Conan and the Philosopher of Swords: Damon Young at the Edinburgh Book Festival and in Island Magazine

Conan and the Philosopher of Swords: Damon Young at the Edinburgh Book Festival and in Island Magazine

Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion.
Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion.
Art by Brom for "Queen of the Black Coast"
Conan the Id-barian…

A dozen of us sit in the round, beards bushing, long hair flowing over metalesque T-shirts. An energetic 40-something bloke hands out sheets and clipboards. Each bears a picture of Conan the Barbarian.

We’re at the super highbrow Edinburgh International Book Festival, but it feels like an over-stuffed old-school D&D group.

It’s a mostly male ensemble. My teen-aged son is the the youngest, I’m probably the least cool, and there are faces I recognise from the monthly Event Horizon SciFi gig.

However, we’re not actually here to roll dice. Rather, it’s one of the Book Festival’s Reading Workshops: intimate symposiums on reading a particular author or book. In this case — you guessed it — Damon Young, academic philosopher and Australian progressive public intellectual, is about lead a discussion on the Conan stories by the very late, but — by Crom he was too young when he died! — still lamented Robert E Howard:

Damon Young is an award-winning writer and philosopher. Join him for today’s workshop exploring Robert E Howard’s lovingly crafted sword and sorcery hero. Howard created Conan the Barbarian for a magazine in the 1930s and it has since spawned countless books, comics, video games and films. Expect an open discussion from the start; you can read the stories ahead of the event or be inspired to pick them up afterwards.

Take a moment to savour that.

Damon Young really is a card-carrying writer and philosopher. He has a book on the Art of Reading — leanly, playfully written, and stimulating, but to get the most of it you probably need to care about Schopenhauer — and his other appearances relate to that. He’s pretty much the Australian media’s goto philosopher. But he’s also a keen HEMA swordsman, and a fan of all things Conan.

The geeks have inherited the Earth!

Perhaps, more accurately:

There’s a cohort who see no firewall between geekdom and other intellectual/imaginative pursuits. Some of them have now grown up and started running things, or else entered the public sphere.

So as the rain drums on the tent, we settle into the shared dreamscape of the Hyborian Age.

Part of the point of the experience is that it is an experience: a chance to have an intellectual group discussion around the topic, led by a prominent intellectual. The end result is a bit like a university tutorial. We take some interesting side trips, but Damon Young leads us Socrates-style through several key topics listed in his handout.

Roughly, from my “notes”, his take was:

"I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
“I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” (Photo

“The Basics”: We should never forget that Robert E Howard was a self-educated small-town Texan with limited experience of… um… romance, some of violence, and that he died young. This at once explains the limitations of his work, and also makes it all the more impressive: the pre-Internet nerd living with his parents drew together the threads of history and mostly second-hand life experience and crafted fiction that transcended the boundaries of his constricted life, fiction, moreover, that we still read for pleasure. (Oh, and Conan is technically Irish, reflecting one of the author’s romantic obsessions.)

“Conan the Generic Hero”:  Conan is truly the generic — though archetypal might be a better term — hero. He’s naturally good at sex and violence, and all things physical. He rampages through a bespoke pre-modern sandbox where, not only can he realistically get away with  being himself — no Interpol or Feds, no manhunts and telegraphed wanted posters –, but also where he faces sufficient challenges so as not to be a Mary Sue.

“Conan the Libertarian”: The underlying ethos of Conan is broadly libertarian and plays out in a brutally Darwinian world.  Victory goes to the strong. The weak die or serve. Selfishness, if not good, is certainly the default. There’s passion and nobility, but not a lot of altruism. The author views political structures with a cynical eye.

Conan the Generic Hero?

