Pale Rider No. 1 / Summer Solstice 2001
A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
2001 by Larry Richter, all rights reserved

If Conan Died...
by Larry Richter

On the old Reh-Fans list administered by Patrice Louinet, Rusty Burke, and Bill Cavalier, a question came up about how Conan might have died, had Howard killed him off in a story. It was just a bubble in the babble that surfaced briefly on the mailing list.

Of course, Conan did die. Robert Howard killed him off when he killed himself off, although sadly enough this was no adventure story. The event has gone pretty much unnoticed by us so far as Conan is concerned, since the Undead Cimmarian, accompanied by his demon handlers, still walks for hire every day, and even the real Conan walks again when the original stories find new admirers.

Despite the "How much can Superman lift?" and "How many angels..." nature of the question, I have found it hard to shake off. I have thought about it on and off for several weeks without finding a good answer. Of course, as always, I have developed feelings about this matter, trivial as it may seem. So, I would like to look at this, for what it is worth, on it's own terms. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Conan is alive in his Hyborian age, and we would like to know what sort of risk he is running.

Howard was consistent in using plausible battle logic in his stories. As you may have heard, I think that the realistic description of conflict that is found in Howard's work forms a large part of its charm. If he were to write of Conan's death, the event might take the shape that any soldier's death might take, or of the fate suffered by those that Conan himself sends to death: That is, they find themselves on the losing side of something, they can't pull the situation or themselves out of danger, and they die. In real life, it happens faster than that last sentence can be read.

Or perhaps the death of a famous soldier would serve as a guide. George Patton, who was nearly every type of soldier there can be at one point or another in his career, took more chances per star of rank than anyone else I have ever heard of or read of since Roland. He said, and believed, that God would protect his life for as long as God had a destiny for him, Patton, to fulfill (no, he was serious). And he believed that after that destiny that God had in mind for him was served, that he, Patton, would be on his own, with just a man's normal ration of luck, and his personal ration probably worn pretty thin.

The government brought Patton and several other mighty generals of the European war back to America briefly, to sell war bonds to help pay for the defeat of Japan. This happened very late in the Second World War. Patton took this opportunity to say good-bye to some members of his family that he thought he would not see again, his children for example, and didn't say good-bye to the ones he thought he would see at least one more time. It was thought of as just another of Georgie's bizarro fixations at the time, the kind of behavior that was the price of genius and aggressiveness in Patton, but things worked out about the way he thought they would. He lasted a few months longer than the last bullet of the last battle, living long enough to die from injuries of a petty low-speed automobile accident far from home. He did not see those he bid farewell to.

The character, Conan, is told that he has a destiny to fulfill in the first published story that features him, and indeed he is often depicted as being at hand when a long-standing conflict, not of his making, reaches it's defining crisis. Perhaps at some point the last crisis would be passed, the destiny envisioned for him by whatever rules the spiritual realm in Hyboria would then be fulfilled, and Conan's luck would become no better than that of any other man in Hyboria.

Or perhaps it would be a hero's death... Dick Bong was an American p-38 Lightning pilot of great virtue, who fought his way to a high reckoning of kills during our war in the Pacific. His superiors, one of whom thought him the very picture of a decent American boy from small town Wisconsin, brought him back early to the United States. He came back as a certified hero, and toured for bonds, but it was all done as much to preserve his life as anything else. I think they hoped to disguise by preserving of his life the fact that, however skilled you might be, if you fight long enough you die. That is, unless for some unknown reason luck itself intervenes against death itself. They didn't reckon with Bong's instincts.

After coming home to the medals he didn't think much of, and to the girl he loved and thought the world of, Bong found his way into the test pilot program for the first American jet fighter aircraft. This test program was about the only thing he could have found in the States that was in point of fact more dangerous than combat. His truly primitive test aircraft lost power on a take-off, and Bong died. No way to change it, no way to fix it, he just died. He took a giant chance, and it in its turn took him. Perhaps the death of a Conan would be like that, the simple inability to stay away from danger, a danger that finally triumphs in seemingly safe circumstances when dared too often.

You could go on with this recital forever, moving from great generals and great pilots to those who weren't heros but just tried to serve, and then on to those who were just there and unlucky, and then go on some more. The history of war that Robert E. Howard studied, the history that does not celebrate the famous victory but tells how the strife was lost or won, for countries and for individual men, is filled to the middle mark with these poignant and depressing stories, in endless repetition. In all times and in all places the story of conflict has been the story of the irretrievable loss of the brave or the unlucky, the skilled and innocent, the high and low, whether for advantage or for simply nothing. The other half of this grimmer history, the real history, of war has been and still is of the casual loss of innocent life, of those caught wherever war occurs, which is hardly more cheerful than the loss of the brave and the luckless.

The nature of the Conan character which Bob Howard found to be so popular was in some sense designed or conceived in response to this endless repetitive waste. Conan is somehow meant to live in the midst of risk, where we can only come in trembling terror.

Conan, first and formost, does not have our weaknesses. He has the tools his world needs of him to be mighty in battle; he has strength, skill, stamina, sense and speed. He has the mind that does not numb with horror, that knows when to quit, and knows when to turn back to the slaughter, and when to press to win all. His unfailing power to pay full attention to his dangerous reality is stronger than his often mentioned mighty thews, unless the recurrent attraction of the ale pot intevenes. His courage does not fail him in any wise.

