Mar 24, 2012

What can Conan teach you about writing?

Illustration by Frank Frazetta
Conan, slayer of demons and apemen, pirate lover of a thousand women and barbarian king, sprang from the mind of a weak-hearted scribe who committed suicide at the age of thirty.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) belonged to another world, not ours. He was born in the town of Peaster but spent most of his life in Cross Plains, TX, a burg that wouldn’t see a train until the year of 1912.

What with the new trains and the oil boom, the little Texan town provided the stage for a number of gunfights, lynchings and other assorted acts of violence. Howard’s father was a doctor and the boy had plenty of opportunities to see injured people up close. This would impress upon Howard the omnipresence of evil and violence, as well as the need for physical strength.

We do know that the writing bug bit Howard early in life; growing up in a tiny place where donkeys roamed the streets and the local theater branded itself as the venue “where everybody goes” must have made ol’ Robert E. realize that creativity was salvation.

The character of Conan the Barbarian was preceded by Kull and Bran Mak Morn -- they too resourceful loners wielding sharp blades against an unforgiving world. Ruled by despots and black magicians, visited -- and often corrupted -- by extraterrestrial or extradimensional gods, theirs is a land where man’s dreams and aspirations matter very little.

Conan’s first appearance was actually in a rejected Kull story that was later rewritten as “The Phoenix on the Sword” and accepted for publication by Weird Tales.

So, what can Conan teach you about the workings of character and the rich undersoil of narrative?

Conan and Knowledge

Illustration by John Buscema
“Behind an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings (…) Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him.”
— The Phoenix on the Sword

When we first meet Conan, he is already middle-aged and king of Aquilonia. He’s not wading across a river of blood, not busy lopping off heads, but writing. There’s a symbolic weight to this: Conan is always the man who creates his own fate.

Though he laments it, when the sword becomes inadequate he picks up the pen. (Or the stylus.)

The story pits Conan, albeit indirectly, against an enemy who is a kind of pen-wielder himself: Thoth-amon. Don’t you forget that name, you’ll see how significant it is.

Conan bemoans his new station as king: “In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.”
Emphases mine.

This is foreshadowing, and directly related with Thoth-amon’s personality and methods. Let’s get back to that mysterious name of his: It combines Thoth and Amon.

Thoth was, essentially, a god of knowledge. Not only was he scribe to the gods, but also master of magic and the purported author of every single work of human wisdom. His feminine counterpart, Ma’at (which can be loosely translated as justice, but means balance as well) kept the cosmos running smoothly.

Thoth as ibis-headed god
and as baboon, his underworld aspect

Now, Amon means “the hidden one” and the deity may be the source of knowledge itself. Amon was primal father to gods and men. He-she-it was essentially unknowable. To worship Amon, the Egyptians made devotional statues that -- they thought -- represented visible aspects of the transcendent Amon. One of said aspects being the ram, thanks to the evolutionary workings of religious syncretism.

Amon as the solar ram.

So Thoth-Amon combines the god-scientist and the god of ultimate meaning (and secrecy). See where I’m going with this? The wizard Thoth-amon embodies contradiction, and deals in forbidden knowledge.

If you think I’m reaching, here’s what Thoth-amon looks like:

Pretty unambiguous horns, wouldn't you say?

Harking back to Conan’s years as a thief, he had encountered another avatar of Thoth: Yag-Kosha, in “The Tower of the Elephant.

“By fire and rack he mastered me, and by strange unearthly tortures you would not understand. (…) And for three hundred years I have done his bidding, from this marble couch, blackening my soul with cosmic sins, and staining my wisdom with crimes, because I had no other choice. Yet not all my ancient secrets has he wrested from me…”
Emphases mine.
— The Tower of the Elephant

Yag-Kosha had come to Earth on wings that bore him faster than light speed. Remember Arthur C. Clarke’s pronouncement: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It may be that the long-lived elephant man speaks of magic to Conan because that is something a barbarian could make sense of. Anything that appears miraculous gets the “magic” label slapped on.

It’s no coincidence to me that Yag-Kosha is elephant-headed; this connects him with Ganesh, another scribe god and therefore a guardian of knowledge and culture. However, Conan will not partake of the alien’s wisdom. The elephant man is dying and it’s too late for both of them.

That Conan so often battles giant snakes shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The serpent, too, symbolizes wisdom. Wisdom of a monstrous and undesirable kind, in fact -- you have to sacrifice your humanity for it.

Having Thulsa Doom change into a monstrous snake in the 1982 film is not a random choice.

Conan as wish-fulfillment

Left to right:
Conan drawn by Cary Nord; portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger; and by Jason Momoa.

Beefcake is and has ever been an evolutionary motivator.

Conan was an idealized version of Robert E. Howard himself. In every single Conan story, Howard will treat you to hyperbolic descriptions of his muscles and catlike agility. R.E.H. has probably compared the barbarian to a black panther some five hundred times; and you know what, that’s OK. It was that constant repetition of Conan’s attributes -- ferocity, cunning, relentlessness and, yes, courage -- that afforded Conan a lasting seat in the pantheon of popular heroes.

Conan’s prowess and vitality were matched by his libido. Few stories do without a love interest for Conan, though the barbarian never pursues women -- It’s always the other way around. They can’t help but lust after Conan’s inexhaustible strength. You’d think he was a walking pheromone factory. When you stop to consider that Howard never married and his relationship with his only known girlfriend wasn’t velvety-smooth, Conan’s exaggerated popularity with the opposite sex is rather telling.

Howard resented the thousands of strangers that flocked to Cross Plains; a sleepy town of one thousand souls had exploded into a boisterous way station for the oil business. Ten thousand people moved in. Businesses mushroomed overnight and so did the attendant maladies -- petty theft, prostitution, you name it.

Robert’s idyll was no more. Conan would often serve as Robert’s mouthpiece, voicing disgust at cities and the ways of civilized men.

Who is Conan?

Amra. That was Conan’s pirate name. His résumé includes thievery, wizard-killing, daring rescues of a hundred damsels in distress, the conquest of empires and the bedding of oriental queens.

Conan is an anarchist. He distrusts leaders and won’t take shit from anyone. Only two things matter to him: survival and loyalty.

Yes, Conan abides by a code of honor. That was Howard’s jab at the ‘civilized’ world, telling his readers that cities are places of corruption, where weak and twisted men exploit the young and foolish. Where a sorcerer whispers in the king’s ear, and sips fine liqueurs while the city wallows in the mud.

Out in the wilderness, said Conan, one cannot be impolite. Speak out of turn and you’ll find an axe buried in your skull. Only in the cities can you insult your fellow beings and not fear retribution, because people are civilized there.

If there’s anything that Conan taught me as a writer, it’s the value of stark contrast. A blunt instrument, to be sure, but deadly if you wield it with precision.


This video pretty much contains all you need to know about Conan’s journey. A veritable pop-culture primer.   

Other posts you might like:
What should writers blog about?
What can Epicurus teach you about writing?

And in case you expecting me to write about the other Conan:

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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