A Bridge Built with Broadswords: Robert E. Howard in the Realm of Literary Academia
Literary analysis is a field of academic study which has grown considerably since its inception, expanding far and wide to be more inclusive of the multitude of voices and perspectives present within our world. While it is still certainly limited in its scope, literary analysis and literary canon have come to incorporate a vast array of text. Yet amongst them, one particular genre has come to occupy a rather peculiar niche in the literary world: fantasy literature. Michael Moorcock, accomplished fantasy writer and editor–creator of the iconic character Elric of Melnibone–described this phenomenon as a sort of “literary ghetto” (Moorcock, 31). That is, while a certain degree of scholarship has been exercised in the realm of fantasy fiction, it has been relegated to its own community, fenced off from the rest of the academic world; ghettoized, one might aptly say. And all of this for the fact that fiction fell prey to what Moorcock described as a “random kind of snobbery” (Moorcock, 31), which tore a great divide between literary fiction and “genre fiction,” a nebulous term with little purpose save to demean that fiction which was not considered worthy of the attention of analysts outside its ghetto walls. Though this prospect seems bleak, Moorcock felt that there was yet hope, hope for the possibility that there was a way for “popular fiction and literary fiction to find common ground” (Moorcock, 31). That way, is not in fact forthcoming, not because the future of fantasy is a dark one, relegated only to analysis and appreciation within its cordoned-off sector, but because the scion of that possibility has already come, made his mark, and gone, leaving his vast body of work in his wake; a body of work which–given the analysis it deserves–would build a bridge with its broadswords and barbarians, a bridge between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. That author is none other than one of Moorcock’s own inspirations, a man who has left an eternal imprint within fantasy literature even as he helped to shape the genre: Texas’ own Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbaric hero Conan, amongst many others.
Robert E. Howard was born on January 22, 1906 and died by his own hand on June 11, 1936. In that too-short lifespan, Howard gave life to one popular fantasy character after another, telling their tales–or “yarns” as he liked to call them–in the pages of pulp magazines such as “Weird Tales” and “Adventure Stories.” Ostracized from his fellow townspeople of Cross Plains, Texas, Howard spent most of his days writing and caring for his dying mother, whose condition’s worsening state would ultimately lead to Howard’s suicide. Because Howard published in the pulp magazines, his work was seen as peculiar by the citizens of Cross Plains, an illegitimate way to make a living. As fiction writer and essayist Michael Chabon wrote in his essay “Trickster in A Suit of Lights,” “serious people learn to mistrust” genre fiction, it has a “bad name” (Chabon, Trickster, 1). This was true for academics–evidenced by Howard’s lack of presence in academia–and by his fellow townsfolk. The scantily-clad female cover images of “Weird Tales”–which often had little or nothing to do with Howard’s own tales–framed his work in the eyes of his neighbors as trashy, vulgar, and distasteful. Ironically, the same view of his work held by the majority of Cross Plains is the view held by academic scholars–though perhaps somewhat less extreme–when it comes to the worth of Howard or other fantasy writers: the work is “low” art, it is simple writing for simple people, not worthy of “the academy.” One can practically here the scorn dripping from those words, like the venom from the fangs of one of the horrific serpents that populates Howard’s written worlds.
In an LA Times interview, Michael Chabon bluntly admitted that indeed “the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap” (Chabon, LA Times, 1). Chabon added though that “literary” fiction was simply “high-toned crap” (Chabon, LA Times, 1). In this forthright, rather humorous statement, Chabon strove to break down the dichotomy between genre and literary fiction. Literary fiction, it seems, is less willing to scrutinize itself for quality, while holding genre fiction responsible for its writers’ shortcomings. What is revealed by self-awareness on behalf of both styles of literature is that there is indeed a large quantity of literature lacking in quality, categorization notwithstanding. And to deny the worth of genre fiction simply on the grounds of it being entertaining is a sort of denial of pleasure, a rejection of natural emotion which author’s like Howard would find most troubling; enjoyment does not taint the academic worth of a text. Thus, for one to look down on genre fiction based solely on its entertaining, accessible status is pure folly. If one can accept that assertion, then the process of building a bridge between the styles can begin.
