“Barbarism must always ultimately triumph” — Part One

Rear mighty temples to your god –
I lurk where shadows sway,
Till, when your drowsy guards shall nod,
To leap and rend and slay.

[…]

For all the works of cultured man
Must fare and fade and fall.
I am the Dark Barbarian
That towers over all.

Robert E. Howard, “A Word From the Outer Dark”

Robert E. Howard – Conan the Barbarian. The two are popularly equated and no doubt always will be. Even REH’s other characters can usually be considered “barbaric” heroes, or very rough diamonds at least, like Conn the thrall in “Spears of Clontarf”, who smashes his Viking master’s head with a log of firewood at the beginning of the story, and continues from there! The fifth-century Gaelic pirate, Cormac mac Art, has his civilized aspects (such as literacy) and doesn’t lack intelligence, but he follows a ferocious and barbaric life-path nevertheless, with a band of Danish Vikings. Francis X. Gordon, “El Borak” seeks out an environment that suits him in the wilds of Afghanistan in the early twentieth century. Elizabethan England would be a wild enough milieu for most men, but the English protagonist of “The Road of the Eagles” leaves home and eventually becomes a Cossack under the name Ivan Sablianka.

Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Turlogh O’Brien, and Kosru Malik — the Turkish warrior and narrator of “The Road of Azrael” — are all hard men of the wild waste places, and outlaws into the bargain. Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts and resistance fighter against the Romans, is “a king with an iron crown” leading the savages of the heather – a barbarian and monarch of barbarians. Kull, too, is a barbarian and an outcast who has fought his way to a throne, even though a brooding, pensive one who muses on life, reality and illusion a good deal. The driven, adventurous Puritan Solomon Kane (who may have known Ivan Sablianka) spends much of his life wandering in savage lands, especially the depths of Africa. He also sailed around the world with Drake and appeared in Germany’s Black Forest.

A recurring theme in REH’s stories is the evanescence of civilization; the tendency of all empires and advanced cultures to soften and collapse before tougher, fiercer, cruder folk. His Picts are the everlasting and ultimate barbarians, from Kull’s age to Conan’s to Bran Mak Morn’s and Cormac mac Art’s, then into the eleventh century in the Turlogh Dubh O’Brien yarn, “The Dark Man” – generally considered one of his best, along with “Worms of the Earth” and “Pigeons From Hell”. The Picts are the outsiders, beset by civilization, though they conquer Aquilonia at last (long after Conan’s time) as REH tells us in his essay “The Hyborian Age”.

He famously comments on this recurring situation in the Conan story, “Beyond the Black River,” another of his finest. Any REH fan can quote it without seeing it printed yet again, but here goes. It comes from the mouth of a woodsman who encounters Conan in a tavern at the end of the story, when a Pictish incursion has successfully wiped out a military outpost and pushed back the frontier. Conan has saved the lives of a number of settlers who would have been caught by the Picts but for him – and his own barbaric skills.

‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Much as H.P. Lovecraft admired REH’s writing and described him as “a true artist” whose stories were so vividly memorable because “he himself is in every one of them,” he took vehement issue with Howard there. The discussion in some of their correspondence became pretty heated, especially on Lovecraft’s side. On occasion he had wish-fulfilling visions of himself as “a Viking, a berserk killer, a drinker of foemen’s blood from clean-picked skulls,” which was his own idea of the primal Anglo-Saxon. However, for the most part he preferred civilization and genteel New England civilization in particular. As REH entertained and wrote intense visions of primeval barbarian warriors, Lovecraft dreamed of being a colonial Tory gentleman and rather considered the Revolution a regrettable piece of treason.

He actually became so miffed at REH’s attitudes at one point that he said they qualified him as “an enemy of humanity”. Yet Howard had a more balanced view than Lovecraft – not surprisingly, since Lovecraft was far more of a recluse than Howard. He dealt with real people with real foibles far less than Howard did. For example, the latter wrote (in a letter of September 22nd, 1932):

For myself, if I should be suddenly confronted with the prospect of being transported back through the centuries into a former age, with the option of living where I wished, I would naturally select the most civilized country possible. That would be necessary, for I have always led a peaceful, sheltered life, and would be unable to cope with conditions of barbarism … As a matter of personal necessity I would seek to adapt myself to the most protected and civilized society possible, would conform to their laws and codes of conduct, and if necessary, fight with them against the ruder races of my own blood.

