The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the tag “writing”

The Writer, The Death God

Recently, I was conversing with a friend about the motivation for writing. While I write fantasy and she prefers either realistic fiction or non-fiction, we are both avid writers of our own styles. She mentioned that personal experience motivates a lot of her work, and provides inspiration for some of her content. Jokingly, I replied that “I write fantasy because I can actually fix the problems in those worlds.”

Amusing though that was, it got me to thinking about my relationship to the worlds I create. I could simply write paradises for all, with no turmoil or dismay. But I am a writer, and so paradise is never good enough. We need conflict, we need death. We need characters to be written to life so that we can make their lives Hell, then save them from it. Much like a god, we are the architects of boundless suffering. Now, to be fair, I have a perhaps unwarranted attachment to my characters. They feel to me like living beings, like people for whom I am responsible, and it pains me to hurt or kill them in the name of storytelling. But stories need conflict, and conflict needs misery in some form.

I’ve stewed on these thoughts for a few days, and at last they have come together in the form of a poem, possibly a song. And as the words (or lyrics) say, I hope that the writers of our world—whatever form they take—can learn not just from the misery we craft into our own creations, but also from the efforts we make to mend that strife. Let them be less like Death Gods, and more like Writers.

I’ve penned countless towers, destined to fall.
I’ve breathed life into heroes, and murdered them all.
Firelit bard songs, I’ve written a score,
and silenced those voices in the clamor of war.

With a word, I shape a world,
where countless seek peace from endless strife.
On a whim my heart gives birth,
and with a thought, my mind takes life.

Dragons will die because men want their hide.
Demons will slay so you feel justified
in rending their hearts and taking their lives.
Hail to your Death God! Glory and pride!

I bring misery, to set the pace.
I lift high a hero, then nail him in place.
Of lives shaped and shattered, I care for them naught.
A life’s only worth is to further my plot.

In a night, I’ll plan a life,
from its conception until after its death.
Beyond compare is your despair,
for I rule every footstep, and I govern each breath.

Dragons will kneel, so that men may ride.
Evil is evil; your hate justified.
Think nothing of the souls inside.
Slay for your Death God! Glory and pride!

To my own end, countless fates I condemn,
a soulless god, a heart of stone.
A familiar Hell I raise where you dwell,
to escape the Hell in the world of my own.

Dragons you fear, for I have none here,
in my magicless world, I pray you can forgive.
I’ll make your world Hell, but I’ll mend it as well,
and hope the writer is watching… and hope the writer can learn…
in the world where I live.


Commission A Short Horror Story

Hail, dear readers,
I’ve been away for far too long, but now I intend to make up for it. If you have ever wanted to star in a short, horror story before, but never found the time to whip up a tale of your own gruesome adventures, then I have quite the opportunity for you. For just $5, I will write you (or a character of your choosing) into a short piece of horror fiction all your own. This tale, featuring my unique style of word-craft, may be anything from a zombie apocalypse to a terrifying alien invasion. Or perhaps a desperate struggle to escape the hunting ground of a ferocious werewolf. Whatever the tale, you’ll be lucky if you survive physically and mentally in tact. If this offer interests you, head to the link below and pick up your $5 custom terror tale today!

The Hero’s Return

The wind blows up from western dales
to churn the glassy sea.
The mists of morning drift upon
the fog enshrouded lea.
A raven rides the murky sky,
its wings the shade of night,
and the denizens of darksome depths
retreat at morning’s light.

I tilt my eyes to the sky above
and catch the raven’s eye.
Though no man walks along my path,
alone never am I.
Fingers of fog tug at my cloak,
but ever I stride on.
Through darkness grim I’ve made my way,
at last to the break of dawn.

From the fell vales of the southern hills
to the frozen northern keeps,
I’ve hunted darkness and its brood,
where e’er it crawls and creeps.
Silver in my glimmering blade
has played a deadly tune,
for fiends and demons who laugh and reel,
beneath the weeping moon.

