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I've read Conan stories for the first time a long while ago, and one of the things that struck me was the focus in writing on showcasing how great and ultimately succesful barbarism is and how meek the civilised people are. To illustrate, from The Phoenix on the Sword:

Conan put his back against the wall and lifted his ax. He stood like an image of the unconquerable primordial—legs braced far apart, head thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other gripping the ax on high, with the great corded muscles standing out in iron ridges, and his features frozen in a death snarl of fury—his eyes blazing terribly through the mist of blood which veiled them. The men faltered—wild, criminal and dissolute though they were, yet they came of a breed men called civilized, with a civilized background; here was the barbarian—the natural killer. They shrank back—the dying tiger could still deal death.

Or, from The Scarlet Citadel:

Now he grinned bleakly as the kings reined back a safe distance from the grim iron-clad figure looming among the dead. Before the savage blue eyes blazing murderously from beneath the crested, dented helmet, the boldest shrank. Conan's dark scarred face was darker yet with passion; his black armor was hacked to tatters and splashed with blood; his great sword red to the cross- piece. In this stress all the veneer of civilization had faded; it was a barbarian who faced his conquerors. Conan was a Cimmerian by birth, one of those fierce moody hillmen who dwelt in their gloomy, cloudy land in the north. His saga, which had led him to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole cycle of hero-tales.

It's a common theme of the stories, one I would say the entire series of stories was built upon.

What I wonder, though, was if this was representing actual thoughts and opinions of the author, Robert E. Howard? Author tracts are far from uncommon in fiction, especially scifi&fantasy, and those bits certainly read like that... But the idea of believing in it sounds so cartoonishly detached from reality that I can't just take it at face value. Was it a literary method done to better express the world of Conan, or was it an actual agenda that REH was trying to push? Looking at his photographs he certainly doesn't look like the type, but, well, who knows? I know I'd really like to.

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    He [Conan] is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian. - users.rcn.com/shogan/howard/letters/rehlet8.htm
    – Valorum
    Aug 17, 2020 at 19:38
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    You left out the most obvious quote of him about this subject. "Barbarianism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarianism must ultimately triumph" I think it was from the story "Beyond the Black River"
    – Ege Bayrak
    Aug 18, 2020 at 7:17
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    Conan embodies the ideal of the "noble savage" that was especially popular in the 18th and 19th century. While the ideal had lost ground in the late 19th century, it was still around when Howard wrote his stories - and remains in movies like Avatar and Dances with Wolves. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_savage Aug 18, 2020 at 7:49
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    I have no external sources, so commenting instead of answer: I always assumed that the juxtaposition was the interesting thing. Conan, a wanton and destructive barbarian - but in most of the stories - his barbarism is heroism, is honest, is to a degree selfless, and portrays many of the qualities that you would recognize as virtues in a civilized world. At the same time, many of the representatives of civilization are scheming, abusing, lies and slander, laziness, tardiness, cowardice. So, the interesting part is that barbarism is civilized, and civilization seems pretty barbaric! Aug 18, 2020 at 11:26
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    (cont) So, in a way it isn't that Howard says it is so, but to me it is rather attacking the assumption that civilization is morally superior to barbary. It is also partially quite tropey; ie "The Noble Savage". But huge fun nonetheless. And many of the cartoons are drawn quite beautifully. Aug 18, 2020 at 11:28

2 Answers 2

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As noted in several sources, including the biography Blood and Thunder (Finn, Mark (2006), Monkeybrain, Inc., ISBN 1-932265-21-X), Howard generally was of the opinion that history was cyclic, that cultures and civilizations arose, became decadent and corrupt, and then fell as they were conquered by another people, typically "the barbarians" from the fringes, who would themselves eventually grow complacent and corrupt. As noted in his Wikipedia page, Howard had been influenced by growing up in a Texas oil boom town.

By now his hatred of this sense of progress was clearly defined. He saw the hypocrisies of the boom clearly, an ironic state of affairs that allowed for "progress" and "civilization" to come with its own predators and brigands. (Finn, p 54)

The oil boom brought "civilization" to the small community, but with it the associated corruption boom money represented, followed by the apparent loss of everything when the boom dried up, many people who'd flocked to the town moved on, services left, and what was left was a husk of a community, socially torn from its roots as a hardy, standalone community of (in Howard's mind) rugged pioneers who'd led a good, if "primitive" life.

And so Conan represented that idea: the outsider, the one who wasn't yet corrupted and weakened by living in a "civilized" society, a society destined to fall to people like Conan, but those people would, in their own time, also become corrupt and weak and fall prey to the next group of outsiders.

