Why Conan (the Cimmerian) Sucks, except when he doesn’t

I’ve embarked on a new project–a video review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first stage of it is re-watching the trilogy (of which I own the extended editions), and recording timestamps of all the scenes that stand out as being either really great, or (more often) really, really bothersome. I got about fifty-five minutes in, to a point where the ringwraiths are right on top of the hobbits but somehow said hobbits still escape… and this was just the latest stupidity I was forced to remember in what had been basically a one-problem-per-minute viewing. It was giving me a headache, so I went on to something else.

Fortunately, a book I ordered, a fancy-shmancy new Lovecraft hardcover, arrived in the mailey-oh.

So naturally, I’m going to talk about Robert E. Howard’s Conan character!

As it happens I own all three of the Del Rey/Wandering Star volumes (this is the first) and lately I’ve been perusing them, largely just because I wanted a break from all my usual gaming and cartooning and stuff.

Let me be frank: the Conan stories can be pretty fun. Essentially, what REH does is creates a world that is part pre-history, but also part-Lovecraftian. The best way to put it is imagine Middle-earth if it had Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu wandering around, and the nations of men (no elves or dwarves here) were not led by divinity but were instead just primal creatures who evolved into societies, like in the real world, except here civilization is seen as something aberrant.

This is the attractive power of the stories. They create a world that is dark, dangerous and mysterious. That’s not to say its evil–if you’re thinking of something like a Frank Miller or Alan Moore comic, you’re on something of the wrong track. There are virtues in the Hyborian Age, but they are more primal, driven partly by survival instinct, and virtues that are the result of civilization are seen as annoying at best due to how they can confound what should be straightforward matters (the opening of “Queen of the Black Coast” is a case in point).

Conan, then, is a traveller from Cimmeria, a land where civilization never reached, except in tales and rumors. He was born to a warrior culture, and for reasons never given has decided to go through the lands south of his home and see what they hold for him… and they hold plenty.

Conan is, in essence, the ultimate male power fantasy. He does what he wants, and has the muscles and skill with weaponry to back himself up. If he is to go down, he would prefer to go down fighting. He is neither good nor evil, but rather is something like an animal in man’s form. He is pretty much the man all nerdy teenage boys wish they could be. That he exists in a world full of dark tombs of eldritch abominations and pagan sorceries just makes it all the better.

…Then there’s the women, and we get to the part I hate.

Now, to Robert E. Howard’s credit, his females are usually not “damsels in distress,” and in fact are usually strong-willed and proactive, capable of fending for themselves whether or not Conan is there to save them.

That’s all well and good, but would it kill them to get dressed? Invariably, the women of these stories either start out completely naked, or else become so at some point in the narrative (and when they are dressed, its usually not in anything much better than being stark naked to begin with). And of course, these are always the most gorgeous women ever.

If I may rant for a second, I understand that fantasy is largely written for a male audience (or was back then). The problem I have with the fantasy genre is that the males in question are interpreted, at least by the authors, as being horny adolescents who will like anything with a decent rack. I remember reading the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, and after awhile it turned out everyone was having sex–not romantically, and in fact (if I remember right) without any real sort of buildup or development, just suddenly they all started doing it. Except Tasslehoff, of course, since hobbit sex would likely be seen as child porn by some nitpicky conservatives.

Even Robert E. Howard himself seemed to have this issue, since he wrote several disparaging comments about the male gender, and also expressed pride whenever he sold a story that “had no sex in it” (his words)–one such one being “Beyond the Black River,” one of the better Conan tales.

Am I a prude? No. What I am is a thinking creature, and whenever I see parts like this, I feel like I’ve been insulted. Like “Yeah, we know you’ll like this because it has tits!” When things treat me that way, it diminishes my will to keep on going. I’ve dropped plenty of anime for a similar reason.

This is just one part of the problem. Like I intoned earlier, I love the mysteries and places and cultures of the Hyborian Age, and I like hearing about the man who traverses them… but all too often, all the stuff that is actually interesting gets buried under the male pandering. Not just the sex, but also the “look at how handsome and strong this guy is.” The fighting and killing is all well and good but sometimes, it feels like the testosterone eclipses all the parts I really care about.

I’m not asking for a bowdlerization. Hell no–that would result in something as terrible as the Marvel Comics version of Conan, or the later L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter published fanfics. All I’m asking is for the camera to shift its focus a bit. To use an analogy, remember in AVGN’s “The Wizard” review when he expressed annoyance that the movie was showing two people talking when what he actually wanted to see was what game the kids were playing in the background? That’s sort of what I’m getting at here. Not just for Conan but for the fantasy genre as a whole.

The problem is not “sex is icky” or whatever the thirteen-year-old Tropers reading this blog are already thinking, the problem is that its mundane. Imagine watching an intense F1 race and all the sudden the race stops so they can talk about how green the grass is. I read fantasy for the fantastic–starfish aliens, magic rings, lands that never were (or maybe still are?) or new insights into the workings of the cosmos, and a mundane fact of life rearing its ugly head is an intrusion. Fantasy authors don’t feel the need to describe using the bathroom (well.. Stephen King does, but he’s a hack) so why this?

So, yeah, in a nutshell:

Conan is great fantasy, but it starts to suck when the “fantasy” gets overshadowed by other matters. Just like most authors who aren’t Tolkien.

(And how much you want to bet people are going to read this as prudishness despite my three paragraphs of extrapolation, because we all know the internet is mostly populated by half-literate teens whose brains are in their dicks?)

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