Conan the Cimmerian: Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out Of The Way

As promised, today we are reading Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the history of his fictional world Hyboria, something originally written for use internally to help Howard keep his setting straight (officially – I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those things written mainly for the love of worldbuilding, but that’s speculation).

The following can be found in Marvel’s Conan Saga series number 50, 51, 52, 53, 54 and 56. It is an adaptation by Roy Thomas and Walt Simonson of Robert E. Howard’s immortal essay commencing with the age of Kull.

I don’t plan on quoting word-for-word the entire essay just because I no longer have to worry about copy/paste limits from Kindle. Rather, I’m quoting this section because I want to point out that this “adaptation” appears to be word-for-word identical to the original. I’m pretty sure it’s been “adapted” in that some neat illustrations have been added.

The essay proper begins in 20,000 BC, grounding us in real world history. This, I think, is an artifact of the time. By the 1930s, everyone was okay with the idea that a fictitious story could be blatantly so. Like a stage play or radio drama, it could recount exact dialogues and depict events with descriptive detail implausible for any supposedly historical narratives, and didn’t have to claim to be the compiled diaries of four guys who actually hunted a real vampire or one guy who got stranded on an island full of two-inch tall people or whatever. It had not seemed to have quite shaken, however, the need to claim connection to the real world. JRR Tolkien didn’t invent the concept of the “secondary world” which is wholly separate to our own, not just far away or long ago but a completely different reality, but the concept doesn’t seem to have caught on until his writings became popular.

Oddly enough, at least at some point in his creation of the setting Tolkien actually wrote of Middle-Earth as a distant precursor to modern Europe, but it’s not clear how long that idea survived in his creative process. A proper examination of Tolkien’s notes and letters might reveal more information, but certainly you wouldn’t guess that Gondor was meant to have been a lost pre-druid civilization from reading Lord of the Rings, certainly, and much of the audience did not guess that and treated Middle-Earth as a wholly separate reality when making imitative works (such a tremendously vast number of imitative works). This explanatory paragraph hidden beneath the break to see if I can manage to get anyone to leave an “um, actually” comment before reading the entire article.

In any case, we’re not there yet, and Robert E. Howard feels the need to set Conan in the distant past despite the fact that it contains pretty obvious analogues to viking-era Scandanavia, Imperial Rome, Achaemenid Persia, and Old Kingdom Egypt. These civilizations weren’t coterminous, so making an off-brand world was necessary, but then sticking that off-brand world in the history of the original is defensible only if you’re trying to do a Kabbalist thing where it is specifically a tenet of the setting that the world repeats itself over and over again, not just as a result of the same cosmic forces continuing to produce similar results because the underlying laws of physics haven’t changed (i.e. extinction events will go on happening now and again until someone intentionally thwarts them because that’s how the universe is set up) but as an abstract idea self-replicating itself on a metaphysical level as an expression of divine will. And there’s no twist coming where something as schlocky as Conan the Barbarian secretly pushes such an abstract philosophy, it just feels the need to set its story in the distant past and then accidentally ends up coming across as vaguely Kabbalistic by having all these societies from “the future” (i.e. real world history) show up right next to each other.

Anyway, our story begins with a gaggle of primordial civilizations who play in Hyboria the same role that Atlantis played in Plato’s recounting of pre-Hellenic history: Lost super-civilizations with fabulous artifacts of unreplicable power. None of these civilizations is actually called Atlantis, but there is a barbarian tribe who are Atlanteans. You might think that this is setting up the first civilizations dying off somehow, and then Atlantis inherits their legacy and becomes the next great civilization, or that the Atlanteans forge an empire and conquer all that gaggle of precursor civilizations under the umbrella of one super-civilization. You would be wrong:

The Thurian civilization was crumbling, their armies were composed largely of barbarian mercenaries. Picts, Atlanteans and Lemurians were their generals, their statesmen and often, their kings. Of the bickering of the kingdoms and wars between Valusia and Commoria, as well as the conquests by which the Atlanteans founded a kingdom on the mainland… there are more legends than accurate history.

