Monday, October 30, 2017

Blue-Collar Barbarian

When Bob Howard created Sword & Sorcery, he lived in the heart of Texas during an oil boom the likes of which the state has not seen since. No other economic shift was as transformative to Texas as that one, and the effect it had on the young writer was significant. After all, Howard was the son of a country doctor, and he saw a lot of the workers close up. Being a doctor was not an ivory-tower kind of life in that time and place. Howard himself never worked a “real” job for more than token periods of time, but the worlds we live in affect the way we see the world outside.

Howard himself said Conan was inspired by men he saw around himself in his rough-and-tumble town in the middle of nowhere: boxers, roustabouts, oil riggers, gamblers and railroad workers. He saw these kinds of men up close and grasped their essential nature, and it stamped itself on Conan, and thus upon Sword & Sorcery as a whole.

It really marks a break with previous ideas of fantasy, and even now remains a bit of an oddity. Fantasy writers then – and now – are largely obsessed with rulers and kings. Tolkien’s cast of characters is deeply involved with kings and royal bloodlines. The “Sword and Planet” adventures that predate S&S were all about princesses on alien worlds, and even today we have stories that revolve around those who are kings, or should be kings, or were kings and are working to get back to it. The emphasis is on ancient bloodlines and rights to rule, often with magic worked in to make the “rightful” king undeniable.

Howard was not really enmeshed in any of that. Conan is expressly the son of a blacksmith, born of a rough, border people. Kull is a similar primitive, only a few steps above a stone-aged man. The only hero Howard created with a royal bloodline is Bran Mak Morn, and his ancestry is more often seen as a curse than a blessing. Also, he is far from the most important character in Howard’s canon.

Overall, Howard’s perspective is undeniably blue-collar, populist, and allied with the common people. Howard grew up in rural Texas, and his experience with genuine wealth and nobility was exactly nil. He was writing in the years when Depression was choking the country, and people were suspicious of the rich and powerful. Howard trusted them even less, and you can see that in his writing where nobles are almost universally depicted as evil and scheming, or at the very least rather foolish and naive. Howard did not idolize kingship, and in fact he had a rather more realistic view of it than a lot of fantasy writers do today.

He understood that rulership is not just a privilege, but a job. Both Conan and Kull discover that while it is one thing to seize a throne, it is quite another thing to sit on it. His heroes are men of action who find the minutiae of leadership to be tedious and confining. They also have a good grasp of the fact that all wealth and comfort are transitory, and that there is actually very little separating a king from a vagabond.

It is notable that almost without exception, Howard’s heroes are from the low rungs of society, or even properly outside it. They have no inheritance, no bloodline, no name. Whatever they have they must work for, fight for, or steal. They attain their position in the world with violence and a willingness to do same. They inspire men by their personal qualities, not by titles or gold.

Growing up cheek by jowl with working class men, it is hardly surprising that Howard’s sympathies would lie with them. What is surprising is how consciously he keeps that perspective. We do not get a story where Conan is found to be the long-lost heir to the kingdom. No. We get several stories about how people steal his throne, and then find out the hard way that Conan is not someone who merely inherited his crown, but someone who bled for it once and will gladly do so again. Howard showed a remarkably modern appreciation for the fact that loyalty is fickle and so is the mob of the ruled. He instinctively sided with the downtrodden, but he also did not overestimate their virtues.

So after decades of fantasy stories about long-lost princesses, hidden heirs to this-or-that, and magical macguffins to establish just who is king around here, stories like those Howard wrote in the 1930s remain rather unusual – stories about men who come from nothing and then take their crowns with force and keep it. Usurpers are often painted with a black brush in fiction, but Conan and Kull never gave one shit about being usurpers. They took what they wanted and killed to keep it – the essence of Sword & Sorcery.

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