He believed that if he could have been born a barbarian, “knowing no other life or environment than that … to grow up lean and hard and wolfish, worshipping barbarian gods” he would have been happier than he was in the world he knew. To quote John D. MacDonald, “A world I never knew. Maybe the worlds you never knew are always better than the ones you do.” REH himself was well, and realistically, aware of that truth. In another letter to Lovecraft, a couple of months later than the one quoted above (November 2nd, 1932), he admitted:

I would not choose to plunge into such a life now; it would be the sheerest of hells to me, unfitted as I am for such an existence. But I do say that if I had the choice of another existence, to be born into it and raised in it, knowing no other, I’d choose such an existence as I’ve just sought to depict. There’s no question of the relative merits of barbarism and civilization here involved. It’s just my own personal opinion and choice.

Perhaps. But to this blogger it seems significant that the ultimate barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian, is the only Cimmerian ever depicted in Howard’s stories. What’s more, in the first Conan story to see print, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the scene that introduces Conan has him talking to his civilized pal Prospero about what a dismal country Cimmeria is. “A gloomier land never was … Mitra! The ways of the Aesir were more to my liking.”

Besides, although Conan speaks scornfully of civilization and civilized men on a number of occasions, he makes his career in civilized lands and even adopts one eventually. REH never shows him back in Cimmeria, among other Cimmerians. I’m left with the general impression that Conan got out as soon as he could and never returned. Maybe he didn’t “fit in” at home, having some innate qualities rarely appreciated in real barbarian societies, like individualism, curiosity, and a questing intelligence. He seems “unpredictable” to civilized men, but maybe, just maybe, his fellow Cimmerians found him more “unpredictable” yet.

We can become romantic about barbarians all we want, but it’s advisable to remember that romance is seldom the reality. Conan was an exceptional barbarian, to put it mildly. Western, Anglo-Saxon cultures have often idealized the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons (of course) and the Normans, and to a lesser extent, the Celts. Rarely to a greater extent, unless the writer happened to have Celtic ancestry himself. Adventure writer John Buchan, for example (The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Greenmantle, Huntingtower), was selective even in his admiration of Celts. He thought Scots were the salt of the earth, but had far less regard for the Irish. “Sullen murderous hobbledehoys” was one of the phrases he used.

Pick any savage or barbarian society. Celts, Comanches, Mongols, Dahomeans, Toltecs, or ancient Israelites, it hardly matters. They were ruled by custom and taboo; that is to say, social and religious convention. If you broke the capital-L Law, you were apt to meet death. Or become an outcast, which amounted to the same thing; you’d just be a longer, more miserable time about meeting your finish. When Cain cried to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear, for I must be a wanderer on the face of the earth, and whosoever finds me will kill me,” that was what he meant. Those, in fact, were the words of any transgressor to the tribal shaykh who condemned him to go forth alone, lacking the protection of tribe or clan.

Individualism was a crime, and as for individuality, it hardly existed. Each person, man or woman, was a member of the tribe or clan or temple first, a discrete person only second – if at all. The remarkable C.J. Cherryh depicted this often-ignored factor in her novel, Gate of Ivrel. The warrior clans of her created world have a peculiar set of characteristics ascribed to that particular clan, and every man in it tries to act accordingly. Any personal trait he has that doesn’t conform to the clan’s image, he works hard to suppress.

I can’t really picture Conan in that sort of context.

Some passages in the Conan stories could be taken to imply that he’s unpredictable because he’s a barbarian – but I suspect, to civilized men only. L. Sprague de Camp once pointed out that when you go searching for men who actually did travel widely, had incredible adventures, and lived unconventional, daring lives, you have a better chance of finding them among civilized men. He cited Richard Francis Burton, ibn-Battuta, and Marco Polo as examples.