Then the cataclysm rocked the world. Atlantis and Lemuria sank, the Pictish islands were heaved up to form the mountain peaks of a new continent, while sections of the Thurian continent vanished under the waves or sinking, forming great inland lakes and seas. Volcanoes broke forth and terrific earthquakes shook down the shining cities of the empires. Whole nations were blotted out and the face of the world was forever changed.

The Atlanteans were barbarian also-rans in the age of the Thurians who, much like Conan himself, seized control of an existing civilization without ever coming from a particularly civilized tradition themselves and without ever expanding the borders of that civilization such that the civilization they seized can be considered to have entered a new phase under their rule. When Conan’s contemporaries talk about an “Atlantean blade,” they’re talking about something an Atlantean commissioned or stole from the Thurians.

A thousand years later, wandering bands of ape-men exist without human speech, fire or tools. These are the descendants of the once-proud Atlanteans.

It was like 1938 or something, so a poor understanding of history is to be expected. On display here is the erroneous notion that tech level is somehow directly connected to intelligence, that cave men were low tech because they were stupid rather than because already having a working internal combustion engine to examine gives modern humans rather an unfair advantage in terms of inventing helicopters.

Also, you might be wondering if these references to “ape-men” are super racist. Like, the basic concept of a hominid who is closer to a chimpanzee or a gorilla than a human being is a real thing that used to exist. So far as science has been able to reconstruct from skeletal remains, homo habilis was basically a chimpanzee with a more humanoid posture and homo erectus really did look like a slightly uncanny fusion of human and chimp features. But also racists claim that black people represent an intermediate evolutionary stage between apes and white people, and it would hardly be surprising that a guy writing in 193X might end up referencing that pseudo-science.

That doesn’t really happen, though. The Atlanteans don’t descend into proto-human animalism because they’re interbreeding with a lesser race, it just somehow happens when they don’t have iron tools or clay pots anymore. The essay even rejects the notion of race-mixing weakening some kind of pure stock later on when the Hyborians invent thinking and mix with the post-Atlantean monkey-people:

The dominant Hyborians are no longer uniformly twany-haired and grey-eyed; they have mixed with other races, but this mixing has not weakened them.

Like, don’t get the wrong notion, here. Conan wasn’t pushing back against the racism of its era or anything. By the time he wrote Conan, Robert E. Howard had backed away from explicit racism (this may have been because he knew HP Lovecraft personally, and Lovecraft was an anti-productive racial evangelist), but it’s not like he’d had some road to Damascus moment and decided to hard defect to the other side, he’d just mellowed out and decided that black people weren’t so bad, and even that was a continuous process that had only just begun when he started writing Conan. This leads to Conan stories having racist ideas left lying around, but Conan’s overall narrative on race is hopelessly confused as these racist leftovers, unmoored from a greater racist narrative that Howard had discarded, combined haphazardly with incidentally anti-racist elements. Example: The main black people kingdom of Hyboria is Stygia, and they are both very competent and completely evil.

What Conan isn’t is racist the way modern racists are, where racism is a specific platform that they constantly inject into every goddamn piece of media they create and read racist messages into everything they consume, no matter how much of a stretch it is (I once saw someone claim that Mini Metro was about an immigration crisis crashing the transportation network). Conan is racist as background radiation, where racist things assumed by its author to be true, or even which he has decided aren’t true but continues to enjoy as a literary device, are occasionally and casually referenced, but only when it happens to come up. Like, the vaguely goblinoid Picts in this story are named after a Celtic tribe, but they’re also described as “dark-skinned” (it doesn’t say how dark). Dark skin isn’t given super-great connotations, but it’s also married to the name of a civilization that was actually white, giving it a weird mixed signal that doesn’t really reinforce any narratives unless you flat-out ignore significant chunks of the text.

