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Author Topic: PC268: The Phoenix on the Sword, Featuring Conan the Barbarian  (Read 7133 times)
Talia
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« on: July 12, 2013, 08:11:24 AM »

PodCastle 268: The Phoenix on the Sword, Featuring Conan the Barbarian

by Robert E. Howard

Read by Graeme Dunlop (of Cast of Wonders)

Originally published in Weird Tales. Read it chapter by chapter starting here!

The room was large and ornate, with rich tapestries on the polished-panelled walls, deep rugs on the ivory floor, and with the lofty ceiling adorned with intricate carvings and silver scrollwork. Behind an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his actions. Either he was perfectly at rest—still as a bronze statue—or else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him.

His garments were of rich fabric, but simply made. He wore no ring or ornaments, and his square-cut black mane was confined merely by a cloth-of-silver band about his head.

Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him. This person was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was taking up the laces of his gold-chased armor, and abstractedly whistling—a rather unconventional performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.

“Prospero,” said the man at the table, “these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting I have done never did.”

“All part of the game, Conan,” answered the dark-eyed Poitainian. “You are king—you must play the part.”


Rated PG. Contains violence, and monsters.

Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
« Last Edit: July 31, 2013, 09:04:51 PM by Talia » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: July 12, 2013, 02:57:17 PM »

So, what I've learned from this episode (and the previous Conan story) is that I really, REALLY don't like Conan stories.

Ah, well. Next week won't be Conan. Smiley
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Jec
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« Reply #2 on: July 12, 2013, 09:42:43 PM »

 Yes! More Conan please! Robert E. Howard has a way with the dark and mysterious.  Great reading also btw.
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Moritz
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« Reply #3 on: July 13, 2013, 06:34:38 AM »

I don't like Robert E. Howard's writing style and I hate his attitude towards heroism, towards women, towards non-Europeans. That being said, I think it's good that PodCastle occasionally features a Conan story because the series is one of the pillars of the genre. To know where we can go to, we need to know where we're coming from.
So I basically wholeheartedly agree with what Dave said in his intro (or was it the outro?).

I am really looking forward to something more worthwhile next week though. Hey, you can't appreciate what's good until you know the bad stuff...  Wink

(edit:) The reading was OK, I think Conan would be funnier with music and more over the top acting.
« Last Edit: July 13, 2013, 06:41:25 AM by Moritz » Logged
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« Reply #4 on: July 13, 2013, 12:45:00 PM »

I really liked this, though I have the same knee-jerk liberal response as most to the broad strokes of basically orientalist evil dark wizard stuff. I'm trying to 'listen past' this and hear what about the crafting of these kinds of works made them so popular. A similar attempt was motivated by Pseudopod's decision to run a Rudyard Kipling story, where the argument put forward was that to avoid an author because someone told you he was a racist robs you of the opportunity to decide for yourself whether or not they are a racist. The jury is still out for me on whether you should continue reading that author afterward, but dammit, Robert E. Howard's writing worked. And you can hear the difference in quality, no matter how purple the prose may be, which made so many readers devotees. I like Kipling too, but yeah that guy is a racist, you should read his stuff.
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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #5 on: July 13, 2013, 04:40:56 PM »

Thank you guys for working so hard to bring us this story. I was actually having a bit of a downer day at work, but listening to this really brightened my day. I mean, if Conan can cleave through enemies, usurpers, and horrible beasties with little to no complaint, I can handle a computer server letting me down, right?

Reading was great. With the build-up for the narrator's version of Conan's voice, I was eagerly awaiting the barbarian to start talking, and I was not disappointed. Graeme is always awesome though, so I wasn't really concerned about it.

Overall, it was a fun story. Sometimes I just want to watch a big, beefy guy beat up a bad guy, and no one does that better than Conan.
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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #6 on: July 13, 2013, 04:44:04 PM »

I really liked this, though I have the same knee-jerk liberal response as most to the broad strokes of basically orientalist evil dark wizard stuff. I'm trying to 'listen past' this and hear what about the crafting of these kinds of works made them so popular. A similar attempt was motivated by Pseudopod's decision to run a Rudyard Kipling story, where the argument put forward was that to avoid an author because someone told you he was a racist robs you of the opportunity to decide for yourself whether or not they are a racist. The jury is still out for me on whether you should continue reading that author afterward, but dammit, Robert E. Howard's writing worked. And you can hear the difference in quality, no matter how purple the prose may be, which made so many readers devotees. I like Kipling too, but yeah that guy is a racist, you should read his stuff.

