Robert E. Howard, Conan, and Subverting Racism

Robert E. Howard, Conan, and Subverting Racism

I've been a Robert E. Howard fan for a long time. My first encounter with Conan the Cimmerian was in high school, when I saw Conan the Barbarian in all of its brutal glory.

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I think Momoa was a pretty good choice to play Conan; too bad he had to play Conan with that script. He definitely did the savagery angle justice.

And I'd like to congratulate Hell Nico for winning today's "Comment Without Reading The Article" award. He did almost no work for this honour, I'm sure he's proud.

"The white Hyborian civilizations may be healthy and vibrant now, but they are also doomed. The failing eastern civilizations are a warning - they too were once young and strong. Their fall comes not from any racial inferiority, but from the decadence that comes to all civilizations."

So, The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, with extra swordplay? Now there's a tag line to shift units.

Howard tended to exalt barbarism (as typified by Conan and similar characters) over "savagery" or civilization, and he did so regardless of the skin color of the barbarian in question.

Of course, while rugged individualists make for interesting characters, they tend not to make for good societies. Which one could argue Howard acknowledged in some of his King Conan stories.

"...swarthy or sun-browned skin."

I haven't really read much of the Conan books, but I was always under the impression that him having slightly darker skin was more about showing the fact that he was a wandering warrior, and thus spent a whole lot of time out in the sun.

Ihateregistering1:
"...swarthy or sun-browned skin."

I haven't really read much of the Conan books, but I was always under the impression that him having slightly darker skin was more about showing the fact that he was a wandering warrior, and thus spent a whole lot of time out in the sun.

It was also meant to evoke a visible difference between Conan and the "civilized whites" of the younger kingdoms. This is reinforced by some of the other barbarian characters Conan befriends who are black or asian who are also exalted over their "civilized" counterparts. Both his skin color and his hair color are used to show that he's a barbarian, different from those in the cities in which he spends his time. While one might assume his skin coloration comes from his savage lifestyle instead of his ethnicity, it serves the same purpose regardless.

A nice read that summarizes pretty well my feelings on the Conan franchise, although it doesn't mention one vital little detail that so often seems to elude those seeking to adapt his stories and which I always like to bring up: Horror.

Conan might not have been strictly a horror franchise but it definitely had all the hallmarks of what we'd today call 'dark fantasy'. Crumbling ancient empires sheltering dark mystical secrets, the small bastions of civilization besieged seemingly on all sides by dark and horrifying terrors that lurk without seeking to bring about their demise, and a rumbling uneasiness that hints that, as mentioned in the article, everything is teetering on the brink of demise.

I think that's part of why I enjoy the series so much. It's just so unsettling, with a sort of fantasy H.P.Lovecraft vibe to it (Which makes sense considering the two authors were friends) that lends it a unique atmosphere most fantasy tends to lack.

I was always given the impression, especially when Conan, Bran Mak Morn, or another more 'modern' character, encountered the likes of Kull or Gonar or another of the ancient Valusians- which, if memory serves me, were the predecessors to the Picts and Cimmerians, that they were looking at a glorious state from their past, a glimpse of a being from a golden age. So yes, not strictly speaking a white race, the Cimmerians.

I actually found the racism quite entertaining, if harmless, in most of Robert's stories, as it lent a sort of base stereotyping to all of the characters- just a simple veneer to set the stage for the arguably more complex main characters. That is not to say that I don't see how some of the portrayals might have been meant to draw modern parallels, and could be seen as quite tasteless- the Conan/Mak Morn stories involving the 'little people' and their possibly oriental ancestry always smacked of it the worst, in my mind.

The Cimmerians were supposed to be proto-Celts.

Howard was pretty goddamned racist even for his time.
https://web.archive.org/web/20110715171544/http://www.rehupa.com/romeo_southern.htm
I can't seem to find the text of the New Orleans letter referenced in that link, but I know I saw it online once years ago.

And yeah, Momoa was an excellent Conan. Too tall, same complaint I had about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; but otherwise hard to complain. He understood that character even if the writers didn't. (Plot and setting issues aside, since when does Conan do anything for anyone but Conan?)

SonofSpermcube:

And yeah, Momoa was an excellent Conan. Too tall, same complaint I had about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; but otherwise hard to complain. He understood that character even if the writers didn't. (Plot and setting issues aside, since when does Conan do anything for anyone but Conan?)