Howard wrote many poems and created numerous characters, though none of them is more unmatched in their fame than the mighty Conan the Cimmerian, known to many as “Conan the Barbarian,” thanks to some loose adaptations of his tales made by Marvel Comics and nigh-plotless 80s films which were Conan in name only. Howard’s Conan was indeed a larger-than-life hero, whose adventures were the stuff of a Texas tall-tale transposed into a heroic fantasy environment, but there was something more to Conan than some of Howard’s past creations, and certainly more to him than was portrayed in the film adaptations which rendered him a dim-witted, loincloth-clad, nearly mute stereotype. He was a dark character, a brooding swordsman, fated to be a king but to wear his crown upon a troubled brow. “If the true work of art is something that at once attracts and disturbs,” muses Patrice Louinet in his preface to a compilation of Howard’s Conan stories, “then the Conan stories are something special… Scratch the veneer at your own risk.” (Louinet, 37)
But how does this barbarian hero help to set Howard as the bridge-builder between the fortress of academia and the walled-off outpost of “genre” fiction? How is Howard, through his tales of broadswords and bloody conquest, possessing of the potential to change the perspective of countless scholars when it comes to the merit of fantasy? The depth of his character and his subtleties of storytelling give his work its unrecognized worth. It is as simple as that, the sheer depth of Howard’s Conan stories, and much of his other work, is so rich with fodder for analysis, that it has the capacity to turn the averted eyes toward the genre as a whole and let them behold in it a well of yet untapped potential for philosophical, social, and cultural commentary suitable for any number of academic purposes.
One of the things that makes Conan such a potent character is his personal tie to Howard. Conan embodies the spirit of the Texas roughnecks that Howard grew up knowing and hearing about, yet his is more than a tough fighter with a strong sense of individuality. He is a vessel through which Howard vented his hopes, his dreams of freedom from his small-town life (to which he was tethered by his mother’s need for care), and his weaknesses. To call Conan an avatar for Howard would not be inaccurate, but it would be to simplify and cheapen the worth of the character. For often a mere author avatar is seen as a weak basis for character, lacking in creativity on the part of the author. Such a notion is worthy of critiques all its own, but the point remains that Conan was not just Howard’s vessel for escape. He was, as illustrator Mark Schultz described the barbarian hero, Howard’s portal through which the troubled Texan author could unleash his frustration with the rural Texan landscape of oil fields and corruption. (Schultz, 14)
Schultz asserts, in his foreword to a compilation of Howard’s work, that Robert Howard took the “nominal elements of heroic fantasy, but he did not write them with the genteel sensibilities associated with the form” (Schultz, 14). This certainly is true, as Howard’s Conan stories reflected an ever-growing hero and author, both of whose views began to shift as time and certain events had their effect on Howard’s life. Though more on that later. For now it is important to note that Howard’s work, while impressive and worthy of analysis, is not so made worthy because it deviates from heroic fantasy, but because it so exemplifies the potential of the genre in a readily accessible manner, bringing philosophy and social commentary together with battles for honor and glory in such a way that might lay the support structure for this aforementioned bridge between the supposedly isolated realms of the literary and the “genre” piece.
If one accepts that one of the numerous crucial functions of literature is to serve as a snapshot of two key purposes, then one can begin to grasp the worth of the Conan tales. Those aforementioned purposes are the embodiment–either in agreement or disagreement with–the society that has shaped it, and the foreshadowing of the works and cultural norms it would come to shape. As countless artists assert, art imitates life, which imitates art. As such, the Conan stories take on considerable academic value. Rather, they are at bast seen through a lens so discerning as to grant them their deserved worth. Even if one does not enjoy heroic fantasy, or fantasy at all, there are points of interest that may still draw attention. For the feminist scholar there is a rather obvious one, that is one more directly related to Howard’s own stories rather than the objectifying cover-art adorning the magazines in which they were published. That matter being the role of strong women in Conan’s life as it pertains to the role of strong women in Howard’s own life.