I don't think the simple act of reading or listening to works by artists with different views from yourself is a bad act. I don't think the Kipling or Horward estate is putting any current funds towards bringing slavery back, so I don't see the point of boycotting their works just because the authors had unsavory and unethical thoughts. It doesn't make you racist to read and enjoy The Jungle Book or some Conan stories, just like reading Lolita does not make you a pedophile.
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« Reply #7 on: July 13, 2013, 06:19:06 PM »

Thank you guys for working so hard to bring us this story. I was actually having a bit of a downer day at work, but listening to this really brightened my day. I mean, if Conan can cleave through enemies, usurpers, and horrible beasties with little to no complaint, I can handle a computer server letting me down, right?

Reading was great. With the build-up for the narrator's version of Conan's voice, I was eagerly awaiting the barbarian to start talking, and I was not disappointed. Graeme is always awesome though, so I wasn't really concerned about it.

Overall, it was a fun story. Sometimes I just want to watch a big, beefy guy beat up a bad guy, and no one does that better than Conan.

Utterly epic fight scene. I'd no idea he'd throw the demon-thing into the fray with the conspirators. Loved the voice on the poet too.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2013, 10:18:38 AM »

(edit:) The reading was OK, I think Conan would be funnier with music and more over the top acting.
Flash Gordon meets Captain Kirk style?

I have nothing to add to the discussion about the story at this point, because I haven't listened to it yet. Saw that it was over an hour long, but I only had 10 minutes. So I listened to Dave's endcaps.
First of all, to Dave and everybody involved (Peter, Anna, Anne, MK and probably someone else I've forgotten): we really appreciate the hard work you (plural) put into this podcast. We show this appreciation by sending money, providing feedback and waking up in the middle of the night just to exclaim "Damn but those people put a lot of work into this. Thank you.".
Second of all, to those of us having the "knee jerk liberal response" (not a phrase I would choose to use, but will use now that it has already been used by a person having that reaction): grow up. Not everything is about political or social views. Sometimes the author's personal world view can make itself apparent in his writing *coughDickenscough*, but more often than not it's just a reflection of the time that the story was written in. "The times they are a changin'." What was known as "solid fact" 50 years ago is bigotry and heresy today. If you can't handle reading/listening to a story from a different historical context, than maybe you shouldn't. You cannot judge people of a hundred years ago by today's standards. And 50 years from now I hope that my grandchildren don't judge me by their standards.
Writers write for two reasons: because they are writers, and because they want to share stories. (not mutually exclusive reasons, BTW)
No matter what the reason for writing the story is, the author is in a certain context, that includes political and social views widely held as fact either by him and everyone around him, or by his specific target audience (I used male pronouns here, but this is obviously true for authors of all genders). Don't judge him for that, especially by today's standards. Just enjoy the story for its qualities as a story, or don't. But do not blame current popular beliefs for you disliking the story.

That enough controversy for you, Dave?
« Last Edit: July 14, 2013, 10:21:07 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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Moritz
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« Reply #9 on: July 14, 2013, 01:21:13 PM »

Oh, I have to strongly disagree. Lovecraft and Howard are racists. Period. There are hundreds of authors of that time who weren't. Take a look at HG Wells, who lived a bunch of decades before them - way more humanistic and un-bigotted worldview. If I think of German immigrant authors who had to flee Germany in the 1930s - way more humanist writing than Howard (I am taking the example because I am not that well read in American 1930s literature)

(Besides I also don't like Lovecraft's and Howard's writing style regardless of my political position)
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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #10 on: July 14, 2013, 06:56:11 PM »

Oh, I have to strongly disagree. Lovecraft and Howard are racists. Period. There are hundreds of authors of that time who weren't. Take a look at HG Wells, who lived a bunch of decades before them - way more humanistic and un-bigotted worldview. If I think of German immigrant authors who had to flee Germany in the 1930s - way more humanist writing than Howard (I am taking the example because I am not that well read in American 1930s literature)

(Besides I also don't like Lovecraft's and Howard's writing style regardless of my political position)

I don't know if the argument is whether or not they are racists persay, but if their work should still be widely distributed and hailed because of their racist views, and if that work itself should be judged based off of the writer's viewpoints. If it is the earlier point, I completely agree with you. They judged other's inferior based solely on the color of their skin and their place of origin, ergo, by definition, they were racists.

However, as I stated earlier, I don't think that these mindsets disallow us from reading and enjoying their works. I think it would be small minded of us as readers to do that.

Of course, if you don't like them for other reasons, that's more than cool. I just think disliking certain works solely on the fact that author was a racist or anything else is a disservice to the art.

This does not apply if the money you give to the author in exchange for such work is currently going to things that you find morally apprehensible. In that case, for sure, boycott it and don't let your money be used for icky things you disagree with.

