaster's and Runehammer's recommendations, but the one who really got me thinking was The Bard. Like many people, I became aware of him when he explained to the world the best thing about HeroQuest. I found myself intrigued by his style and watched more of his videos, and one does not have to go far down that path to understand that he is a vocal fan of the barbarian archetype and the Sword and Sorcery genre. He revels in Conan in particular, telling of how he saw Conan the Destroyer as a lad and became hooked on the character. What continues to astonish me about The Bard is his impeccable dance between thoughtful and goofball. His humor is razor sharp, and his insights seem authentic despite being presented in a ridiculous wrapper. I think I'm a bit jealous.

The Bard's analysis of his deluxe Conan statue is interesting for its discussion of the character and its presentation, but it is in his analysis of the Red Sonja statue that I found the most compelling arguments for the merit of Sword and Sorcery. At 2:52, he explains the role of the body in the genre: "It is time for the most important part of any Sword and Sorcery hero: the body. Especially visually, and in terms of character because it is of course the locus and the focal point of survival, of sex, and of course, violence." Later, at 8:07, comparing Red Sonja to Conan, "Both of these statues are violent images, and they should be! Violence is almost inevitably at the very core of sword and sorcery, encompassing the hero's capacity to bodily impose order on a world of chaos, to survive and even thrive through the physical articulation of his or her very own will." Finally, near the end at 19:34, he underlines his theme: "The idea of the life and death struggle, the exhilaration of battle, and victory in the triumphal validation of life is the very thesis of sword and sorcery."

Nowhere in the video does he mention what first struck me, which is that Red Sonja is rather cheesecake. If she didn't invent the chainmail bikini, then she at least popularized it. While watching The Bard's presentation, I could hear the echo of a thousand masters theses on objectification of women in fantasy. Yet, the Bard's only comment about the sexually provocative nature of Sonja's attire is his comment quoted above: that sex is centered in the body, and the body is the theme of Sword & Sorcery. I find myself wanting to hear his rebuttal to the easy objection to taking Conan or Red Sonja seriously, that they are naught but pulp adolescent fantasies. Perhaps he does address this in the thesis he mentions within some of his videos, but as far as I know, he has never released it, let alone his name and the institution where it was completed.

Based on the advice of three of my YouTube heroes, then, I embarked on my own armchair adventure: I read every Robert E. Howard Conan story that I could find at my university library. Most of these came from a 1977 collection published by Berkley Publishing Corporation and edited by Karl Edward Wagner. They seem to be the same stories collected in 1998's The Essential Conan. The remaining stories, and the first two I read, came from the 1975 collection, The Tower of the Elephant

These are the stories that I have read, in the order I read them:

  • The Tower of the Elephant
  • The God in the Bowl
  • The Devil in Iron
  • The People of the Black Circle
  • A Witch Shall Be Born
  • Jewels of Gwahlur
  • Beyond the Black River
  • Shadows in Zamboula
  • Red Nails
  • The Hour of the Dragon
They are all short stories except for the last, The Hour of the Dragon being Howard's only novel-length story about Conan. I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed them. It wasn't like reading the Flannery O'Conner collection I just finished, where the stories would knock me out of my chair with their turns of phrase and nigh-unrecognizable moments of grace. This was more like watching Dr. Strange: silly fun that you can't take too seriously. You always know that Conan is going to make it out of this pickle, but you don't always know quite how.

As Professor DungeonMaster and Runehammer promised, the narration of action is remarkable. Howard's descriptions of Conan's presence in battle are legendary and, although themes repeat across stories, they never get dull. That said, it felt like rollicking good fun rather than the kind of prose that inspired me to take notes. Perhaps it is the kind of exercise that would require me to film myself narrating combat to determine where I need to punch it up. 

I think the most interesting part of Howard's narration of combat comes in comparing it to the structure of battles in Dungeons & Dragons and also to the depiction of combat in contemporary action movies. In Howard's stories, battles are brief and bloody. He only hints at the details of anything longer than a few seconds of conflict, such as when Conan is with his army, wading through enemy hosts. Otherwise, the action is pointed, unambiguous, and lethal. By contrast, tabletop RPGs that draw upon the Dungeons & Dragons lineage tend to have slow, plodding, transactional battles: I swing, I miss, you swing, you hit, etc. It's a bit like teaching online asynchronous courses. Interestingly, other tabletop RPG systems such as Fate grant a lot more freedom both to players and gamesmasters in choosing the granularity of battle. I recently watched Dr. Strange, which I enjoyed but is a case study in overlong battle sequences. Ever since the last legitimate Star Wars movie it seems, movie battles have become more and more inspired by the thousand-cuts model of Kung Fu action rather than the decisive stroke of a barbarian. My point is not that one is better than the other, but I was more bored watching Dr. Strange run from bad guys than I ever was reading about Conan's chopping a serpent in two. Like so many things, it's a design decision, and I think I would rather narrate the latter than the former.

Conan's prowess and physique are universally unmatched. He is always an outsider, even as a leader: other characters, representing civilized society, frequently remark how they can neither understand nor contain him. He is more like a force of nature than a rational being, and this is reflected in his acting without thinking. Put another way, despite his being the most capable physical being in the world, he is also completely controlled by his body. His panther-like reactions—always panther, every story, like his frequently-described "square-cut black mane"—will save him from today's serpent, but it will also propel him out of a window to chase an adventure or a woman where a civilized man might consider his options.