Years I’ve walked and years I’ve fought,
all light I did defend.
But old am I, my bones are weak,
my song is at its end.
The song of steel is a young man’s air,
too fast and cruel for me.
But my soul shall e’er keep up the fight,
though my body joins the sea.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to help fund the publication of my novel.

Those Who Dare to Be

This is an older poem, one from my “back catalog,” if you will, but I believe it is still very relevant. I hope you enjoy it. And remember, the literal definition of the word heretic is “one who chooses” or “one who makes a choice.” Just a fun fact to consider.

Each epoch is marked by those who dare
and by those who condemn.
The Great Wheel turns, the cycles repeat,
but none are wiser made.
Each looks to his forebears as the past.
Their present is not so.
Their eyes, cast backward or far afield,
see in their deeds no ill.
Divine, they say, is their will to hate,
a gift from lofty heights,
a freedom clung to with fervency,
a right not to be taken.
A right to hate, to them more precious,
than another’s right to be.

Like farmers harvesting a grim crop,
they choose their verses well.
Handpick those that sate their hate’s hunger,
ignore those that taste poor.
A word here and there, fit to condemn.
Disregard all the rest!
Well they forget the condemnations
that inconvenience them.
Quotes carefully picked, sharpened like spears,
they march out for the hunt.
An innocent prey suspects no ill,
for harm it has brought none,
while speakers of peace draw ever near,
eager to sow grave ruin.

Once before it was the heretic,
who chose another way.
Many times the prey was of their own,
who sought a different path.
“Impure races” and the “lesser sex,”
each has had their turn.
Those of “wrong skin” or with the “wrong love,”
have been evil in turn.
Each the next head on the chopping block.
Blood fuel for zealots’ fires.
Those who dare to be as they are made,
who dare to think and feel.
So great this need to reform or end
those who simply dare to be.

What You Make of Life

My father told me this short story recently, and it really resonated with me. He heard it from someone else, who likely heard it from yet another source, and as such, I’ll do my part by passing it on as well. Enjoy.

An elderly man sat on a park bench, thumbing through his copy of the newspaper. The occasional car trundled past on the quaint dirt road, but the old man paid them no mind, content to read his paper and enjoy the refreshing spring breeze.

But one car slowed down as it approached the bench, and the driver cranked down the window and waved to the old man.

“Excuse me, sir,” the driver called, “I’m looking for a new place to live, and I don’t want to live anywhere like my old town. What’s it like here?”

“Well,” the old man stroked his chin in thought, “what was your old town like, son?”

“Awful,” the driver spat. “Nothing but liars, cheats, deviants, and thieves. Immoral people, judgmental and crude. It was just a sad place to be.”

“You’ll find nothing better here, I’m afraid,” said the old man.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” replied the driver, scowling and pulling away.

The elderly man went back to his paper, chuckling at a particularly funny comic strip and nodding thoughtfully as he perused an editorial by the publication’s newest writer. The sound of a second car slowing to a halt drew his eyes up from the newsprint, and he saw another driver rolling down his window.

“Excuse me, sir,” the driver called, “but I’m looking for a place to settle down. What can you tell me about this town?”

“Well, what was your old town like?” inquired the old man.

“Oh it was wonderful,” the driver beamed. “Nice folks and a really friendly atmosphere; everyone was everyone’s friend. I could really trust my community. I’m sad I had to move, but that’s life. It really was a swell place though.”

“You’re in luck,” the old man informed him, “because this town is exactly like the one you just described.”

Remember, attitude is everything. Look for the good in the world, and you will always find it. If you enjoyed this story or any of my others, please consider donating to help fund the publication of my novel-in-progress:

Heroes Return

This is a very short exercise I wrote to practice crafting atmosphere without dialog. I used a song to score the scene as it played out in my mind, and I urge you to listen to it while reading this little yarn.

