This is correspondence related to my summer Epic Fantasy reading project. Notes and comments are informal:
I know… that our main focus this summer is the sweeping, epic “high fantasy,” but I wanted at least a basic understanding of “low fantasy” Sword and Sorcery, and Howard is consider to be its founding father. I was almost tempted to go with Fritz Leiber instead, since I have fond memories of reading about Lankhmar as a kid, but I thought Howard would make a striking comparison to Tolkien, and that ended up being the case. It’s interesting where the differences between the two writers and the two genres are gaping and stark, as well as where they are surprisingly close.
So here are the differences: Tolkien was from the British intellectual class, taught at Oxford, and wrote his most famous work as a personal project to rehabilitate certain elements of mythology in a fictitious setting with British sensibilities. Howard was the child of an itinerant Texas physician, eschewed vocational paths other than writing, and tailored his writing to the profitable markets of the day. Tolkien died comfortably in his 70s after the death of his wife, and surrounded by doting children. Howard shot himself in the head at the age of 30 when he learned his mother was dying. Interestingly, both were born within a decade of each other. Howard’s most prolific decade was the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, while Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during the 1940s.
In terms of the writing: Tolkien’s epics took place in “Middle-Earth” which had hints of but little direct connection to the present world, while Howard’s Conan stories took place in the Hyborian Age which was explicitly placed in a period of barbarism and empire-building that occurred between the fall of the continent of Atlantis and the rise of the ancient civilizations we know; these explicit references are most conspicuous in names we recognize from legend and history: Argos, Corinthia, Himaleya, Zimbabwe, and others. Not only did Tolkien write novels, but he envisioned all of these novels being joined by subject matter and common history into an organic whole. Howard works were almost uniformly short stories, and while it is possible to read these as part of an organic whole, he preferred an episodic presentation that emphasized narrative unreliability. Tolkien was quite comfortable deferring to magic as accounting for miraculous events; Howard posits a sort of invisible cosmic ground-state which makes magic-seeming events possible. Tolkien’s gods are unassailable, unreachable, and in fact, only angelic (and demoniac) messengers for a higher power that is only mentioned by name once. Howard’s gods intrude upon the world, and do battle with mortals in a way that is not only corporeal, but which expands the definition of the physical rather than constricting that of the spiritual. And so forth. There are many differences.
The most significant difference, however, I thought, is the different take on morality. I recall Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, at least, saw much significance in his Catholicism, and that the various ranks and orders of beings, good and evil, in Middle Earth, was a validation of the Catholic cosmological order via Tolkien’s own thoroughly British upbringing. Whereas in Conan, while morality is present, it is subjective, in flux, and almost post-modern. The main conflict is not so much good vs. evil as barbarism vs. civilization. The chief difference here between barbarism and civilization isn’t any notion of mercy, or compassion, or empathy, or cooperation; it is a difference of regimentation, and as a result, barbarism doesn’t dissemble. So we are meant to relate to the barbarian, and not the sorcerers, monarchs, pirates, and monsters with whom he contends.
In fact, Conan himself is often not sympathetic, although he probably has something closer to what we’d call a “conventional” morality than most of the other characters. But he’s not above, say, genocide (as in “Vale of the Lost Women”).
Curiously, this solved a big problem I have with most high fantasy: How is it that characters meant to embody all that is good and pure — to the extent of making huge personal sacrifices to save the world — are grim killing machines. And I don’t even mean “the good soldier” so much; you don’t see hints of pathos or PTSD after Aragorn, or Drizzt Do’Urden, or Aslan, or whoever kills their 999th orc. This is most often explained away as “all members of X race are evil,” and maybe that passed as acceptable in the decades surrounding the Civil Rights era, but in 2012 it seems deeply troubling on even casual examination. Other high fantasy strategies to reconcile this seem equally wanting.
Conan partially solves this problem by making the protagonist consistently erratic and violent (though surprisingly, never amoral). I never see him as embodying all that is good and pure, but rather all that is barbaric and pure, and this makes his internal logic plausible. It also gives some measure of cover to Howard writing as a product of his time and place, which is to say, often much more explicitly racist than Tolkien ever was (we’re talking about a man who grew up in rural Texas boom-towns, and witnessed lynchings).
And that’s the first big lesson I’m taking from Conan; no “good and pure” killing machines. A character can be plausibly one or the other, and striving to transcend is certainly permitted, but… psychological coherence procludes mass murder from straight-played innocence.
There are two other lessons, but I’ve already written quite a bit, so I’ll have to be a bit more succinct (Mary will want my attention soon)…
First is that this being “low fantasy” did not prevent it from engaging in poetic, powerful language and grand philosophical themes. Although action-oriented in the manner of (though with much better craft than) TSR-fare, there is a tightly controlled correspondence between the words and actions of the characters. Conan typically prevails because he is typically direct and straightforward; his battle prowess is as much a symptom of this transparency of character as it is his upbringing. Other characters weave byzantine plots only to dramatically fail when they learn that the realities the universe has created for the villains are no more stable than the “realities” they use to trap their victims. A sort of cosmic version of “getting caught in a lie.” There’s a lot of lush, powerful, rich, almost pungent imagery here, but beneath the beautiful writing is an ongoing discussion of Things That Matter. And also interestingly (I’m using that word a lot) this comes forth all the clearer in the “weaker” Conan stories — those featuring little plot except an extra-dimensional monster and a naked damsel — because the Big Questions continue to get play even when the pulp clichès ride heavy. So the lesson there, I suppose, is that I can depart from a “high fantasy” writing style without abandoning, or even mitigating, thematic depth.
Second is a result of Howard’s participation in the Lovecraft Circle, much as Tolkien participated in the Inklings. His respect for Lovecraft and other cosmic horror writers of the weird early 20th century informed Howard’s presentation of the divine and the arcane. Lovecraft himself is usually classified as a species of horror, and that makes sense, I think, given the wayward wanderers, New England dystopias, and so forth… but the whole cosmic horror concept works just as well and may even have more room to stretch out in a fantasy setting. I’m not credulous in the sense that I think that there are Elder Gods watching over me, or sleeping, as I type this. But in a month when the Higgs Boson has been dominating conversation around the world, the idea that magic and malign forces descend upon us from the dark spaces between the stars has more immediacy and resonance — in a real and literal sense, I think — more relevance than humanoid angels and gods who meddle in our business. (Note that I’ve seen high fantasy develop better solutions to this problem than to the problem of murder/morality.)