Yet this character Conan is much like a human being. He raises the part of his courage which is not his by his nature or his creed by his confidence in his own skills, and his trust in the effectiveness of his own desperate thinking. When driven beyond these sources of valor he simply knows plain fear and conquers it.

When the press of battle eases off and he is at liberty to act as he will, this character Conan has and shows sympathy and concern for those left still standing around him. There are men and women whom he loves, and dead comrades whom he remembers and whom he seeks revenge for at some cost to himself. Yet when victory is gained, and these corrosive feelings fulfilled, and we ourselves would celebrate or head for home, this character Conan scans the Hyborian sky for the next gathering of ravens. He is made for the life he lives, as we are not. He faces this life without any comforting illusion. Comforting illusions are unknown to him, as we know them. Or, in truth, as we need them.

In a sense, Conan was made by Howard to be a companion, a dog-brother, that no man who knew the risk and instability inherent in the conflicts of the world could object to. Conan does not make use of civilization's casual ability to coerce to force another man to take his place on the field of danger, nor does he use this intangible weapon to bring him money. He kills and steals in person instead of by proxy to obtain what he needs. He calmly faces fire and death and risk as though they were the common usages of his proper world. And, of course, they are. Unlike us, Conan can live on in the shadow of destruction, with no veiling of the certain fact that an end will come.

The 1930's generation of boys and young men that Robert E. Howard wrote for would soon outstrip the master writer from Texas in their personal knowledge of instability and risk, fire and death, and would explore much more than the mere shadow of destruction. They would become very knowledgeable about being on the scene of vast destruction in person. Several hundred thousand times the destruction that they were on the scene of was their own. A part of the generations of young men of the 1950's and 1960's were fated to do likewise.

All that any of these generations of young men could know beforehand of what they would face would have to be learned from the common works of the imagination. The endurance of these forms of adventure writing is in one sense the result of a boy's recognition of and examination of a life's role that indeed might await him. Courage in the face of death was wholly a learn-on-the-job subject for young men, unless they happened to know the works of Kipling, or Mundy, or Robert Howard. The mature world was silent and unhelpful on the matter, and is still.

Boys and young men as a class are fairly brave, and they often think danger to be fun before they are familiar with it, or with the feeling of being mortal. As a society we are fortunate that they do so, and that they have always been willing to fight for us, and possibly always will be. But if an individual in the population at risk is so unfortunate as to be chosen by luck or disorder to serve others unto the very death, this ever-popular literature of adventure, with its echoes of battle and courage and bitter wastage, along with those personal memories that the life and death of that lost individual stirs in the minds of their comrades who live on, will be about all the recognition they will receive outside of the world that knew them before they went to war. Certainly many who benefit substantially from their death will not concern themselves with the him or the her who actually surrendered life, before or after the event.

We make a terrible and vicious use of the high spirits and casual bravery of young men, and are now trying to make the same use of the courage of young women. Perhaps the recent success of the Xena character and other warriors of beauty is a result of our intent to extend the noble trade of bearing arms to our girls. Perhaps now they too will need a simple genre that examines personal courage and personal fear from a somewhat younger perspective than is sought by those who are safe from being called to combat.

This business concerning those who enter the shadow is a greatly unexplored relationship. Gil Elliot, in "The Twentieth Century Book of the Dead", said in effect that the voice of the soldier who lives through his service in an actual state of combat is a negligible voice in our society. This is because only a small proportion of the men under arms enter what he names the zone of death, and because only a few of those who enter this zone survive that entering unscathed, and because those few who do survive are ready to discuss anything rather than discuss this particular aspect of the world that they alone knew.

The survivors of these few who have been exposed to death are often held in the strong bonds of remembrance and readiness forever, to a greater or lesser degree, according to their natures. Perhaps we would find Conan, undead, standing in this special world, beckoning to some of us, and waving caution to others, according to our own natures.

We call these characters entertainment, and extend them little in the way of right or recognition. Yet our civilization is founded on the loss of brave lives, mostly young and promising ones, taken without permission or thanks. Only adventure literature seems to concern itself with the sort of valor shown by this particular class of victim.

Possibly, returning to the initial subject, Conan can only die if the human condition in this respect really does improve, and the risk of death for the young abates. Under the present state of things, he has already traveled many great wars further in time than his creator did, and he looks good for many more. While it still fails to change, the world sustains him. If the world itself changes, perhaps Conan will fade away.

Or perhaps death is simply out of the question for Conan. Perhaps Conan is like unto Sherlock Holmes, the Amateur of Crime, or Soloman Kane, the Puritan in Flight from and in Pursuit of Evil, and even like John Carter, Right Hand of Jeddaks, and many others of the best of their kind. Perhaps the character Conan's source of life is our response to the danger and underlying price of life, and our hope to best it. While the danger and the hope remain real and vital, so does Conan.

Conan himself may indeed be only entertainment, but the source of the power he has to transfix the attention of his beholders is not. These stories are enjoyable in addition to being compelling only because the dark part of our common practice, sacrifice, is only the background, not the full substance, of every story, and Conan is free to triumph, if he can, as are we, in these our own lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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