Conan the Barbarian and Christian the Pilgrim

I recently penned the last entry to a project, begun in 2014, to review all the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard in their publication order. This would seem an apt time to add an afterthought on the perennial question, the selfsame by which Alcuin admonished the monks of Lindisfarne, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”

In the war between the pagan Germans and the civilized Romans of Christendom, Robert E. Howard, author of the far-famed Conan of Cimmeria, was clearly on the side of the German barbarians, our enemies.

So why do we read him and love him?

The question is how can a Christian admire Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, which are tales of lurid violence and buccaneering most unchristian in tone and content?

My answer is that the Catholic Church is truly catholic.

If we can baptize and preserve pagan things, from Aristotle to Boethius, and use pagan myths for decoration and inspiration, we can use pulp things. We are not Puritans nor Iconoclasts nor Muslims who seek for the purity of God by destroying statues raised to God.

But how is this baptism to be accomplished? By seeking the common thing, the common ground, we share with Conan.

All hearts are restless until they come to rest in God, so that any manifestation of that restlessness can serve Christian ends.

My answer is that there are times, rightly or wrongly, when we feel we live in a hypocritical, corrupt and cowardly age, an age which frustrates the natural human instincts of life; and so therefore we often yearn for something honest, clean and brave: and our imagination turns to the wilderness.

In the wilderness, no matter how feral and cruel, there is at least none of the nothing of the foetor of putrefaction our nostrils sometimes whiff in proud, crowded and bejeweled cities of civilization.

Siegfried raised by a dark elf or Tarzan raised by apes or Romulus, Remus and Mowgli raised by wolves are all imaginative answers to this yearning. They are men from outside civilization, and therefore they share none of the weaknesses and falsehoods we see in our world.

But please notice these examples hale from Germanic and Roman myths, from Kipling in the Victorian Age and Edgar Rice Burroughs in the years between two World Wars.  So whatever it is in civilization that stirs men to discontent existed in early Rome, and in every other place civilization has grown.

The appeal is almost entirely pitched to young men. Young men are no longer children, but their frustration with the complex rules of how to live, especially if those rules are arbitrary or demand a type of politeness which seems to the impatient soul of youth to be play-acting.

The necktie and clean white shirt demanded of polite society seem to constrict and strangle: he wants to rip off his shirt and go loping through the wood, howling like a wolf and laughing. He wants not to get a lawyer to sue his enemies but to get a sharp bright sword to smite them.

But let us not be hasty to condemn young men and their violent impulses. Keep in mind that young men are young, which means, young men have not much experience in the world, and that includes not experience enough to know his own character.

The youth is restless because he does not know himself; he has not suffered the baptism of fire disaster and emergency and horrid war imposes on the young men to make them heroes. Until a youth is tested by danger he does not know his own nature, he has not proved himself, he does not know if he will pass the test; therefore naturally his imagination dwells on desperate acts and violent battle, and he hungers for such tales.

It is a right and proper hunger: we can be sure that Saint George and the other battle saints heard stories of the glory and woe of war with just such a hunger when they were young.

Allow me at this point to quote myself, because I have spoken of this idea before:

“The appeal of High Fantasy is that it is Catholic: its mood and atmosphere and tropes hearken back to the High Middle Ages, when Europe was Christendom, and kings were not the heads of churches.

“Now, to be sure, to any reader not quite carried away by the Romance of medievalism, or whom the air and atmosphere of Catholicism makes him wretch like Gollum tasting an elfin wafer of bread from the Golden Wood, will not be carried away by the appeal of High Fantasy, the epics of Tolkien and Mallory and Morris and their epigones.

“But he might still like Low Fantasy, the sword and sorcery of Howard and his imitators.

“I do not regard “Low” Fantasy as a low term or an insult, because I like the tastes of the common man. Low Fantasy is based on an air and atmosphere which once again, I hesitate to mention, or whose secrets to reveal, for fear that it will lose its subversive or superversive power over the unwary.

“At the risk of offending my Protestant friends, Low Fantasy is Protestant and Germanic in much the same way that High Fantasy is Catholic and Gallic.

