Saturday, February 16, 2013

Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian: A review

Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013) offers a broad selection of essays on Conan, but not just the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s stories. It covers Conan in all his various forms, from the original Weird Tales barbarian, to the hulking brute of the Schwarzenegger film, to the various computer generated avatars in the Age of Conan computer game. In this way it differs greatly from its predecessors The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph, which reserve their analysis for Howard and Howard’s stories alone.

This book will, I suspect, set many Howard fans’ teeth on edge. It opens with an unapologetic defense of the L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter-edited Lancer/Ace Conan paperbacks, positing that without these books Conan and Robert E. Howard would be all but forgotten today. Writes editor Jonas Prida, “The problem of de Camp’s decision to re-order the chronology and list himself on Tales of Conan’s cover as one of the authors has been alluded to, but what must also be admitted is that without the controlling hand of de Camp, both Conan and Howard may have gone the way of Kull, relegated to footnote status in investigations into fellow Weird Tales’ contributor H.P. Lovecraft.” Now I personally have no issue with placing the DeCamp/Carter pastiches, or even the Conan films and videogames, under the academic microscope; far from it, I think it’s an interesting and worthy exercise. However Prida seems to think that the root of De Camp-ian resentment is purists defending the Conan canon, but I disagree: What draws the ire of many Howard fans is De Camp’s often mean-spirited assessment of Howard the man in these books’ introductions and elsewhere.

In addition, Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian trumpets itself as a trailblazer in what Prida describes as a limited field of traditional literary analysis (“The first scholarly investigation of Conan,” according to a blurb on the back cover). Though it tips a cap to Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder and Glenn Lord’s The Last Celt, Prida has apparently either not heard of The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph or does not consider them "scholarly," as these fail to garner a mention in the preface.

Ah well, some troubling early signs aside, on to the contents.


The first essay, “Hyborian Age Archaeology: Unearthing Historical and Anthropological Foundations,” by Jeffrey Shanks is the best the book has to offer, in my opinion. Here Shanks makes a convincing case that the solidarity of the Hyborian Age “comes from its grounding in the Primary World disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, geology, and history—albeit only to the level those disciplines had reached in the early twentieth century.” Shanks ably demonstrates how Howard’s reimagining of our world was shaped by now scientifically outdated works like H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History and E.A. Allen’s The Prehistoric World, or Vanished Races, as well as then popular theories on the existence of Atlantis and ideas sprung from the Theosophy movement. “Many of the ideas expressed [in Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” essay] while not accepted today, were actually widely believed in Howard’s time,” writes Shanks. “This includes the over-emphasis on theories of racial typology and migrations, rapid evolution and de-evolution, cataclysmic geology, and the like.” It’s good stuff from Shanks, who writes with the authority of an archeologist (he just so happens to be one, in fact).

Frank Coffman follows that up with a solid if not groundbreaking entry in “Barbarian Ascendant: The Poetic and Epistolary Origins of the Character and his World.” Here Coffman takes issue with Howard’s oft-quoted statement that Conan “stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.” He notes that while Howard may not have created Conan from a conscious process, “there were unconscious processes at work.” The seeds of Conan were sewn not only in the characters of Kull and Bran Mak Morn and the stone-tipped spear wielding Am-Ra, but also worked out in his verses about Vikings and Celts, and in correspondence with the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Coffman’s essay includes an interesting side discussion on Howard’s conflicted feelings of the nature of barbarism and whether or not he truly believed it superior to civilization. While a fascinating glimpse of Howard’s nuanced, changing views on which state—barbaric vs. civilized—was indeed the natural state of mankind, it deserves a fuller treatment and blunts the main thrust of Coffman’s essay.