The foam of waves broke against ivory sand, a rhythmic crashing and rolling that surged forth and ebbed, leaving the shore in a perpetual state of change; each wave made its mark upon the beach, only to have its message scrubbed clean by its successor. Above, the sun watched over the world, its sight unimpeded by even a single cloud, though a solitary black speck grew nearer in the clear blue heavens, pressing through the air and toward the beach.

A black dragon beat its leathery wings at an unceasing pace, a heavy pulse that thrummed like the pounding of the sky’s great heart. On the mighty beast’s back, two riders sat upon a peculiar raised saddle, a rigging of three seats harnessed to their mount by way of creaking leather straps. The riders were a male and female, riding side by side and looking forward to the shore. Their expressions were vacant, impassive as they watched the beach approach.

The man, a dark-haired figure with a face full of fresh scars, adjusted a strap on his armor, fidgeting with a damaged buckle. His cuirass was dented, rent, and stained with rust-colored splotches of blood. His companion–a light-haired woman with smooth features and pointed ears–checked that a knife was still secure in its weather-beaten sheath at her side.

As one, the two riders looked to the third seat of their strange saddle. A sand-blasted and sun-parched saddlebag hung at the seat’s side, and the saddle bore the indentation of a rider’s presence. The pair’s eyes lingered on the seat’s emptiness for a long while, the silence punctuated by the flap of the dragon’s wings; a slow, deep fluttering sound like a ship’s sails. The riders looked forward once more, the male drawing his hand across his eyes and blinking them to clear a faint mist that had gathered at their corners. The golden-haired woman took his hand and gave it a squeeze, not letting go until the dragon’s massive feet splashed down in the shallow surf.

The warriors dismounted in the breaking waves and stepped to the front of the beast that had borne them on its back. The male patted its head, and the woman kissed the dragon’s elongated snout. The winged reptile gave a low rumble, a keen acknowledgement in its eyes as it turned in the surf and, with a push of its muscular legs and several quick flaps of its wings, took to the air once more, disappearing into the clear blue dome of the sky. Ever silent, the woman and man raised their eyes to the heavens, then turned their backs to the sea and the lands that lay beyond…

A Bit of Wisdom

Hail readers,
In last Tuesday’s post, I gave some (what I hope was) humorous novelist advice, which it behooves everyone not to follow. For this week’s post, I figure I’ll try my hand at some actual words of wisdom. Though I have only one work in progress at present, it is a fairly sizeable project for me, and the most recent in a fairly long line of stories that make up my writing experience. All this to say, throughout my admittedly fledgling career, I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe they’re lessons you already know, but I find that reading the perspectives of others can be helpful, or at least validating. Feel free to share your own advice in the comments section.

1. As much as we all can teach, there is still more to learn. Never close your mind to a new idea because you think you’ve tapped out all its potential or learned all of its facts, secrets, and subtleties.

2. Stop listening to people who have nothing good to say. This is a tricky one. So many writers are so obsessed with “taking criticism” as the pinnacle of authorly virtue that they never stop to think that sometimes, people can just be real jerks. I’m not saying ignore critiques, because thoughtfully constructed advice is the best way to gain feedback on your skills. But there are some reviewers who just get off on, even brag about, how harshly they critique, how “brutal” they are, how they “have nothing nice to say and feel bad about that.” (No they don’t, by the way, they revel in it.) Even the worst of pieces has it potential, and if a critic can see ONLY bad, they’re no better than a critic who sees ONLY good. Neither is helpful: one inflates confidence, the other ransacks your dreams for recreation. A good review is balanced, telling you what is good, what is so-so, and what needs work. All writers get critiqued, so don’t think this advice means to laugh off any critique. But if someone says “I feel like I just read a whole bunch of BS” or “I’m pretty sure that isn’t actually a story” or something of the like, and has no suggestions for improvement and no evidence that they even read your piece other than a page of snide remarks, their advice isn’t worth it. Listen to the reviewer who balances the bad (“This character seems awfully flat.”), the so-so (“Do you really need a mud-wrestling scene on the zeppelin?”), and the good (“I wasn’t sure what to make of that intro sequence, but it really panned out.”). Also, if their version of “rewrites” turn your tale into a whole new story, divorced from your own vision, then do consider what their motives really are.

