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:
“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.
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.”)
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 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.”)