“Consider the philosophy and attitude, either spoken or implied, in the exploits of Conan the Barbarian. The assumptions of the modern world are cowardly and dishonorable assumptions, and Low Fantasy undermines them by showing the reader a glimpse of a world where the strength of a man’s arm decided the triumph or downfall of cities, and the honor of his word and the courage of his heart decided the strength of that arm.

“After the Reformation, it was all the rage among English intellectuals and apologists for the New English way of life to demean and despise the old England. Protestant England did whatever it could to divorce itself from the reality of Catholic England, and this required an entirely new version of history, or, to use the technical term, a whopping pack of lies, to replace the memory of the land.

“So instead of England being part of the Roman World, and instead of the land who received Brutus as founder or whose green hills welcomed the Grail borne by Joseph of Arimathea, or whose cities sent Constantine to the Throne, the revised version of history make England a colony of a mythical race called Teutons, and all the Roman customs and Catholic attitudes and institutions, such as the free elections by which abbots and mayors of burgh were elevated, were attributed to German savages and pirate chiefs. Anyone reading these words, which are in English, no doubt has heard and absorbed the English version of history without being aware that there is any other.

“German scholars and Protestants performed a similar amputation of historical facts and made a similar effort to Romanticize the only elements of Late Antiquity with whom modern civilization had no trace and from which it takes no inspiration: the filth and barbarism of slave-holding savages beyond the rim of the universal and ecumenical Empire. The romantic view of barbarism attributed to them powers they did not posses, such as the ability to overthrow civilizations. The Empire collapsed from internal rot, and the barbarians were invited in, and became Romans, and were baptized as Christians.

“But we need not trouble ourselves with debates between visions and revisions of history now: all this to one side, even if the English view of history were admitted as accurate, it must be admitted also that it portrays barbaric life as the source of a healthy liberty and manly fortitude seen to be lacking, or feared to be lacking, in modern life: modern philosophers from Rosseau to Hegel to Nietzsche onward often criticize civilization as weakening the nerves of discipline and emasculating the raw splendor of the Noble Savage.

“A love of the savage darkness of barbarism, like a love of civilization of the Dark Ages, is subversive of the smoggy darkness of an industrialized, unromantic, and spiritually dead modernity. The appeal of Low Fantasy is that sometimes a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of splitting the shrieking skulls of brutes and crooked warlocks with an ax, while his vision turns red with invincible rage, and his ax-arm up to his armpit red with blood.

“If you scoff that I call Low Fantasy ‘blue-collar’ I ask you where, were he transported to the modern day, we would be more likely to find Conan brooding over his drink: a restaurant serving fine wine from France, or a Honky-Tonk serving beer? Where would Conan have more amplitude to act like Conan, in the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or in the hills of West Virginia, where (as we all know from the true histories of Silver John by Manly Wade Wellman) warlocks still in darkness lurk?”

In short, Conan can be our ally for the same reason Siegfried or Romulus and Remus can be baptized in our imagination and become Christian figures: namely, they express discontent with worldly things, with wealth, with factory-work and routine, with lies and flattery, and with cowardice, above all, discontent with cowardice. That discontent is the same thing which makes the Christian turn his back on the world and all its false pleasures and vanities.

The barbarian is, of course, a figure that can be used as an antichristian one, because he represents the iconoclast, the Alaric who sacks of Rome.  But he can be used just as adroitly, if not more so, as a Christian figure.

If you have ever read PILGRIM’S PROGRESS (required reading for all Protestants, but Catholics can get some edification from it as well) you recall it begins with the pilgrim, aptly named Christian, thrusting his fingers in his ears and running away from the City of Destruction, shouting to himself “Life! Eternal life!”

The difference between Conan the barbarian and Christian the Pilgrim is that the Pilgrim departs from the city, seeking something better, whereas Conan sacks the city: but any foe of the City of Destruction is an ally of ours, whether he knows it or not.

Faith and Hope and Charity are the virtues unique to Christian faith, but we Christians also need the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Courage. There are other stories found elsewhere concerning Faith and Hope and Charity, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice.

Indeed the entire Detective story genre is concerned with nothing but justice.

But then there are also these stories, adventure stories, historical and fantasy adventure set in pagan times and lands, which concern, above all, courage.