I’m currently reading the Conan story Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard. It first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1935. It’s only the second Conan story I’ve read, but like Queen of the Black Coast, I’m enjoying this one very much.
- Howard’s prose is great. He might not have gotten a fancy creative writing degree from Fancypants University, but his writing is raw, visceral, gripping, and evocative. I cannot fathom what those people who claim he’s a clunky writer did to damage their brains.
- Howard’s writing taps into a powerful longing civilized men hold to be wild and free like barbarians. Like Conan.
It’s this second point I want to get at, because it’s a common theme in 20th and 21st century fiction, maybe even earlier. Beyond the Black River provides a great example. We begin with a man named Balthus walking through a dense woods. He hears sounds of struggle, sees an arrow fly out of the forest, and then out pops Conan. Conan had just slain a Pict, a member of a vicious, forest-dwelling race, and is chasing a forest devil one of their wizards had conjured. This forest devil has been going around killing settlers in these lands, and Conan had been hired to stop them.
Now, Balthus is a fit, hearty, and hale athletic specimen. He’s also pretty handy with a sword. But he pales in physical prowess next to Conan. Balthus cannot keep up with Conan as they run down the forest path, and he laments how his people as colonizers are making strides to get back to a sort of powerful barbarism as they tame the wild land, but still can’t match Cimmerians like Conan.
This is powerful stuff. We see two kinds of male protagonists in fiction today:
- The snarky goofball, which reflects how many men see themselves.
- The swashbuckling, wild, brave, cowboy/outlaw/anti-hero tough guy, which reflects how many men wish they could be.
Think Star Lord from the Guardians of the Galaxy versus The Man With No Name as portrayed by Clint Eastwood from Serigo Leone’s classic trilogy of Western films.
One is a thoroughly modern, dare I say it effeminate, creation. The other is a classic, and classical, figure of masculinity.
The former isn’t bad per se. It can work. It’s just embarrassingly overplayed. Yet it’s a role men find ourselves almost forced to play, the buffoonish dad, forever being bailed out by the tough, strong, competent woman who is both the brains AND the brawn of the entire operation.
Of course, our female protagonists are always, to a woman, tough, smart, strong, heroic, capable, competent, and utterly without need of men for help, companionship, or romance. But I digress.
How did we get here? Why do ancient warrior races and pagan religions, “becoming barbarians” and “finding tribes” capture men’s imaginations in a way the trappings of modern, technologically advanced civilizations of the 21st century do not?
Is it because Christianity itself, the driving force of the West for 2,000 years, has basically told men that their unique, God-given gifts aren’t welcome anymore? Has the church that, lest we forget, defeated and supplanted the pagans, defended civilization from existential threats, tamed wild lands, allowed science and art to flourish, and was the first civilization in the world to end human slavery, among other accomplishments, embraced modern modes of thinking and caused irreversible damages to itself and its relevance to men?
Yes, although I don’t think the damage is irreversible.
But the specifically theological and religious aspects of this are for another post. Religion is a part of a society, and our society has spent generations teaching girls and women to be more masculine, and men to just . . . I don’t know, to just shut up and go hide in the corner. Life is safe and secure. Manly virtues, we’re told, don’t need to be cultivated because they’re somehow not necessary anymore, at least in the ahistorical lands of abundance we call Europe and America.
And so we get the snarkbuckler. He’s like a swashbuckler, but annoying as hell and, in real life, the kind of guy women run away from. Yet he represents what a lot of novelists and screenwriters are–they write as though the repulsive man-children they are have taken over the world, beaten the Jock-Chad-Alpha-whatever you want to call him, and ride off into the sunset with the cute girl like a John Hughes movie (except for Pretty in Pink–Duckie ends up holding the bag in that one).
Oddly enough, we also get a few generations of women–who are more motivated than men, who are mentally tougher than men, are harder workers than men, who reach higher levels of educational and occupational attainment than men–who realize they can’t find any men to settle down and start families with.
Our other fictional archetype is the grim sellsword . . . the frontiersman, whether he be in space or out in the wilds . . . we get the untamed barbarian or the gun-toting urban vigilante . . .
. . . when what we really need is the sword-wielding Paladin, straight-up murdering evil without hesitation and without apology in the name of the Truth and the Light, because it’s the right thing to do and the forces of darkness need a good killing.
That’s the kind of barbarism I want to see more of, in fiction and in life: the civilized kind.
In my novel, A Traitor to Dreams, Elpida laments she can’t find any good men, though it might not help she lives in Manhattan. But when she enters the mythological Dreamscape and encounters winged swordsmen, she realizes just how lacking the men around her back home truly are.