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Conan the Barbarian & Robert E. Howard

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This review will examine the work of Robert E. Howard and, in particular, his greatest creation the barbarian Conan. For the purposes of concentration and illustration, I will look at the comic strip “Zukala’s Daughter,” scripted by Roy Thomas, and featuring in the 1972 Fleetway annual in Britain. It happened to be one of the earliest numbered editions of the color comic known as Conan the Barbarian

Conan happens to be the superman (or Super-barbarian, in Fritz Leiber’s wiles) into which Robert Erwin Howard projected fantasies of undying masculinity, the heroic, adventure without end, heterosexuality, and a sublimated racial mystique. In this story a young and precocious Conan—drawn in a mannerist and Art Deco style—meshes neatly with one of the author’s poems about Zukala. Robert E. Howard was a prolific poet, and his Selected Poems are available on Lulu.com (the electronic publishing web-site).

In the piece known as “Zukala’s Daughter” (based on the poem “Zukala’s Hour”) the plot can be briefly summarized. To my mind, it is supremely well done—being positively filmic in its crisp and sequential execution. Conan arrives in a village on market day and discusses the price of a sword with a sword-seller. He does not have the money necessary for it, however.

Suddenly a panic or general alarm spreads among the stall-holders. This is the day—of all days—when they should have shut up shop earlier. It is the moment when the Wizard, Zukala, who dominates the town, sends an emissary to obtain tribute—a form of taxation, in other words.

A creature forms out of dots in the atmosphere and then springs into life as a tigress. It smashes the market stalls and corners a child that’s become separated from its mother. Ever heroic, Conan defends the child by drawing his sword and challenging the magical tigress. It breaks his blade easily by leaping across him, and then the two of them wrestle in the dirt.

During their bout a voice in the tigress (a woman’s voice) talks to him and says, “I shall never harm you—not now; not ever.” Conan is bemused and attracted by the voice . . . and calls out for the Tigress to return to him as it retreats from the village. The villagers gather around their champion, an uncouth barbarian from the North, and tell him the truth about the tax and its collector.

The latter is, in reality, a shape-shifting creature who, at this very moment, shall morph back into the body and soul of a woman called Zephra (the West wind). She happens to be the old magician’s daughter, but the villagers regard her as a sad individual because she has the gift of second-sight and can predict the moment of her own death. Both she and her father, the wizard Zukala, are apparently ageless as well—the centuries mean nothing to them.

One of the old women in the village, who remembers Zephra playing ’neath the moon when she was a child, calls out curses upon them. “I am old and wizened,” she declares, “where’s the fairness in that? Death to ’em, I says!”

Conan learns that the villagers are prepared to pay him 20,000 gold pieces—the price of their tax burden—if the young Barbarian will kill Zukala for them. Conan accepts with alacrity—although he may just ask the mage to leave. The sword-smith provides Conan with a new version of his old blade—the one which he eyed earlier on at the market-stall. Once Conan is out of ear-shot, the villagers begin to plot his demise, “if and when the stripling can kill Zukala.”

Conan then gains egress to the magician’s castle by climbing a very tall tree and leaping across the battlements. He enters a chamber where Zukala is performing Ritual or High magic. But before this Zephra has returned home to her father—who stands waiting for her inside the battlements. “Why are you trembling like a leaf or a calf-sick mortal?” he demands of her. She then faints in his arms under the abjuration “Tell me!”

Meanwhile, Conan observes Zukala making magic and summoning up an enormous da(e)mon from Hades in the form of Jaggta-Noga. This is an interesting hybrid which consists of a centaur and a devil, in that the creature concerned is half-horse. Zukala insists that the townsfolk yonder must pay him homage, and Jaggta-Noga is dispatched to see that they do so. He will return later in this adventure with 20,000 gold pieces in the requisite sack.

Conan steals behind a rug on one of the walls only to run into Zephra—the magician’s tiger-daughter. She promptly starts to make love to Conan as she has precognition or the gift of second sight . . . and she sees no reason not to get on with things! Conan is nonplussed by this, but more than keen enough to engage in passionate embraces with a sultry lovely.

Zukala, her father, then begins to materialize behind Conan. “Crom’s Devils!” explodes Conan in a rare moment of humor, “do doors have no meaning in this place?” Zukala and Conan then start fighting—with Zephra trying to intercede between them. Conan’s animal agility, strength, and daring—his barbarism tout court—out-foxes Zukala, who is used to cowering enemies like the villagers down below.

During the course of their battle, Conan cuts off half his face-mask with the sword from the village seller; it reduces Zukala’s power by fifty percent. Just as it looks as if it’s all up with Zukala, Jaggta-Noga reappears from a window, and he and Conan start a fight to the death. The demon has brought with him the tribute which amounted to 20,000 gold pieces.

