“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” – Robert E Howard
When I was about six years old, my elder cousin, Mike, had been sentenced to watch me for the afternoon. As I was trailing on his heels around the house, and he continually referred to me as a ‘Willnot’ (a piece of shit stuck to the hair on his ass that ‘will not’ come off), he was at a loss for ways to keep me entertained and out of his hair.
Finally, he dug into a box in his room and produced a tattered stack of old comic books. “Here, Willnot,” he said. “Make yourself scarce for a while.”
I sifted through the stack, finding the standard mid-1980’s superheroes shouting various slogans denouncing evil, Russia and bad economics. But in the middle, with the cover half torn off, was a really old copy of “The Savage Sword of Conan.”
Within half a dozen pages I was hooked. The idea of a dour, hulking warrior who always did the right thing, always conquered his foes – be they man or demon – and always got the girl, appealed immensely to a six year old me (who was short, chubby and often bullied). I read every page of that comic a dozen times over, then convinced my Dad to take me to a used bookstore in town, where I could pick up more copies for ten cents each.
“I don’t think your mother will like it very much if I let you get these, Squirt,” my dad said.
“But, Dad, it’s Conan!”
“Why isn’t he wearing any pants?” my dad asked as he flipped through the pages of an issue. “Why isn’t anyone in this thing wearing pants?”
“Cause it’s Conan!”
He sighed and dropped the issues on the cash counter. “If you tell your mother I bought them for you, I’ll kick your ass til your head rattles.”
I went home with my stash like a mongrel dog that’s scored a chicken leg, and hid in my room for the rest of the day, poring over the pages of the tomes as though they were the lost wisdom of the ages. Instead of sating my hunger for the mighty thews of my hero – and sword wielding girls in chain-mail bikinis – my new reading material only served to make it worse.
I progressed from the little comic-book rack issues, to the bigger, more adult black and white versions. From there I moved into the mid-1980’s pulp novels by writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Jordan. I absorbed the original Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from the 1980’s like they were going out of style (and still watch them every time they air on AMC, much to my wife’s dismay). Then, finally, like a wayward son coming home, I eventually found my way to the original 1930’s era stories by the creator of Conan, Robert E Howard.
The journey took me from the early days of my childhood, where I really had to concentrate on the little white bubbles to figure out what Conan was shouting at his enemies, and constantly ask my dad the meaning of words (like ‘cur’ and ‘entranced’). But as I look back on it now, it was a journey that had a fairly heavy influence not just on the way I write, but on the way I think of men and how they should behave.
Conan was a very one-dimensional character, and likely wouldn’t hold up in today’s era of conflicted, ‘Grimdark’ fantasy where you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, as is the author’s intention. But at his bloody, broadsword swinging, ale guzzling, kingdom conquering knee I learned a few immutable rules of manhood.
Never back down from a fight, unless you’re horribly outnumbered, then run like hell. Conan was a Barbarian. Not an idiot. During the course of the stories you could see him exercise things like common sense, and diplomacy, and reason. He was an educated individual who paid attention to the things around him, could speak several languages, and adopted and adhered to the customs of whatever country he was in. Unless he was being tried in court…then he had a tendency to cleave the Judge. From this I learned that even tough guys knew it was good to learn new things and it was okay to read books, as long as you picked up your sword and worked your arm once in a while.
If it bleeds, you can kill it. While he knew when it was a good idea to run when the odds were ridiculous, you never saw Conan give up. If he was backed into a corner, whether it was by a man, a group of men, a demon, a giant snake, a dragon, or a monkey in a red cloak, Conan would fight like mad and resort to biting someone’s face off if he had to. While I never bit anyone’s face off, I learned resilience. I learned that sometimes you had to put your back up against a wall and refuse to give any more ground.
The best women are the ones who might stab you. While Conan loved women, and did a lot of fornicating, he always treated women well and was never the ravager, and wouldn’t stand by while another man forced himself upon a woman. Robert E Howard also seemed to put special emphasis on women who were Conan’s partner, who wielded a sword with as much vigor as Conan himself. Characters like Valeria and Belit the pirate, who stood back to back with Conan fighting off one demon or another, taught me that, while a woman should be cherished and protected, she should also be considered an equal and part of your team. Like Conan, the best women in my life have always been the ones who challenged me and pushed me to do better. I’ve learned to respect the team aspect of a relationship and seek out a woman that would fight for me just as much as I’m willing to fight for her (which is how I ended up with a pretty Polish girl who might punch me in the throat if I really get out of line). You can rest assured that Conan wouldn’t stand about while some troll on the internet threatened a female author with rape because he didn’t like her opinion. Conan wouldn’t stand for it, and I don’t think any other man should either.
It’s no fun hitting someone who can’t hit back. Conan wasn’t above stabbing a man for paying him an insult, but you never saw Conan pick any fights that didn’t need to be picked; like when he saw some ‘cur’ slapping around a barmaid or picking on a street urchin. In typical good-guy fashion, Conan stood up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Whether it was a wayward traveller who had been set upon by rogues, or a princess whose kingdom had been usurped by an evil wizard, Conan was willing to bend his steel towards a worthy cause. While I don’t often (ever) stab people, I’ve done my best to mark a line in the sand and stand on it when I see acts of evil. Sometimes that line is hard to see, but it’s there and I try to keep it, like Conan would.
As I look around, I think the world could use a little more Conan. Most young men I run into (and I run into a lot in my line of work) are horrible little shits, completely devoid of any redeeming qualities; things like courage, or perseverance, or compassion, or kindness. They don’t seem to have had any positive role models to teach them it is not okay to pick on people who can’t defend themselves, or hide in your parent’s basement and threaten people over twitter, or do ridiculous shit and then do anything you can to avoid the consequences.
If some of these young men could get a little less civilized (you know, with the consequence-free threatening via the internet, and the public bullying, and what not), and find a little of their inner barbarian, I think we would all be better off.
As always, thanks for reading.