Why isn’t Conan a Mary Sue?
How is Conan not a Mary Sue?
The barbarian is pretty obviously Robert E Howard’s authorial self-projection into the Hyborian Age. Big, bellicose and amoral, but honourable and never mean. He’s mighty-thewed death on two legs, women fall into his arms, kingdoms fall at his feet. He male bonds when he falls into good company, and despite being a barbarian fish out of civilised water, he commands the loyalty of his men and the respect of those nobles worthy of respect.
He’s everything Robert E Howard was and wasn’t and might have been had the big Texan lived long enough to fight in WWII. (Imagine Howard as a veteran of Iwo Jima, and the great literature he would have written…)
Really, how is he not a Mary Sue? (He certainly fails a Mary Sue test)
And yet, Conan survived the oh-so-ironic later 20th century. One whiff of Thrud should consigned him to the company of Captain Future and Doc Savage: The
emperor barbarian has no clothes on! He even weathered Terry Pratchett’s slash and burn through the genre.
Was it just that Howard invented Sword and Sorcery?
No. Conan’s literary longevity is more than just about being first with sandals on the ground.
Bill Haley & His Comets were the first mainstream rock and roll band, but we value them now for their retro charm. When we listen to the old stuff for pleasure, it’s Elvis or Chuck Berry because their music was good even once the novelty wore off.
Conan is like that. It’s not that Robert E Howard was first, it was that he was good. His prose would pass a modern editor with only a few strokes of the red pen. His stories satisfy. He was even perceptive enough to routinely transcend his own of-its-time assumptions about race and gender. People who come to Conan because they like Sword and Sorcery often find themselves caught up in all Howard’s writing, including his contemporary boxing tales.
But there were other great and perceptive genre writers of that era, especially Harold Lamb, who did not win a permanent place in mainstream culture. Khlit the Cossack never rode the pages of a Marvel Comic.
So is it down to character? (A different aspect of writing.)
Partly, yes, it has to be.
Robert E Howard was (deep breath)…
…a nerdy provincial lad who yearned for far horizons, some conveniently inaccessible, but had reason to stay home; who dabbled in martial arts (boxing) and tinkered with European swords (he did!) but wasn’t really a man of action; who was drawn to traditional masculinity, but not really very good at it; who yearned to carouse in wild company, but was probably too self-conscious (or bored by ordinary people) to paint Cross Plains, Texas red; who dreamed of wild women, especially lithe dancing girls, even more especially — one suspects — if they came in fifty shades of Gor, but, perhaps because he needed intellectual companionship as well and the double standards of the time made it an either/or proposition, unaccountably didn’t have any in his life; who found civilized mores just a bit too hard to handle in real time…
These days he could have gone backpacking, or used SF conventions as a safety net for foreign travel. He could have joined SCA and/or found a local HEMA school. He would have had a D&D group. Played video games. Hung out on Reddit. Found friends and at least one playful belly-dancing cosplaying intellectual girlfriend through fandom (or OK Cupid). He would have…
Well, probably not shot himself at 30, one hopes.
But the point is, it’s really easy to imagine a modern Robert E Howard slowly growing into a place in our extended geeky modern community. Sure, he was also a man of the 1930s, with all the cultural baggage that implies, but Conan is an archetype created in reaction to the experience of modernity (see Understanding the Tower of the Elephant), a spirit guide even.
Conan is such a powerful archetype that he burns through all attempts to satirise him. Satire merely further accentuates the liberating archetypal qualities, whether hair trigger and capacity for effective violence (Thrud), pragmatism and sheer survivor skills (Cohen — but if you like Cohen, you’ll love the non-ironic Khlit the Cossack), or plain speaking stark moral code (Hunk-Ra). It’s like sending up Heavy Rock. You still end up with Heavy Rock, so much so that Spinal Tap released an album in 2009 and are still touring!
However, all the-wish fulfillment in the world won’t wash if the character is a Mary Sue.
Which brings us back to, how come Conan isn’t a Mary Sue?
Definitions of Mary Sue are notoriously vague and fluid. However, they boil down to: character’s specialness makes them super-likable, super attractive, omnicompetent, and always victorious (unless they heroically self-sacrifice). All this specialness makes them irritating, kills the tension and thus the story.
Yes Conan is “special” — has a special backstory, special culture, special collection of names. However, this mostly works against him.