Zephra—keen to protect her lover—leaps across Conan as the tigress. But Jaggta-Noga picks her up and hurls her into the ground. She remains there lifeless and still, but recovers later. Jaggta-Noga is oblivious to the Mage’s emotion over his daughter. “Let her perish, wizard. She is nothing. It is not life you should worship—but death. For even life that spans the centuries is naught to Jaggta-Noga.”

Enraged by this—and anxious for his daughter—Zukala sends the demon back, back to the pit which spawned him. He then takes up his daughter, who is beginning to recover, but who keeps repeating “Conan; Conan . . .” He tells the barbarian to beware as they disappear into the ether . . . and blames him for the fact that the Barbarian has stolen his daughter’s heart from him. Conan stoops to pick up the gold pieces. His mission is accomplished—the Wizard has vanished . . . what purpose is served by going back to the village . . . none at all. THE STORY ENDS.

I would contend that this pastiche of a Howard poem—itself part of a longer cycle—tells you everything you need to know about Howard’s fiction. We begin with the exhilaration, the sense of excitement, the existence of a Caucasian Superman, as well as the headlong action and narrative drive. The agelessness of the protagonists and the almost Pulpish heterosexuality are very much in evidence.

Likewise, magic is considered to be a normal part of life and, in this sword and sorcery universe, it is the equivalent of scientific writ in our own time. It is fascinating to think that Zukala’s version of Crowley or Adolphe Constant is treated like the second law of Newtonian mechanics in this universe.

Broadly speaking, the moral cleanness of the barbaric character (Conan) in comparison to the civilized ones is also clearly pointed out. Indeed, one could say that all of Robert E. Howard’s barbaric heroes—Bran Mak Morn, Kull, and Solomon Kane—all build up into the one Super-character, Conan; a man whose saga was left evident yet uncompleted on Howard’s death.

I think the basic point of the Conan stories—and of Howard in general—is as a moral corrective. For those who feel broken, lonely, afraid, cowardly, uncombative (and so on), the Howard mythos in its 16 or so volumes is a wilful counterpart. Morally, his entire mythos is a species of counter-culture or current.

 

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13 Comments

  1. Rudel
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Adolescent drivel.

    • Michael Bell
      Posted July 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Such an intellectual, thought provoking, scintillating contribution from Rudel. Full marks, sir!

      Our race needs heroes, be they fictional or real. Not every one of them necessarily needs to be a tie-wearing political activist, or a classical musician, or a medieval general. Something like Conan, or Kull, or Lord of the Rings, is a healthy reassertion of our people’s pre-Christian folkways in the modern world. Anyone who disagrees is probably a limp, prude, impotent old fart.

      • Fourmyle of Ceres
        Posted July 15, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        Michael Bell in blockquote:

        Our race needs heroes, be they fictional or real….Something like Conan, or Kull, or Lord of the Rings, is a healthy reassertion of our people’s pre-Christian folkways in the modern world.

        Full marks. I’ve been trying to envision a Prime Symbol for what we have begun to Become, and are Becoming. Finally got it with YouTube clips.

        At the very end of Season 1 of “Game of Thrones,” Khaleesi – beautiful, Nordic, Aryan – walks into a funeral pyre, where one of Enemies is burned alive. Unburned by the pyre, she spends the night in the ashes (big Jungian stuff going on there), and emerges from the ashes in the morning.

        Two points – one, she is nude, but it is the classical nude-not-naked style, as in the beginning of “Olympia.” She is in a fetal position. She arises, and three baby dragons are crawling over her. The one on her shoulder makes his first sound – a quiet, soft, hesitant screech, almost like a kitten. It quickly grows louder, and ends – this, all within fifteen seconds – with the baby dragon screeching to the world that HE is BACK, and you see him on her shoulder, flapping his wings for the first time, and looking one and all in the eye, with the shouting of defiance.

        A quiet, soft, hesitant screech, almost an inchoate murmur – that’s us, now.

        Thanks to counter-currents, and Harold Covington, building on the foundations of the best of our Past, we are still at “murmur” – barely formed, but assertive – on our way to screech, formed, and intelligently aggressive.

        Covington made a statement that just stunned me in its wisdom, and accuracy – we will be allowed to anything, as long as we do not organize into an effective political organization. I have a lot of thinking to do about that, and I don’t know how I KNOW this, but I know this:

        We’re Going To Win! Period. Full stop.

        All we have to do is make the Decision to Win. The only Question remaining is “How,” and the Outline is before us. We just have to fill in the blanks with the substance of our lives. The Outline, writ broad? The metapolitical project (counter-currents), and the temporal bridge to the metapolitical project (Northwest Initiative). Everything else is simply a footnote.

        Send some money to counter-currents tonight, while we still can. It’s one thing to See, it’s another thing to Act, in a mature, disciplined, focused, intelligent and Masculine way; all actions, of course, are undertaken in an “apple-pie, strictly legal, sort of way.” (HT: Jim “Strictly Legal” Giles)

        What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

        • WG
          Posted July 16, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          “We’re going to prevail, because we’re already dead.”

