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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Wright on Knight

The illustrious John C. Wright adds to the increasingly incandescent luster of the Castalia House blog with his first regular post there:
It is an eerie thing to reread the half-forgotten stories treasured in one’s youth. For better or worse, the hold haunts never look the same. The worse happens when eyes grown cynical with age will see tinsel and rubbish where once glamor gleamed as fresh and expectant as the sunrise in the Garden of Eden. And, to the contrary, the better happens when one discovers added layers of wonder, or deeper thoughts to savor, than a schoolboy’s brain can hold.

So I decided to read, in their order of publication, the Conan stories of Robert E Howard. I was not a devout fan of Conan in my youth, so some stories I had read before, others were new. But in each case I was surprised, nay, I was shocked, at how much better they were than I recalled.

In this space, time permitting, I hope to review each tale as I read it, starting with Phoenix on the Sword. But before any review talks about what Conan is, let me tell the candid reader what Conan is not.

As with HP Lovecraft’s spooky tales or with the adventure yarns of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the unwary reader often confuses the popularized and simplified versions of iconic characters, Cthulhu or Tarzan, with the character as first he appeared in the pages of a pulp magazine. Tropes now commonplace, endlessly copied, at the time were stark and startling and one-of-a-kind.

The original character who is later taken into a franchise or revised for comic books, film and television, or who is copied or reincarnated by the sincere flattery of lesser talents, is inevitably more raw and real than such dim Xeroxes of Xeroxes. These franchise writers, imitators, and epigones rarely do justice to the tale they copy, some, for whatever reason, do grave injustice.

And, of course, certain writers of modest talent and no memorable accomplishment delight to assume the pen and mantle of the art critics and connoisseur in order to diminish the stature of author they cannot match. They do a deliberate injustice to iconic characters, and further muddy the perception.
Read the whole thing there, and not just because Mr. Wright administers Damon Knight, the John Scalzi of the Silver Age of Science Fiction, a well-deserved posthumous kicking. It is ever so fitting that the SFWA Grand Master award bears that petty little mediocrity's name.

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48 Comments:

Blogger pyrrhus December 23, 2017 2:30 PM  

My brothers and I read all of the Conan stories in my youth, multiple time, and also the Sprague de Camp continuations of the saga. We also bought the Conan comic books. My love for them has not diminished with age....

Blogger Stg58/Animal Mother December 23, 2017 2:46 PM  

When will CH be republishing the Conan series?

Blogger Dexter December 23, 2017 2:54 PM  

Howard and Burroughs can be reread and enjoyed as an adult. Moorcock, who I loved as a teen, ugh no.

Anonymous Morgan December 23, 2017 2:56 PM  

Hopefully the first of many posts. Who knows, maybe we will have enough material to fill a book of non-fiction essays. I have a piece on Damon Knight's "criticism" in my Atomic Age Narrative series from earlier this year at Castaliahouse.com. Damon Knight's essays were mean spirited, snarky, and generally ad hominem in nature. It was more about what he personally did not like versus going into problems with plot, narrative, and prose.

Blogger Dexter December 23, 2017 2:59 PM  

"The trouble with Conan is that the human race never has produced and never could produce such a man," Damon Knight

I recall RE Howard saying Conan was based on actual men he knew; oil field roughnecks etc.

Blogger Anno Ruse December 23, 2017 3:07 PM  

For some reason I always thought that Damon Knight was a black man. To learn that he wasn't doesn't raise my opinion of him at all.

Anonymous Iacobus December 23, 2017 3:07 PM  

Using Damon Knight's measure, that means that I can call Stephen King sick. In "Gerald's Game," he goes into lurid detail about the sexual molestation between a father and his daughter. It's what totally turned me off King. I couldn't even finish the novel after that bit. Reading the WTF moment when the girl trains all the boys in "IT" was another.

(I also liked "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" better when it was called "The Colour Out of Space." I laugh my ass off when people call King the master of horror.)

Blogger Thucydides December 23, 2017 3:26 PM  

"It is an eerie thing to reread the half-forgotten stories treasured in one’s youth. For better or worse, the hold haunts never look the same. The worse happens when eyes grown cynical with age will see tinsel and rubbish where once glamor gleamed as fresh and expectant as the sunrise in the Garden of Eden. And, to the contrary, the better happens when one discovers added layers of wonder, or deeper thoughts to savor, than a schoolboy’s brain can hold."

Truer words were never spoken. I enjoy John C Wright's works as an adult, I can only wonder what some schoolboy reading it today will see in it 30 years from now.....

