Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Retro-Futurism 3: Conan the Barbarian

There is a vast, unrecorded period of human history.  Roughly 18,000 years passed unrecorded from the latest suggested period of Neanderthal interaction with Cro-Magnons up to the Bronze Age.  This is the realm of fantasy associated with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard.  The Stone Age began in Africa roughly 2.7 million years ago.  The transition from Stone Age cultures to metal-using technologies is in fact much later than Conan's fictional period: "the transition out of the Stone Age occurred between 6000 BCE and 2500 BCE for much of humanity living in North Africa, Asia and Europe." In Europe the transition to the Iron Age took place around 1,200 BCE.  Howard, like many others, placed the Iron Age much earlier in time than it actually occurred.  The author, best known for his 1930s pulp heroes, the Atlantean warrior Kull and the post-Atlantean Conan the Barbarian, portrayed the Prehistoric Iron Age period.  But Howard's 'Hyborian Age' for Conan is set from 14,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE - approximately 13,000 to 9,000 years too early.

The Prehistoric world during the so-called 'Hyborian Age,' as conceived by Howard. By Christophe Fernandez.

Wiki: "Howard's Hyborian epoch, described in his essay The Hyborian Age ... is a mythical time before any civilization known to anthropologists. Its setting is Europe and North Africa (with occasional references to Asia and other continents; e.g. Mayapan, representing the American continent) – with some curious geological changes somewhat similar to what geologists theorize."  Thus Howard's Eurasia and Africa do resemble scientists' estimations of what these continents looked like in the Prehistoric period

Vincent Darlage's Conan fan site and the site, The Hyboran Age, give detailed analyses of Conan's development as a character.

The whole Conan mythos was an attempt to write a fictional lost history of the period defined by its lack of history.  In an essay entitled, "The Hyborian Age," Howard outlined his understanding of this period in order to maintain quasi-historical consistency within his stories.  He also wove his Prehistoric history inside and outside fictional and non-fictional realities.  Wiki: "In describing the Cataclysmic end of the Thurian Age, the period described in his Kull stories, Howard linked both sequences of stories into one shared universe. Other stories would establish links to real life as well - The Haunter of the Ring, set in the modern age [and part of Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos], contains a Hyborian artifact, and Kings of the Night brings King Kull forward in time to fight the Roman legions." Howard established the real Gaelic tribes as Cimmerian descendants.  And Howard felt compelled  to give Conan's period a fictitious Nemedian Chronicle, describing Conan's Prehistoric period as the 'Hyborian Age,' situated between The Pre-Cataclysmic Age of Kull (circa 20,000 BCE) and the onslaught of the Picts (circa 9,500 BCE):
"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and in the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet." - Excerpt from The Nemedian Chronicles
Why would an age defined by its lack of written history only make sense to us if we imagine it having a body of inscribed historic knowledge beyond oral songs and sagas?  Remember, this was a period that, as far as we know, long pre-existed the invention of writing.  In this regard, Howard's Nemedian Chronicle resembled H. P. Lovecraft's fascination with fictional written histories for periods that could have no written histories.  Lovecraft was obsessed with huge realms of lost human experience and hidden knowledge, concealed by spans of time so enormous that they existed beyond the reach of our capacity to remember them.  Lovecraft was equally preoccupied with modern quasi-scientific and rationalist methods of inquiry, as well as new theories, which opened up arcane branches of study.  He focussed on the notion that scholars' new research techniques might enable us to comprehend ages previously unavailable except through scraps of myth. And these fragments of myths would have been committed to writing at least 10,000 years after they were first established in oral traditions.  Lovecraft fixated on that incredible transition from oral to written traditions, even if he imagined that transition having taken place in an time signficantly earlier than actually occurred.  That is, Lovecraft assumed Prehistoric societies had written histories, when they did not. His stories often centred on a breakdown in that translation from oral to written cultures: of finding horror in things that were essentially unknowable once inscribed.  For him, the boundaries of human understanding were in fact the limits of memory, symbolized in cryptic, ancient written sources and artifacts.  He picked up on that theme from his predecessor, the British academic and ghost writer, M. R. James, whose ghost tales often depend upon some strange, unbearably old cultural artifact that a poor scholar comes across.  The artifact always unlocks terrible secrets of a hidden age.

Some quotes from Beyond the Black River, a 1935 Conan the Cimmerian story in Weird Tales 25/5-6 (May-June 1935) touch on clashing mentalities between early civilization and a declining, unbearably long period of savage human growth.  The full text of the story is hereConan is, pardon the pun, on the cutting edge between one eon and another - half-civilized with his faith in steel, half-barbaric in his willingness to use it:
"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind," the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. "Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."

"There's nothing in the universe cold steel won't cut," answered Conan. "I threw my ax at the demon, and he took no hurt, but I might have missed in the dusk, or a branch deflected its flight. I'm not going out of my way looking for devils; but I wouldn't step out of my path to let one go by."

