Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Conan’s Alignment and Other Existential Quandaries

Now I hope it’s been clear that I really admire the work that guys like James Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, andWayne Rossi have done in bringing the Appendix N books to a lot of peoples attention. I use their previous posts to sort of check my work, to make sure I’m on track. Some times I find that they’ve said things better than I could and other times I uncover things that I don’t think anyone has taken the time to spell out. It turns out that Conan is the first piece of Appendix N literature where there is a significant difference of opinion. I had a feeling that would be the case, which is why my post over at Castalia House was supported with extensive passages from the text. I didn’t expect anyone to believe me otherwise!

Here is a bit from James Maliszewski that I differ with him on:

REH barely needs an introduction. The creator of Conan the Cimmerian, along with Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane and many more memorable characters, Howard almost singlehandedly created the genre we now call swords-and-sorcery. Contrary to the caricatures, Howard’s best stories deftly mix daring adventures with an almost existentialist philosophy. His characters, including Conan, are not muscle-bound blockheads but intelligent men whose dangerous endeavors offer surprising insight into the human condition. Even so, Conan is out to make a name for himself in the world and makes a great model for many D&D adventurers.

I just don’t get that Conan stories have existentialist philosophy…. I’ve been pointed to wikipedia and definitions and so forth and I still don’t see it. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know, but I’d rather see something closer to an essay before I make up my mind on that.

I’ve gone back and forth with a couple of people on the point of my last blog post here, but really… there’s more sound moral principles conveyed in this stack of Conan stories than what you’d get in a year of Sunday School. That might take some of the fun out of digging into your stack of comic books, but really… if Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired people to go into science as a career, if the ludicrous character of Indiana Jones inspired people to become archaeologists, then face it… people don’t read Conan and get inspired to become pirates and thieves. No, they come away with a romanticized view of the inherent value of behaving with honor, even in the face of what looks like a lost cause.

Connor Coyne has some good commentary on the volume here:

The most significant difference, however, I thought, is the different take on morality. I recall Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, at least, saw much significance in his Catholicism, and that the various ranks and orders of beings, good and evil, in Middle Earth, was a validation of the Catholic cosmological order via Tolkien’s own thoroughly British upbringing.  Whereas in Conan, while morality is present, it is subjective, in flux, and almost post-modern.  The main conflict is not so much good vs. evil as barbarism vs. civilization.  The chief difference here between barbarism and civilization isn’t any notion of mercy, or compassion, or empathy, or cooperation; it is a difference of regimentation, and as a result, barbarism doesn’t dissemble. So we are meant to relate to the barbarian, and not the sorcerers, monarchs, pirates, and monsters with whom he contends.

Yeah, you have to read The Lord of the Rings if you want to see mercy exalted to the status of supreme virtue. Conan’s oeuvre all about courage and perseverance.

Also this has some good comments on Connor’s post:

Conan typically prevails because he is typically direct and straightforward; his battle prowess is as much a symptom of this transparency of character as it is his upbringing. Other characters weave byzantine plots only to dramatically fail when they learn that the realities the universe has created for the villains are no more stable than the ‘realities’ they use to trap their victims. A sort of cosmic version of ‘getting caught in a lie.’

Over at The Darkstorm Files we get probably the best argued case around from the “Conan is not a paragon of decency” camp. I disagree with it, but I admit he supports his case rather well. However, if “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” makes my argument look weak, I can only say that “The Vale of Lost Women” completely smashes his. Face it, Conan is the perfect candidate for promoting your local colleges consent training program…!

This is my summary of the overall moral tone of Conan: Civilization is in the process of rotting from the inside out. You can’t save it. You live by the sword, and you fully expect to die by it. You are bewildered by the elaborate justifications men weave for their cowardice and evil– not one of them can be counted on to stand with you. They would all betray you for a piece of silver. You routinely stand against horrors that would chill their blood, but there is no cavalry on the way to bail you out and no giant eagles will ever swoop in for your sake. You probably can’t win, and the sacrifices you make will make little difference in the end… but you’ll go down fighting anyway. There is no shortage of either the weak or the wicked and doom may come to all, but that is no justification for being anything less than a man. Not for you anyway….

Yeah, that is a stark contrast to The Lord of the Rings…. It also doesn’t sound like the typical D&D adventurer, either. Or The Metamorphosis for that matter….