Blogger Phunctor December 23, 2017 3:40 PM  

Pope's "Dunciad" sets the standard for literary put-downs. "Strains from hard-bound brains, six lines a year" has stuck to me for 55 years..

Anonymous Causal Lurker December 23, 2017 3:47 PM  

Let's see if I can set this in the correct phrasing:

"Hai! Well played, Master Bard," cried Conan, quaffing the dregs of his mead-bowl. He reached into his pouch, and like knuckle-bones cast the first two stones down the board: blood-deep rubies, each the size of a pigeon's egg. "Fair reward for such a turn of voice!" Turning his fierce blue gaze up on the slinking, cringing opponent, he rumbled in amusement. "Were your scabrous hide not already stripped living from quivering carcass, I would set my knife to the task, upbraiding the gods for granting me such a feeble sacrifice. Begone before my mood changes."

The tavern resounded with discordant tones of laughter and scorn as the vanquished speaker crept, belly low and back to wall, toward the doorway and the enveloping night.

Now I'll need to get the complete works. First, one more look for "The Hour of the Dragon."

Anonymous Man of the Atom December 23, 2017 3:53 PM  

Morgan wrote:
Damon Knight's essays were mean spirited, snarky, and generally ad hominem in nature. It was more about what he personally did not like versus going into problems with plot, narrative, and prose.


How appropriate that the only story he is known for is about cannibalism.

Blogger LP9 December 23, 2017 3:54 PM  

Wow Wright is stunning as always

Thank you to the staff and thank you to the Lord for Castalia House and its team along with the t shirts! I am so so proud of everyone!!

Count on my support

Anonymous JAG December 23, 2017 4:34 PM  

Dexter wrote:Howard and Burroughs can be reread and enjoyed as an adult. Moorcock, who I loved as a teen, ugh no.

Agreed. I recently reread Tarzan of the Apes, and it was still every bit as good as it was when I read it in junior high.

I tried to reread Elric of Melnibone, also something I read in junior high, and I couldn't make it very far. It does not hold up well in my opinion.

I loved the Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, but I lost interest along the way of de Camp, Carter, and Nyborg. They weren't bad stories, just didn't have the same luster as the Howard stories.

Blogger Hunsdon December 23, 2017 4:47 PM  

Let Howard be Howard. Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, his pugilists and sailors, Breckinridge Elkins, El Borak!

Let cringing curs whine around his heels. Pah! The lion cares not.

To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, "If you don't like Bob Howard, buddy, you can kiss my ass."

Blogger Lovekraft December 23, 2017 5:01 PM  

Am currently re-reading Clark Ashton Smith's collection of short stories "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" from Del Rey.

THE Howard compilation I recommend, without reservation, is "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian", also from Del Rey.

These to and, of course, HPL are my go-to guys for rich fantasy and horror.

Anonymous 2106 things I Hate December 23, 2017 5:09 PM  

Hanuman's stones!!! Could not agree more. I just re-read all of the Conan stories a couple of years ago, including the Pastiches. They were every bit as good, and even better than I remembered.


Anonymous kfg December 23, 2017 6:59 PM  

I reread the early Tarzan stories early in the year and was surprised, given my current perspective as an adult reader, both how well written and how well informed they were.

As it happens I put the complete Conan stories on my Kindle just a couple of weeks ago, so this is a rather serendipitous chance to follow along with Wright.

Solomon Kane is next on my list.

Blogger Robert Pinkerton December 23, 2017 7:16 PM  

Reading To Serve Man at an early age so many decades ago, convinced me that the very nadir, the most heinous expression possible, of "race treason," is human ingestion of human flesh, cannibalism.

Blogger Dire Badger December 23, 2017 7:31 PM  

I dunno, David Brin and Spider Robinson can compete pretty closely for Title of "John Scalzi of the 80's"

Blogger SteelPalm December 23, 2017 7:39 PM  

As I posed over on Castalia House,

"Damon Knight is clearly the godfather of the legions of cretinous, small-minded professional critics around today, like the ones who praise NK Jemisin or The Last Jedi.

And I only read the original Conan stories for the first time as an adult a few years ago, without the sheen of youthful eyes. I was nevertheless highly impressed by them as well as Howard’s abilities as a writer. There is also absolutely nothing easy or simplistic about a good adventure yarn. On the contrary, the relatively straightforward nature of the genre makes it more difficult to come up with something fresh and exciting, let alone enduring."

Also, it's always a treat when John C Wright writes an article over on the blog.

