They sighted the coast of Shem—long rolling meadowlands … and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.—“Queen of the Black Coast,” by Robert E. Howard
Conan is one of those characters a lot of people have heard of or seen parodied even as they might not know his exact history. The basics are pretty easy to recite: He’s a ripped barbarian with a big sword who scoffs at civilized people, takes what he wants, kills evil sorcerers and warlords, and never seems to be far from scantily clad women. A lot of the time, he’s the last survivor of his people and is out for revenge.
Most of these elements were solidified in the 1982 film, the one that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and launched the character into wider prominence. When people think of Conan now, it’s mostly as a hulking half-naked guy with an Austrian accent. They probably do not think of the 1930s pulp hero and the at-times astonishing racism at the heart of those famous short stories. I suspect the reason this is so rarely brought up is that removing it in latter-day interpretations of the character has done nothing to diminish everything else about the barbarian that makes him iconic.
Robert E. Howard created Conan in the pages of Weird Tales, publishing the first story in 1932 when he was just 26. The story met with such success that he’d sold the magazine more than a dozen stories starring the character by 1936. Howard died by suicide that same year after a short life marked by financial desperation, illness, and the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil towns of his youth. He never left his home state of Texas. Though he enjoyed some renown during his lifetime and even managed to get himself on H.P. Lovecraft’s list of frequent correspondents, he could not have had an inkling of exactly how popular the character he created would prove to be. Collections of his work didn’t debut until decades after his death, and it’s still not easy to lay hands on anything approaching a definitive collection of all of his Conan stories, in the same way it’s maddeningly impossible to find one for Lovecraft, or for other pulp characters like Zorro.
Should you find a collection of his stories, it’s almost always missing something. Despite that, his works made a huge impression, with other authors carrying the character’s mantle through books and graphic novels for decades.
What you might be surprised to find, if you’re coming to the text for the first time, is some truly appalling racism. It’s in every story, all over the place, ready to jump off the page and punch you in the nose.
Only in the province of Gunderland, where the people keep no slaves, is the pure Hyborian stock found unblemished. But the barbarians kept their bloodstream pure; the Cimmerians are tall and powerful, with dark hair and blue or grey eyes. —“The Hyborian Age – Conan’s World” by Robert E. Howard
Howard was careful and deliberative about Hyboria, the world in which Conan’s stories are set, as can be seen in his notes on the world, which have been reprinted in various collections. What jumps out to the reader of those notes and his original stories is the preoccupation, at every level, with things like characters’ racial traits, tribal tendencies, or what physical features the villains have versus the damsels in distress. It’s particularly uncomfortable when you consider that one race of people who appear in recurring roles throughout the story, “Shemites” can basically be read as “Jews” and are described in witheringly negative terms in basically every story.
Much of this, it should be said, seems rooted in the ugly distortion of evolutionary theory that was making the rounds right around that time. The eugenics movement in the United States started its decline right around the time Howard’s stories were first getting picked up for publication, and Howard’s stories feature intelligent primates, or creatures who other characters describe in ways we understand as referring to primordial humans.
This the underlying lore of story after story where people who are described with physical features that code as African or Asian are either the bad guys, cannon fodder or otherwise just inherently inferior to Conan, whose own Cimmerian ancestry is inspired by Howard’s interest in Celtic culture. Which is to say: Conan is a fully evolved white man, okay? It’s central to the reasoning in every story that allows Conan to seem like the only guy in the room who isn’t ignorant or weak.
Conan is a character who is meant to be proudly regressive in some ways. He chiefly provides catharsis for those who are feeling tired of the bullshit of civilization. We’re taught from infancy that we want gold, glory and sex, and Conan just spends less time justifying his desire for them. It’s very interesting that the character survives essentially intact once the terrible racist subtext is stripped away from the character. The impression you get in most latter interpretations of Conan is that he is a strutting braggart who believes himself superior, but it’s mostly because he’s strong and good at fighting, rather than the fact that he’s a pureblooded white guy and you’re not.
The 1982 film certainly embraced that interpretation.
