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April 19, 2009

Open Thread/Open Blog
And Thoughts on Conan the Cimmerian Capitalist

Lazy Sunday.

Lately I have decided to fully regress to my 8th grade self -- reading "Conan of Cimmeria" (all of the early, real R.E. Howard Conan stories in one volume (of three total)) while listening to Genesis (esp. abacab and turn it on). I didn't actually read much Conan as a kid, finally, as an adult, getting around to the reading I was meant to do as a child.

Interestingly, essays at the end of the book explained how and why Howard created his "Hyborian Age." As to the how -- he had a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology, and simply raided it for names and even plots (or at least story seeds) on occasion.

As to why -- that's more interesting, and, in a strained way, says something about the social good of capitalism.

Howard was basically a writer of historical pulp fiction. He did a lot of Westerns (which some say are superior to the Conan tales, but that's easy to claim, since pretty much they're impossible to find). And occasionally he'd do knights in Merovigian France or 1001 Arabian Nights type stories.

But his problem was that researching the details necessary to get such historical fictions at least passably versimilitudinous took a lot of time. Time he didn't have, because the pulps paid jack-shit, and to make anything approaching a living at the trade, he needed to put out volume. He just couldn't spend a week researching ancient China just do do a short story set there.

His solution? Well, why not just invent a world where no one could cry "anachronism!" or "inaccuracy!" on him, because the world simply did not exist, and he, as the inventor of it, was the greatest -- and lone -- expert on what was historically accurate or anachronistic in the world.

And so he made up a world which had a country like Medieval France, which he called "Aquilonia." And he had a country like pre-Norman-Invasion Britain, which he called "Brythunia." And he had a country like Rome after the fall, which he called "Argos." And Zingara, kinda-sorta Spain and Portugal, and Zamora, kinda-sorta a country ruled by Gypsies, and Asgard and Vanheim, kinda-sorta the Vikings, the Angles and the Jutes.

And Egypt -- Stygia -- and the Turkish Empire -- Turan -- and ancient China and India and Africa too (Kitai, Vendhya, and Kush/Zembabwe/the Black Kingdoms).

Cimmeria, the gray and moody home of Conan, was the land of the Celts and Scots, which is a bit Mary-Sue, as I think that was Howard's own bloodline.

And he even had a place for American cowboys and Indians stories -- the border lands near the Black River, where the outposts of civilization clashed with the tribal, shamanistic, war-painted Picts. Pirates of the Caribbean stories too -- he just took the infamous pirate base Tortuga and called it "Tortage."

He cleverly justified this by explaining this was a "lost age" of the real world, the reason that races, cultures, and names are recognizable in a slightly-altered form is that, after the Cataclysm destroyed this world, names and mythology (and discrete racial groups) from this age endured into our own pre-history. After the Cataclysm, history basically repeated itself, as it often does, but this time without all the sorcerers and man-apes and devils from the Outer Dark.

So he created a world in which he could pretty much visit any historical epoch on any place of the real globe, and set a story there with almost no research whatsoever, except for raiding names from history and Bullfinch's mythology which sounded vaguely Roman, or vaguely Celt, or vaguely Greek, etc., as the locale demanded.

And then he began putting out quite a few stories in rapid succession, no longer restricted by actual history nor slowed by the need for research. And, as the conceit of the world and character of Conan proved popular, he actually began making a smallish amount of money, not a lot but okay, I guess, for a West Texas pulp writer in the Great Depression. (Not okay enough, as it turned out, as he ultimately blew his head off at an early age (28?), but I guess it was enough to keep him housed and fed for a time.)

So, the moral, I guess, is that real-world economic imperatives and the need for productive monetization of his talent would up with a very interesting solution, the creation of one of the first real "fantasy worlds" in literature. Without the need of actual money, he'd've never invented Conan or his world.

(I should note two other economic imperatives that drove him: The need for a scantily-clad slave girl in a story that would give him a shot at the cover illustration of the pulps, and the need to weird his stories up, as he primarily published in frequent-Lovecraft-publisher Weird Tales. To comply with the latter need, he avoided using Gothic or traditional monsters, in favor of the Cthulesque blasphemies favored by Lovecraft and well-liked by the Weird Tales readership. He often described a monster's eyes as "vampire-red," and yet never actually featured a vampire. Instead, he fought man-apes, dinosaurs, and strange alien gods from "the Outer Dark." An odd thing that, this historically-based sword-slinging fiction so often featuring bizarre "gods" of tentacles and plasm and non-Euclidean geometry, but an interesting twist. Pretty much, all around, the interesting and innovative and crowd-pleasing stuff in Conan was dictated by market economics, by what the customer wanted, and not necessarily what the vendor wished foremost to produce. And it seems to have worked out pretty well.)

Anyway, might have to hit the bookstore to get Volume Two of the collected stories. Right now I'm reading a book I never got around to, a collection of of stories about Fritz Lieber's Ffafhrd and the Grey Mouser. With Billy Squier's In the Dark playing on YouTube.

I'm living eighth grade right this time.

Another Influence... Was the hard-boiled detective pulps. Conan is "Hard-boiled fantasy" or "noir sword-and-sorcery," taking the basic jaded, misanthropic attitude of the detective pulps and sticking it in a fantasy world. Conan isn't really a hero like Gandalf or King Arthur; he's not "good," per se. But the rest of the world is so bad and wicked that he's a hero by default. As Chandler observed (approximately), the noir hero is not the best man in any world, but he's the best man in the dark world he actually lives in, and a good enough man for any world.

In one story -- "Rogues in the House" -- he cribs twentieth-century hard-boiled slang in referring to Conan's "punk" -- a punk being a sexual subordinate, usually used in a prison context, and usually referring to homosexual partner (on the receiving end).

Of course, this being Conan, Conan's "punk" is in fact a scantily-clad slave-girl thief-whore. The punk rats him out to the cops, who imprison him, and after he escapes, he gets his vengeance. Oh, he doesn't kill her; Conan is bit chivalrous with the wommenfolk. But he does kill her boyfriend, and then drops her from a third-story roof into a open sewer pit steaming with human waste.

Kinda odd, that, using such anachronistic slang, but it works. It jars, but in a good, interesting way. We're put on notice from the word that this is a Conan version of a Dashiel Hammett story. With, you know, monsters.

Another example of Howard emulating a popular genre of fiction just to make some bread -- and it adding to the appeal of his work.

If You Haven't Read Conan, or Haven't Read Him in a While... Beyond the Black River is often called his best story. It's basically a Western, with the Picts standing in for Indians and Conan standing in for the one Texas Ranger patrolling the savage frontier.

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posted by Ace at 03:17 PM

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