The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.
The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”
This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.
The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?
This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.
While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?
Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.
Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.
The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.
Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.
This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.
That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.
This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.
Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”
Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”