Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Those Lovely Barbarians

This is an article by my friend, qbany about barbarians clashing with civilized people. It is a story that borders a bit on RPGs but offers some deeper insights into roleplaying barbarians, one of the canonical classes in almost every fantasy RPG.

This article also represents my thoughts, because it was created after many nights of discussion with qbany about Robert E. Howard’s books…

So, let’s give the floor to qbany. BTW. He is not a roleplayer. 🙂 – Robert

In the mid-20s of the last centry, an American boy from Texas created the uncouth bully whose life boiled down to mug-slapping, drunken folly, and sexual exploits. That boy probably never would have suspected that he created one of the pop cultural icons of the 20th century.

A dozen short stories in which this barbarian was the hero built on the scheme “I came, I saw, I killed it” created a substrate for the growth of a new literary genre. Contemporary fiction featuring the mighty Conan of Cimmeria barges from ghetto pulp magazines for teenagers to pave the way to a place in high culture.

Conan’s path to fame was not easy. He had to fight face the postwar American culture censoring “politically incorrect” heroes. As such, the movie and the comic had to avoid eroticism, bold displays of public affection and and the suggestion that evil can (sometimes) win. The hero had to be clean and clear. Conan, well… he was a heart-breaker, but definitely not all the hearts. He often would go down on his knees (literally) to transform all women from simple slaves to powerful queens. Of course he could also love, but with his sometime heart of stone he was first attracted by buttocks (as with Valeria) or unrestrained topless dancing (as with Belite). Only after closer examination Conan was able to discover in them something he valued most and what the majority of women in his world were not – power and freedom.

In many ways he was an emanation of his literary father, Howard. As many know, REH had some problems with women that started with one in particular – the most important – his mother. This toxic relationship (for some, for others – true love), had a huge impact on Howard. So big, that after the death of his Mother he took his own life at barely 30 years old.

Over the years we did not know anything about relationships with other women. Howard’s relationship with his mother was so powerful that many thought he was homosexual. Only recently published books about REH’s life contain at least one mention of a mysterious “friend” of the author. Similar, decades passed to discover that Howard had not taken his life in despair after the death of an ailing mother. Well, the truth was somewhat different. Howard long planned suicide, waiting for his mother’s death. However, that – led by his filial love (or cowardice?) – do not hurt the world’s most beloved women. He felt very responsible for his mother: as long as she lived, he would take care of her. When she was gone, all reasons to continue his struggle with life were gone.

Howard’s Conan reminds of yet other ways that REH was a fan of physical culture. He himself practiced boxing. This is an important fact, and may be a key to understanding Conan. If Howard, tough guy, was so sensitive and emotionally complex, maybe Conan also concealed something more under that mountain of muscles?

Over the years, Conan adopted more of a predatory form in pop culture, especially since Schwarzenegger portrayed Conan on the big screen. Schwarzenegger has done a great service to Conan, but may have done some harm as well. On the positive side, he lit the flame of his barbarian splendor in his popularity. On the negative side, he portrayed a simplified version of the Cimmerian as a primitive killing machine.

“The main thing in life is to stand face to face with his greatest enemy, to see the blood soaking into the ground and hear the lamentation of his women.” These words, Conan’s in all their conciseness and cruelty, show only a fraction of the complex (let’s say it finally) psyche of the barbarian.

So pop culture simplified the character created by Howard, like big music labels do with uncompromising hip-hop bands. If the message is too difficult, or – God forbid – gets you to think, there is a need for intervention of force majeure. And this force shreds the message to the norms of average.

Ironically, pop culture by making a lobotomy of Conan did exactly what Howard warned of. He and Cimmerian had the same kind of fatalism: the progress of civilization in the name of destroying everything that is original and natural.

And this fact brings us to the point. Conan the barbarian lived in the civilized world. A world that recognized him as inferior and denied the right to exist. Most of the Conan’s battles were a clashes of cultures: civilization vs barbarism. Civilization is synonymous with progress but blind progress, at all costs. Progress in the name of progress. Howard’s book heroes are so choked with the world in which they live that they do not notice (and if it is, with contempt), the world that they destroy.

