“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to bear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”
When I was a college student it was fashionable for the left-leaning intellectual crowd to say things like “America has no culture.” They would haughtily offer as proof the lack of any sophisticated homegrown mythology. Stories such as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed didn’t count because they were just tall tales for rednecks and rubes.
While the claim that “America has no culture” is patently ridiculous most people accept the observation that America lacks its own mythology. To the extent the observation has any weight the same could be said of England. In fact, the lack of an indigenous English mythology is what motivated J.R.R. Tolkien to write the Lord of the Rings. Whether or not he accomplished that goal, he created stories that are loved all over the world.
However, an American author writing at about the same time as Tolkien did create an American mythology that continues to expand and thrive to the current day. The author was Robert E. Howard and the mythology he created centered on his most famous character, Conan.
It has often been observed that one of the main characteristics of mythology is that it communicates the worldview of a culture. Mythology accomplishes this through dramatic and fantastic stories that express cultural values in terms recognizable to its members. It is simultaneously a product and expression of a culture’s value system.
Conan is an expression of a particular American culture and his stories dramatically communicate the values of that culture. The character is the product of the Southern, small town Texas environment Howard grew up in. According to Howard Conan was “a combination of a number of men I have known…” In creating Conan he “took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen…and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.” In short, Conan bears the unmistakable stamp of the environment in which Howard grew up.
Howard was born in Peaster, Texas to a traveling country doctor and was raised in a number of small Texas towns. As H.P. Lovecraft (a mentor to Howard) observed, “Mr. Howard’s family is of distinguished southern planter stock of Scotch-Irish descent…” Lovecraft further observed that Howard, who was raised in Texas and Oklahoma, was “Steeped in its frontier atmosphere” and a “devotee to its virile Homeric traditions.”
The “virile Homeric traditions” Lovecraft referred to were largely those of Howard’s Scotch-Irish ancestors that settled the region. These people were a hard, fiercely independent, and warlike people. Their culture was a by-product of several centuries of fighting and border warfare on the frontiers between England and Scotland and then as Protestant settlers in Northern Ireland. Their experiences on America’s frontier and early wars only served to reinforce their cultural heritage of war. Walter Russell Mead refers to this culture as “Jacksonian,” named after Andrew Jackson, the pugilistic seventh president of the United States who was the embodiment of that culture.
Walter Russell Mead, in his book “Special Providence,” identified five core values that formed the basis of Jacksonian culture created by the Scot-Irish settlers. These values were self-reliance, equality, individualism, financial adventurism, and courage. Unsurprisingly, Howard used these same values to flesh out the personal code of the mythological Conan.
Howard’s Conan defiantly demonstrated the first of these values, self-reliance in the “Scarlet Citadel.” In that story Conan tells his captors who seek to buy him off in order to gain the kingdom he earned, “You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty—bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others.”
Conan goes on to display the second value, equality, when he taunts his captors saying, “I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you—one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.” In Conan’s world view, everyone, regardless of rank or birth is entitled to equal treatment and a person only deserves what he or she earns by the sweat of their brow.
The third value, individualism, not only defines the character of Conan, but informs the philosophical conflict underlying Conan’s stories – the individual vs. the collective. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard described the motivation behind his writing:
I have but a single conviction or ideal, or whatever the hell it might be called: individual liberty. It’s the only thing that matters a damn. I’d rather be a naked savage, shivering, starving, freezing, hunted by wild beasts and enemies, but free to go and come, with the range of the earth to roam, than the fattest, richest, most bedecked slave in a golden palace with the crustal fountains, silken divans, and ivory-bosomed dancing girls of Haroun al Raschid.
Walter Russell Meade pointed out that Jacksonians view money and wealth as a means to finance a lifestyle of self-definition. The value of wealth is to enable you to be you, to live life to its fullest. Conan demonstrated this clearly in “Queen of the Black Coast” saying: “Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat & stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame crimson, and I am content.” For Conan and Jacksonians, to the degree that wealth has any use, it is facilitate living life to its fullest.
The final value, courage, is the preeminently defining characteristic of Conan and Jacksonian culture. Conan is a warrior who makes his living fighting for survival in hair-raising adventures. He exemplifies and respects martial prowess.
Jacksonians, due to their cultural history of warfare, likewise revere military service and experience. They strongly support national defense policies that call for strong, decisive responses to national threats. This sentiment was perfectly captured in the Conan story “Red Nails” where the narrator observes, “Once the sword was drawn there was no turning back; for blood called for blood, and vengeance followed swift on the heels of atrocity.” For Conan and Jacksonians threats are to be met head on with strong immediate responses, not avoided.
In light of our history, no American mythos would be complete if it didn’t address the issue of race. The existence of competing races is an inescapable element of Howard’s Conan stories. Every race apes stereotypes of existing ethnicities from Scandinavians and Europeans to Middle Easterners and Africans. In fact, Howard’s use of race in his Conan stories has led to accusations of racism.
However, in true American fashion, race does not create an impassable barrier for working or living together. Conan often befriends and fights alongside characters of different ethnicities. The love of his life is the pirate queen Belit, whose ethnicity is described as proto-Semitic. He sails with Argossean (i.e. proto-Greek) sailors, fights with proto-Welsh archers, and fights alongside the proto-Steppe Hyrkanians and the proto-African Bamulas. While Howard treats his races as real, Conan and other characters regularly transcend racial differences to achieve common goals or forge lasting relationships. Few things could be more American than to find oneself trapped in these ideas of race, but to find ways to overcome them.
The character of Conan is the vehicle through which these cultural values and issues have been given popular artistic expression. Like mythologies from other older cultures, the stories of Conan have grown beyond those of its creator. Different authors have written stories and novels featuring Conan. He has been and continues to be featured in comic books and films. Regardless of the author or artist, Conan’s character continues to exemplify the uniquely Jacksonian American values discussed above.
The next time some pretentious lefty “intellectual” claims that America lacks its own mythology simply offer, “Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”