3. Stop taking advice exclusively from people who have only good to say. Yes, I know, it feels good. A fan with nothing but praise is a real delight. At first. But any fans of the “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” know how irksome an adoring fan can become. This person will shower your work with praise, sometimes so nebulous that you’re not even sure they read the work at all. “It’s good” or “cool” are often the extend of their reviews. Sometimes the reviews are long, in-depth, and truly involved, but all they are is positive. This doesn’t mean your fan is bad or a liar, just that they might feel awkward criticizing you, or that they might not be well equipped to do so. If they can’t find a single weak spot in a 150 page manuscript, you’re either a writing god, they’re too shy to speak up, or they just don’t know where or how to spot a flaw, by no fault of their own. So, don’t ignore them, but consider getting a second opinion if the rough draft you wrote at 3:15 am comes back from this person spotless. Heed the good, but always seek improvement.

4. Your basic plot has already been done, don’t be ashamed of that. Seriously, think about your novel and reduce it to it’s core elements. Now pick any other work by another author, especially one from your bookshelf, and do the same to their work. Is there a bit of overlap? Probably. If not, try another book. You’ll find it, I promise. But, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t let that discourage you. Every story has in some way been told, it’s the telling that makes it original. Some folks harped on James Cameron’s “Avatar” for being a knock off of any number of other movies (“Dances with Wolves”, “Fern Gully”, “Last Samurai”), but just looking at that list invalidates their argument. If his is a rip off, so are all the others. True fact: A genre known as the “captivity narrative” was insanely popular a long while ago, and its core elements were a person being separated from their folk, living amongst another tribe, learning its ways, then deciding whether or not to stay or return home. Having a genre does not make you unoriginal. My defense of giant blue space people aside, the point is that if you take off the dressings of any tale, you will find another just like it. It’s those dressings that make the tale worth reading. Otherwise, the sentence “There is a protagonist and a conflict that is in some way resolved, for better or worse,” would serve as the only existing work of literature, because no other tale can be told. All this to say, you can still be original. The tale you tell will be different than any tale told before, because you’re telling it. Don’t just rip off Tolkien and say it’s original because you’re telling the tale, that’s a cop out. What I mean is, tell the story you want to tell, the way you want it told. It will come out original if you’re true to your vision, regardless of basic similarities to other works at their most skeletal levels.

5. Playing with archetypes is fun. There’s nothing wrong with having a hulking barbarian hero, a sour tempered dwarf, and a feisty elven rogue as your protagonist party. But no two barbarians are going to be the same. Maybe yours has a fondness for hand-knitted scarves and derails an important assignment because he simply must have one that he saw at a merchant stall. Maybe your dwarf isn’t bad tempered because “he’s just like that,” maybe he has a legitimate grievance with the mining contractors that are exploiting the gold-rich area near his home and cutting into his quiet time. Maybe your elf rogue actually isn’t a very good rogue, but just always wanted to be one, hand-eye coordination notwithstanding. These are awful examples, of course, but you see my point. Just because a character can be described with an archetype at face value doesn’t mean he needs to be cut from the tale. Just make sure he or she is portrayed in a unique and engaging way. People are people, not tropes. Give them a backstory, give them hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, food allergies, phobias, fixations, all the things that make a person a person, and you’ll find that your barbarian is nothing like Conan at all.

6. Stop with the self-loathing humor. Yes, you’re a writer. Yes, it’s a hard job. Yes, it doesn’t always pay the bills. We all know that. But joking about it smells a lot more like insecurity than good humor. In this field, you have to sell your work, and part of that comes from selling yourself. Not literally, but in the sense that if a potential customer hears you cracking jokes about how that “little novel” isn’t putting a roof over your head yet, they’re pretty likely to pass you by. If you don’t like your work, why should they. Never sell someone something you wouldn’t buy.

