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Why is it Always a Northern Barbarian?

Friday, May 10th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

Taras BulbaMy mother was Spanish and my father was Polish, so there was a little north vs. south going on in my home all the time as I was growing up. My mum would encourage us to watch Zorro and El Cid, my dad was all for Taras Bulba and whoever else Yul Brynner was portraying that week on late night TV. When my mother would make remarks about the superiority of the Mediterranean culture, my father would remind her that the Spanish culture, at least, came mostly from the Moors, and that Rome fell, crushed beneath the heels of the – you guessed it – northern barbarians.

Aside to the historically educated: Yes, I know that isn’t exactly what happened. Otherwise, why did it take Gibbon seven volumes to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? I’m not talking history here, I’m talking popular (mis)conceptions.

Last week I took a look at the rise of the hero in popular culture – by which I meant not just among our genre-respecting selves, but with all those other people. This week I’d like to take a look at where heroes come from – or where we expect them to come from.

Conan spanishI’ll tell you what the Romans didn’t expect: they didn’t expect any hero to come from the barbarous north. I mean, really, whose language do you think the word “barbarian” comes from? And it sure didn’t mean “hero.” For one thing, it meant “wears a beard,” while we all know that heroes always shave, even if they’re not completely clean-shaven. Right?

So why did the barbarians come from the north? Simple. Because civilization came from the south. From Mesopotamia and Egypt and Crete. Okay, the south and east, but you see what I’m getting at. And what were there to the south and east? Cities.

Tension and conflict between country and city dwellers certainly goes back at least as far as Rome, and more likely as far back as there have been cities. It’s a dichotomy that forms the comic backbone of much of the drama of the late 17th and early 18th century, for example. The idea was that cities are sophisticated, urbane centres of culture and learning (note both denotation and connotation of the word urbane), while the country is full of common,  uneducated, narrow-minded simpletons, unable to grasp the finer points of behaviour, dress, and manners.

Aside: this isn’t exactly the same as how Shakespeare uses “low” characters for comic relief, but it’s related.

Okay, but how did the crude and the rude become heroes? There have always been heroes found among the witty and the urbane – and still are; Iron Man comes to mind, and certain incarnations of Batman. But the other kind of hero, the country hero, the barbarian hero, pops up with increasing frequency, beginning with the early genre work of the 20th century. He (the barbarian hero certainly started out as a he) exemplifies the flip side of the country/city coin. It goes like this: the city is corrupt and evil (Prince Humperdinck) and the country is innocent and good (Wesley). Or, if not innocent, at least morally superior to the city dweller. Wesley, after all, is a dread pirate.

3 MusketeersIt’s from this concept that you get D’Artagnan, the Gascon, coming to Paris and becoming a Musketeer. The whole point of the boy (as anyone who has read the books or seen the marvelous screen version of Richard Lester knows), is that he’s an unknown bumpkin from some backwater province known to produce bumpkins. Though now that I think about it, Gascony’s in southern France. Hmmm. But still, D’Artagnan has the heart and soul of a Musketeer.

This idea, usually known as the concept of the ” noble savage” is pretty old in itself, but was quantified in the 18th century, most notably in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote about the superiority of the “natural” or “primitive” man over his civilized counterpart.

Can’t you just see RE Howard thinking to himself: “Hmm. The Noble Savage. What if he wasn’t just noble? What if he was also,  well . . .  savage.”

Let’s look at this from another angle. Barbarian heroes don’t come from the south (here), they come from the north (there). Heroes in general don’t come from inside the community, they come from the outside. Even when they do come from inside, they’re outsiders – whether by intellect, wealth or poverty, trauma, or some combination of these.

I wonder if our familiar trope of the hero as stranger, as someone from away, began with the idea of the barbarian hero?

And what about climate change? What’s that going to do to northern barbarians?

A footnote on the images: though everything I’ve referred to in this post started out as something in print, they’ve all been made into movies, and I decided to go to the films for two of my images. I chose the Spanish book cover of Conan the Barbarian partly as a concrete demonstration of the root of the word “barbarian”, and partly because I own this book.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website





  1. Interesting. The same dynamic would work with an Egyptian setting, and a mighty-thewed Nubian hero coming in out of the wilds. Why haven’t we seen this?

    Comment by zornhau - May 10, 2013 10:45 am

  2. Interesting article. May be so bold as to add another hypotheses: That the average reader riles against someone who is already noble and/or well off “lording it over them”. To illustrate I happen to be reading ER Eddison’s The Worm Ouroborus at present. To be frank while I am enjoying the style and prose, the superior nature of the heroes (The lords Juss et al) is starting to grate on me. Insofar in the middle of the book the author presents one with chapters telling of the deeds of the villains (Gro etc of witchland) and I am actually enjoying this section much more.

    Comment by Tiberius - May 10, 2013 10:45 am

  3. Well Juma was a Kushite from the south of Stygia. Although was Juma a REH character or someone invented by marvel? Seem to possibly recall him in The Drums of Tombaluku?