A reader had pointed me to this: Conan the Existentialist Part 1

My response:

He defines existentialism thusly: “We’re born into the universe with no set purpose and it is something and it is something we have to determine ourselves each of us as individuals.” You know, some dude sneered at me for painting Conan as being some sort of paragon of decency. Ridiculous, right? But the character of Conan is derived from real life working men of the Depression era Texas. They were rough, hard-living men, no doubt. But their ethics were informed by a distinctly American blend of Christianity, individualism, and self-reliance. Say what you want about the faults of those guys but they were not exemplars of existentialism by any stretch. When Conan is faced with a moral quandary, he doesn’t determine something. He generally just goes with a very simple, honorable, decent, and direct answer that is consistent a significant subset of what C. S. Lewis called “The Tao” which, in this case, turns out to be a very masculine slice of Judeo-Christian values. We can no doubt get lost in the weeds arguing on that, but the point is… Conan is not a moral innovator. That would be antithetical to his simplicity, which is repeatedly portrayed as being more honest, noble, and pure than the more elaborate schemes and rationalizations of the “civilized.”

One more Conan/America nugget: there is a general attitude among the Protestant and Anabaptist refugees that populated America (think Amish, Quakers, German Baptists, etc) that views “the city” as being inherently corrupt– a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah or else “The Vanity Fair” from Pilgrim’s Progress. Echos of this theme rebound in rural tales where carpetbagger type city slickers get their comeuppance and also in resentment towards LA and NYC by those that are in “flyover country.” Tolkien presents this theme from the perspective of hobbits isolating themselves and elves bailing out altogether… but Conan, in contrast, heads for the heart of civilization to (in effect) personally turn over the tables of the money changers.

And consistent with the Depression period, Conan might attain great heights and have vast wealth within his reach, but circumstances conspire to leave him in a perpetual state of living hand to mouth. (I’m thinking especially of the treasure in that elephant story….)


6 responses to “Conan’s Alignment and Other Existential Quandaries

  1. Rob September 28, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Two thoughts about Lord of the Rings. First, despite the insularity of the hobbits (which, by the way, is probably the best way to explain their situation, since they appear to characterize England), it is the cities that are showing their rot most strikingly and in various ways: Minas Tirith, Edoras (via Saruman via Wormtongue), Lothlorien, Rivendell… and of course Osgiliath, Moria, and Barad-dûr. But I think Tolkien spreads the rot around fairly evenly: it’s not just the cities, but it tends to concentrate where power concentrates.

    Second, there is one character in LOTR who shows the rot to be what it is, where it is. And he knows how to sneak around as well as Conan, when necessary, and when to go in cannons blazing, like Conan. And that’s Gandalf. The difference, I think, is in how this reader can feel Gandalf’s nearly crushing (it seems) sense of responsibility. With Conan, I think it’s supposed to be there, but I can’t feel it.

    • jeffro September 28, 2014 at 8:00 am

      Gandalf is an angel sent to serve the Creator in human guise and with human limitations. Conan proceeds with a default hedonism when not on camera, but generally does the right thing when confronted with a real dilemma.

      • Robert Eaglestone September 30, 2014 at 1:35 pm

        Granted their natures and motivations differ. I (think) I was bringing up the point that Tolkien doesn’t really seem to hold to the goodness of regimented “civilization” any more than Howard. They represent two angles, but seem to show the same sort of thing. And if anything, Conan holds a higher relative “regimental” position in the end, becoming king of his domain, whereas Gandalf remains a messenger (that being the original meaning of ‘angel’), of a sort.

  2. Cambias September 29, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Conan does develop a sense of responsibility. In “Hour of the Dragon” — in which he’s deposed from the throne of Aquilonia and has to defeat the usual Vile Sorcery in order to regain it — he’s motivated at least as much by a sense of duty to his kingdom and its people as by his burning desire for revenge.

  3. Lewis Pulsipher September 30, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Have you noticed that there’s a list of books in the 5e PHB that includes the Appendix N stuff and adds more? :-)

    • jeffro September 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      It’s actually quite helpful. All of the books that Gygax called out by name are included. In the case where Gygax merely mentioned the author’s name, the 5e editors selected a representative title. I was glad to see it, although I have to say that the game design itself reflect any sort of fluency in the literature. The real influences are more from games and movies. (The work pf Alexandar Macris, for example, is betrays Appendix N savvy.)

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