7. Focus! Set a daily writing time and stick by it. Setting your own hours is great, and also one of the easiest ways to get profoundly lazy. Force yourself onto a schedule. If that time comes around and the muse isn’t with you, do a bit of editing, or send a letter to a potential agent or publisher. Do something writing related with that time. If not, that novel you’re working on will quickly fall off the front burner to the back, then slide off the stove altogether, until you find it  next Christmas, coagulated on the base-boards like some sort of horrific eldritch abomination made of slime mold and squandered potential.

8. Don’t let someone else tell you how your tale should go. I don’t mean to ignore advice on tightening up or expanding plot elements. What I’m referring to is that inevitable conversation with a reader that always starts with, “You know what would be cool?” What follows can range anywhere from a thoughtful examination of a yet to be explored plot element, or an idea for a drag race but with dragons and laser rifles and sasquatch and also tacos. Don’t change your idea to suit everyone’s needs. You’re writing to tell the story you want to tell. If someone thinks it would be cool to tell a bit more about why the queen always cuts off her prisoners’ left ring fingers, or cut out the scene with the botched tonsillectomy, then give those ideas some thought and decide how they fit with your overall plan. This is especially true if your work isn’t yet done. Only you know how it ends, so only you know what matters. If their idea works and you like it, go with it. If it would do nothing but cater to their own desires, interests, or proclivities, then maybe they can find space for it in their novel.

9. Make notes of your characters’ traits. I say this because, with a long roster, it can be easy to let details get scrambled in your head. Remembering which character lost her mother to vehicular manslaughter is pretty easy, but smaller facts can be more easily forgotten. For instance: I owe my girlfriend a debt of gratitude for pointing out an instance when I called a character “sable haired” after having used her “fiery red hair” as a defining physical characteristic in the opening scene. I’d been thinking of another character with black hair, and so almost made a continuity error that would have driven me mad had it never caught my attention and gone on into the final copy of the work. Keep your details straight in whatever way you can!

10. You cannot please everyone. I used to get so worried about unintended implications in my work that I could hardly turn out a single story, and those I did were some of my weakest works. I was afraid of every possible implication. If the hero helped the heroine, I was implying that women needed a man’s help. If the heroine liked the hero, I was implying that women need men. If the heroine saved a young child, I was adhering to traditional stereotypes of maternal instinct and so on and so forth. In short, I couldn’t write anything that wouldn’t offend. And neither can you. I’m not saying your work should be deliberately sexist or racist or anything of the like. I have no patience for such hateful ideologies. What I mean to say is that you can be as careful as you want, and someone of some view point will still find a reason to be mad about it. You simply can’t please everyone, it is impossible. Write your story, try to keep an open mind and portray your characters fairly, as real people, not as stereotypes, and if the results offend large quantities of people, reread your work and see if you can see what went wrong from their perspective. But if you’ve been as even-handed as can be and one person is still calling you an evil, twisted, monstrous person, you may just have to accept that some folks will always find a reason to be angry.

13 Steps to Fame: Essential Advice for Novelists

As an author with exactly one work in progress that should be done soon, it can be unanimously agreed that I am an unparalleled expert in the art of writing, character development, plot pacing, and other aspects of noveling. Being so well-equipped, I will now share some essential bits of noveling advice, so that you too may one day have a work in progress that should be done soon. Good luck.

1. Fantasy novels always take place in medieval Europe. If your setting isn’t medieval Europe, or a thinly veiled analog, fix that. Now.

2. Swords are often so heavy that several sentences must be spent describing your characters’ rippling thews as they heft their weighty weapon. Nonetheless, they must have no problem swinging said sword for hours on end, felling a foe with every stroke. People who say swords are light are clearly confusing swords with loofah sponges; a common mistake. Imbeciles.