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Moritz
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« Reply #11 on: July 15, 2013, 03:18:36 PM »

We agree here, I read stuff by all kinds of assholes, be they racists or sexist or whatever. What I have problems with, as mentioned above, is the "child of their time" statement.
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« Reply #12 on: July 16, 2013, 07:41:48 AM »

Thanks Podcastlonians for all your hard work to get the episodes out!  You guys rock!

The story wasn't bad.  The only other Conan story that I've read is the one that ran here, and since that one was my first exposure I wasn't sure if Conan always chased lustily after women and claimed it was sorcery that done it.  Good to see that not happen here.  In the end, kind of a Hollywood action flick--nothing that I found substantial, but enough happening that I didn't get bored.
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« Reply #13 on: July 18, 2013, 11:54:11 PM »

Wow. This was interesting from the points that 1) the motley crew of noble nuts coming after Conan, and 2) the fact this wasn't originally a Conan story, which is a little disappointing, but it was still fun.
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« Reply #14 on: July 20, 2013, 12:49:43 PM »

This story brought up two of the more interesting and less well-known facts about Conan:

1) Howard struggled with depression his entire life eventually succumbing and killing himself after the death of his mother. The way he described Cimmeria and Conan's own way of living are very different in that context, aren't they? In a way, I think, Cimmeria and Crom really represent Howard's own psyche. A dark and gloomy country, full of grim men, where life is only slightly better than death and there is no hope, here or hereafter. And Conan is the part of Howard that clings to life, drinking and laughing and struggling to stay alive. And Conan is constantly in danger, but I can't help but imagine that all of the things trying to kill Conan are really Howard's own self-destructive impulses, because depression is a country that you can't ever really leave.

2) In a weird way, the Conan stories really are the pre-history of Lovecraft's mythos. The strange and primordial creatures from beyond space and time that can never be permanently defeated, only temporarily repelled. Civilization as a thin veneer, a pleasant lie that preserves us from sanity-blasting realities. Of course, Conan deals with these things very differently from a Lovecraft protagonist. Where Lovecraft's heroes tend to shriek and faint and go mad, Conan just punches Cthulhu in the face.

Anyway, I have always been charmed by Conan in general and this story in particular. A lot of the imagery in this series - and this story - has made a deep impact on me, and it's always fun to see where the bits and pieces of it have crept into the larger world of fantasy. For example, those steps in the tomb, where the inlay is the image of the defeated primordial god... not only is that incredibly awesome and evocative, but did you know that in the relatively recent RPG Exalted, that exact image is repeated? There's a location described in a supplement in which the floor of the grand ballroom is inlaid with the silhouettes of the primordials, the mad and evil creator-beings who the main characters defeated in their past lives.

There's a lot to be critical of in Conan. It isn't a series that has a lot to say to women, for example, and while that's not the end of the world - there are stories out there written for women that don't have a lot to say to men, and that's ok, too - the exclusively boy's club aspect of fantasy fiction is something we are trying to leave behind us.

By the way, this is not true of the later Conan stories written by Robert Jordan. Not to speak ill of the dead... but I could not force my way through those. Holy cow, did Jordan have issues. The Howard Conan stories are all about Conan's manly self kicking manly butt, with occasional women to be saved (and occasionally, women that Conan needs to save himself from, or women who don't actually need his help - it's surprising, but true), but at least they are consistent. Some of the women Conan meets aren't very capable in the realm of stabbing and killing, but the self-rescuing princesses (well, pirate queen) don't suddenly turn into pitiful little girls when Conan's mighty thews are around. The Jordan stories - well, the first one that I couldn't get through, I don't know about the rest - in fact feature a powerful noblewoman known as a competent fighter and hunter... who completely loses her sh*t when Conan is around and needs to be perpetually saved from rapists and usurpers. It's insane.

The race issues are also problematic. On the one hand, I have found in reading the entire Howard cannon of Conan stories that it isn't as bad as you'd think. There's a certain... dwelling on the different ethnicities that are uncomfortable to a modern reader. However, there isn't a sense that any of them are better than any other. They have racial characteristics, sure, but it isn't like the Aquilonians are noble and honest while the Zamorans are sneaky and criminal. Some Aquilonians are good and some are bad, and some Zamorans are good and some are bad, and so are Stygians and Hyperboreans and so on. What's awkward today is that Aqulionians are all good or bad in a distinctly Aquilonian way.

