The Education of Master Torgo
Listening to the podcasts over the past few months you may have heard me joke about my “educating” mastertorgo on Robert E. Howard and Conan. As a long time Conan fan and Howard purist, I hoped to give at least one fantasy fan a better understanding of one of fantasy’s founding fathers. Howard and Conan have gotten a bad rap, and there is a dedicated group that works to do something about that.
Conan and Howard were popular back in the days of the pulps. “Two Gun Bob” was one of the Big Three authors of the magazine Weird Tales, one of the greatest pulps of the 30s. The other two authors, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, were long distance friends of Howard and all three kept a voluminous correspondence over many years. Lovecraft was a literary influence for Howard; indeed it was Howard’s melding of Lovecraftian existential horror with historical adventures ala Harold Lamb that created Sword and Sorcery, a sub-genre distinct from but akin to the epic fantasy created by Tolkien.
In the late 60s an effort to capitalize on the popularity of Tolkien led to a resurgence of the popularity of Howard. L. Sprague de Camp, a science-fiction writer in his own right, recognized the potential of Conan and edited the notorious Conan reprints. And that’s where, in the eyes of purists like me, things started to go wrong. De Camp seemed to have a – well, love/hate may be to strong – let us say respect/disrespect for Howard and his writing. On the one hand he admired Howard’s pacing and the vitality of his characters. But on the other hand de Camp seemed almost embarrassed by Sword and Sorcery and pulp adventure in general. He derided Howard’s characters and prose. He heavily edited Howard’s originals, and even wrote what are referred to as pastiches, original works that are intended to honestly imitate the pastiched author’s style and substance. Unfortunately pastiches, much like Hollywood movie sequels, tend to celebrate the wrong things from the source material. In my opinion de Camp (and others) propagated the harebrained idea that Conan was all about physical solutions to problems, rescuing maidens, killing bad guys and taking their stuff. Also, by printing the stories chronologically instead of as written, any sense of Howard’s development of Conan or the setting he lived in was lost.
De Camp also wrote a biography of Howard that popularized many fallacies about the author; from an excessive focus on Howard’s suicide to cheap arm chair psychology regarding his mental stability. The book so upset Novalyne Price, a woman who dated Howard when he was alive, she was moved to write her own book One Who Walked Alone. But the damage was done; I recall just a few years ago a friend of mine recounting the “fact” that Howard was so crazy, he actually thought that as he typed Conan was standing behind him with an axe, waiting to kill him if he didn’t tell the Cimmerian’s story. Horseshit.
So when mastertorgo told me he had purchased one of the Conan paperbacks (edited by de Camp), I knew I had to move quickly to keep his mind pure, as it were. A body of scholarship on Robert E. Howard has grown in the past few decades. Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder is a wonderful biography and analysis of Howard’s works. Del Rey’s Robert E. Howard series, including the three Conan books edited by Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke, not only reprint the stories as originally published, but also offer insight and analysis to Howard’s writing and characters as they have not had before. Remember that voluminous correspondence with Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith? Many letters are quoted and cited therein. Howard and Conan get a fair shake.
So there is hope. No new pastiches are being published, and the Del Rey compilations are always in stock. Jason Momoa stars in the new movie and has said good things about Howard and Conan early on; if the flick blows it won’t be his fault. While the movie itself sounds like more Conan the Misunderstood, I can only hope that it is good enough to stir some interest and get people to buy the books. And maybe a new generation of readers will give props to one of America’s very greatest. I hope that pleases you as much as it does me, and if not, why the fuck are you reading this blog?