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The Mastery of Conan February 8, 2012

Posted by nrlymrtl in Vintage Sci-Fi.
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1 comment so far

In honor of Vintage SciFi Month, inspired by Little Red Reviewer, Lady Darkcargo picked the original Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, by Robert E. Howard. Personally, I think she also picked this to torture me. Some of you may remember that I openly admitted this to be a intimidating work for me during last year’s Explorer Challenge. And, No, I had not gotten around to it.

Reading Conan with my little lion, Tanuki

The original Conan and Kull stories by R. E. Howard inspired a whole sub-genre, Swords & Sorcery. And his works fit snugly in between WWI and WWII, right along with the other Darkcargo selections. R. E. Howard was a single child that spent most of his life in Texas growing up during the big oil boom. His father was a doctor and Howard grew up seeing all sorts of interesting oil field, country farm, and drunken brawl inflicted wounds stitched up on his kitchen table. His mom contracted tuberculosis and fought the illness for many years.  Robert Howard became interested in what we might call body-building today and boxing during his late teens. He started publishing his works in pulp magazines in his 20s; and not just Conan-type stories. There were also sailor stories, and the Solomon Kane series, and several short story romances, along with westerns. In 1936, his mother took a downward turn with her illness and fell into a terminal coma. Robert Howard, upon hearing this prognosis, took his own life at the age of 30.

Why is this lady smiling?

Some years ago I tried to read some Conan stories by some author other than R. E. Howard. My Main Man (M3) has been a Conan fan for a number of years. But I failed to get past the first chapter. It was just too freaking sexist for me. I want to be the one to wield the sword, defeat the monster, and rescue the guy or lady in distress (I’m not picky because I am not going to be expecting sexual favors in thanks). So every time I heard ‘Conan’, I rolled my eyes.

Lady Pirate with clothes & weapons, neither of which she has in the story.

Then the Explorer Challenge came around and I put it down, planning to weasel out of it. I mean, Lady Darkcargo is on the other side of the country from me, so her ability to torment me is limited. Then she had the gall to list a Conan story on the Vintage SciFi YOBC, and M3 was nearly jumping up and down in his excitement for me to FINALLY read some original R. E. Howard. Yes, I caved under all that loving pressure.

What are these ladies up to?

And unfortunately, I really, really enjoyed the first few Conan stories. The Phoenix on the Sword is an all-male cast, with great tight, descriptive writing, and a worthy plot. I was hooked. I zipped through several stories in my collection, enjoying each one (except maybe The Frostgiant’s Daughter) until I hit the Bimbo Stories. Each story in this collection is illustrated, which is cool. But for these Bimbo Stories, the ladies are often, though not always, drawn with more clothes than described in the text. I think that at this point in Howard’s life, he was writing to get paid and perhaps made some compromises. The women are always weak, in need of rescuing, want to bed Conan, and believe in a clothing-optional rule no matter locale or circumstances. The writing is still greatly descriptive and flows well. But the plot has gone to hell – becoming ludicrous and eventually very predictable. Sigh. Full-grown women are often referred to as ‘girl’ no matter their age or station in life. I find this extremely condescending. I mean, if I walked up to Conan and called him ‘boy’ all day, I would probably get my nose broken. If I start on the racial biases, this will be a really long post. There was one tale that I almost couldn’t finish because of the derogatory language towards folks who happen to have more melanin than a Texas white boy. You all get the point. Enough said.

I have learned some new vocabulary from reading R. E. Howard.

Food-related: drinking-jack, guzzled ale like a toper

Horse-related: spahis, caracole, curvet, gambades, shagreen

Armor-related: sollerets, jambes, pouldron, sallet, cuisses, brigadines, jupon, habergeon, burgonet, morion, Mostly a bunch of fancy words for ‘helmet’.

Everything else: menhir, murrain, guidon, mangonel, mantlet, teocallis, boma, angareb

Conan often runs around with minimal clothing. Nice.

With all that said, this has generated some discussion between M3 and myself. He adores Conan and was very happy that I enjoyed the first few stories so much. But these Bimbo Stories have created a different kind of discussion for us. Gender roles and expectations. We were both born in the 70s and grew up with Transformers and My Little Ponies, Wonder Woman, and Aqua Man, The A Team, and Care Bears. By and large, the men get the body armor and real weapons. The women get high heels, whip or lasso, and the indestructible bra. I’ll end with this funny video which captures very well my thoughts on the matter.

One woman’s frustration with finding quality armor