Conan rescued his fair share of helpless maidens. Tales like “Vale of Lost Women” were little more than this trope, in so far as the only named female character in this tale existed as first the captive of an evil tribal leader, then a damsel in distress for Conan to rescue from a fiendish creature. Call it simple sexism if one will, and one might be quite right, but there is more to it than that. At the very least there is the matter of how such sexist beliefs were formed. As one may learn from reading any Howard biography, such as “Blood and Thunder” or the infinitely more personal “One Who Walked Alone” by Novelyn Price, Howard’s mother was sick since before he was born, and was dying of tuberculosis. Howard tended to her daily, at the expense of any socialization. His room–a sad little rectangle of a space–was a mere sectioned off portion of her room so he could attend to her while his father was away working, quite ironically, as a doctor. While Howard cared for his helpless, often bed-ridden mother, Conan saved helpless damsels in distress who could not so much as flee without the barbarian to–often at his own expense–carry them to safety. One can see in this a grudging quality: the bitterness of a man torn between his familial duty and his personal desires just as Conan was often torn between saving the female character or seizing great treasure or power.
Enter Novelyn Price, an out-spoken, determined, college-attending woman with ambitions of becoming a published author. Price was introduced to Howard in the mid-1920s by a mutual friend and the two began their complex relationship, a relationship hindered by Howard’s mother, who went out of her way to keep Howard apart from Novelyn Price by turning away phone calls and not relaying messages from one to the other. How telling then that Belit, the titular “Queen of the Black Coast,” would be Conan’s first love, and some would say his truest love, one with whom Conan shared his philosophies on life and death as the anti-hero duo pillaged the Black Coast. More telling perhaps that this powerful, self-made pirate queen would find her undoing at the hands of manipulation and treachery, leaving Conan to greave in a futile manner, a newfound emotion for the headstrong hero. But a tough female character inspired by a real woman is hardly revolutionary, hardly worthy of a feminist critique. To that end, the determined analyst may turn to one of Conan’s later adventures, “Red Nails,” and it’s female protagonist: Valeria.
Howard’s relationship with Price struggled, damaged by Howard’s anti-social and awkward demeanor and his mother’s needs, along with his mother’s desire to keep Novelyn and Howard apart for what reasons one may never know. The two aspiring writers (though Howard was already a career author at this point), who were never a formal romantic couple, parted ways as friends after a long while of what Price would describe in her memoir as outings that were both memorable, amusing, and sometimes unpleasant. They rekindled their friendship in time, but a distance had grown between them, and this was reflected well into Conan’s fantastical world.
After “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan had little in the way of love interests for a long while. As his creator tended to his needy mother with his full attention (barring the time spent writing, of course), Conan returned to fighting great battles, rescuing fair maidens, and slaughtering wicked entities. But, as Novelyn made her return to Howard’s life, so was born a new character, the character of Valeria. Valeria was, if one may be so bold, quite the feminist character for her time. She suffered from certain unfortunate objectification, but her personality and capabilities were of an impressive level, such that she could verbally and physically battle with Conan and match him wit for wit, blow for blow, just as Novelyn challenged and debated with Howard on his various principles and ideas. Valeria even was so confident in her strength and independence as to turn Conan’s romantic advances away initially. This sounds like very little, but when contrasted with the likes of Zenobia from “The Hour of the Dragon,” it is a rather telling sign. Valeria was even so forthright as to rightfully demand, “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” (Howard, Conquering Sword, 425) when she was driven from the camp of a warlord and pursued by the intrigued Conan. Howard’s life had been inevitably impacted by a strong female presence, he had come to understand–by experience–the independence, confidence, and beauty of a forward-thinking, ambitious female. “Beauty” is mentioned simply because Conan, and likely Howard as well, found Valeria more appealing because she was so different from her submissive counterparts from prior adventures.