The final topics turned to why we read Conan so avidly:

“Freud and the Impossible Dream of Manhood”:  Here Damon Young plumbs the Stygian depths of Psychology’s backstory and draws on Freud. We read Conan primarily out of wish-fulfilment.  He is the Id personified and empowered. If somebody insults him, he cuts them down. If he wants a woman, she wants him back. He attains power easily, but usually then gallops away from responsibility. He leads a simple life with no ties. This is somebody we can’t be — don’t want to be — in real life, but whose shoes we can step into as a release from the strictures of civilised living. According to Freud, and Young concurs, this exercising of the Id is healthy. (I  wonder if anything like Conan that wasn’t spattered in Grimdark would be publishable today.)

“The Strange Calm of Sex and Violence”: The odd thing, reflects Young, about reading Conan is that it is calming. He wallows in the mayhem of one of Howard’s yarns, then, sated, returns to parenting or teaching. Part of this effect is explained  by what he experiences as an absence of tension. There’s conflict and suffering, but we know that Conan will swagger through it all. Thus the Conan stories are ultimately consolatory.

(Speaking as a minor author of escapist fiction, there wasn’t much I’d argue with, much that was illuminating, and a few things I’d add:

The workshop was a salutary reminder that a story is a delivery system, and that whatever that apparent logic of plot and worldbuilding, from the reader point-of-view, those exist to deliver a particular experience, in this case the liberating escapism of following Conan from a safe distance.

For myself, I think some the longevity of Conan is explained by the longevity of Robert E Howard’s writing style.  Unlike — say Edgar Rice Burroughs — you don’t need your “of its time” spectacles, except in the area of social values. It’s similar to the reason why Bill Haley is a “Golden Oldie”, but Elvis is somebody you just listen to for pleasure.

I think Howard reinforces Conan’s Id-scratching with a backbone of Barbarism versus Civilisation.

Finally, I think there is tension in the stories, but usually around the fate of NPCs secondary characters. In this Howard follows the old Pulp hardboiled formula of an unchanging serial hero catalysing or combating change in those around him. However, I think it’s an important insight that the effect of that formula is consolatory. Ultimately, we know that John Carter, Conan, Dumarest, ahem, Lucky Jim will survive: “This too shall pass.”)

256 That's Not My Tractor
That’s not my genre, its resolutions are too non-violent…

So then we spilled out into the rain. Unlike Science Fiction conventions, there was no handy public space where we could naturally segue into quaffing and talking. Just Twitter.

However, there’s a twist.

The session was based on a forthcoming article in a — so-help-me-Crom! — print-only literary magazine called Island. I managed to wangle a review copy. So it was that a few weeks later I paced barefoot through the marble halls of the literati, seeing how the other half read.

Immediately, you can see that print-only was an aesthetic choice.

Island Literary Magazine
A beautiful magazine

Island is a beautiful magazine, roleplaying-supplement thick, printed on weighty paper, with a thick non-gloss cover. The interior is airy with beautifully light typography — I used the term “marble halls” for a reason. The art is… well arty, and even the adverts are pleasing.

It’s packed with a curated selection of fine writing; quirky essays, luxuriantly atmospheric short stories, and contemporary poetry. If you have a friend who reads literary fiction or poetry, then a subscription to this will make them smile.

However… if you’re a parent or know parents, you’ll have come across those “That’s not my….” books: “That’s not my tractor, its wheels are too shiny. That’s not my tractor, its headlamps are too crinkly. That’s my tractor, its flippers are so spiky  seat is so squishy.

Well the magazine is a bit like that for me:

That’s not my genre, its ending is so understated.

That’s not my genre, its poetry is too subtle.

That’s not my genre, its subject is too introspective.

That’s my genre, it’s all about Conan.

Because there in the middle of it all, the Cimmerian squats at the feet of the philosopher Damon Young as he sets out his thoughts on “Reading Conan the Barbarian.”

It’s a short article, less than ten pages, but all the more meaty for its succinctness. I can’t summarise it without without spoilers. So, if you’re curious, go find a copy of Island number 154.

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.”)