Rather than like him for it, other characters just lump Conan’s specialness together under the heading “barbarian” and demean and distrust him accordingly. He’s attractive to women, but — judging by how he mostly starts his stories single — in a “disposable bit of rough way”. When he does fall in love with a peer or make a worthy friend, this just makes him vulnerable to tragedy.
He is highly skilled, but overspecialized. He’s great at barbarian things that are only handy where applicable. As a thief he’s all about the stealth, but less so about building gangs and nurturing relationships with fences. As a ruler, Conan is a charismatic leader, but not a courtier nor politician, and thus his reign is easily threatened. He’s always victorious in violence, but there’s often a cost and almost always suffering. Ultimately, it’s his indomitable will despite suffering that make us want him to win, and mop our brows when he does.
Ultimately, then, Conan is not a Mary Sue because Robert E Howard had the greatness not just to create such an archetypal character and write him well, but also to make life hard for him in interesting ways because of who he was. One of the most iconic images of Conan is not of him smiting the multitudes, but of him surviving crucifixion by feeding off a vulture(*), which pretty much says it all.
It’s interesting that Dumarest, Sharpe and Honor Harrington also fit this mould. If you can think of some others, please tell us in the comments.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)
With respect, Mr Page I think the term “Mary Sue” is just a quick slander akin to “Knee Jerk Liberal”, “eco nut” to hurt the target and create a modern “Right/left – tastes great/less filling” nullification argument. And that – in itself – it should not be a bad thing.
First, according to Oscar Wilde who wrote well before that hated term made it clear (in his opinion) that no matter how hard an author tries his first work always reflects himself – and it is a statement on his soul if it be “Christlike” or “Faustian”. He was saying that more in response to the “Picture of Dorian Gray” thing so we can guess which he saw his own as.
You will always be reflected in your creation somehow if you do any works worth any note, any memory.
In a way a “Mary Sue!” insult is kind of reminiscent of “His work is Pulpy…” which I heard some authors used to sue others over saying – fearing they’d be included in the unspoken industry blacklist of the late 70s/early 80s as publishers consolidated and choked down the “Progressive” stuff on the public.
Another “Dreaded Trope” passed around as if it is gospel is the “50lb sword” via Poul Anderson’s “On Thud and Blunder”… A very good essay, but it seems like nearly every “How to write scifi & fantasy…” guide was that essay ballooned to a book. Granted, poor research will certainly consign poor writing to the pit of mediocrity – but – in the hands of a good writer ol Gnorts the Barbarian can fight off a thousand of the King’s Pikemen with a 50lb WET NOODLE and we’ll have movies made of it 50 years later.
The test, the goal should always be “The Story”. Whatever it is – be it some barbarian, some ray gun wielding space hero, a man trapped in a house with living twinkies trying to eat him, the last gunslinger going across a desolate landscape….
Exceptions to every rule, of course… If someone pesters William Shatner with his own “Star Trek” story and the actor chokes back his vomit and spends 5 seconds reading a horrible fiction that’s “Furry Slash” with the author in the bed with Kirk as a Badger and Spock as a ferret… “Get a LIFE, you Mary Sue!” is quite appropriate as is not reaching for the barf bag but emitting on the nerd fan and/or manuscript.
Then again, considering good takes on the “Red Shirt” phenomenon, perhaps a good writer could pull that off… Nothing I’d dare try or sweet Jeebuz want to…
The trope that I hate – one that works are not deservedly bashed for – is the “Skinwalker” or “Mimic” ?Perhaps negative plagiarism or destructive imitation?- I refer to YouTube “Creepypasta” stuff – worth a lookup, say from CreepsMcPasta… if you don’t know “Skinwalker” or Dark Souls for “Mimic” – look on YouTube… Imagine some crazy shaman that kills people and wears their skins – or some barely humanoid thing like a thin, tall muscular man with no fat and a huge mouth full of long needle teeth that imitates people’s voices to get them to go into the bushes or into a cave so it can eat them…?
Well that’s what I consider the fictions done where they take a classic “Pulp” author that the writer/publishing house loves to bash because of modern “Political Correctness” but still makes money reprinting it – so they hack out stuff that is essentially the same plot but glue women/minorities in the front roles and do nothing really new – but then self-promote how “Daring” and “Progressive” they are…
But I am not ‘defending’ Conan that way.