3. If your reader knows every word on any given page of your novel, you must rewrite your project, but this time with a thesaurus. Stick with words with the notes “(archaic)” or “(literary)” in parentheses after their listing.

4. Don’t work on your project too much. You can’t get people excited about a soon to be released novel if it actually comes out. The best projects have no release dates.

5. Inconsistently, use commas in the midst, of sentences, just to make sure, you’re, not missing any, where they are really, needed.

6. All fantasy readers play D&D, so your characters should spend at least one battle using a d20 to decide what to do. If you don’t know what a d20 is, don’t write fantasy. Stick with modern fiction about angst-ridden plumbers from the Bronx.

7. No one hears the massive altercation and comes to the hero’s aid until it’s over. This is not a senseless cliche. Use it.

8. No one likes wrist watches, and the people who wear them think they’re better than you.

9. All of your readers are 15 year-old boys. The more impossibly proportioned elf women in your work, the higher it will rocket up the best-seller list. And as we all know, best-selling fantasy novels rarely feature clothes. Except for men though, they must remain in plate armor at all times, and move swiftly in it, too.

10. Don’t even get me started on hygiene. If any of your characters smell good, they must be a time traveler from a land beyond medieval bathing standards.

11. Pick a body part. Describe that body part on all of your characters. Odd fixations cause your authorly presence to gain mystique amongst college lit classes.

12. If all else fails, segue into a political rant. Readers love that.

13. Take every piece of advice seriously, no matter how terrible it obviously is. The best authors follow the rules.

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.


Works Cited

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,

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.

A Construct Malignant

Hail readers,
Below you will find a poem I wrote sometime last summer. It tells the tale of a city of intrigue, subterfuge, and deceit. I hope you will all enjoy it.

The city’s veins are choked by gloam,
a shroud lowered from the sky.
Drops of its blood move ‘long their paths,
o’erwatched by an unseen eye.
In voices hushed with heresy,
they speak of the queen and king,
and in shouts swelled by a patriot’s zeal,
their rulers’ praise they sing.
In lofty palace of ebon stone,
the queen and her king reside.
Together they dine, apart they sleep,
each with dagger at their side.
And sleep may never to them come
to shade them in its cape,
for each be so a’feared to feel
the other’s dagger at their nape.

West of the city called Sjiryn-Vorek,
a hill called Penance stands.
Many here met their darksome end,
yet no blood stains the sands.
For a gallows broods ‘pon Penance Hill,
thrust up to snare its prey.
Here the worst and wisest swung,
and the lawful men did slay.
From dungeons ‘neath the ebon palace,
good and ill man was led.
And–noose ’round neck–they met the gods;
the sentenced joined the dead.
South of Penance a hell-mouth yawns,
its teeth bite at the sky.
Each tooth unmarked for the bones it guards.
In unrest the corpses lie.

Beyond Sjiryn-Vorek, in the east,
a white beach wraps the realm.
Blue water churns upon the sand,
high rocks break each wave’s helm.
There once a rebel leader stood,
his back against the waves,
but met his match at the king’s steel swords,
and joined Penance’s nameless graves.
Now sands are pristine and sea is clear,
the gull shall shrilly call,
and none who look ‘pon the holy shore,
would think here man did fall.
As waves time washes clean the slate,
so none living know the way
that kings spilled blood and priests conspired
in each long forgotten day.

Sjiryn-Vorek, City of Blades,
lingers e’er and on.
In night it licks its wounds and waits
to grasp the fleeting dawn.
A black stain on the unmarred earth,
and spreading evermore.
Shall one day its loathsome veins outstretch
and span from shore to shore?
Woe to man that here hath wrought
a cancer dark and strong.
Sjiryn-Vorek stands in silence
against the aeons long.
Were time to claim the ruinous lands
‘neath raven-haunted sky,
then e’en in its crumbling ruins,
in slumber would it sigh…

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