Addendum

To quote the Wiki page on Howard's styles and themes:

Direct experience of the oil booms in early twentieth century Texas tainted Howard's view of civilization. The benefits of progress came with lawlessness and corruption.[26] One of the most common themes in Howard's writing is based on his view of history, a repeating pattern of civilizations reaching their peak, becoming decadent, decaying and then being conquered by another people. Many of his works are set in the period of decay or among the ruins the dead civilization leaves behind.[27] Despite this, Howard was in favour of civilisation; he simply believed it was too fragile to survive for long.[28]

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  • Note that this view has its origin in Ibn Khaldun's sociological outlook, see here; although I suppose there might be other sources which introduced Howard to this notion.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 18, 2020 at 11:05
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    This isn't exactly a Howard originated idea. Voltair said it well before him - "History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up" - and very similar ideas were discussed in ancient societies as well. Aug 18, 2020 at 18:15
  • Both your answer and some of the other comments paint an image of Howard, while most certainly inspired by his real-life influences was mostly just an allegory to the cycles of civilisational growth and decay. And while people were quite receptive to those, sounds like he never meant them to be taken literally at face value.
    – VienLa
    Aug 18, 2020 at 18:29
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It seems unlikely Howard is using Conan as a mouth-piece for his true beliefs. The REH wikipedia page isn't too bad, and a careful reading gives several reasons why not.

Robert E. Howard was never famous enough to write whatever he wanted. He started and ended his career, at his death at only 30, writing for magazines. The process was to pick a magazine and write a tailored story they might buy for an issue. That sort of thing puts you very close to the customer. There were no long-term contracts -- each story had to be accepted on it's own. Like most writers, Howard had to work finding what would sell. Compare to Robert Heinlein ("indulgent heinlein" is a fun search). He also started out in magazines, but then became a household name and got into books. That was when he wrote a few that may have been his thinly disguised personal views but would automatically be best-sellers. Howard never approached that.

Conan also wasn't Howard's first or last character. The last thing he did was quit writing Conan and switch to Westerns. Before Conan, he wrote several with Soloman Kane (basically a vampire hunter), and boxing stories, and a Scottish king, and a modern tall-tale-telling sailor. A strong morality which could only live in an untamed barbarian spirit seems to be a gimmick just for Conan.

It also works in the stories. Reread that Pheonix in the Sword description. That frozen pause in the action is a terrific picture. It's also how he survives. His uncivilized attitude towards dying has backed them off and made them a little scared. The next line is 'Who dies first?' he mumbled through smashed and bloody lips. They gradually regain the nerve to attack, but only 1 or 2 at a time until a demon bursts into the room. slaughtering the survivors to get to Conan. It's not a shoehorned in lecture -- it's part of the action.

Likewise being uncivilized moves the plot ahead in a fun way in The Hour of the Dragon (aka Conan the Conqueror). King Conan is hiding at a subject's house, getting filled in on how the kingdom has been invaded, plus sorcery, and things are hopeless:

"Many of your loyal subjects have been put to death. Tonight, for instance, the Countess Albiona dies under the headman's axe. [...] flee before you are discovered [...] If you make yourself known to your subjects it will only end in your capture or death" [.....] Servius was then aware [...] of something alien about the king [...] [...] He did not act as a civilized man would act under the same conditions [.....] "I'm going into Tarantia after Albonia tonight." [...] "This is madness!" cried Servius staggering up and clutching his throat

I can't read this as expressing Howard's opinion on civilization. He's lulling us that Conan might do the smart, cautious, boring thing, only to suprise us with upcoming bloody action. Servius, a brave man, is shocked! But Conan has no choice except to sneak back to his castle and rescue the girl.

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  • Howard was combining two things: his honest belief in the cyclic nature of civilization combined with fantasy and magic and mythology...and tossed in, essentially, a character we'd later recognize as akin to the stereotypical John Wayne cowboy, or Dirty Harry. The tough, no-nonsense man of action, streetwise, cynical at the corruption around him, and willing to cut through the bullshit with a gun (or an axe). Aug 18, 2020 at 23:14
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    @KeithMorrison It's a long way from "REH thought X" to "X was a deeply held conviction which he used his stories to proclaim". I mean, in Hyperboria there were lots of kingdoms fighting, but I don't think any barbarian invasions except Archeron 3 millennia earlier. Aug 19, 2020 at 3:36
  • really? The essay "The Hyborian Age" written by Howard starts with the decaying Pre-Cataclysmic Thurian kingdoms who were being taken over by barbarians (as Conan would later take over his own), and then describes several thousand years of civilizations rising only to fall, either directly to invading barbarians or more gently as the barbarians came in, often as mercenaries, and gradually took over. Aug 19, 2020 at 5:01
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    @KeithMorrison Sure, you need fallen empires for the ancient hidden treasures. But the published stories never show barbarians taking over, then doing a better job, as if Howard had something to prove to us. Conan becomes king with the help of Aquilonian nobles and doesn't seem to make sweeping reforms (he allows Ashura-worship, but that's been done before). Aug 20, 2020 at 1:34

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