This is the second part – in no way, shape or form is he a “Mary Sue” – again as if that was an unforgivable, unspeakable thing no matter how bad or good the writer. Also – REH’s writing was “Mary Sue” in a good way – he fantasized he was all the characters – his own ‘biocomputer’ running the story again and again and again till he could hammer it out like he lived the thing. For all the bloated modern works I think REH put the most effort into his stories. He essentially created the “Sword and Sorcery” genre in the modern sense trying to avoid (decades before that good/bad essay by Mr. Anderson) “thud and blunder” due to his limited resources and limited public knowledge of history thus creating epochs “Official history” either denied existed or likely would never fully explain.
Conan is the work of a mature writer. Yeah, REH died young but he wrote more than most writers did in a lifetime.
Conan is rather a re-worked, less intellectual in storytelling, more “Sexed up” version of King Kull whose stories didn’t sell. It is a mature writer’s best work to date, though Kull, Solomon Kane, others were really close. Lots of his “Spicy” tales are good Mary Sue with a womanizing sailor/adventurer saving saucy women from menaces like “The Yellow Peril” and being a man to them – but awesome stories… (Purple Heart of Erlik Khan – look up on Wikisource! Will make modern P.C. snowflakes melt!)
I think the real test of a “Mary Sue” – in the negative way – is this; “What would my character say if somehow he met me, his ‘god’ who was responsible for his life?” I thought of that during the run of the “Grimjack” storyline by John Ostrander – had some good fan fiction touching on that. It was good he didn’t meet Mr. Ostrander face to face, but John Gaunt had some savage respect for him – causing him to be created in such a hard life to be a story for others to read…
The test on myself…? Well my first self-published character would 50% deck me or take me drinking with him. My second one would rave that I join the Catholic Church, start shaming me and burn my…ahem…men’s magazines…freak out and threaten me over my eclectic collection of other literature (like new age books) then drag me to the local Catholic Church but probably have his head go explodey reading “Vatican 2”. The third would unquestionably stab me.
Won’t go into how or why – beyond crude self-promotion too detailed. Curious, I love all those characters thoroughly. But I doubt any is a ‘mary sue’ again as if that’s something to be treated like the new incurable G…… going around… A lot of REH style fantasy trips to “run” the script in my head, but trying to be other people and not just the main one. Not doing the pre-computer game equivalent of having a level 99 character with an invulnerability tag just to relax and stroke ego – that’s essentially the Mary Sue at worst.
Let’s also note one of the best “Mary Sue’s” – Abdul Alharazed… You know, in Lovecraft’s fictions the guy that wrote the “Necronomicon”? Lovecraft gained his love of fantasy from being read “The Arabian Nights” and made many now lost to history infantile stories in his childhood. Abdul Alharazed was his own character imagined as himself as some “Mohammedan adventurer in times of legendary Araby…” Doubtless this character outwitted Djinn, fought off Ghuls and bandits, rescued princesses from evil wizards… Later, when he matured he included this character into his stories, not as the main character but a background character in his own way as important as all the tentacle and sanity destroying cosmic beasties.
I like your test! I think we’re broadly in agreement: characterisation doesn’t make a “mary sue”, story does.
The hero of SWORDS VERSUS TANKS (my magnum opus), Sir Ranulph Dacre, is a Late Medieval mashup of Don Pero Nino and William the Marshal. Utterly indomitable, totally chivalrous, comfortably – smugly –
unreflective. So I put him against tanks from the future, and nuanced ethical and relationship problems that tick-box chivalric thinking and smiting won’t solve. So again, a wish fulfilment figure, but not – I hope – a mary sue,
I think the Conan stories sell themselves principally on their prose (true of most ‘Weird Tales’ contributors, I reckon) and their exuberance, but I reckon you’re right when you say that Conan is very good at being a barbarian but not a lot else. The stories are often about brawn versus guile, rather than two people with equivalent skill-sets, which means that Conan isn’t a Mary Sue* – he doesn’t beat the villains at their own game, but on his own terms and always as the under-dog.
* other than, like you say, as a projection on Howard’s part.
In every REH Conan story, I find at least one or two pieces of writing that just leave me admiring how he described things. It might be horses charging, or combat, or the creepy atmosphere of a canyon at dark.
REH put words together better than any other writer I’ve read. And along with his ability to tell a story, it’s why I think he remains the best fantasy/sword and sorcery author yet.