Why too tall? Conan is always described as giant or huge. I always thought he's the highest guy in the room most of the times.

PS My complaint towards all cinema Conans - is it so hard to make him black hair and blue eyes?

Momoa did good, the script writers of the movie...not so much. I was pretty bored watching it to be honest. It was not Momoa's fault, it was just a fairly shitty movie.

I see where you're coming from, but I can't help but prefer Arnold as Conan. I'm a sucker for cheese, I suppose, and lawd if the 80's version isn't a lot more cheesy. It also felt a lot more gross, tying in to the whole "Death by decadence" thing.

Also the soundtrack. I mean, damn son.

I just don't understand how you can write an article about racism in the Conan stories and talk about nearly every nation except Shem.

The Madman:
A nice read that summarizes pretty well my feelings on the Conan franchise, although it doesn't mention one vital little detail that so often seems to elude those seeking to adapt his stories and which I always like to bring up: Horror.

Conan might not have been strictly a horror franchise but it definitely had all the hallmarks of what we'd today call 'dark fantasy'. Crumbling ancient empires sheltering dark mystical secrets, the small bastions of civilization besieged seemingly on all sides by dark and horrifying terrors that lurk without seeking to bring about their demise, and a rumbling uneasiness that hints that, as mentioned in the article, everything is teetering on the brink of demise.

I think that's part of why I enjoy the series so much. It's just so unsettling, with a sort of fantasy H.P.Lovecraft vibe to it (Which makes sense considering the two authors were friends) that lends it a unique atmosphere most fantasy tends to lack.

Dark Fantasy, at least as the genre exists today, owes a lot to Michael Moorcock's Elric. Who, in turn owes a lot to Howard and Conan. It's more of a subversion to the general genre of Sword and Sorcery that Howard (and others) created. But, he did have a fondness for Howard's work, so there's some real carryover, which then gets picked up and hauled off into the genre as a whole.

There's also some really solid horror beats in some of the Conan stories. Like you said, Lovecraft and Howard were friends, and there's a fair amount of cross pollination going on in their work. It's interesting because at an ideological level, they approached horror (and morality) from diametrically opposed points.

Howard was arguing that civilization was a source of decay and evil, while Lovecraft was arguing that the uncivilized wilderness was where unchecked evil and horrors roamed.

I didn't think much of Momoa's performance. Arnold's version may have taken a lot of liberties, but he got the Gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths' part spot on.

They brazenly present CtB as a true Saga, rather than an 'event movie' and it worked.

Ihateregistering1:
"...swarthy or sun-browned skin."

I haven't really read much of the Conan books, but I was always under the impression that him having slightly darker skin was more about showing the fact that he was a wandering warrior, and thus spent a whole lot of time out in the sun.

That's true, Cimmerians are mountain folk 'squat shadows of men' and like he said, probably more like Celts similar.

Conán, the name, is taken from Irish mythology.

I was a fan of Conan way before Arnold played him, and I was a fan of Arnold way before he played Conan. I started reading the Marvel comic book versions, Conan the Barbarian, Savage Tales, and Savage Sword of Conan in grade school in the early 1970s, which immediately led me to find the paperback Ace and Lancer books, which I devoured. Starting high school in '75, any free time I had typically saw me with my nose buried in a Conan paperback or the latest comic that was out.
When Pumping Iron came out in '77, I already knew who Arnold was. I'd start lifting seriously for football, and knew about Arnold and the Olympia and all that.
So when Arnold played Conan? Shoot, I thought that was GREAT. Arnold, however, is more Germanic, while the Cimmerians are supposed to be the ancestors of Irish and Scot Gaels. Conan tan? Yeah, but that's attributable to being out in the sun his entire life. Myself, I'm full-blooded Irish, raised in an Irish ghetto in the Bronx, probably half of which was immigrant Irish. As a kid, I was pasty white with a shock of black hair. Gaels were typically a dark-haired race, while a lot of redheaded and lighter-haired Irish are likely carrying more than their fair share of Viking DNA. Living in Florida forty-something years now, I'm VERY tan and swarthy, especially since I've spent ALOT of time fishing out on Tampa Bay and other parts of Florida's coast.
As for Jason Momoa? Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Perfect as a YOUNG Conan. Didn't look like he was 'roided out of his mind like Arnold. Looked more naturally muscular and powerful.

 

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