My leopard eyes are still untamed,
They hold a darksome light –
A fierce and brooding gleam unnamed
That pierced primeval night.
Robert E. Howard, “A Word From the Outer Dark”
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Robert E. Howard appeared to think that all civilizations, in the end, must fall to barbarians. In a letter ca. December 1930 to H.P. Lovecraft, he observed glumly of the contemporary situation as he viewed it:
… the choice seems to lie between fascism and communism – both of which I utterly detest. And doubtless the world will eventually … sink back into barbarism – if any humans are left alive after the next war. And since the inevitable goal of all civilization seems to be decadence, it seems hardly worth while to struggle up the long road from barbarism in the first place.
In this context, the Dominic Flandry stories created by Poul Anderson are worth a mention. Anderson was a master of rip-roaring adventure in his own right, and while he valued civilization he appreciated barbarian fortitude and barbaric virtues too. (See The Broken Sword and his Harald Hardrada trilogy.) But Flandry’s universe more than any other of Anderson’s embodies the conflict between civilization and barbarism – with Flandry, despite his irony and world-weariness, firmly on the side of civilization, with all its flaws. He’s a naval intelligence agent, a James Bond of the future, but more complex, and essentially Gallic, not English.
The Terran Empire has had its day. “We’re hollow, and corrupt, and death has marked us for his own,” Flandry says to a young woman from a frontier planet. But the Empire’s great opponent, the Roidhunate of Merseia, while it still possesses barbaric youth, strength and force as a culture, is more of a ruthless despotism than the Empire. Yet it enjoys the support of the masses. Even a dictatorship, in the end, must. “Shouting hurrah, and worse, sincerely meaning it, when Glorious Leader rides by,” Flandry observes to his telepathic opposite number, Aycharaych. Ironically, Archaraych himself is ultra-civilized, a member of the ancient, cultivated race of Chereionites, even though he serves the Merseians. Flandry sometimes reflects to himself that Aycharaych resembles an ancient icon of a Byzantine saint, and Byzantine culture was long a byword for ultra-civilized, mannered decadence – in fact dismissed by English-speaking historians as without significance, despite lasting a thousand years and bequeathing its religious orthodoxy to Russia. The Byzantines were also stereotyped as given to amoral, treacherous intrigue.
The Merseians are still essentially barbaric. They received advanced science from the human race, too early in their development, and have since become a menace. The warlords of their fighting clans – now techno-industrial as well – work together because they have the Terran Empire to oppose. Without this common enemy, they would probably turn against each other and seek power at the Roidhunate’s expense, as warlords characteristically do.
Personally,” Flandry reflects, “I enjoy decadence … but someone has to hold off the Long Night for my lifetime, and it looks as if I’m elected.”
In the preface to his really fine retelling of Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Anderson writes of the Dark Ages, “It was, in Europe at least, a raw era. Cruelty, licentiousness and rapacity ran free. Heathen rites bloody or obscene were a part of daily life … If nothing else, we need a reminder today that we must never take civilization for granted.”
REH wasn’t far from that view himself, in some ways. His letter of November 1932 to H.P. Lovecraft, quoted at more length last post, said, “For the world as a whole, civilization even in decaying form, is undoubtedly better for people as a whole.” He also conceded that, for him as he was in the twentieth century, a child of civilization, a barbaric existence would have been “the sheerest of hells … unfitted as I am for such an existence.”
It’s true that civilization is fragile, and when it reaches the point where it can’t or won’t defend itself against the savages, its time may be running out. It can also rot from within, grow somnolent and lazy, and fall even without barbarians to pull it down. The Ottoman Empire looks like a perfect example. Blessed with organization, ruthless discipline and powerful, determined rulers for centuries, it reached its height under Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. His successor was known as Selim the Sot. The decline was steady after that, and by the eighteenth century the Ottoman State was deservedly known as “the sick man of Europe.”
The Roman Empire has been accused by moralists of falling because it was “decadent”. Well, its citizens did stop assuming responsibility for the defense of their nation, and the legions became filled with recruits from the barbarian frontiers while the Italians bred lived on the dole or went to the games – “bread and circuses”. But a greater reason why it fell was its vast extent. It was simply too huge to hold together. The soldiers garrisoning the ends of the Empire – Britain in particular – felt more loyalty to their generals than to the central government. Carausius, Magnus Maximus, Constantine III and others, all made their bids for power from Britain or Gaul. The invading Goths and Franks merely finished what those rebel generals had started.