Yes. It’s as if Robert Johnson had had access to an electric guitar. He not only established the genre, he took the number one slot for all time. I wonder if this was in part because of when and where he grew up, in a rough tough oil town with old cowboys still knocking around?
“The barbarian is pretty obviously Robert E Howard’s authorial self-projection into the Hyborian Age.”
No, if Howard had a self-projection in his fiction, it was the guy who gets killed in Beyond the Black River fighting alongside his dog. Conan is a separate character who reflects a lot of Howard’s interests, I think.
Beyond that, Conan can’t be a Mary Sue because a Mary Sue is a character that gets inserted into an existing story continuity (usually in fan fiction) who happens to be vastly better at everything than the characters populating that continuity.
E.g., a Mary Sue in Conan would be a new female character who’s a better fighter than Conan, smarter than he is, more beautiful than Belit and Valeria put together, and who would win easily Conan’s undying love (and probably the other women’s jealousy), and generally would reduce Conan to happy sidekick status.
Yes, Conan is much more like a tragic hero than like a Mary Sue. The things that make tragic heroes awesome and effective in pursuit their goals are exactly the things that defeat them at life — my favorite Sword and Sorcery example would be Morlock the Maker and his kickass wife Aloe in James Enge’s Tournament of Shadows trilogy. (Still hoping they’ll come back for one more round of books…)
Conan as we find him in “Queen of the Black Coast” is the only character to escape with his life from a place utterly inimical to humans, and he gets out with a mighty treasure, but only after a loss that makes his triumph meaningless to him. An author with a weakness for Mary Sue characters might put such an incident in the beginning or middle of a story, but would never end there. And most writers could not end there and still leave us with a satisfying story. (That many works of literary fiction end with their protagonists in defeat and anomie is not a counterargument — whom do those stories actually satisfy?)
> E.g., a Mary Sue in Conan would be a new female character who’s a better fighter than Conan, smarter than he is, more beautiful than Belit and Valeria put together, and who would win easily Conan’s undying love (and probably the other women’s jealousy), and generally would reduce Conan to happy sidekick status.
@andy I love the idea of Mary Sues intruding into Pulp classics. Would make an amazing anthology. “Mary Sue of Mars” “Mary Sue and the Red Nails” “Mary Sue the Cossack” “Mary Sue of Gor”
You make a good point. However, I was addressing the broader use of the term, which is bandied about with respect to characters in published fiction and screen. I link to Al Harron – a Conan expert – having great fun answering a Mary Sue test for Conan. So I think it’s an interesting line of inquiry.
Exactly. “Tragic hero” was the word I needed. Actually, wouldn’t Macbeth be a Mary Sue if the play started earlier and ended with him entertaining a grateful King Duncan..?
Andy has the right definition of a Mary Sue. But the term Mary Sue has been appropriated as a belittlement for, usually, genre authors whose protagonists are idealized versions of themselves intended to erode the author’s credibility or stature.
Personally, I find no shame in creating a protagonist that embodies the author’s idealized/ fantasy self (as long as they are not perfect, of course).
I’d say that Conan is a bit of a Mary Sue– he is (or becomes) the expression of REH’s ideas of the inevitable tendency (perhaps even triumph) of civilization falling to barbarism. Conan, because of his barbarism, is superior to the civilized people he encounters, and because he’s pretty solidly a bad-ass, superior to most of the other barbarians he meets.
I would also argue that beyond that the main Mary-Sue-ish quality of Conan is that he has an unbounded freedom. Conan has neither family nor tribe nor clan that he feels the need to return to, he has little allegiance to kings or kingdoms (even his own). His skill- fighting/murder are always in demand so he can make good anywhere he goes. Get crosswise with the merchant princes of Zamora? No problem! Just leave Zamora.
REH did not have that freedom in his own life. He did have family and friends that he cared about. He was somewhat stuck in Cross Plains having to care for his mother, and maybe (I could be remembering this wrong) having to help his father out of financial trouble.
But here’s the crazy thing- just as Conan’s skills were valuable wherever he goes, so were REH’s. I feel confident that, on some level, he realized that as a successful writer (successful enough), he could make a living anywhere. Conan could wander Hyboria with a broadsword in a battered scabbard, REH could wander the world with an Underwood typewriter in a battered case.
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I’m impressed with all the feedback you received on this article.