Blogger SteelPalm December 23, 2017 7:47 PM  

@19 Dire Badger

I dunno, David Brin and Spider Robinson can compete pretty closely for Title of "John Scalzi of the 80's"

I haven't read Spider Robinson, but David Brin? His earlier work is fantastic. The Postman (not the shit movie adaptation, but the original novel) is one of the best post-apocalyptic works I've read, and The River of Time one of the best, most creative science fiction short story collections. Brin is also a legitimate scientist with an undergrad degree in astrophysics from Caltech, my own alma mater. Astrophysics is considered one of the hardest majors there.

Perhaps you're not as big a fan of Brin, fine. But he certainly doesn't deserve to be compared to a pathetic hack like Scalzi, who has zero knowledge or background in science to boot.

Anonymous A. Nonymous December 23, 2017 8:04 PM  

Something about Conan always rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn't quite put my finger on it when I first encountered the character in my early teen years, but looking back now, I think what might have been sticking in my craw was an embryonic awareness that Howard's character was in some ways to real barbarian tribesmen as Rousseau's Noble Savage had been to the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas. After all, how much does Conan have in common with the Iceni, the Geats or the Angles? He seems almost completely detached from the sort of familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf, and instead just sort of aimlessly wanders around by himself on a vague quest for wealth and adventure. As such, the character really appears more like a peculiarly and specifically American breed of post-Christian savage, a Nietzschean, semi-deified individual, "entire of itself," than anything that a historical barbarian warrior would recognize as akin to himself.

Anonymous Morgan December 23, 2017 8:14 PM  

@22: "Instead just sort of aimlessly wanders around by himself on a vague quest for wealth and adventure."

Yes, not so much prehistoric barbarian but Mountain Man, 49er, Confederate soldier, buffalo hunter, cowboy, gambler, filibuster, sheriff. That is the cultural reference that Robert E. Howard drew upon.

Blogger Hunsdon December 23, 2017 8:16 PM  

So Conan as a uniquely American sort of barbarian?

I can live with that.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 23, 2017 8:35 PM  

@22 How much do you, "have in common with the Iceni, the Geats or the Angles?" What exactly are "the sort of familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf?" Your criticism is vacuous.

Anonymous A. Nonymous December 23, 2017 9:04 PM  

Yes, not so much prehistoric barbarian but Mountain Man, 49er, Confederate soldier, buffalo hunter, cowboy, gambler, filibuster, sheriff.

Not so much the Confederate or the sheriff, I think, but yes.

So Conan as a uniquely American sort of barbarian?

I can live with that.


Unfortunately, so must then the rest of the Western world...

How much do you, "have in common with the Iceni, the Geats or the Angles?" What exactly are "the sort of familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf?" Your criticism is vacuous.

Your attempt at a rebuttal looks like a bit of a strawman. I'm not comparing myself to Conan in any way, shape or form, but rather observing that he's not really anything like an actual barbarian. As Morgan pointed out, he's more akin to a Wild West gunfighter (or other western loner archetype) than anything else.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 23, 2017 9:47 PM  

@26 No strawman; you put yourself forward as an authority on the Iceni, Geats and Angles. You also advanced the premise you are familiar with the "sort of familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf."

I think you're full of shite.

You know little of the Iceni, Geats, or, Angles (other that what you read in historical fiction and popular history), and you certainly have no command of the "....familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf."

You can't have command of the latter, because no one alive today has that command, as regards the former, you probably read Treece and imagine yourself in command of ancient British history.

Wanna learn something about ancient British/Irish/Welsh/Scottish/Hindu/Everyone Else mythology? Read a really ground breaking book on the subject. See:
https://www.amazon.com/Celtic-Gods-Comets-Irish-Mythology/dp/0752434446/ref=sr_1_17?ie=UTF8&qid=1514083045&sr=8-17&keywords=the+celtic+gods

Please note, I assume arguments from credulity/authority, and against credibility are forthcoming for this recommend. Regardless, this is what real ground breaking scholarship looks like. I always wondered about CuCullens' warp spasm and that whole nasty Maeve thing.....

Authors examine mythology and expose the flaw of assuming ancients thought like us....doing so they make the seemingly inexplicable, reasonable.

Howard had a great intuitive feel for the human condition, many scholars lack that and spend years hunting snarks and chasing chimeras. But they do get funding.....



Anonymous Redjack December 23, 2017 9:50 PM  

Knowing a few, that makes sense. Not in Every detail, but I can see it

Anonymous Mr. Rational December 23, 2017 10:06 PM  

Man of the Atom wrote:How appropriate that the only story he is known for is about cannibalism.
I've read several anthologies he edited.  Damn good, too.  Oddly, Wikipedia's bibliography for him does not list "To Serve Man".  What else does it omit?

