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Barbarians as a Mythic Gate
The Elements of Swords and Sorcery: Well of Heroes Epilogue 2
In the 1970s I found that my favorite genre of speculative fiction was swords and sorcery. In fact, by I think 1980, there was a movie released by the same name that plainly used specific elements of Howard's 1930s fiction. Then, in the 1980s, I began picking up volumes of books that had dust covers, covers and forwards written that extolled Howard, as the “creator” of Swords and Sorcery. I do not know the nerd history of the very genre that fairly bloomed and died with its creator and has had a curious afterlife.
The elements of this genre, also known as heroic fantasy, bleed through psuedo-historic myth, “science-fantasy” and even science-fiction, as the only real requirement is a hero with a sword behaving as a direct actionist in a world ruled by duplicity and haunted by sorcerers. The essential elements are not much different than those found in the Robert Ludlum series of Bourne novels. This series has been ironically taken over by the man I think is the second best swords and sorcery writer behind Howard, Eric Von Lustbader, who wrote the Sunset Warrior trilogy. The elements of swords and sorcery have been mostly taken into guns and duplicity adventure movies. For instance, the movie Predator, staring the actor that played in two of the three Conan movies, is much more like a Conan story written by Howard, than any of those three movies. The Eastwood movie High Plains Drifter might have been adapted straight from Howard's Solomon Kane series, both essentially being heroic horror.
I would here like to dispose of the idea of swords and sorcery as a genre and leave it as a passing marketing niche.
What Howard really did, was take the idea of the hero of classic Aryan myth, such as Gilgamesh, Herakles, Achilles, Odysseus, Roland and Beowulf, and place him out of time. Those mythic figures were all placed as paragons of virtue and leaders of men in their age. However, those men would all be hated and reviled—and have essentially been outlawed in speech and deed—by Modernity, the final stage of Civilization. What Howard did, unbeknownst to most of his editors and readers, was to take the classic mythic hero who would have been beloved by those who birthed the civilization we now attend on its bier, and place them as barbarians, or outsiders. Clearly half of Howard's heroes—including three of his four most popular, were barbarians interacting with a civilization that held curiously modern values.
The outlier in this group, Solomon Kane, the puritan avenger, reveals Howard's base dynamic, that the barbarians are written as such so that they will be moral outliers, alienated actors constrained by civilization. Essentially, what Howard did with his apex creation, Conan the Barbarian, was combine the passion of Achilles, the strength of Beowulf and the tenacity of Roland in the wily character of Odysseus, so that he would have a hero king who could survive what killed the last of their line, Arthur. In a later piece I will look at his major heroes separately.
Essentially, what Howard wrote was a series of alienated heroes that was a full generation ahead of American Film. Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name character and John Wayne's later heroes such as Big Jake, Rooster Cogburn and the Shootist, represent adjustments of the classic western gunman hero in the duplicitous field of the Lie that is Modernity. The most common hero today is the assassin or sniper who is betrayed by his sleazy handlers who have technology available to them that Howard's sorcerous villains like Thulsa Doom, The Black Stranger, Toth Amon and The People of the Black Circle would have envied.
The hero of Howard does not marry the princess or take to the burdens of kingship as a destination, but rather as a hazardous weigh station for a troubled soul. The only mention of Conan that he would take a wife was when he mused that a slave girl who helped him had earned consideration as a possible queen, echoing Heroduts' account that the line founded by Herakles was bred on a slave girl. His one attempt to have a happy ending princess-hero yarn in the style of Burroughs, Almuric, was abandoned by Howard at the end and completed by his editor.
Where the classic pulp writer such as Burroughs wrote of the hero making a pact with the civilization that despises his elemental qualities, Howard's myth was of the hero coming out of the moral past as a barbarian or as an avenger and interacting with civilization only so long as a shared peril made them fleetingly compatible. This remains the most common trope in modern adventure film making, that the hero is incompatible with civilized society. This base realization is the reason for the abomination known as the superhero, which was literally created to kill the idea of the hero in, I think the very same year that Howard killed himself.
Conan the Barbarian is us at our risk-taking best.
Superman, Captain America and such cucks are literally the rusty spikes hammered into the hands and feet of the heroic soul.
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