John C. Wright Brings Rousseau and Virgil into Conan

Robert E. Howard was, I am coming to understand, a master of his craft.

What is the difference between a real savage and a noble savage? Let us look into the iron shadows of the moonlight for an answer.

This story is well suited to the question, for it just so happens to have a lovely, half-clad and large-eyed  brunette in distress; a highly civilized oriental aristocrat bent on her dishonor; a rough and semi-civilized pirate chief who hates Conan with hot passion (and wants him hanged on a hook); eldritch monuments from a forgotten civilization, haunted perhaps with the ghosts of an accursed peoples; and an apelike monstrosity equally likely to originate from the darkness of prehistory as the darkness of the netherworld.

In other words, we have one antagonist from each season of the rise and fall of cultures from primitive to civilized to decadent to dark ages and back to prehistory again.

As they say, Read the Whole Thing. And I have further contrasts of Conan with more modern fiction here, if you’re into that sort of thing.

John C. Wright on the Genius of Robert E. Howard

Fascinating essay:

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

You really have to read the original Conan stories to understand what there was about the character and the stories he enlivened to make him still a household name, 80 years later. For my part, the more I have read them, the more I have come to appreciate the vitality of them, and the flexibility of the character:

Conan is, in Wright’s estimation, a product of Theosophy’s pagan theories of eternal recursion:

the world of successive cataclysms captures the grim mood of the Hindu mystic, where a Kali Yuga routinely wipes out all life in the universe, only to have it start again. The Ecpyrosis of the Roman Stoics was the same idea, and said the whole cosmos periodically burned to ash and was reborn. And the successive destructions whispered in Aztec legends, where different generations of man and god alike are obliterated, all these and others capture the pagan spirit and atmosphere needed for the Hyborian Age of Conan.

In this way, Conan is something like an avatar of Shiva, or at the very least of Ares, the Greek troublemaker and brawler.

I recently picked up Wright’s Count to a Trillion, the start of one of his spacefaring trilogies. I haven’t cracked it open yet, but I hope to soon.

Read the Whole Thing, obviously