In “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women,” Winter Elliot takes a nuanced, complex look at both the women in Conan stories and the barbarian himself, both of whom she categorizes as the “Other,” outsiders arrayed against the constraints of Hyborian Age civilization. Conan is continually drawn to the riches and allure of cities even as he stands in opposition to the civilized state, Elliot writes, and this tension defines his character. “A barbarian might seize a kingdom—but a civilized man must rule,” notes Elliot. Likewise, she writes that Howard’s women are defined by their relationships with a civilization that “both permits their enslavement and abuse, and sometimes offers qualified protection and support.” Howard’s women are passive objects, she writes, but not always. Valeria, for example, “represents a mediation between the possibilities of female agency and her own gendered identity.” Elliot concludes that although the Conan stories often contain racist and sexist elements, “not all of his stories or characters, male or female, can be reduced to mere chauvinist stereotypes.” Elliot’s essay gets a lot murkier when attempts to tie Conan and the women in his stories together in some uneasy alliance of outsiders, leading to tortured arguments like this: Women’s bodies are objectified, but so too is Conan’s, and this puts him in a female position. “He may be written male, but he doesn’t perform a male role,” says Elliot, of Conan. Interesting, but I don’t buy it.

Daniel Weiss’ “Robert E. Howard’s Barbarian and the Western: A Study of Conan Through the West and the Western Hero” in convincing fashion links the Conan stories and “Beyond the Black River” in particular to the western novel. The westerns, like the Conan stories, confront the problems of settling matters of law and justice with violence (Conan’s moral code of stopping to help those who are wronged, as in “Tower of the Elephant,” is compared to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and its hero, Natty Bumpo). Like the westerns, the Conan stories contain an equivocal view of progress, which pits individual free will and desire against empire and destiny, and the natural world against the civilized. “Both Howard and Cooper desired the natural world and its inhabitants to withstand the destructive forces of civilization, but progress settled the claim,” writes Weiss. More good stuff here.

“Beyond the Black River” receives further treatment in Paul Shovlin’s “Canaan Lies Beyond the Black River: Howard’s Dark Rhetoric of the Contact Zone,” which compares that story to Howard’s non-fantasy tale “Black Canaan.” It’s nice to see a critic who can move beyond the shrill cries of “racism” when evaluating “Black Canaan,” and Shovlin has some interesting things to say about how the two stories treat with the American frontier myth. “If “Beyond the Black River” can be read as a fantasy version of Howard’s ideal as it related to the frontier, then “Black Canaan” offers a parallel that might be read as a fantasy version of the reality that surrounded Howard, the murky life and race relations after the imagined certainties of the frontier were gone and settlement led to decay rather than the development of truly “civil” society,” Shovlin writes. Where Shovlin errs, I think, is his assessment of the end of “Beyond the Black River,” which he writes off as a simplistic revenge-empowerment fantasy, but which I read as Howard conveying the fruitlessness of colonialism, as well as a tragic and decidedly mixed view of life on the frontier.

I’ll admit to being largely indifferent to Daniel M. Look’s “Statistics in the Hyborian Age: An Introduction to Stylometry,” which compares Howard’s writings to the pastichers based not on traditional literary critique such as themes or content, but on a mathematic comparison of sentence length, average syllables per word, and the particular “marker words” various authors are apt to use known as stylometry. For my money it dwells too long on the origins, concepts, and uses of the stylometric method and not enough on the differences between the DeCamp/Carter Conan and Howard’s works. But Look scores points for originality, and his method does reveal some significant differences between the original works of Howard and those works as edited by De Camp.

Part 2 of Conan Meets the Academy, “The Cultural Conan,” includes four essays on Conan post-REH. These entries examine how the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film subverts the invincible, white, alpha-male heroes of the typical Schwarzenegger film  (“Arnold at the Gates,” by Nicky Falkof), how gender and sexual orientation shape players’ views of the scantily-clad avatars in the Age of Conan video game (‘Hot Avatars’ in ‘Gay Gear’ by James Kelley), how Howard’s enduring popularity may be as much due to the denuding of traditional masculinity and the ceding of power to women and nostalgia for simpler, more barbaric times than literary appeal (“Fandom and the Nostalgia of Masculinity” by Stephen Wall), and a comparison of Conan to Terry Pratchett’s parody of the muscular barbarian stereotype, Cohen the Barbarian of The Light Fantastic ("‘Barbarian Heroing’ and its Parody: New Perspectives on Masculinity," by Imola Bulgozdi).