We don't like to think of race working that way - and, in fact, it doesn't - but in a way, it's progressive. Had Conan been written by a lot of Howard's contemporaries, one or two of the races - probably the Aquilonians - would have had the market cornered on goodness, a couple - the non-Anglo European types - would have been the sort of people you can deal with, but never really trust, and the rest - particularly the Stygians (black people) and probably Khitains (asians) - would have been inevitably antagonists. The fact that Howard spreads his good and evil around all the races is remarkable for his time, though the focus on race is uncomfortable to us today.

I could go on about the idea of "ethnofantasy," and how there is some stuff about it that I continue to find interesting - basically, I think a story about the limited reality and nigh-unlimited perception that one's heritage determines one's character and destiny, and the tension between that and free will, would be really neat - but this comment has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say that I love Conan - especially this story - and I think that it remains relevant to fantasy today, not just as picture of where we've been, but as something we can continue to learn from going forward.
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« Reply #15 on: July 20, 2013, 12:57:45 PM »

Oh, I have to strongly disagree. Lovecraft and Howard are racists. Period. There are hundreds of authors of that time who weren't. Take a look at HG Wells, who lived a bunch of decades before them - way more humanistic and un-bigotted worldview. If I think of German immigrant authors who had to flee Germany in the 1930s - way more humanist writing than Howard (I am taking the example because I am not that well read in American 1930s literature)

(Besides I also don't like Lovecraft's and Howard's writing style regardless of my political position)

I wrote a longer post about this above, but I don't think that Lovecraft and Howard are in the same boat. The Conan stories were practically egalitarian by his time's standards. While Lovecraft inevitably writes dark-skinned people as bad, thralls to the ancient and wicked primordial ways, while the Anglo-Saxon folks are purer, more civilized, and more removed from that ancient darkness, Howard distributes good and evil fairly evenly among his imaginary nations. What is true is that Howard dwells on race in a way that modern audiences find uncomfortable, because we don't like to think about race as a thing that determines your character and destiny.

What you've got to remember, though, is that the common wisdom of Howard's time was that race did do that. They believed that there were personality traits inherent in certain ethnicities. The worst of them placed a value judgment on these traits; the best simply viewed them as different. They didn't have genetics. They didn't know that the difference between a black person and a white person is no more genetically significant than the difference between a brown-eyed person and a blue-eyed person.

That said, Howard did write a lot of stuff over the course of his life. Some of it contains more and less racist stuff. Between some of the stuff he wrote in his letters and his more and less progressive stories, I think it's hard to pin down what the man "really believed." If we constrain ourself to talking about his fiction - and further, to just the Conan stories, or just the Conan story we are actually looking at here - the issue becomes a lot muddier.

Lovecraft? He was definitely a bigot. I'm willing to forgive him a little because he was also magnificently neurotic. He was afraid of dark skinned people, sure, but the man was also afraid of crowds, cities, and shrimp. In the context of being a terrified and anxious little man who's scared of everything, a little racially-themed fear seems more like part of the package. I'm also willing to forgive him more because he's dead. It's a lot easier to enjoy someone's work, despite the uncomfortable parts, when that person isn't around dropping stink bombs into social media. Seriously - the best thing Card could do for his legacy is drop dead so we can all enjoy Ender's Game without having to remember the last douchey thing to fall out of his mouth.
« Last Edit: July 20, 2013, 12:59:53 PM by ElectricPaladin » Logged

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« Reply #16 on: July 20, 2013, 04:40:31 PM »

I usually do not weigh in on the podcastle forum... but as for calling them racists, yes they were but I think not giving them credit is a mistake. Lovecraft and Howard helped define genre fiction. I applaud podcastle for running the piece! While I tend to like the newer stuff... it always fun to have a piece that takes us back in time.

Also while this post is about Howard, I would point out that Lovecraft's racism is not just a product of his time but also symptomatic of his plot lines. His stories conjure up the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. That is exactly what racism is.
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« Reply #17 on: July 20, 2013, 11:51:21 PM »

Say rather that Lovecraft's plotlines - the collapse of civilization, the rise of savagery, the dark secrets locked in ancient and hidden parts of the world - grew in part out of his utter pants-wetting terror of brown people.  ;-)
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« Reply #18 on: July 23, 2013, 06:56:36 PM »

Say rather that Lovecraft's plotlines - the collapse of civilization, the rise of savagery, the dark secrets locked in ancient and hidden parts of the world - grew in part out of his utter pants-wetting terror of brown people.  ;-)

So, thank goodness he was a racist. Strip away the vibrancy of that neurotic terror and he would have been a pretty lousy writer.


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« Reply #19 on: July 24, 2013, 12:06:47 AM »

You have perfectly captured HALF of Michel Houellebecq's brilliant essay "H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life"... 

...but only the first half - and Houellebecq doesn't deal in "might have been's"
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