One cannot ignore the racial framing of the stories. Howard's world does seem to be one in which one's character and abilities are determined primarily by race. It makes me wonder why the Cimmerians did not simply take over the whole continent, but I suppose if their actions are determined by their bodies, then their bodies are happy in Cimmeria. Howard's beautiful women are always pale, and the dark-skinned characters are almost all savages or cannibals. Knowing that Howard's Hyborean Age is essentially a prehistoric Europe left me curious about why the skin tones and complexions of wide swaths of people are left undescribed. The people of Koth (Italy, Greece) are selfish, untrustworthy thieves, while the people of Aquilonia (France) are noble and honorable. It's a strange combination of European stereotypes of culture and American stereotypes of race. Taken as a whole, though, it's almost forgettable, as the setting of the world rarely has much to do with the stories anyway. In contrast to Tolkien, for whom the world is as much a character as any DĂșnedain, Howard's characters are nearly all single-dimensional figures, only interesting in how they are pressed against the world rather than how they interact with it.

This, and my passing familiarity with Boris Vallejo's barbarians, led to my pleasant surprise to find that not every woman in the story was mere arm candy. While Howard does spend some time describing their physical beauty, and some just incomprehensibly refuse to get dressed, it's not clear that he gives that any more attention than describing Conan's own muscularity. In "The People of the Black Circle," there is an interesting arc for Devi Yasmina, who begins as a vengeful queen, becomes enraptured in Conan's story and presence—Conan who is likewise smitten by her beauty—and then defines her independence by imposing her will on him. By the end, the two are essentially peers. "Red Nails" is frequently told from the perspective of Valeria, who is an accomplished and brave fighter in her own right. Yes, Conan does save her during the story, but she is the victor over many other men as well. Far be it from me to suggest that either Valeria or Yasmina are great representations of women in fantasy fiction, but they certainly held up much better than I expected. Where Conan is driven by simple passions, these women both made interesting decisions.

Speaking of Vallejo, reading the editor's commentary from Wagner introduced me to Margaret Brundage, who provided many of the cover illustrations for Conan's appearances in Weird Tales. They encapsulate every negative assumption I had about how Conan stories would be presented: spindly, pale, near-naked women in awkward poses, titillating adolescent male readers. Her frankly ridiculous paintings bore very little semblance to the action and drama of the stories themselves. It is interesting to compare these to early Hollywood depictions of clean-cut heroes and then to the palpably gritty "Conan the Adventurer" by Frank Frazetta. It's like comparing Adam West's Batman to The Dark Knight Returns.

Reading The Hour of the Dragon last was a bit anticlimactic. Most of the chapters had the structure of an L. Frank Baum Oz book: the main character gets into a new situation in a new setting, something unlikely happens, and then they get out of the situation. Indeed, for much of the book, it seemed that luck was Conan's primary skill. Towards the end, it pulls some more interesting themes together, but I found the work as a whole to be unsatisfying except in that it portrays a different side of Conan than the other books. It depicts an older Conan, one with a sense of duty that complements his lust for adventure. Incidentally, Hour of the Dragon had the worst female non-character in Zenobia, whose defining characteristic is that she secretly loved Conan since the moment she saw him and would do anything to help him. Ho-hum.

There was one work in the 1977 collection that I started but did not finish. "The Hyborean Age" is Howard's story-length history of his fictional setting, and I found it awfully dull. I felt the same way the first time I read The Silmarillion when I was a teenager, although the second time I read that work in my 20s, I fell in love with it. I feel like "The Hyborean Age," while possessing the same attention to detail, lacks the storytelling and mythical infusing that one finds in Tolkien's work.

One of the reasons I decided to read this collection is that I wanted to read the same source material as  the originators of tabletop roleplaying. I understand that both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were fans of Howard's work, and the sense of adventure I got from reading them myself reminded me of the spirit of the old Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks. While I spent more time reading Second Edition sourcebooks, I remember having read first edition AD&D as well as a friend's Basic set. They clearly draw upon Tolkien's worldbuilding, but these rulebooks presented a Sword-and-Sorcery-inspired environment. As The Bard says, this was a world of life and death struggle and the exhilaration of battle. It seems very 1970s-80s, compared to contemporary narrative-first adventures and influential rulesets like Apocalypse World, which are much more about relationships among characters and between them and the world. Perhaps this is an explanatory theoretical framing for the Old School Renaissance as more than simple nostalgia. 

Reading Howard with a mind toward the history of tabletop roleplaying games reminded me of when I read two collections of H. P. Lovecraft stories a few years ago. This reading had clarified to me the source of the abominations that grace the pages of the old Monster Manuals and, thereby, entered the popular gaming imagination. Just as I found Howard's stories more interesting than I expected, I had earlier found Lovecraft's to be more hopeless than I expected. His works are much more interesting than the pale imitations referenced as "lovecraftian" that have shown up in games the last few years. Nowhere in his canon is a problem solved with a pistol or explosive, and seldom are problems solved at all.

It is curious to me, then, that Dungeons & Dragons decoupled the "sword" side of Sword and Sorcery the way that it did. Surely, wizards and warriors are different things, but Conan was clearly pulling from both the Fighter and Thief categories. Maybe this is an inevitable conclusion of class-based, party-based systems in order to codify interdependence. On the other hand, in my bit of playing with systems like Fate and PbtA, I find it much more interesting to see players choose to do a task based on the situation and skills rather than letting it fall to the only person who can even try.

I am glad to have received the recommendation and that I spent some time this summer reading these stories. It took me a while to get my thoughts together to write this essay. Since I finally got a day ahead of my teaching, it felt good to finally collect these thoughts and do something that feels like scholarship beyond the "of teaching" variety. Both the stories and my writing about them continue to grow my sense that I should be spending more time playing or running tabletop RPGs. I'm still trying to figure out how they fit into my adult life, but at least now I feel like I may have a few new perspectives that I can bring to bear when narrating combat. 

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