It would be interesting to hear what the posters over on the Conan.com boards think of Wall’s essay, as they (and an anonymous poster identified only as “Jim”) are used for evidence for Wall’s theory that Conan appeals to readers in large part due to his rugged manliness, strength, and will to power, characteristics lacking in men bred to sedentary office lives. I happen to agree that escape is something Howard’s Conan stories do offer—and that escape is a worthwhile literary pursuit—though I also believe it is only part of the appeal of the Conan stories, and alone cannot account for Howard’s continued relevance. If Conan offered just hyper-masculine wish fulfillment, we’d all be reading Gor novels instead. Why has Conan outlasted Brak and Thongor? Conan is better written, a higher form of art by a more talented author. That’s why.

 So despite my problems with Conan Meets the Academy I believe its publication is a boon to Howard and Howard studies. Though you may not agree with all the essayists’ conclusions, to see Conan given serious treatment as a lasting literary and popular figure is further validation that Howard’s stories are worthy of serious discussion and analysis, not consignment to the dustbin of history or kneejerk “shunning” by the modern reader. Conan is here to stay.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What does it benefit REH to be taken seriously if it merely means his work is subjected to lame and pretentious academic "analysis"?

AARGGH! I left the academy because I couldn't bear the gasbaggery, the pseudo-intellectual claptrap. Of course, as a white, heterosexual male I was repeatedly reminded that I was "part of the problem" and my snorts of derisive laughter were regarded as prima facie evidence of my stunted consciousness. Fucking with those people for sport got boring quick.

There's valid work to be done in understanding how Howard's work both contributes to and in some ways subverts the long tradition of historical and mythical storytelling, but... gender studies? Conan's body is objectified and these he plays the "female role"? Howard would shoot himself all over again if he had to put up with that nonsense.

Brian, you are made of stern stuff to subject yourself to the loathsome swamps of "The Academy." Here's hoping you at least get the satisfaction venting on a Shah Amurath.

Jim Cornelius
www.frontierpartisans.com

Taranaich said...

The problem of de Camp’s decision to re-order the chronology and list himself on Tales of Conan’s cover as one of the authors has been alluded to...

Is that really all Prida thinks it's about? Nothing about the suppression of unexpurgiated non-Conan REH stories? De Camp's relentless arrogance and implicit sense of superiority to Howard? The outright fabrications and twisting of sources for his biography?

... but what must also be admitted is that without the controlling hand of de Camp, both Conan and Howard may have gone the way of Kull, relegated to footnote status in investigations into fellow Weird Tales’ contributor H.P. Lovecraft.

Has Prida forgotten that Conan had been published in book form without the "controlling hand" of de Camp (a very telling phrase) in the earlier Gnome Press editions and Skull-Face and Others? Again, I shan't deny that de Camp had an immense role in the success of the Lancers and the Conan franchise, but to say that de Camp was the only person on the planet who could possibly make Conan such a success is preposterous.

Still, I am interested in this. I think Winter might be onto something regarding Conan & the female characters both being liminal figures in civilization, albeit for different reasons. Not sure about the objectification, but I do think Conan's body is considered different from those of civilized men almost as much as those men are from women. Objectification might not be the right word, though.

A shame Shovlin seems to have misinterpreted the end of BtBR, since the issues which informed "Black Canaan," "The Vale of Lost Women" and other stories of racial conflict do owe a lot to history and popular consciousness. Wall's piece sounds a lot like the sort of equivocation of pop-culture Conan to Howard I'm not a big fan of.

And Jim, well, lack of patience with pseudo-intellectual gasbaggery is probably why it's just as well I didn't go into academia to be a palaeontologist like I always wanted!

This post's anti-robot procedure code: Ebidescu 77. Guess as to what it means: the military order given to an alien invasion fleet to suck up all a planet's water.

Brian Murphy said...

