Garwulf's CornerRobert E. Howard, Conan, and Subverting RacismGarwulf's Corner - RSS 2.0
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. When I was in university, I hunted down all of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories I could find in second-hand bookstores. When Ballantine published their illustrated three-volume Conan set, I bought each one and read it, cover to cover. There's even a leather-bound volume of Conan stories that will one day be mine. And, I await the new Legend of Conan movie with bated breath.
Yes, I'm a fan - no bones about it. And, as a longtime fan who has read just about every single word Robert E. Howard ever wrote about the character, I can say with absolute certainty that only one actor has ever captured the essence of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian: Jason Momoa.
For many casual fans, that may seem like an odd claim. After all, if you mention the words "Conan the Barbarian," the face that immediately comes to mind is Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, to be fair, the 1982 movie is really good. It's an operatic epic with deep undercurrents exploring the meaning of strength, and made such an impact that to this day it influences the entire genre of fantasy. If you haven't seen it, you should.
But, while it's filled with references to Robert E. Howard's writing, it is not his Conan, or his Hyborian Age. Instead, it's a really good fantasy movie dressed up in Robert E. Howard references and using the names of some of his characters.
For one thing, although Howard's Cimmerians are stated to be the ancestors of the Irish and the Scots, in the original stories Conan himself bears more physical resemblance to a Native American warrior than a European. He has a mane of black hair, and swarthy or sun-browned skin. His only really Caucasian features are his blue eyes. Conan may be articulate, observant, and have a keen intelligence, along with cat-like power and movement in the stories, but he is also an outsider, a savage, and not even a noble one. Of all the actors who have played the role, Jason Momoa is the only one who actually looked and acted the part.
But, even as a lifelong fan, it would be foolish to deny the problem of the racism in the original stories. Like pretty much all of his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard was a racist, although he was not really what one could call a malicious one. He believed that white people were better than non-white people, but he didn't seem to hold that against anybody from a visible minority. This non-malicious racism is alive and well in his stories, and his Afghanistan adventure tales are so steeped in the "White Man's Burden" that I was unable to finish them.
But, once we start digging into the actual Conan stories, that racism becomes far more complicated, and even subverted. The young, vibrant civilizations of the Hyborian Age, like Aquilonia and Nemedia, are white - the equivalent of Medieval Europe. Around them are older Asiatic civilizations like Stygia and Vendhya, ancient, decrepit, and living on borrowed time. To the northwest and the south are the barbarian lands - but only Asgard and Vanaheim are in any way Viking. The Black Kingdoms are filled with tribesmen evoking the early 20th century vision of darkest Africa, and the Cimmerians and Picts are a strange cross between the ancient Celts and Native Americans - and it is very clear that the barbarians and savages, and not any of the civilized people or races, will be the last ones standing.
For Robert E. Howard, civilization was a veneer, temporary at best, and savagery was humanity's true nature. 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. The barbarians and savages were always destined to dominate in the end - the lighter skin colour of the white race offers no salvation.
I think this is one of the reasons that Robert E. Howard's Conan stories have survived the decades. The racism of his day is present and accounted for, but often subverted and undermined as well. The white nations of Howard's Hyborian Age may be better and more civilized than everybody else, but their arrogance to think that their superiority matters in any way is worth little more than a fleeting amusement to a barbarian like Conan.
After all, in the stories Conan looms over them and us, confident of his victory - long after we and our petty civilized concerns are gone to dust, he and the savagery he represents will remain.
Author's Note: My upcoming Eternity Quartet story, The Confession of C. August Gaston, goes live tomorrow on Amazon.com, and is available for pre-order. When a simple watchmaker takes up the cause and rebels during a bloodthirsty revolution, can he keep his humanity?
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. He is on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.