"Civilized men laugh," said Conan. "But not one can tell me how Zogar Sag can call pythons and tigers and leopards out of the wilderness and make them do his bidding. They would say it is a lie, if they dared. That's the way with civilized men. When they can't explain something by their half-baked science, they refuse to believe it."
There is a link to quotations from Howard's stories here (full texts of the stories are available by clicking on the story titles on that page).  Full texts of Howard's stories, including his stories about Kull, are also under 'Howard' at Project Gutenberg here).  From 1970 to 1993, Marvel Comics picked the character up in the series Conan the Barbarian; since 2003, Conan has been adapted by Dark Horse Comics.

The opening to the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian - with its Iron Age mantra and its line, "no one in this world can you trust," leaving Conan to trust solely in the 'enigma of steel' - is on youtube here.

Jason Momoa as the Millennial Conan. Production photo released in July 2010, from the 2011 Conan the Barbarian remake.

Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer, game trailer (2009; released May 11, 2010). © Funcom.

Gamers have a whole gaming wiki devoted to the game, Age of Conan. Gaute Godager, original director of the MMORPG,  described the historical vision presented inside the game as follows: "The Hyborian Age is like a dark, decadent, twisted and corrupt version of Euro-Asian history. Mix a bit of the Roman Empire, Mongolian culture and Babylonian mysticism with '30s-era myths of undiscovered Africa."

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, Tarantia Commons, an inner look at a Prehistoric capital city, with plenty of anachronistic classical and medieval references (2009). © Funcom.
Age of Conan screenshot of Tarantia, the capital of the fictional country of Aquilonia. © Funcom.

Age of Conan, screenshot of your friendly neighbourhood Aquilonian priestess. © Funcom.

Age of Conan: Stygian man, concept art. © Funcom.

So how much of this imagery has any viable connection to history?  And from what periods?  And from where?  Almost everything in the fantasy realm of Conan is not Prehistoric.  It all looks classicalmedieval or later.  Compare the Stygian armour created by game designers above with Oxford's Samurai ceremonial armour from the 18th century (helmet from 1560).

This Japanese armour bears slightly more of a resemblance to the weapons used in the land of Stygia, than the actual weapons used in Prehistoric Egypt, upon which Stygia was based. One site on Ancient Egyptian weapons discusses the point at which swords were introduced, here.

Egyptian Archer. Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt.

According to the site, in Pharonic Egypt, warriors were primarily archers, not swordsmen, and except for the Pharaohs, they rarely wore armour: "The earliest metal arrowheads date from the 11th dynasty (ca. 2000 BCE), made of copper hardened by hammering. The principal weapon of the Egyptian army was the bow and arrow. Nubian mercenaries formed the best archery units ... . The infantry of the New Kingdom [1550 BCE - 1069 BCE] carried spears, battle axes, sickleswords and daggers. The sicklesword (MdC transliteration: xpS - khepesh or khopesh) came to Egypt from Syria, where Thutmose III used it first. There are many depictions of the gods handing the pharaoh this weapon of victory." Even when we consider ancient sources on warfare, there is still a gap of over 8,000 years between the supposed time of Conan's Stygia and the first appearance of metal arrowheads in Egypt.

The historical inaccuracy of imagery around Conan's fantastic Prehistory reveals that even in a time when we have huge resources for research and sophisticated techniques for comprehending the actual period prior to 10,000 BCE, we still have a great deal of trouble imagining it.  This is a hazard even for Palaeontologists, who devote their professional lives to studying these eras.  Recently some Paleo-Artists have been criticized for making their Neanderthals look too much like modern humans.  Other commentators argue that the more sympathetic view of Neanderthals which is now fashionable is a result of discovering DNA evidence confirming that many people today have Neanderthal genetic traces.  Beneath the interpretations, there are some real discoveries: on May 7, 2010, scientists from the University of Leipzig made history when they published the news that they had sequenced the Neanderthal genome.  All of this brings us closer to the Prehistoric age, with the caveat that we still find it very hard to comprehend, both in terms of its enormity and its true character.

As a result of our great difficulty understanding giant spans of time, each new decade recasts Conan's Prehistoric age to suit its values. Conan is really a Prehistoric mirror of how we see ourselvesHe's living Retro-History. Originally, Conan transmitted the values and hardships of the 1930s. Howard based Conan on contemporary men that he typically encountered:
It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact - his supernatural adventures aside - he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian." From a letter to Clark Ashton Smith from Robert E. Howard (23 July 1935)
This phenomenon of 'seeing our present in our past' may explain Conan's popularity. Bizarrely, he is in fact a cipher for our Information Age. As our knowledge of the past expands because of our foward-driving technological innovations, as our research into fields like Paeleontology becomes more sophisticated, as our genetic discoveries deepen, we ironically find out we are more Prehistoric than we think.  This leaves us searching through the rubble of a barbaric age, so that we may find and cling to something ineffably and irreduceably human while we confront the rising spectre of Posthumanism.

View all posts on redefining Retro-Futurism.

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