On the other hand, attention must be paid to the cover artwork on the magazines in which Howard published. This is ripe fodder for a feminist critique, and is possibly one of the reasons that Howard’s work has not been treated as having much worth. Covers of magazines like “Weird Tales” were often adorned with images of scantily-clad females. When a Conan story was the cover story for an issue, the magazine would inevitably feature a picture of Conan–himself often clad in little more than a loin-cloth and sandals–and a female character clad in very little. Amusingly enough, this female character did not necessarily have to be a major part of the story at all. She would simply be placed on the cover to help sell the magazine. This played into what feminist critics refer to as the “male gaze.” Theorist Laura Mulvey described this gaze as when the audience is given the perspective of a heterosexual male (Mulvey, 1). Thus, a female in minimal garb would be seen as appealing through this gaze, and would thus be helpful in selling more issues of the magazine. What critics must at least take into consideration is that these magazines–the only venues for Howard to publish his work–did not design artwork painstakingly to suit the nuances of Howard’s own tales, but to market their product. Thus Howard’s stories should not be condemned or seen as somehow vulgar simply because of the artwork on the magazines, which was a dire mistaken made by the townspeople of Cross Plains.
Understanding the Conan stories through a feminist perspective is certainly a worthy pursuit, but there are still other avenues of exploration to be found within Howard’s work. Forged as his creations were amidst the Texas landscape and events, Howard was able to infuse into his writing a large degree of cultural commentary, much of it speaking out vehemently against the trappings of civilized society. Many Conan stories represented this distaste, and the barbarian hero himself can be perceived as a personification of barbarism and nature itself. Conan toppled kingdoms, led violent war-bands, and even as a king he personally fought off a band of rebels; he was not a character meant to be tamed and turned into a civil man. How then did Howard’s Texan life influence this?
Literary analyst Mark Finn published an essay in the winter of 2004 entitled “Texas as Character in Robert E. Howard’s Fiction.” This article–published in a little-known academic journal run by Howard scholars–explored Howard’s Texan background as it related to his writing. What Finn observes as most prominent in shaping Howard’s view of civilization versus barbarism, was the “oil boom” through which Howard lived (Finn, 1). This oil boom turned the quiet town of Cross Plains into a center of attention, a destination for those hoping to strike it rich and those eager to swindle any naive prospectors (Finn, 3). What Howard beheld, and came to associate with barbarism, was a small, self-sufficient town of simple, forthright folk, who were then overwhelmed by “civilization” in the form of the corrupt and the money-hungry. When the oil boom died down, so too did the activity in Cross Plains, returning it to a relatively quiet place, but one which was scarred by civilization, as businesses that had started in the midst of the boom floundered and died with the absence of the oil-seeking population. Howard’s distaste for civilization is thus more closely associated to particularly decadent capitalism, an assertion made all the more plausible by Howard’s consistent struggles to find venues of publication in the production-oriented, capitalistic publishing industry. His passion for rugged individualism, coupled with a fascination for frontier life which earned Howard the nickname “Two-Gun Bob,” would ultimately lead the bitter Texan fantast to write one of his greatest Conan tales, “Beyond the Black River.”
“Beyond the Black River” is a tale set in an obvious parallel to the western frontier of American history. The story is told from the perspective of a man named Balthus, a son of the civilized empire, who has become a soldier and helps to fight against the wild Picts. In doing so, he encounters Conan, who saves Balthus’ life on numerous occasions. Balthus observes how like the Picts Conan is, how at one with nature, and how much more suited he was to the woods than even one with Balthus’ skill as a woodsman. In this the reader may discern Howard’s attitude toward the nature of civilization: it is soft, it is weak, and it corrupts even its fighting men with that same softness. Balthus’ death near the story’s end mirrors the fall of a city alluded to earlier in the text, a city which Balthus saw as a mighty bastion of civilization, a city which Conan helped destroy, leading a horde of barbarians over its walls and driving the empire out of the north lands. Balthus dies overwhelmed by Picts, a strong but ultimately still civilized man thrown against the insurmountable force of nature, a tragic but unavoidable doom which builds up to one of Howard’s most well-known quotes, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” (Howard, Conquering Sword, 211)
The “civilized” regions of Howard’s Hyborian Age–the proto-European fictional epoch in which his fantasy works are set–are often depicted as beautiful, exotic, sprawling cities of great splendor. The main setting of the aforementioned “Red Nails” is in fact a particularly spectacular city, built entirely within a great fortress, complete with a city-spanning roof sculpted with fantastic architecture. But beneath their gleaming facades, these glorious cities are always crumbling with decay, often tearing themselves apart with deceit and destruction before barbarism ultimately sets in and brings the civilization to its ultimate ruin. This is perhaps Howard’s greatest recurring motif, that which pervades his work in both prose and poetry, in his fantasy, horror, and western stories: the endless struggle between the natural force of barbarism and the man-made facade of civilization. Even the Hyborian Age itself, this era and all its land and memory, is ultimately lost to a great cataclysm which–in Howard’s fantasy universe–gives rise to our recorded history. It is, in essence, a capitalist dystopia scrabbling for a foothold against the anarchy of nature.