As for “decadence” and “softness”, when the Romans were at their most depraved, corrupt and decadent by our standards, in the first century BCE and the first century CE, they conquered the known world of their time. Let’s accept Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 CE (an arbitrary date) as marking the fall of the Western Empire. That was about a hundred years after the Empire had become officially Christian, and the new religion – presumably – had improved morals a lot.
Besides, civilization is more resilient than Howard seemed to believe. Rome, in the western half of the empire, may have fallen to the barbarians – but to a large extent these folk occupied it rather than destroyed it. Without the people they had conquered, they couldn’t organise or administer their conquered lands. Within a few generations, they adopted the Christian religion and spoke languages based on Latin. The Vandal Kingdom was overthrown again by the Byzantines under the Emperor Justinian. Then it was conquered again when Islam came overwhelmingly out of Arabia, but the Arabs needed the more civilized folk of Egypt, Syria and Persia to establish their caliphates and administer them (little as they ever trusted Persians).
In the far east, the Mongols overthrew China, but it was a similar story there. Within generations they were absorbed by the older culture and became Chinese themselves. So with the Manchus – jumped-up conquering barbarians from the north. They were more affectedly Chinese than their subjects in short order, and gave themselves absurd airs of superiority which the Han no doubt derided in secret. (Not publicly; it was a sure way to die.) Chinese culture had triumphed over the Manchus as it had over the Mongols, even though they were beaten on the battlefield.
Robert E. Howard was aware of that process too, though judging by certain of his poems he regarded it as part of a cycle which always ended with the barbarians trampling over the soft, secure and civilized.
You sang beneath the locust tree,
Forgetful of hunger and hate:
‘It has always been, it will always be!’
Even then we were at your gate.
But our sons will trim their beards and hair,
Don cloaks of crimson hue;
They will take your daughters to their beds,
Till they grow soft as you.
They will trade their freedom for harps and lutes,
Discard the bow and the dart;
They will build a prison of satin and gold,
And call it Culture and Art.
They will lie in the lap of a smiling land,
Till its rusts unman and rot them,
And they scorn their blood, and the calloused hand,
And the fathers who begot them.
But our brothers still dwell in the sun-seared waste
And their sons are hard and lank;
They will hunt the wolf-pack that we chased,
And drink the water we drank.
The hungers we knew they too will know,
The scars of fangs and of briars;
In the rocks where they crouch when the sandstorms blow
They will find the marks of our fires.
They will know the hungers that once we had,
While the stream of centuries runs,
Till they burst from the desert, hunger-mad,
To slaughter our slothful sons.
Robert E. Howard, “The Song of the Naked Lands”
His greatest exemplar of barbarism as compared with civilization, naturally, was Conan. His frequent expressions of scorn for civilized men, as in “The Vale of Lost Women” (“If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings …”) or “Shadows in Zamboula” (“You fool! Did you deem yourself strong because you can twist the heads off civilized men, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string?”) don’t prevent him making his best friends civilized men – Prospero and Trocero. The women to whom he’s most attracted, Olivia, Valeria, Belit, Natalia, Yasmina Devi, and ultimately Zenobia, are all civilized. True, Belit and Valeria have both eschewed civilization for the wild life, the Queen of the Black Coast particularly. But they were civilized in their origins.
Conan might have been “a barbarian of a thousand generations of barbarians”, but he left home early and is never, in any of the stories REH wrote about him, shown as going back to Cimmeria, nor is any Cimmerian but Conan himself ever depicted. In “The Phoenix on the Sword” it’s made clear that Conan isn’t a typical Cimmerian in his temperament; Prospero describes them as a gloomy lot who drink water and chant dismal dirges! Conan himself says, “Mitra! The ways of the Aesir were more to my liking.” The latter sing, drink deeply of wine and ale, and revel, as well as fighting fiercely. But only one story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” shows him among the Aesir, either. He’s generally adventuring in a civilized or semi-civilized milieu, as in “Tower of the Elephant”, “Rogues in the House”, “Shadows in Zamboula” “A Witch Shall be Born” and above all in “The Phoenix on the Sword” and The Hour of the Dragon. He’s often a leader of wild men like the Zuagirs, the kozaki, and the Himelian hillmen in “People of the Black Circle”, but his ambition is to loot or conquer a civilized kingdom by these means, and eventually he does. “I fought my way up from naked barbarism to a throne,” he says.