@19  If you have not grasped the brilliance of the world from "Sundiver" to "The Uplift War", you have zero appreciation for science fiction.  Ditto the post-collapse dystopia of "The Postman".

Spider Robinson deserves acclaim for Callahan's Bar, if nothing else.

@21  Glad you didn't compare to Aaron Johnston.  A more pathetic hack is hard to imagine.

Blogger S1AL December 23, 2017 10:41 PM  

"He seems almost completely detached from the sort of familial and socio-religious pieties that would give meaning and structure to the life of a Boudica or a Beowulf, and instead just sort of aimlessly wanders around by himself on a vague quest for wealth and adventure."

Right. It's almost like his entire tribe was slaughtered or something...

Blogger Joe Keenan December 23, 2017 11:17 PM  

@30 Perhaps, he was a victim of over crowed Public Schools? It would explain alot!

Blogger Meng Greenleaf December 23, 2017 11:23 PM  

Iacobus wrote:Using Damon Knight's measure, that means that I can call Stephen King sick. In "Gerald's Game," he goes into lurid detail about the sexual molestation between a father and his daughter. It's what totally turned me off King.
This exact same thing happened to me. I was resentful for having been subjected to it, to be honest. I was a teenager at the time I read it.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 23, 2017 11:40 PM  

Stephen King is sick, prepubescent sex magic to kill the clown? It's pervy, he's sick. That being said, he has considerable innate skill as a writer/storyteller but sadly never really developed it to the extent he could have as that would have required him to develop.

IMHO, he best work was with Peter Straub, The Talisman.

Anonymous A. Nonymous December 24, 2017 2:33 AM  

I think you're full of shite.

So prove I'm wrong, then. Are Conan's loner tendencies, individualism and relatively lukewarm and skeptical attitude concerning magic and religion generally characteristic of real-life barbarian cultures?

Right. It's almost like his entire tribe was slaughtered or something...

Wasn't that a plot-point invented for the 1982 movie? Howard's "Cimmerians" are supposed to be the ancient ancestors of the Irish...

Anonymous chedolf December 24, 2017 2:34 AM  

Remember when people could discuss literature without using this ungainly term "trope" to signal sophistication?

Anonymous Ellipsis Lacuna December 24, 2017 3:44 AM  

Just because Howard didn't give Conan explicit back-story to explain why he's a loner or freebooter, doesn't mean he doesn't have one. Maybe he's been exiled from his people for some real or imagined slight against the chiefs/kings and has to redeem himself before he can return. Or something like that.

Blogger VD December 24, 2017 5:12 AM  

I dunno, David Brin and Spider Robinson can compete pretty closely for Title of "John Scalzi of the 80's"

No, they are both too talented to qualify. Brin especially.

Blogger S1AL December 24, 2017 8:22 AM  

"Wasn't that a plot-point invented for the 1982 movie? Howard's "Cimmerians" are supposed to be the ancient ancestors of the Irish..."

I'll have to reread, but I thought it was mentioned in one of the stories. If it wasn't, it's heavily implied I'm a couple of places.

And aren't the "Cimmerians" a stand-in for the pre-Celts? Conan is described as being... swarthy? I can't remember the exact term. It's been a while since I read them.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 9:03 AM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 9:06 AM  

@34 Again, you speak with an underserved confidence on a subject that is little more than speculation. What "real life barbarian cultures" do you allude to, an Amazonian rainforest tribe? Our understanding of ancient cultures is often through the writings of their enemies; for example, Caeser on the Gauls. You would do well to take such scholarship with a grain of salt.

Anonymous Tars Tarkas December 24, 2017 10:11 AM  

Otis Kline very much imitated Burroughs and mostly did a good job of it. While not as good as ERB, he wasn't trying poison the type of fiction ERB was publishing.

Anonymous A. Nonymous December 24, 2017 12:21 PM  

Just because Howard didn't give Conan explicit back-story to explain why he's a loner or freebooter, doesn't mean he doesn't have one. Maybe he's been exiled from his people for some real or imagined slight against the chiefs/kings and has to redeem himself before he can return. Or something like that.

Didn't he leave home to roam the world because his grandfather's tales of far-off lands infected him with wanderlust?

And aren't the "Cimmerians" a stand-in for the pre-Celts? Conan is described as being... swarthy? I can't remember the exact term. It's been a while since I read them.