What does it benefit REH to be taken seriously if it merely means his work is subjected to lame and pretentious academic "analysis"?

Jim, you sure know how to cut to the chase, man.

Part of me is with you, and some of the essays in this book (particularly from Part II, which I left unreviewed) had my eyes a'rollin'. Others I found quite good, and thought-provoking. But in the end I geek out on this stuff, I'm always interested to hear what others have to say about my national pastime, and if nothing else the presence of this book is further validation that there is much in Howard worthy of study and analysis (not that we didn't know that already).

Here's one example: The next time some English lit undergrad with an axe to grind (present company excluded) writes an essay about how Howard was a monstrous racist spinning self-made wish-fulfillment theories on how the world came to be divided along racial lines, Shanks' essay provides conclusive evidence that he was influenced by several prominent theories of the day from the likes of H.G. Wells' Outline of History. And so on.

Is that really all Prida thinks it's about?

Pretty much, yeah. He does admit to some sympathy for Howard purists, but he seems to think that De Camp critics are guilty of making mountains out of a molehill (that DeCamp was guilty of some editing and chronological arrangement, but that's all). There is no mention of the half-baked psychoanalysis in Dark Valley Destiny or "maladjusted to the point of psychosis" comments.

Wall's essay is interesting in that I can't recall encountering an published, academic piece on a fan web forum before. A few handles (PainBrush, some others) are quoted in the piece.

Michal said...

I'm in academia right now and enjoying myself, but I did get disenchanted by current English literary criticism when I was an undergrad (I'm in history, which is rather different). The piece on male/female figures in the Hyborian Age does sound interesting but it doesn't seem like Elliot has epxressed herself all that well (going just by what you say here).

However, I'm prepared to breathe fire over Stephen Wall's essay if that's his main point; there's certainly more to it than that, and I'm unconvinced that internet forums are the best place to make these sorts of assessments because the majority of Howard readers aren't members. It's also awfully easy to pick out the loudest voices to fit your thesis and ignore the others in this sort of analysis.

Or maybe I'm just jealous that I didn't get quoted.

Taranaich said...

Pretty much, yeah. He does admit to some sympathy for Howard purists, but he seems to think that De Camp critics are guilty of making mountains out of a molehill (that DeCamp was guilty of some editing and chronological arrangement, but that's all). There is no mention of the half-baked psychoanalysis in Dark Valley Destiny or "maladjusted to the point of psychosis" comments.

Someone needs to send him the links to "The De Camp Controversy" pronto.

Wall's essay is interesting in that I can't recall encountering an published, academic piece on a fan web forum before. A few handles (PainBrush, some others) are quoted in the piece.

The idea that Dan "Painbrush" Goudey was quoted in a book of multidisciplinary academic essays would fill him with boundless glee, no doubt!

However, I'm prepared to breathe fire over Stephen Wall's essay if that's his main point; there's certainly more to it than that, and I'm unconvinced that internet forums are the best place to make these sorts of assessments because the majority of Howard readers aren't members. It's also awfully easy to pick out the loudest voices to fit your thesis and ignore the others in this sort of analysis.

Indeed. Speaking anecdotally, the idea of Howard/Conan being an exercise in masculine nostalgia for a time when women "knew their place" and problems were "simple" was part of the reason I didn't read Conan for so long - and how I was pleasantly surprised.

(12851 andponsi, I presume the Beverly Hills mailing address for Dracula.)

sandySTC said...

I have a question about all of these essays and thoughts and opinions. Do they enhance the reading of Robert E Howard for anyone? It doesn't do anything for me.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Sandy, thanks for the comment. You certainly don't need to read literary criticism to enjoy REH, and that's true of any author (with the possible exception of Finnegan's Wake. But once I've read an author, I do find it interesting to read what others think about his or her works, and their own unique interpretations. Literary criticism also helps us to understand the time and place in which the author wrote, external influences, and the why and how of a particular story or character came to be. So yes, they do (occasionally) enhance my enjoyment and understanding.