Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy 107th, Robert E. Howard!

Robert E. Howard was born 107 years ago today in Peaster, TX, and I thought I'd acknowledge his birth by (1) posting my candidate for most iconic image of Conan ever and (2) quoting a bit of Howard's writing to go with it.

Both image and text are from "Rogues in the House," not my favorite Conan story (the bit where Conan kills his former doxy's otherwise innocent boy-toy sticks in my craw a bit, although I think I can see what Howard is trying to achieve there and teach the story accordingly). My favorite Conan story is "The Tower of the Elephant." But Frank Frazetta's cover for Conan, the first volume of the Ace series of Conan stories (the first Howard book I ever bought), retains all of its power to this day:

It's those reds that do it for me, I think. Here we see Conan fighting Thak, the ape-man raised by Nabonidus the Red Priest. Thak's people are apes on their way up Howard's evolutionary slope (while humanity, especially that of the civilized variety, is on its way down). Conan defeats Thak, but I've always loved his eulogy for his fallen opponent:
Nabonidus was staring down at the still figure as if he could not believe his own eyes. Black, hairy, abhorrent, the monster lay, grotesque in the tatters of the scarlet robe; yet more human than bestial, even so, and possessed somehow of a vague and terrible pathos. 
Even the Cimmerian sensed this, for he panted: "I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I've sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him."
When I teach "Rogues," I point out that Thak is possibly the most human character in the narrative—even Conan, who is ethically superior to Murilo and Nabonidus, is referred to by Howard as "beast-like" and "ghoul-like" when he kills his betrayer's new boyfriend. It speaks well of Conan that he recognizes this in the narrative and even better of Howard, a champion of the abject and abjected who never stopped evolving himself.