Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Howard and Conan

So, at the present, I am reading Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian: The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus, through audio book, 35 hours, 850 pages, with 22 short tales, novellas and novels, and one short fiction historiography of The Hyborian Age.  In addition to earlier works that were Conan-like by Howard, I've completed two Conan novellas: The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel.  I'm about a fifth of the way through.

I'll talk more about Conan at a later time, but for the present I'd like to discuss the introduction by Finn J.D. John, who edited and annotated the omnibus.  I think it's relevant that R.E. Howard original "sword and sorcery" writings predate those of Tolkein by some years, with nearly all the originals published in Weird Tales being published by 1935.  The Hobbit, we may note, was published in 1937.  Conan is utterly unlike any other character in human prose to that time.  My own take on Howard's work is that he was able to mesh the supernatural genre of pre-1925 with the pacing and tempo of pirate and adventuring stories from the 19th century to his day.

H.P. Lovecraft's first appearance in Weird Tales came in 1923, and no doubt was an influence on Howard; they were personal friends, though pen-pals, communicating with each other that endured until Howard's death.  But Lovecraft's style is scientific and intellectual, a sort of combination between the adventure of Jules Verne and the supernatural of H.G. Wells.  Point in fact, most "supernatural" tales over the hundred years between Shelley's Frankenstein and the 1920s featured the appearance of some strange entity within the ordinary framework of the normal world.  Stoker's Dracula is uncovered by ordinary persons passing letters between them, until confronted by the evil; similarly Stevenson's Mr. Hyde is again encountered by anything but adventurers.  This can be said as well for the Invisible Man and Dorian Gray.

This is all turned on its head by Howard, who depicts his main character as a violent, sword-swinging, primitive killer, who does not ponder the meaning of evil when he confronts it, but instead either kills it or finds himself unable to do so.  In my opinion, because Conan is far more the "murder-hobo" type, who rises to be a king, it is far more Howard's work that sets the tempo and the inner life of D&D than Tolkein, who is filled with rather passive beings who stumble around getting out of trouble in a very fairy tale manner — that is, with author intervention in the form of magic objects and plain stupid luck.  Bilbo finding the ring, for example.  Conan rushes at the enemy, far more reminiscent of the characters in Treasure Island or Ivanhoe, who choose to fight before they think.

Here, I'm not going to discuss the writing.  Truth be told, I consider Tolkein a better sentence-maker; I do not consider either Tolkein or Howard to be "good" writers.  My scale for what makes a good writer includes a lot of people that the typical English-lit major chooses to set aside, because by gawd, none of us will ever write like Shakespeare, yes?  That would be impossible!  So we must only include writers in our "good" lexicon that we may conceivably someday match, such as the dreck of Harper Lee and Truman Capote.  "Lower the bar!" cries Academia, "Let it include Sylvia Plath!"  And so it does, achieving the goal of not scaring the be-jeebus out of first-year students.

But I digress.

As John writes,

"Conan's fame, and Howard's legacy, would steadily grow in the postwar years in spite of reviews ... but the supercilious disapproval of the literary establishment would cast a long shadow nonetheless.  In fact, some of Howard's biggest fans — among whom must be counted L. Sprague de Camp, though many modern Conan fans would rather not — felt a sort of compulsion to temper their complimentary remarks about his work for fear of being themselves judged for appreciating such low-brow trafe."

Love John's choosing of "trafe" over "tripe," simply because it's such an obscure English word, demonstrating the writer's own need to put a flag on the hill and say, "See, I'm talking about Conan, but I have a vocabulary."

I don't disparage Conan, nor seek to separate myself intellectually from it, because it has as much to do with "good writing" as does a hack saw.  His work is a tool designed to convey an idea; it's not mucking around with words to make pretty things.  It's scope and influence on writers these past hundred years dwarfs so-called better writers, who have done precisely nothing to create their own genre of literature, and even less to make themselves readable.  Therefore, do understand that I'm saying the reader does far more good to read Conan than to read of the Grey Mouser, and far more good for their communication of ideas to deconstruct the adverbs and adjectives of Howard than those of Tolkein.  Howard's phrases are raw power, picking the story up and hurlng it into the future, while Tolkein's phrases are pet dogs chasing their own rumps.  Damn the "quality" of it.

It is shocking to remember that Howard committed suicide in 1936 following the death of his mother from tuberculosis.  From Wikipedia,

"On the morning of June 11, 1936, Howard asked one of his mother's nurses, a Mrs. Green, if his mother would ever regain consciousness. When she told him no, he walked out to his car in the driveway, took the pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head. He died eight hours later, and his mother died the following day."

Thus the entirety of Howard's time to publish Conan stories consists of the narrow window between 1932 and 1935.  Given that though I've only read a small portion of the original stories, with DeCamp's and Lin Carter's fingerprints, it's plain already that he was improving considerably as a writer over his earlier works.  I look forward to seeing if that continues as I read the omnibus; I suspect it will. What a loss, therefore.  What a loss.


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