A civilized throne, which he rules as a civilized monarch who deals fairly with his subjects. The despised way of life he scorned while young and raw has claimed him. The first Conan story ever published shows him in the opening scene with a pen and map in his hand, not a sword, planning to add to his adopted kingdom’s geographical knowledge!
Of course in reality it’s never a simple matter of decent civilized men against the wicked barbarians. Civilized men can be as cruel and monstrous as any savages. REH knew that well enough, too. Civilized men in the Conan stories – and in life – are often obscenely cruel. His letter of December 5th, 1935, to Lovecraft, reads in one section:
You consider the pioneers of Texas as barbarians compared to the Europeans you idealize. But I challenge you to produce one single episode of blood-spilling in early- day Texas that even approached, in wholesale butchery, such incidents as Walter Raleigh’s slaughter of the Italian mercenaries in Ireland; Essex’s slaughter of 400 Irish women and children; Clanrickard’s butchery of prisoners after Kinsale; the wholesale executions after Monmouth’s rebellion; Cromwell’s massacres in Ireland; the extermination of the Australian natives by British settlers; Leopold’s butcheries of the Congo negroes; the bombing of civilians in the world war; or the present slaughter of women and children by your Fascist friends in Ethiopia. One bomb dropped in a crowded city by a cultured, civilized war-maker kills more women, children and helpless old men that [sic] ever were killed altogether in the wars waged by the Texas pioneers throughout nearly a century of constant battling.
REH pointed out, too, that civilized men often cover their cruelties with a hypocritical cloak of virtue. The Roman Empire claimed it was bringing civilization to the barbaric Germans, Celts and Jews; Mussolini claimed he was bringing civilization to the barbaric Ethiopians; the Ottomans claimed they were bringing civilization to the barbarians of eastern Europe. (And the Bulgars and Hungarians WERE barbaric compared with the Ottomans, but even Vlad the Impaler wasn’t a whit crueler.)
Barbarians seldom need virtuous excuses to raid, ravage, plunder and slay. They live hard and rough and have to fight without mercy just to survive – for pasture, for water, for food. When there isn’t enough of these things for two tribes to flourish at once in the same area, the result is war. When they happen to have superb military organization and high mobility – as the Mongols did – then their civilized neighbors are in for trouble.
They generally believe that only their particular tribe is human, and that anybody outside the tribe is fair game to slaughter and rob. Conan had that attitude, at least before he attained some sophistication. Savagely loyal to friends and kindred, “he saw no reason why the rest of the world should not be plundered.” REH depicts him as living by this principle, too, in “The Devil In Iron”, “Shadows in the Moonlight” “People of the Black Circle”, “The Pool of the Black One” and other stories. I’m inclined to agree with REH that civilized men act on that principle too. They plunder in the name of “civilization” or of their particular religion – the latter being a favorite justification. And frequently they do lose their morale and sense of purpose as time passes, in which case they may fall to the very barbarians they once conquered.
A great reason why civilized nations often do conquer barbarians is the latter’s lack of unity. Conan said himself, at the beginning of “Red Nails”. “ … there’s strength in union. That’s what the Aquilonian renegades used to say to us when they came into our country … but we always fight by clans and tribes.” It took Genghis Khan to unite the Mongols into an empire. It took the pitiless drive of Shaka to build the Zulu nation. It took Attila to unite the Huns – and when he died the Hun Empire broke apart like ice in the sun. The last barbarians left in western Europe, the Scottish highlanders, were always at each other’s throats. When Prince Charlie made his bid for the English throne, using the highland clans, half the highlanders fought on the English side – not because they loved the English, but for an excuse to tear into their long-time clan enemies! They didn’t look far enough ahead, to the time when the English would forget their services, and expropriate and oppress them as much as the former rebels.
More next post.
Read Part One, Part Three