Where Howard’s stories all essentially take place outside of any continuity, the film gave Conan a past and a goal, and teams him with a party of adventurers on his quest for revenge. It’s wrong to say there’s no uncomfortable racial subtext in the movie (which is chock full of evil Orientalist magic and white damsels in distress), but it at least seems less luridly intentional. Several of Conan’s enemies are white and most of his allies are Asian (even if one of the actors isn’t). Since he’s fighting an insidious cult that’s been brainwashing people from all over the place, there’s no tribal ugliness to his vengeance. The narrative suggests that his prowess stems from a personal quality rather than his heritage. It must be said, too, that while James Earl Jones is the villain, his performance doesn’t seem to have any offensive markers anywhere in it and hasn’t inspired anyone to call him out over the years. His evil cult has some Egyptian iconography, but he’s mostly just a weirdo with a cool voice who has a thing for snakes and a really bad wig.
In the hands of writer John Milius (whom you may remember from that other celebration of red-blooded domination over one’s foes, Red Dawn), the movie isn’t free of regressive bullshit by any means. The women are either topless objects to be carried off or tragic heroines to be killed off to deepen Conan’s character. At least Valeria, his love interest, gets some great lines, great fights and something resembling character motivation.
Conan is now the star of comic books, tabletop roleplaying games, videogames, and apparently still lives on in Schwarzenegger’s imagination, since the actor-turned-governor has repeatedly expressed interest in returning to the role over the decades. One of the most interesting interpretations of the character, and perhaps the one that remains closest to Howard’s original stories, is the Twitter account Conan the Salaryman, sporting more than 14,000 followers as of this writing. (The account follows only one other: The Cimmerian god Crom, naturally.)
Written by Chris Stone-Bush, the bite-sized Conan tales that plop the barbarian down into awkward white-collar living were inspired by the inconveniences of her own office job. Stone-Bush said she hoped to emulate the writing of Howard, which she rightfully called “overwrought.”
“It may not be good,” she said, “but it’s certainly entertaining.”
Drawn to Howard’s original 1930s Conan stories and the character of the barbarian, she said she declined to speculate on Howard’s views but acknowledged the offensive portrayals of Black and Asian characters in the tales. Her own efforts in emulating Howard’s writing have necessarily meant avoiding those harmful depictions while still embracing the hallmarks of the style.
“I’ve absolutely noticed racialized elements in Howard’s works, and try my best to avoid that in my own writing. One way I do that is intentionally not mentioning the color of people’s skin or their ethnicity, apart from the occasional mentions of Conan’s ‘bronzed hide,’” Stone-Bush said. “I also try to not mention gender unless absolutely necessary, and then try to ensure I don’t depict anyone as weak or inferior solely because of their gender.”
Absent those elements, Stone-Bush’s treatment of Conan nonetheless feels exactly like the chest-thumping, mage-mashing adventures the barbarian got up to 85 years ago. The wish-fulfillment aspect is certainly still there, in much the same way it was for Arnold’s depiction of the character, and that Conan’s opinion about what is “best in life.”
“Having Conan threaten people at sword point, smash desks, and hurl smelly coworkers from seventh story windows was, and still is, a cathartic release for me,” Stone-Bush said. “And for a lot of other people too, I think. The office adventures of the barbarian are mostly based on actual events in my life, though embellished, and they have honestly helped me get through some pretty rough times at work.”
There are still some traces of the racist subtext of the ’30s tales floating out there—the game Conan Exiles doesn’t award any statistical bonuses when you create a character and choose a race, but it has a few racial descriptions that are a tad alarming. For the most part, though, the creators who have worked with the character have focused on other things about his stories that are worthy of remembrance.
There’s plenty there to celebrate. In “The Tower of the Elephant,” first published in 1933, Conan infiltrates a sorcerer’s tower in search of riches and stumbles upon a pathetic alien being who reveals that it fled to Earth from a distant world and is now imprisoned and blinded, having been betrayed by the sorcerer. Immediately the story takes on new depth and meaning. A similar blend of fantasy and science fiction suffuses the story “Queen of the Black Coast,” in which Conan is granted a vision of the creature who haunts the island he and his pirate crew are trapped on, showing how thousands of years of cataclysm and ruin have resulted in the monster who stalks him. Stories like “The Slithering Shadow,” where Conan discovers a city of people who live entirely in a dream-world while their slumbering bodies are hunted by a foul creature, feel like science fiction even as they remain rooted firmly in fantasy storytelling.
Howard told these stories in an unforgettable way, centering these tales of weirdness, action and cosmic horror around a character whose motivations require no explanation. It’s the main reason Conan doesn’t feel sanitized today: His writers discarded what didn’t work (the racism) and kept what did (everything else).
Kenneth Lowe will contemplate this on the Tree of Woe. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.