Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Beneath His Sandled Foot

This is clever. And, two pages long.

Also, Wizard's First Rule is dumb. I read about five books into the series, but let's call a spade a spade: it's pretty bad. I could go into why, exactly, but one dimensional characters, poorly realized villains, and strains of Mary Sewage come to mind. Not that anything's wrong with reading dumb books from time to time. After all, I'm about to talk about Conan the Barbarian.

My Costa Rica beach reading was The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, a collection of the first Conan short stories and novellas by Robert E. Howard. For me, beach reading isn't something I read on the beach because I'm too ashamed to admit that I want to read it all the time - beach reading is just whatever I was going to read next, only on the beach.

So, to prove it, I'm going to come clean. Like our next president, I have a guilty affection for the Conan franchise. Conan the Manly Fantasy Profession (or, occasionally, Conan and the Dire Situation or Conan and the Secondary Character) novels formed a great part of my childhood chewing gum reading. However, I hadn't read the original stories and novellas, and it was a fun and eye-opening experience. What was really interesting, however, was what I read in the afterword.

Howard is a fascinating and troubled (and troubling) figure. By modern standards, he was shockingly racist, and if you read the original Conan stories it really shows. Howard was plagued by serious depression his whole life, and was known to say that he only held off killing himself to help care for his ailing mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. Howard never married, though he was close friends with many of his fellow pulp writers, including such luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. When his mother entered her final illness and Howard was told that she would never regain consciousness, he shot himself and died shortly thereafter.

At first glance, it is obvious what Howard was trying to do with Conan. Conan is huge, far larger than life, a man of fantastic strength and an unmitigated lust for life. He fights like a demon and screws like a wild animal. Men fear him and women want him. Howard clearly wanted to write someone as unlike himself as possible, to vicariously experience a life free of the disease that eventually killed him.

Or did he?

If you look carefully at the original Conan stories - the ones written by Howard himself - especially some of the surviving drafts, Conan's secret face emerges.

Conan's home country of Cimmeria is described in an unpublished draft as "all of hills, heavily wooded and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing... there is little mirth in that land, and men grow moody and strange." Howard said remarkably similar things about his birthplace in Dark Valley, Palo Pinto County, Texas in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft: "It was a long, narrow valley, lonesome and isolated... it was very sparesly settled and it's name... was highly descriptive. So high were the ridges, so thick and tall the oak trees that it was shadowy even in daytime..."

Similarly, in some unpublished drafts (and in a few published stories) Conan himself is described as a "sullen-eyed" man of "gigantic melancholies," which he attributes to his origins in Cimmeria. Sometimes, when he is alone - especially in unpublished stories - Conan expresses his own depression: "the borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him." Howard, on the other hand, had his "black moods" - the depression that would eventually lead to his suicide.

At the same time, Conan is everything Howard wanted to be. Conan lived in a world where he could grab life by the throat. He was hugely physically powerful, unstoppable and irresistable. At the risk of showing disrespecting to Howard's memory, Conan even lived in a world where Howard's shockingly racist attitudes could be given free reign, because Howard wrote them into the setting as truth. Conan is an idealized Howard, living in a world Howard would have enjoyed, as a man designed to enjoy it.

However, it seems to me that Robert E. Howard failed at writing an idealized version of himself. Instead, he wrote a fantasy version of himself, no less plagued by depression than the real person, for all his physical strength, long list of lovers, and eventual ascension to the throne.

First of all, it goes to show that there is always heart and soul in fiction. No matter how trashy - lurid, bloody, racially... um... complicated - a work is, it is still and always a work of art. Perhaps, somewhere out there in the world of writing, there are hacks who put nothing of themselves into their work, but I doubt it. Howard was definitely a hack according to most definitions of the term. He didn't write great literature and he never claimed to. Howard wrote to keep the pot boiling, for magazines that were called 'pulps' because they didn't even bother to use quality paper in the printing. And yet, he clearly put his heart into his work and was greatly invested in it. Can you say the same? I know I can't, not always.

Secondly, some degree of identification with our heroes is impossible. When I write, I sometimes look at my finished product and wonder what is there that I can't see. Will biographers read A Knight of the Land or Rat and Starling (or whatever it ends up being called when it's published) and talk about how those stories reflect things about me that even I didn't know? Who knows? But the truth is, I kind of like to think that they will.

Now, to find some jeweled thrones of earth...

* * *

  • When else have you been surprised by how heartfelt a piece of fiction turned out to be?
  • Have you ever set out to write one thing and written another - more to the point, have you ever written yourself into a story without knowing it?

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