Charles R. Saunders on Conan the Hero
Friday, March 12, 2010
posted by Al Harron
As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… I cordially dislike allegory, and have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence… I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author.
Reading Saunders’ review of Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Hero, namely the myriad thinly-veiled Vietnam allegory that makes the bulk of the plot, put me in mind of the above Tolkien quotation. Naturally, it made me also think of how Robert E. Howard is one of those authors whose every work is heaving with such applicability, and how much a disservice Carpenter does to Howard as a result.
One of my favourite passages from The Hour of the Dragon was Tarascus’ rallying of Nemedia for war:
Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is frequently the signal for a war of conquest. So no one was surprized when it was announced that King Tarascus had declared the truce made by the late king with their western neighbors void, and was gathering his hosts to invade Aquilonia. His reason was candid; his motives, loudly proclaimed, gilded his actions with something of the glamor of a crusade. He espoused the cause of Valerius, “rightful heir to the throne”; he came, he proclaimed, not as an enemy of Aquilonia, but as a friend, to free the people from the tyranny of a usurper and a foreigner.
If this was a Tor pastiche written in 2003, I’m sure some would view it as a painfully unsubtle allegory of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. All the hallmarks of the anti-war lobby’s argument are there: claims to free the people from tyranny, the glamor of a crusade rousing the patriotism and energy of the invaders, espousing a righteous cause. As is obviously the case, Howard did not write his only Conan novel in reaction to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: he wasn’t writing in response to anything. The idea of an invader disguising an invasion as a noble cause (as critics of the Iraq invasion assert) is nothing new to history, since any nation acting as aggressor in a conflict will obviously portray their reasons in a light palatable to the populace regardless of veracity: Tarascus’ Nemedia was no different. Yet that’s one of the intrinsic truths inherent to Howard’s writing: the power of applicability.
Another example appears in “Beyond the Black River”:
“The best land near Thunder River is already taken,” grunted the slayer. “Plenty of good land between Scalp Creek you crossed it a few miles back and the fort, but that’s getting too devilish close to the river. The Picts steal over to burn and murder like that one did. They don’t always come singly. Some day they’ll try to sweep the settlers out of Conajohara. And they may succeed. Probably will succeed. This colonization business is mad, anyway. There’s plenty of good land east of the Bossonian marches. If the Aquilonians would cut up some of the big estates of their barons, and plant wheat where now only deer are hunted, they wouldn’t have to cross the border and take the land of the Picts away from them.”
This is frequently seen as an allusion to the Colonial period of American history, and given Howard’s love of that period in history and the very evocative milieu of “Beyond the Black River,” it’s easy to see why. However, that’s not to say that the story is only about the plight of American settlers, Manifest Destiny, colonists-and-injuns, and other such tropes of Western literature: it could also be applied to the heaving Roman Empire’s expansion into dark Germanic territory, or Spain’s conquest of Mexico, or even the Vikings’ struggles with the Skrælings. “Beyond the Black River” is more universal, and deeper, than a mere “Conan of the Mohicans” escapade.
In contrast, we have Conan the Hero. Applicability is replaced with straight allegory, and it suffers as a result. There’s no ambiguity: the Council of Seers is U.S. Intelligence, Turan is the U.S., Venjipur is Vietnam, the Hwong are the Viet Cong, the Red Garottes are the Green Berets. I guess that makes Conan into John Rambo. It stops being the Hyborian Age, and starts being a fable, where message overrides narrative, and individuals give way to avatars.
Allegory works well when handled with skill, but it’s rarely a good idea to do it in an established universe. When one brings allegory into, say, The Lord of the Rings, one stops thinking about the characters themselves, but about what they represent. If we equate Sauron with Hitler, we cannot think of Sauron as a character in his own right, but as a “stand-in” for a historical figure. Then you start applying it everywhere–the One Ring as the Atomic Bomb, the Valar as the non-interventionist United States, Tom Bombadil as the spirit of the British Empire–and when that happens, you might as well just be talking about the Second World War.
In the same way, the Vietnam allegory of Conan the Hero destroys not only the suspension of disbelief, but the independent actuality of the characters. Most damning of all is how it wreaks havoc with Howard’s setting and characters: how could the warlike, imperialist Turan have an “anti-war” movement when they’ve been conquering half the east without incident? If Turan had a “Council of Seers” who could control armies like they were playing Command & Conquer, why do we never see or hear of them before or since? Considering its apparent importance in eastern politics, how come we never hear about “Venjipur” in “The People of the Black Circle” or the other Turanian stories? All changes made to accommodate the Vietnam allegory, rather than complementing Howard’s Hyborian Age.
Still, it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as Conan of Venarium, but I don’t think anything could usurp Turtledove’s monsterpiece.