Thursday, February 12, 2015

What is best in life? The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

This article from Return of Kings about how your job is crushing your soul reminded me of one of my favorite literary heroes. Allow me to explain. Most of us who spend a lot of time on the internet do so when we're on the clock. How many of my four loyal readers are skimming this blog along with their other favorite websites like Facebook while sitting in their air conditioned cubicle after chowing down at Subway on their lunch break? Most of us work jobs that are far beneath what we're truly capable of. Out of an eight hour day, we get enough work to fill out two, three hours tops. Doing what? Writing code, answering phone calls, typing reports, overdosing on caffeine? How many of us pine for that first drink after 5 pm? Or live for the weekend? Who wake up every Saturday and Sunday morning hung over? Granted, work isn't supposed to be all fun and games. Our need to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow is one of the consequences of the Fall. The need to test ourselves and achieve excellence is intrinsic to masculine nature. Work takes up a considerable portion of our lifespan, so it is indeed a soul crushing experience if our job is meaningless scut work that a chimpanzee could do.

Other things being equal, civilization is superior to barbarism. One of the themes of Robert E. Howard's work is that when civilization is corrupt, decadent, and declining (like ours) then barbarians are often nobler and always stronger than their supposedly civilized betters. I'm rereading the collected stories of Conan the Cimmerian. Most of what popular culture knows of Conan comes from the 1982 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Don't misunderstand. It's one of my personal favorite movies. But Arnold portrayed Conan differently from how he appeared in the stories, both in looks and in personality.

In the stories, Conan is, for lack of a better word, smarter. He has "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth" as the chronicler says in the first tale. Howard didn't publish the stories in chronological order; we are introduced to Conan when he is king of Aquilonia much later in his life. Conan seized the crown by force when he strangled the wicked old king and placed it upon his troubled brow. Conan is the target of an assassination plot because he is a friend to the common people. He relieved them of suffocating taxation which put a crimp in the cushy lifestyles of the nobles. Conan, of course, crushes his weak and effeminate opponents. As the poem says, "Rush in and die dogs! I was a man before I was a king!"

We see Conan as a sellsword, a pirate, a thief, an adventurer, and an explorer. He's bewildered by the trappings of civilization and irritated by red tape and bureaucracy. He's captured by the city constables when breaking into a museum at the behest of the king's son. When the son claims he never saw Conan before, Conan splits his skull in half with his broadsword. That's one way to reduce frivolous lawsuits. Conan cherishes his freedom. He does what he wants, where he wants. He's like the honey badger. Conan don't care. H.L. Mencken once said that every man feels the urge to hoist the black flag and start slitting throats. I'd definitely want to do it Conan-style.

I don't like the term anti-hero, but if it applies to anyone it applies to Conan. He has his own sense of honor. He'll help out a damsel in distress, but only if she's smoking hot and interested in him. He's a thief but his targets are definitely asking for it. He is a shade of grey but his opponents tend to be of blackest evil, such as the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon (the latter has been portrayed as Conan's arch-nemesis in other media, but in the stories they never meet face-to-face.)

His tales inspire me to stride through the world without excuse or apology like he did. Whatever it is you want, pursue it. Win it. Take it. We live in a civilized age so that precludes splitting skulls. We can still take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Interestingly, Conan is never portrayed as pursuing sex for its own sake. Women are drawn to him through his achievements. If anything, he treats them like spoiled children and they eat it up. Robert E. Howard knew what was up despite his self-professed feminism.

Howard was an interesting character himself. Friends with H.P. Lovecraft, it's been speculated that they share the same literary universe. Howard churned out stories of Conan and the Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane for Weird Tales. He was picked on for his love of reading as a child, so he began a bodybuilding regimen as an adult. Howard killed himself at the age of 30 shortly after his mother received a terminal diagnosis.

One thing I love about the manosphere and the internet in general is its encouragement of the autodidact. Conan deserves a place on every man's bookshelf. As civilization crumbles around us, we can learn a thing or two about strength of will and character from a Hyborean age barbarian.

No comments:

Post a Comment