REH himself wrote much the same thing in a letter to Lovecraft of November 2nd, 1932. In fact he used considerably stronger language than de Camp. He observed, in part:

For the world as a whole, civilization even in decaying form, is undoubtedly better for people as a whole. I have no idyllic view of barbarism – as near as I can learn it’s a grim, bloody, ferocious and loveless condition. I have no patience with the depiction of the barbarian of any race as a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom and speaking in measured and sonorous phrases. Bah! My conception of a barbarian is very different. He had neither stability nor undue dignity. He was ferocious, vengeful, brutal and frequently squalid. He was haunted by dim and shadowy fears; he committed horrible crimes for strange monstrous reasons. As a race he hardly ever exhibited the steadfast courage often shown by civilized men. He was childish and terrible in his wrath, bloody and treacherous … His life was often a bondage of tabus, sharp sword-edges, between which he walked shuddering. He had no mental freedom, as civilized man understands it, and very little personal freedom, being bound to his clan, his tribe, his chief. Dreams and shadows haunted and maddened him. Simplicity of the primitive? To my mind the barbarian’s problems were as complex in their way as modern man’s – possibly more so. He moved through life motivated mainly by whims, his or another’s. In war he was unstable; the blowing of a leaf might send him plunging in an hysteria of blood-lust against terrific odds, or cause him to flee in blind panic when another stroke could have won the battle.

He didn’t imagine for a second that he could have been happy in a barbaric culture with the memories and personality he possessed as a twentieth century man. As he said himself, it would have been “the sheerest of hells” for him. He could only have reveled in it if born and raised in such a milieu. In still another letter to Lovecraft (September 22nd, 1932) he wrote, “ … to a man who has never known anything else, such a life would be full of vital interest.”

Again and again, he expressed the idea that all civilizations must, in the end, soften and become corrupt and fall before a new onslaught of new barbarians. In “The Night Winds” he wrote:

Accad’s pride is the pride of dust
(Where is the Golden King!)
Vanished the Persian’s power and lust
(Hark to the winds that sing!)
We have thundered their flags of pride
(We, wild winds of the world!)
Flaunted their banners above, beside
(Lastly their dust we whirled.)
For we are old as the world is old
And young as Time is young
And we have seen empires with glory and gold
Pass. And their tales we sung.

In “Shadows on the Road” he painted a darker picture. The Irish traveler, Nial of Ulster, comes back from a long journey to Rome – presumably in the fifth century A.D. – and is questioned by a wide-eyed compatriot who knows only the stories and fables of the Empire.

Nial of Ulster, welcome home!
What saw you on the road to Rome? –
Legions thronging the fertile plains?
Shouting hordes of the country folk
With the harvest heaped in their groaning wains?
Shepherd piping under the oak?
Laurel chaplet and purple cloak?

Nial had actually seen none of these idyllic, pastoral vistas or imperial glories. He tells his questioner what he had really seen. His tone is bleak.

Goths in the Forum howled to sup,
With an emperor’s skull for a drinking-cup.
The black arch clave to the broken dome.
The Coliseum invites the bat,
The Vandal sits where the Caesars sat;
And the shadows are black on Rome.

It’s open to question, though, whether barbarism does always ultimately triumph. Maybe civilization does – not that “civilized” necessarily means kindly and humane. We’ve been taught to believe that it does, and that “barbaric” means the opposite, but that is often mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, as REH knew. Dorothy Dunnett’s “Lymond” series of novels has a telling wartime scene between the famous corsair Dragut Rais and the French ambassador d’Aramon. Dragut tells d’Aramon that an offending prisoner will die, and that “his death will be sweet.” A Knight of St. John explains what that means. “The criminal is soaked in wild honey and buried waist deep in the desert, to die from the sun and the flies.” This is an Ottoman custom, but the French burn heretics at the stake and break criminals on the wheel, while the Knights of St. John bastinado their offending slaves and blow Turkish prisoners from the mouths of cannon – and both the Ottomans and the French are highly civilized. Thus, when a Frenchman cries shrilly, “But that is barbaric!” Dragut simply answers, “But you and I, hakim, are barbarians. Or why else are we here?”

Read Part Two, Part Three