Ideals like this were expressed often in letters Howard wrote to fellow pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft. Literary critic S. T. Joshi addresses Howard and Lovecraft’s correspondence in an article contrasting the two as representatives or proponents of barbarism and civilization, respectively. Howard venerated Lovecraft and thus was at first deferential to the horror writer’s opinions, but in time began to argue with Lovecraft more heatedly, even going so far as to direct outright sarcasm at Lovecraft, who espoused the social politics of Fascist Italy and Germany, by noting how “civilized Italy was in bombing Ethiopia in 1935” (Joshi). The two colleagues clashed on such matters just as Howard’s world was filled with the same clashing of nature and man, high-culture and frontier life, diplomacy to broadswords. As Conan said in “The Phoenix on the Sword” “I was a man before I was a king” (Howard, Coming of Conan, 66), aptly illustrating Howard’s perceived disparity between civilization–particularly “high-cultured” civilization–and true, natural, barbaric humanity.
The philosophical aspects of Howard’s work did not limit themselves to the ongoing struggle between man and nature, but also extended to the very nature of life itself. Another of Howard’s most well-known quotes hails from “Queen of the Black Coast,” during a scene in which Belit challenges Conan to defend his views on life and the afterlife, whilst explaining her own; a scene which could very easily be seen to mirror one of Howard’s lively debates with Novelyn Price. In the scene, Belit asks of Conan what he would think if all life were merely an illusion, simply a dream. This idea has occurred in other Conan stories, such as “Xuthal of the Dusk,” where a decaying civilization spends their lives largely in the grip of a drug-induced dream state which they find preferable to mundane life. Conan responds quite forthrightly, “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” (Howard, Coming of Conan, 289)
Howard’s own philosophy, as demonstrated in Conan’s words and actions, exemplifies the pragmatic Texan background in which the author dwelt. School was a place for basic education, those bound for college were bound to leave, and everyone else worked at jobs immediately relevant to the town, which was one of the reasons Howard’s career as a writer was so stigmatized. The folk of Cross Plains, if their lives and their forms were illusions, would have reflected that same simple, pragmatic view; to toil, unaware, as an illusion within an illusion is as much a reality as anything can be. Reality, Howard seems to argue, is in fact entirely subjective; a complex and thought-provoking claim indeed. Each individual may perceive their own wholly real reality, for each walks as one with their own illusions.
Critics of fantasy find the genre to be, amongst other things, mere escapism, which is apparently not a good thing in the eyes of an academic. It may absorb the identity of the reader, trivializing their own humanity against the larger-than-life characters and lavish settings. Yet, contrary to such an overstated and alarmist assertion, heroic fantasy is in fact a means for authors and readers to explore themselves, their worldviews, and the very nature of the world around them. Further, it is a means by which readers may come to understand the mindsets of authors who lived in times past, eras of different values and social norms. And–much to the academic’s dismay–it is a means for readers and writers to do these things in an accessible, entertaining manner.
