One of the reviews for the new Conan movie made light of the part where Jason Momoa tells Rachel Nichols “I live, I love, I slay . . . and I am content.” But that particular line is a badly-taken-out-of-context paraphrase of what is probably the second most famous line in all of Robert E. Howard’s vast body of work. It comes from the story “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales, 1934), and it stems from a discussion between Conan and Belit, who was one of the prominent loves in the Cimmerian’s life. They are together on the deck of the Tigress, heading up the ill-famed Zarkheba River in search of treasure. They talk of the gods, the afterlife, and such:
“There is no hope here or hereafter in the cult of my people,” answered Conan. “In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout eternity.”
Belît shuddered. “Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny. What do you believe, Conan?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
Howard’s Conan was no grunting Neanderthal, as Arnold portrayed him in the first film (whose credo was swiped from the Mongols, I believe: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women!”); he was a barbarian because he came from a culture outside the bounds of civilization, a culture that was born and bred in a harsh and unforgiving land that civilization had tried and failed to conquer. “Barbarian” is not a synonym for “stupidity” in Howard’s work.
It is passages like the one above that make me long for a movie that treats REH’s legacy with a little more respect. As one of the pillars of modern fantasy, I feel he deserves a director of the same caliber as Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, or even Randall Wallace or Mel Gibson — someone who understands the character isn’t some revenge-motivated idiot obsessed with violence. Yes, Howard wrote violent fiction, but he never wrote violence for the sake of violence. His work most closely resembles the northern sagas: doom-laden heroes fighting against the inevitable, aware of their inconsequential mortality and of the passing of an age. Conan is actually the most flippant of Howard’s rogues’ gallery.
So, as you watch Hollywood’s newest addition to sword-and-sorcery cinema, do yourself a favor and, after the movie, stop by your local bookstore and snag one of Robert E. Howard’s story collections (the Del Rey editions are top-notch, and I’d suggest either The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian or Sword Woman). They are far better than any movie . . .
Cross-posted at Facebook.