Howard continued to repeat the question throughout his stories: what is better, barbarism – cruel, but close to nature and sincere, or civilization – progressive but self-righteous, steeped in decadence and deceit.

In one scene, Conan, offended by someone, states that the barbarians are much more polite because they know that offending someone could result in breaking a skull. Brutal, but true. Especially when you scan the comments on the Internet forums. Armed with the Internet, one of civilizations greatest inventions, completely anonymous users hidden in their homes insult others. They use words which they would never use when speaking in person.

This does not mean that the Internet is bad. But it allows cowards, protected by the achievements of civilization, to discharge their frustrations with impunity.

This Conan-style way of thinking perfectly illustrates my recent conversation with a friend. He was irritated by some quarrel. I advised him to calm down and get some distance. He replied: “I am 36 years old, I do not want to get distance, I want to hit him in the face.”

Fatalism is granted Howard’s Conan, who lives with the knowledge of which (beyond intuition) he should not have. Every civilization faces the barbarians and loses in the end. The civilized world, which Conan “fights” with and the king of which – ironically – he becomes one day, has grown in the ruins of another civilization. And what’s more, in the not too distant time, as described by Howard, it will be under pressure from another wave of barbarians. They will crush civilization, and on its ruins they will build … their own. Barbarians will slowly forsake their barbarism, will look with contempt on the more primitive peoples, and years later they will also collapse under the weight of another, more vital wave of barbarians.

The funny thing is that both sides of this conflict really consider themselves to be … better. Just as the European conquistadors, emissaries of Western civilization, have turned to dust wonderful, but barbaric – in European opinion – empires in Latin America. Although I think for the Inca or Aztec this relationship
was different: civilized ancient empires collapsing under the weight of primitive hordes of filthy, disease spreading, gold worshiping, Europeans.

Howard did not deny that civilization as such. Yes, he condemned it faults. But he was aware that it is hard to save civilization. To turn one more time into a people uncompromising, vigorous and honest. Conan the King was trying to do it. For example, bringing religious freedom. He, a representative of a lower caste – turned the class system upside down. He choose a slave for his queen.

Howard argues: You can save civilization from the abyss of decadence if you move away from all powerful fanatics. Pride precedes the fall in fact. A bit of fresh air to the atmosphere steeped in the company of his own stench.

But getting the civilization to lose belly of his own greatness is not easy. Conan the King was resisted by those who were against new orders. Orders established by… a barbarian. In defense of the status quo they set up a plot to overthrow the king. So he was betrayed! Conspirators use one of the rich “tools of civilization” which Conan disgusted so much. I bet that he would choose a more fair approach – like inviting the conspirators into the kings hall and… hitting them in the face…


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2 comments to Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Those Lovely Barbarians

  • This is an interesting read.

    “Conan the barbarian lived in the civilized world. A world that recognized him as inferior and denied the right to exist. Most of the Conan’s battles were a clashes of cultures: civilization vs barbarism. Civilization is synonymous with progress but blind progress, at all costs. Progress in the name of progress.”

    I posted a number of things related with a part of the ideas in the article. Between others:

    About ‘Manifesto against Progress: Preface to the Indian Edition’:

    Apology of Barbarism: “The urban reality we live in has shrunk the world, narrowing it. Heaven, hell, nature, the hero and his ordeals, sylphs, fairies … All that was taken out and relegated beyond civilization, beyond the city, indicted of primitivism. Those who continued believing in such realities and their heirs agreed to being called the new barbarians. But here it is that such barbarian world is now striving for its return, rising up against the values and style of the city, which is seen as the virus which is necessary to kill or destroy culturally. Therefore, our age seems to be a new borderline epoch: a transition to new times, fully loaded with apocalyptic signs. Let’s see how fantasy literature announces this, along with fringe movements in the city and the mysterious appearances. This is the time of postmodernity.” (

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