    Comment by Tiberius - May 10, 2013 10:48 am

  4. I think one advantage of a barbarian hero (at least in fiction) is that the barbarian can be expected to be at least somewhat ignorant of the more “civilized” land, giving the author the opportunity to either explain the setting, or just let the barbarian be mystified/bemused by it all.

    As to why “northern”, I’m inclined to blame/credit not Howard & Leiber, but their first- & second-generation imitators, who took the “northern barbarian” thing as the de facto template, kind of the way Brooks et al. cemented epic fantasy firmly in the mold of Tolkien.

    Comment by Joe H. - May 10, 2013 12:04 pm

  5. As for Juma of Kush, he was created by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter for one of their Conan pastiches, not by REH himself.

    Comment by Gabriel Oliva Brum - May 10, 2013 12:39 pm

  6. >>Because civilization came from the south. From Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and Crete. Okay, the south and east, but you see what I’m getting at. And what were there to the south and east? Cities.>>

    Barbarians could be from further south, but generally people shy away from them, for cultural concerns of depicting dark skinned races in a racially insensitive manner, I think.

    Comment by Princejvstin - May 10, 2013 2:48 pm

  7. Curious about your perspective on these postings:

    I always find your postings interesting. But I’m not sure what tone you’re trying to strike in them. Particularly, in this posting it’s not clear to me whether you’re trying to make a serious argument or whether you’re just trying to get conversations started.

    Comment by mcglothlin.13 - May 10, 2013 2:51 pm

  8. it meant “wears a beard,”

    Really? That does not jibe with my understanding of the etymology. What is your source for that?

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - May 10, 2013 7:50 pm

  9. Wow. A lot of comments, and I’ve been away, so unable to respond as they came in. Here are at least some responses, in reverse order:
    Ken: Originally the word “barbarous” came via the Latin from Greek, and meant “foreigner”. Is this the etymology you’re referring to? I’m afraid I played a little fast and loose, and went a bit forward in time from that, to where the word in romance languages (barba, barbe, barbo, and the accompanying verbs) refers to having or wearing a beard. The word “barber” derives from this, as I’m sure you realize.
    mcglothlin: I’m not trying to make a serious argument in terms of an academic one; I’m examining ideas and attitudes that are clichéd — sometimes so much so that we’re not aware of them ourselves. These are things that make me go, huh, when they occur to me. When I talk about a “northern barbarian” I mean it in sense that to Homer, the sea was always “wine dark”. That is, it’s a cliché, why is it a cliché? When did it start, why does it work, and does it still? I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying my posts anyway.
    Princejvstin: In the sense of “foreigner” barbarians can and do come from everywhere; as Europeans, we tend to think of them as coming from the north — though I’d love to hear what Scandinavians have to say about that. I think you’re quite right about white people, like myself, shying away from portraying those of a different race in case of insensitivity — though, of course, that doesn’t prevent any of us from portraying people of a different gender
    Joe H: I think you’re right, there’s an element of ‘stranger in a strange land’ that using a foreign pov can always give you.
    Tiberius: John Fultz’s post, which I referred to last week, deals with this exact idea. That we got tired of noble or royal “heroes” and started to have other kinds. I think the age of the northern barbarian has itself passed, and we’re now doing more of a person-on-the-street hero.
    zornhau: I love this idea, and someone needs to write it. Someone who knows more about Egyptian history than I do.
    Thanks again for all your great comments everyone.

    Comment by Violette Malan - May 11, 2013 2:11 pm

  10. The re-construction of the dreaded Norsemen might have something to do with the Hero Out of the Unknown North. Not to mention the Eddas and Sagas, as well as Beowulf.

    The north — it was a hard, hard, hard region. You had to be hard and very strong, very healthy — and even smart — to survive. As barbarians they all fought with each other all the time, because there was no law. Instead, they had codes of honor = Hero.

    Except it was so cold they probably were not clean-shaven.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - May 11, 2013 5:34 pm

  11. Violette, I am sufficiently familiar with the romance languages to understand the more recent meanings. Marriage to a native Spanish speaker helps in that department. From the context you appeared to be indicating that ‘barbarian’ also held the same connotation in the original Greek. Thanks for clarifying.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - May 13, 2013 6:09 pm

  12. Thanks Ken, I’m a native Spanish speaker myself. In this instance I may have let my rhetoric carry me away, thanks for helping to rein me in.

    Comment by Violette Malan - May 13, 2013 10:09 pm

  13. […] Two weeks ago I talked about the city vs. country tension that’s often found in literature, and how it might have contributed to the  rise of the barbarian hero in our own genre. Now I’m wondering whether we haven’t seen a fine-tuning of that same tension in a more familiar guise: the buddy movie, or, more to the point for us genre types, the buddy adventure. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Two Sought Adventure - May 24, 2013 8:39 am

  14. ’cause it was originated by white writers writing out their own culture?

    Comment by Mary - June 30, 2013 9:48 pm

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