          Olivier Carré

    • Mimir's Well
      Posted July 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps…but I enjoyed it!

  2. brotherfrancis
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    @Rudel:

    Senile sourness!! If you’re too good to admire the youthful, time for you to chuck it in. Envy is not a virtue.

  3. Rudel
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    If you clowns want to actually do something for the white race then why don’t you all put down the sword and sorcery novels, get productive jobs, get married, and have lots of white children; despite my reservations about whether folks of your intellectual level should actually be allowed to breed…

    • Fourmyle of Ceres
      Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Rudel:

      Good point. Might I offer a counterpoint?

      Playing by The Rules in Master Sergeant Thomas James Ball’s Second Set of Books has taken us to the point that we must go back, and heal what is broken, before we can move forward. We can then move forward on a very strong foundation.

      The Northern Mysteries offer a chance to transform (Judeo) Christianity again, into the Masculine, Patriarchal Institution that changes all it touches, for the better, by using the Sword of Truth to cut through the Illusions used to control us. Tapping into that vital Force, which women can only imitate (and weakly, at that), is necessary, and if we have become so much creatures of The System, Charlie Brown (now expendable tools, by the way), than the approval of Others must be foresworn until The Man comes back to Town.

      This time, it shall be necessary to transform all of the New Society from the inside out, and from top to bottom. This requires raw Masculine force. Fortunately, the foundation of such a Society has been literally handed to us, by a Mr. Harold Covington.

      One parenthetical note: the last Australian Census acknowledged and measured the members of The Church of the Jedi. Where did they come from? From what Church will they never marry at the altar, never have kids offered in baptism, never attend services, or contribute to the Church in any way whatsoever? There’s tremendous disillusionment with failing Institutions, and the best way forward might be to create new Institutions on the fallen remants and whitened sepulchres of the old. This does not literally mean going in their with swords, and sorcery – wait – Church of the Jedi – hmmmm – “Sword” equals “light saber,” “sorcery” equals mysticism, yes, and applied as “Jedi mind tricks.” The functional equivalent of a kind of magic, yes? Better get some Nightwish, Blind Guardian and Within Temptation music for the new midnight let’s-not-call-it-Mass.

      Don’t worry, Rudel. We won’t pull our Jedi mind tricks on you! I give you the word of Crom!

      “What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!”

      • Rudel
        Posted July 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        I already live in the northwest and there was nothing masculine about Thomas Ball when he belted his four year old daughter in the mouth for licking his hand!

        • Formyle of Ceres
          Posted July 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

          Rudel:

          This cheap shot is not worthy of your usual high quality of comments. Nonetheless, it deserves comment, and correction.

          Master Sergeant Thomas James Ball discovered the Second Set of Books Principle, which truly RULE our lives. That he lost personal control for one second, one split-second, out of a life of tireless service, is tragic. That he lost everything in his life, including his life, as a result of that, is a perfect object lesson for us. Would you rather talk to Matt Hale, or Bill White, as to how easily you can lose so much?

          All the more important to study the comments on the-spearhead, Charlie Brown, and download the Leykis mp3′s I linked to in this thread.

          That is the theme I always try to return to: how easily we have been played for total fools, and how easily, thanks to the metapolitical project and the Northwest Republic we can shift our Minds, the energy of our lives, into the fulfillment of a much higher purpose.

          An important part of that, of course, is sending money to counter-currents regularly. Tonight would be fine!

          Crom would approve! And if he didn’t, then the Hell with him!

          What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

    • Mimir's Well
      Posted July 16, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I have over twice as many kids as average. A couple of years ago I got on Ebay and bought the entire twelve book series of Conan for more oldest son. He loved them!

  4. Will
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Fantastic tales of the heroic are the very base of Western literature. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid. The fact that these types of stories are now relegated to ‘genre fiction’ and denigrated as ‘adolescent drivel’ is in fact a symptom of our decline, and was a means of perpetuating it. Go to a bookstore and look at the crap stories that have replaced them as ‘literature’ and the weak men that have replaced the heroes as supposedly venerable.

    Myths and stories can inform a people’s identity, either for better or for worse. Every tribal group around the world has heroic stories about itself, but ours have been distorted and replaced. The Spartans believed they were descended from Heracles; the Romans from Aeneas. Modern white liberals believe they are descended from vile oppressors and thieves, and you can see the consequences of living by these kinds of stories in their physical and psychological frailty.

  5. brotherfrancis
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    @Will: Well said. Imagination is an extremely practical skill. Mr. Bowden is one of the most truly effective teachers we have! Cheap shots against his magnificent work are vastly impractical. But, again, they are usually a sign of low envy. We can do better.

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