A modern racist would never pass up an opportunity to assert as strongly as possible the alleged inferiority of black people and would never name the Picts after a white tribe, nor have the very black kingdom of Stygia as powerful, erudite, and having its origins completely divorced from the white Hyborians and precursor gaggle. There’s a reason why post-Howard writers trying to give Conan a specific arch-nemesis often use a Stygian sorcerer like Thoth-Amon or Thulsa Doom – Stygia is a terrifying super-civilization. Sure, they’re the bad guys, but the competence and independent will of their villainy runs completely counter to racial stereotypes of today or the 1930s. Modern racists often hold up Conan as an idol of white supremacist fiction, but this is born out of the same delusion that led them to believe that Taylor Swift was secretly racist despite a vacuum of evidence, and then she came out strongly pro-Democrat during the 2018 elections and they all had to pretend they were just being ironic all those times they called her an aryan goddess. Conan’s definitely got racist bits and all, even parts that are directly inherited from Robert E. Howard’s racist past and which imply the existence of a fully formed racist narrative if you take them out of context, but keep some perspective: If your perception of Conan as racist has been shaped by hearing Nazis talk about the good old days, keep in mind that they’re Nazis and maybe don’t be so eager to believe their narratives.

Anyway, some “barely human” tribe from the far north comes down and invents thinking, becoming the Hyborians and also ancestor to practically every kingdom in Hyboria, possessed of sufficient modesty to name the continent after themselves. Also, the Cimmerians are directly descended from the Atlanteans, so at some point they must’ve reinvented thinking, too, and Stygia was founded by the Lemurians from the east, who were equal to (indeed, interchangeable with) the Atlanteans in the Before Time but then the cataclysm destroyed their homeland and they were enslaved by some nameless precursor civilization, which they subsequently wrecked. Then they came west and decided to be super villains. Apparently they never lost the ancient technology of thinking.

Technically, the rest of this essay comes after Conan’s entire career and therefore belongs at the end of this chronology, but once we get into actual stories, racism is going to come up semi-regularly, and the ending of this essay helps lay a foundation that I want to be able to refer back to so that it doesn’t bog down each and every story and chapter rehashing the same discussion. After the age of Conan, Aquilonia eventually tries to conquer the world, and some priest goes to try and convert the Picts to the worship of Mitra, who is a mash-up of Christianity and Athena. This is somehow the trigger for the Picts figuring out how to forge steel and becoming an empire-conquering army. Like, apparently the Picts had never heard of iron before now, because literally all of them killed literally all outsiders literally on sight? And none of them noticed that said outsiders seemed to have much better stuff than the Picts did? After this encounter, Picts are suddenly a totally normal barbarian tribe who do things like fight in wars as mercenaries, so what was holding them back for the last umpteen thousand years?

The Bossonian lands are the buffer zone between Aquilonia and Pict territory, so when the Picts start making trouble over there, the Bossonians desert the Aquilonian campaigns to repel their first invasion, but then the Aquilonians wreck Bossonia in retaliation for the desertion, leaving the borders wide open to the Picts, who conquer everything. Picts and Hyrkanians (not!Mongols) overwhelm all of Hyboria from the west and east, respectively, and just as everything was going to Hell anyway, another cataclysm strikes, the Ice Age begins, and people go all over the place. The Hyborians are almost completely annihilated, but Cimmerians, Vanir (not!Norse), Hyrkanians, and Picts remain and become ancestor to various modern people. Notably absent from this list are the Stygians, because the Vanir wipe them, take their stuff, and get to be the secretly-white pharaohs of Egypt. That the pharaohs of Egypt were secretly white is a common racist assertion because it lets Nazis ignore the undeniable fact that Egypt was by far the most powerful and prosperous nation of its era, and it is in Africa. But the not!Egypt presented by the actual stories is Stygia, who, in this essay, are explicitly Lemurian in descent.

This whole post turned out to be much more article-like than let’s read-like, because it kind of got taken over by the discussion of Conan’s racism. The upside to this, however, is that I can refer back to this conversation briefly in the future, so we won’t have to have it in the middle of an actual story. Monday we’ll start looking at one of the four contradictory accounts of how Conan left Cimmeria. I haven’t yet decided which we’ll start with.

Also, the poem Cimmeria is sometimes included in the Conan chronologies:

It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

I don’t really know much about poetry, so. Uh. That’s neat, I guess.

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