Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Michael Dirda on Robert E. Howard--James Reasoner responds

Hacking his way from one crisis to another -- the quintessential fighting man.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 22, 2006; BW15 The Washington Post


By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Mark Schultz

Del Rey/Ballantine. 457 pp. $29.95


By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Gary Gianni

Del Rey/Ballantine. 366 pp. Paperback, $15.95


By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Gregory Manchess

Del Rey/Ballantine. 393 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the creator of a blue-eyed Cimmerian fighting man, who wandered the ancient Hyborian age as a thief, pirate and mercenary, before finally seizing the royal throne of Aquilonia. In the course of many adventures, this axe and sword-wielding battle-machine was to encounter Stygian demons, a lonely being from another planet, vampiric witches and saturnine sorcerers who possess the elixir of life, a seraglio's worth of scantily clad slave girls, more than one haughty but secretly hot-blooded princess, and, not least, many, many, indeed hordes, of bloodthirsty, blood-crazed Picts, Kushites, Shemites, Vendhyans and Hyrkanians. Even more remarkably, this indomitable warrior earned the love of both Belit, the notorious corsair Queen of the Black Coast, and the deadly Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Such a hero could obviously be no one but Conan, King Conan, Conan the Barbarian.

To most of us these days, Robert E. Howard's Cimmerian is rather a joke. During the 1970s, the Depression-era hero evolved into a comic-book icon and was later literally embodied by the young Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pair of exceptionally good sword-and-sorcery films. Soon thereafter appeared both the bookish Conan the Librarian and Terry Pratchett's mangled and bitter old bandit Cohen the Barbarian. Many an older reader must still recollect the Frank Frazetta paperback covers, top-action portraits of a massive half-naked fullback with a broadsword, either in full berserker fury or standing triumphantly upon a mound of dead enemies, his mighty thigh caressed by an adoring Playmate of the Month. Or two. Of course, none but the brave deserve the fair.

Are the tales of Conan then what a female friend would call "boys books"? Testosterone-driven daydreams for 15-year-olds? Pulp schlock with titillating suggestions of sadomasochism, rape and sapphism? (Many of the stories were originally illustrated for Weird Tales by the legendary Margaret Brundage, who specialized in kinky cover art.) The answer to all these questions is, obviously, yes.

Yet without making grandiose claims for them, Howard's Conan chronicles are also a bit more than that. They are, as Patrice Louinet demonstrates in his forewords and afterwords to these three volumes, studies in the clash of Barbarism and Civilization. In Howard's grim and all too realistic view, the barbarians are always at the gate, and once a culture allows itself to grow soft, decadent or simply neglectful, it will be swept away by the primitive and ruthless. As a character insists in "Beyond the Black River," the most deeply felt and complex Conan story, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. . . . Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."

To Howard, however, this isn't wholly a bad thing.
to read the rest of the article read here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/19/AR2006011902754.html

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Reviewing a review is perhaps an uncommon thing to do, but Ed asked me for a few comments on Michael Dirda’s review of the three Del Rey editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, taken from either Howard’s original typescripts or the appearances in the pulp WEIRD TALES for the stories for which typescripts are not available.

Considering some of the press that Howard and his work have gotten over the years, Dirda’s column is fairly even-handed. There’s no dwelling on Howard’s personal life, no amateur psychoanalyzing, no grinding of axes. I give Dirda credit for concentrating on the stories themselves, as is only proper, since in the end they’re really all we have left of Bob Howard. (Well, other than the poetry, the letters, the articles and fragments and . . . )

Yet like many critics, Dirda can’t help but damn with faint praise. Are the Conan stories “pulp schlock”, he asks, and then he answers, “ . . . obviously, yes.” He refers to the character as a joke because of the movies, the comic books, the multitude of pastiche novels . . . none of which make the original Conan stories anything more or less than exactly what they were when Howard wrote them. Now that the original texts are available again, this is an especially important point. Readers can go back to the stories as Howard wrote them, as if none of what came after ever took place. The best way to experience the Conan stories is to read them in the pages of WEIRD TALES, I suppose (and facsimile reprints of them will be available in the future – without, unfortunately, the smell of decaying pulp paper, unless the book manufacturers have come up with something I don’t know about). The next best is to read them in these Del Rey editions, or in the ten-volume set from Wildside Press that reprints all of Howard’s stories from WEIRD TALES, not just the Conan yarns.

I would take issue, too, with Dirda’s assertion that Conan’s only solution to any problem is to hack his way through it. Yes, there’s plenty of swordplay and action in the stories. But Howard also emphasized Conan’s cunning, as well. There’s a great deal of political intrigue in many of the stories, and no one is better at pitting one faction against another and manipulating his enemies into destroying one another than Conan. The reason Conan is so dangerous is that he isn’t just a mindless, hack-and-slash barbarian. He can out-think his foes as well as handle a broadsword.

And of course, bringing up the so-called racism in the stories is old news in critical circles. Howard was no more racist than anyone else living in a small town in the Thirties. It’s probably safe to say that he was no more racist than most people who lived in big towns then, too. In fact, reading his letters leads one to believe that he was probably less racist than many people of his era.

I agree with Dirda’s comments about the appeal of Conan’s indomitable spirit. And he’s certainly right about the story “Beyond the Black River” actually being a Western. Take away the slight fantasy trappings and it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read about Texas frontier in the 1840s, when the first settlers were beginning to make their way into a vast land ruled by the Comanches. It’s been said that no matter what the setting of a Howard story, he was actually writing about Texas, and there’s some truth to that.

So I would hope that Dirda’s readers would come away from his column with a desire to actually read the stories and judge for themselves whether they’re “pulp schlock”. I think they’re more than that. A lot more.


Blogger Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Note that there's a scholarly journal on Robert E. Howard: _The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies_. Further information at http://www.robert-e-howard.org/TDM

5:44 AM  
Blogger Carl V. said...

I agree with your thoughts. It was an interesting article but I cringe when I see even slight remarks that try to relegate these stories to the broad category of 'pulp fiction'. Sure they were written for pulp magazines but the fact that these stories still exist and thrive today is that they rose above much of the pulp dregs and stand on their own as classic tales. I also get annoyed by all the slight criticisms of Howard's writing...its as if any reviewer is afraid to admit that he could actually write well. I'll admit to not being a reader who goes into a story with an eye for criticsm...I just like to read...but I believe that I have at least some modicum of intelligence and know when I am reading a good story or not. I don't have a boyhood affection for these stories...I first started reading them last year at the ripe young age of 36. My affection for them is born simply from how good and entertaining they are today and I believe they stand up very well against any of the other competitors in today's fantasy/sci fi genre.

5:45 AM  

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