Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Conan Reborn in... Riddick?

I've been reading the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories lately, having just bought and received the last two in the reprinted series that consists of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Conquering Sword of Conan and The Bloody Crown of Conan.

I always read a bit before going to bed, and Angie always asks "So how's Conan doing in this one?" The answer, of course, is that he's kickin' ass and taking names, blackmailing priests and barons, outsmarting bureaucrats and eviscerating Picts. She and I talked about the early 20th Century need for an all-hero, one who is well versed in everything. Superman is a good example. Conan is another. The contemporary image of Conan - courtesy of Arnie - is that of a dumb, buff barbarian lopping off heads and carrying off maidens. And punching out camels.

Oh, how wrong. Conan's resume would read something like: Barbarian, master woodsman, reluctant general, armoured warrior, fearless reaver, lone wanderer, stoic mountaineer, panther-esque thief, bloody pirate, well-dressed pirate lord and... despondent king. Again, however... he's good at everything.

I was watching Pitch Black the other night and it struck me: Riddick (from Pitch Black) is Conan. He's calm, has good lines, is clearly superior to those around him despite pedigree and has no regard for those who are not, in his view, worthy. Worthy of what? Worthy of living, worthy of being capable, worthy of accomplishment, worthy of rising above self-pity and other human foibles. Riddick is a murderer, he's a tracker, he's observant, he's resourceful, he's knowledgeable, he has a code of honour sans guile, he's pragmatic and visceral. Above all, however... both Riddick and Conan are care-takers.

Ironic, no? Yet that's the basic theme in Pitch Black: Riddick sees everyone through, becoming magnanimous despite his overarching instinct to survive and come out on top. Conan is exactly the same. Regardless of what he's doing or where, Conan is a care-taker. Yes, of women (good ol' mostly-useless 1930s women as Howard wrote them) but mostly of men; powerful men of high standing with no morals to speak of, low men who are victims of circumstance, etc.

Interestingly... he's usually only ever a care-taker of white people. In the story I'm reading now, there is even a mention by one unsavoury pirate that Conan would never abandon him and his men to the Picts (who are black or "dark"). Conan then affirms this judgement, saying something to the effect of "Indeed, while you may be fools, I cannot leave other white men to die at the hands of another race."

Interesting. Not something to get up in arms about, since Hyboria is actually extremely culturally and ethnically diverse and many characters of "non-white" races are well portrayed, but it's still interesting.

Anyhoo... that's my rant. I'll trying to think of other examples of "Conans reborn." And if you haven't read the original stories and are a fan of classic fantasy fiction, get them. They're great reads and, hey, even H.P. Lovecraft had great things to say about Howard's writing.


Anonymous said...

Yep, that's exactly what I thought - Riddick's the new Conan. Glad I'm not the only one ;-)

Wayward Mind said...

Really? Phew... I am also glad I'm not the only one.

Anti-heroes seem to have just as high audience appeal, it seems. I suppose that has always been true. There are some who like the n'er-do-wrong hero, and those who like the more sombre, harsh, "I do what I have to do" hero.

For me, it depends on the context. Conan as a man of peerless standards, self-effacing and altruistic... well, that just wouldn't work any more than it would work for Lovecraft's characters to average Joes (as opposed to being scholarly and scientific to the point of First Generation Nerd) and stroll into the paths of all manner of Ancient Horrors From Beyond The Stars.