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Mr Page – what is this article – some kind of subtle attack on Conan – or an ad for yet another “Writers” magazine…? The links lead to pay/subscribe stuff. I’m certainly not going to pay $ to support a magazine that has someone paint feces on REH like some chattering monkey. Wonder if they’d ever put under the same withering scrutiny the latest thing the TOR plops out… Probably after Rotten Tomatoes finds the ‘accident’ that gets 1 star, 2 star or if its a big production even 3 star reviews not to count on front page statistics for movies – one man’s opinion.

Really though – “Crom LAUGHS at your…” in this case pathetic sheltered intellectuals even Robert E Howard could probably clobber with one hit – he did bare knuckle boxing quite well to learn to write boxing stories, btw…

But even a fight analogy is flattering. Most likely nothing they ever do will be remembered longer than Conan and Robert E Howard. Even this mutated monster that the “New Wave” has become, it is just another “Mudstream” and won’t last – but the heroic fantasy it tried to degrade and destroy just hacked through and carried on.

Another century, we’ll still have people discovering Robert E Howard and go “This stuff is incredible!!!” He’ll join “The classics” like it or not. And 99% of this “late new wave” stinking PILE of print won’t be remembered save digital memory archives, though they/their coffin feeders will probably scream and sue and get them taken off of them hoping for a “Milleyunz und Milleyunz” movie deal or something.

M Harold Page

That’s quite a strong response, and somewhat unexpected! I thought that Young’s insights were, well, insightful. In what way was he painting feces on REH?

Don’t assume a scholar is not *also* a martial artist. If anything, in terms of physicality, the current generations of Conan fans are more like REH than any previous in that many of us do martial arts and embrace physical adventure. REH, as I’m sure you know, spent time mucking around with swords. He would have *loved* the HEMA movement and we would have loved him.

As for Island Magazine, it’s print-only, hence it being a link to something for sale. I thought people would be curious about what that kind of magazine contains – not my cup of tea or yours, obviously. It’s also interesting that the streams are now so thoroughly crossed that Conan can appear there without any sense of it being patronising or ironic.


>>In what way was he painting feces on REH?
>> was a self-educated small-town Texan with limited experience of… um… romance

The most common attack on REH is his lack of being a sexual conquistador like his character Conan. Of course if REH had had a woman every week they’d have called him a womanizer. If he’d been married they’d have considered Conan a fantasy to cheat…etc.

Again, sounds like a brilliant, all over the board take down by someone with an agenda to take him down. So, I’ll pass thank you.

M Harold Page

OK a couple of things.

First, I was flippantly summarising the point Young made: that when he died tragically young, REH was probably sexually inexperienced. In that era, I’m sure that was the norm for decent unmarried gentlemen and probably speaks well of his character. It certainly wasn’t meant to demean him. If anything, it reminds us to make allowances for the few times this shows in his writing: the maturity and power of REH’s writing easily tricks us into judging him as if he were a fully formed man of the world in his mature years.

Basically, Young – and me as well – see REH as this amazing guy who sat out in the Styx and, despite that, conjured up a cosmopolitan world of imagination. (And yes, of course, the brawling town he lived in helped give that world grit.)

So, sorry if my light style gave you the wrong impression

Second, interesting point of fact.

> in this case pathetic sheltered intellectuals even Robert E Howard could probably clobber with one hit

I checked with Damon Young on Twitter: “Karate to black belt, and a little judo and aikido… I’m by no means a great fighter. But I’ve certainly been in some scraps, and still have the scars to show for it.”


I went from Tarzan novels and Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert E. Howard back in the 60s paperback boom ith the Frazetta covers. I found Conan puzzling and a bit extreme in comparison to Tarzan and never really came to appreciate him until Roy Thomas began the comics. Perversely I always wanted more Solomon Kane stories but I tend to go for the offbeat. I found the article interesting and informative and a nice ‘new’ perspective on things. I felt there was some subtle humor in it and was not offended for Howard’s reputation in the least. Looking back 50 years later I tend to think Howard was a generation ahead of others in the edgy heroes compared to the Boy Scouts running around in the pulps-even Richard Wentworth. 🙂

Robert Adam Gilmour

Nothing to apologize for Harold, some people are just paranoid.

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