I want to say "bronzed," "tawny" or "weathered," although since Conan seems to fall into the same general dark-haired, blue/grey-eyed physical mould as Aragorn (another "Atlantean" off-shoot of sorts), I'd expect that absent constant exposure to the elements he'd actually be naturally quite pale.

Again, you speak with an underserved confidence on a subject that is little more than speculation. What "real life barbarian cultures" do you allude to, an Amazonian rainforest tribe? Our understanding of ancient cultures is often through the writings of their enemies; for example, Caeser on the Gauls. You would do well to take such scholarship with a grain of salt.

If you can't actually answer the question then stop throwing such a tantrum over it. It's not as though the idea that Conan is essentially an American in barbarian clothing somehow insulted your mother or killed your dog.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 2:50 PM  

@42 Bold talk from a blustering know nothing. Try advancing a salient point, again, what "real life barbarian culture" do you speak to? Do you refer with de Campian disdain to 2nd and 3rd worlders as your barbarians? Or, perhaps, you mean someone who chews with their mouth open, or wears white after Labor Day? Please educate me, supply the context so sadly lacking in your perspective. What you believe to be plainly self evident is anything but.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 2:55 PM  

@38 Yes, the Cimmerians were stand-ins for the Celts. Conan is an Irish/Celtic name (there even being numerous Irish saints named Conan). It's interesting to me that both Howard and Tolkien had a legend regarding a drowned land in NW Europe. For Howard, it was Cimmeria, for Tolkien, Beleriand.

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 3:04 PM  

For an interesting examination of how such a event might have occurred and given rise to the Atlantis myth, see:

https://www.amazon.com/Atlantis-Geographers-Perspective-Ulf-Erlingsson/dp/0975594605/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1514145477&sr=8-7&keywords=atlantis+perspective

see also:
https://www.amazon.com/Baltic-Origins-Homers-Epic-Tales/dp/1594770522/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1514145689&sr=8-1&keywords=baltic+origins+of+homers+epic+tales

If nothing else, Vinci shows how myths may move as peoples migrate. What people think of as "Greek" myths may have their origin in another place and a distant past.

Blogger Snidely Whiplash December 24, 2017 3:59 PM  

Cimmeria was an ancient kingdom in what is now Ukraine. They conquered much of Lydia in Anatolia in the 7th century BC, before being driven out by the Assyrians. Virtually nothing is know about where they came from, their culture or their language, and they left little identifiable mark on history or even archaeology.
As was fashionable in the 20's and 30s, many tribes in the West claimed to be descended from them, including some American Irish.
The Greeks sometime claimed that in their homeland they lived in perpetual darkness, and you will sometimes see the Cimmerian applied to caverns.

Joe Keenan wrote:It's interesting to me that both Howard and Tolkien had a legend regarding a drowned land in NW Europe. For Howard, it was Cimmeria, for Tolkien, Beleriand.

One of the most traumatic events of Western European prehistory was the drowning of Doggerland. Several million square kilometers of prime lowland hunting ground were inundated by sea level rise caused by the draining of glacial Lake Agassiz.
It could also be an echo of the massive tsunami caused by the Storegga Slide, which wiped out essentially every coastal human population on the North Sea

Blogger Joe Keenan December 24, 2017 7:34 PM  

@46 Well done. You're of course correct regarding the Cimmeria of Modern Times, however, Howard's Cimmeria was destroyed in a cataclysm and disappeared beaneath the waves. The parallel is eerily similar to Tolkiens Beleriand (IMHO).

Vinci contends that with the decline of the climatic optimum peoples were forced south from the northern regions (pole), bringing their mythos with them. Some of these migrants were the Dorians, Hebrews, and Sea Peoples.

There are other works that tie these destructions, which are sperated by centuries, to comets (see, recommend in post 27). See also, the Coherent Catastrophism of Clube and Napier http://www.pibburns.com/catastro/clubenap.htm

The drowning of Doggerland is the heart of the first recommend (post 45), the book is short, but the thesis amazing, the scholarship top notch, and there is that book a flash of genius. As you say, the Storegga Slide and and the draining of Lake Agassiz devastated ancient European coastal civilization, author advances the very same thesis. As I read the book I thought of the ineluctable wave of JRRT and his son John's dreams. Made me wonder if there was something to those memories.

Anonymous my name is Nate Higgers December 25, 2017 2:26 PM  

I always wondered whether Howard and Tolkien were thinking of legends of Atlantis when they wrote those parts. I don't claim any particular expertise on either one of them, of course.

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