Self-proclaimed academics operating under the guise of “the well being of the reader” explores the idea that escapist literature has the capacity to consume the readers identity, to separate them from themselves in a most distressing manner, in that such a separation alienates one from reality. Heroic fantasy is dangerous. An amusing assertion when juxtaposed with the notion of reality’s subjectivity. In Michael Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” the author examines the concept of escapism, and the results seem to be that there is no true escapism in the problematic, reality-alienating sense of the word. Instead, his characters find that escapist works are a means by which they may explore their desires, beliefs, and sexualities, free of the constraints of a strict, prejudiced society (Chabon, Kavalier and Clay). As the outcast of a small Texas town, Howard’s work stands as a testament to the assertion made by Chabon, proving that escapism is not only not detrimental but can in fact be a helpful tool in self-actualization for those considered for whatever reason to be unacceptable by their society.
This is of course not to say that heroic fantasy is without flaw. It certainly conforms to its fair share of tropes. But, as Michael Chabon asserted in “Trickster in A Suit of Lights,” so too does literary fiction have it’s own set of rules (Chabon, Trickster, 3). Literary fiction is no more free from it’s own norms, its own trappings, structures, and guidelines than the genre fiction over which it is favored by academics. Works of genre fiction classified as mere “escapism” have no less potential to be either deep or entirely lacking in quality than any post-modern academic novel.
Knowing then the attitude of academics toward fantasy–how it is perceived to consume identity and conform to limiting constraints–and then taking into account Chabon’s defense of genre fiction and the critical analysis which can be applied to fantasy literature, one can see the strength and merit held by these two structures. Yet they still stand disconnected, academia unwilling to make a foray into the territory of genre fiction, and genre fiction at least relatively complacent in its relegation to self-analysis and academic ghettoization. This is not due to some inherent flaw in either, but due to the lack of a bridge to span the mistrust which Chabon mentioned in his essay, the mistrust serious people have for genre fiction with its “leisure suit studded with blinking lights” (Chabon, Trickster, 1).
This is where Howard’s work can be of the utmost benefit. His writing style is accessible, enough so that he was able to make a living selling his tales via pulp magazines. Yet, as has been thoroughly demonstrated, his work also presents a wealth of deeper meaning and analytical potential which academics would find familiar and appealing. It is for these two reasons that Robert Howard’s vast array of stories and poetry is the very foundation for this bridge. A blending of accessibility with analytical material without damaging either valuable trait is a potent mix, and one which is difficult to craft, yet one which is essential to the breaking down of the notion that only those of high-culture should have access to high-art. With Howard’s lionization of barbarism and distaste for what his works portrayed as the decadence of high-culture and capitalism, it is only sensible that his works should so carefully hold this blend of accessibility and depth, thus bringing the high-art to the masses.
The impact of a sudden influx of academic attention would certainly be sizeable. Fantasy, horror, and science fiction alike would reap the benefits of canonization, finding their places in classroom discussions and on college class syllabuses as legitimate works rather than oddities. And academia would have whole new perspectives to gaze through, new lenses through which to view classic work and theory, and new genres–with unique writing conventions–to apply those theories toward. But this speculation on speculative fiction cannot be brought about without something bringing the two isolated fields of fiction together, a bridge built not of pretension or subversion, not on condescension or usurpation, but a bridge built by author’s like Robert Howard, whose academic philosophies and complex speculations are told not with lengthy and meandering surreal passages, but with broadswords.
Moorcock, Michael. “Elric 1: Stealer of Souls: Introduction,” Del Rey Books, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-345-50483-8
Howard, Robert E. “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,” (compilation) Del Rey Books, December 2013, ISBN: 0-345-46151-7
Howard, Robert E. “The Conquering Sword of Conan,” Del Rey Books, 2005, ISBN: 978-0-345-48605-9
Chabon, Michael. “Trickster in A Suit of Lights,” Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Harper Perennial, February 24 2009, ISBN: 0061650927
Chabon, Michael. “Getting Serious About Genre,” LA Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/27/entertainment/ca-chabon27
Chabon, Michael. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Random House, ISBN: 2000, 0-679-45004-1
Schultz, Mark “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian: On Illustrations,” Del Rey Books, December 2013, ISBN: 0-345-46151-7
Louinet, Patrice. “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian: Foreword,” Del Rey Books, December 2013, ISBN: 0-345-46151-7
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, (1975)
Finn, Mark. “Texas as Character in Robert E. Howard’s Fiction” Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, 2004 Winter; 8: 3-13.