Robert E. Howard’s Conan: A Paracletic Hero?

Conan Imagery 02

Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) faded rapidly into obscurity after his self-inflicted demise in 1936 following the death of his mother from tuberculosis.  Ironically, Howard’s reputation had increased steadily in the lustrum preceding his suicide.  Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, remained as parsimonious as ever, but other publications were clamoring for Howard’s work, which had branched out from weird fiction and barbarian stories into westerns, boxing yarns, and “spicy” tales.  In the last year of Howard’s truncated life, he made a respectable living by writing and the prospect going forward looked good.  The drop-off in his literary notoriety stemmed from the fact that, his work having disappeared from the pages of the pulps, and having never made it into book form, no persistent token presented itself that would remind the readership of his existence.  Imitators filled the vacuum left by his disappearance although his literary executor, Otis Adelbert Kline, managed to place a few stray manuscripts posthumously.  In 1946, August Derleth’s Arkham House issued an anthology of Howard’s short fiction, Skull Face and Others, but in a small edition aimed at aficionados.  Howard’s popularity would revive only with the paperback explosion of the 1960s, helped by Frank Frazetta’s cover illustrations, but even then many of the stories that entered into print were extenuations of outlines and incomplete drafts undertaken by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others.  It would take thirty, forty, or even fifty years for something resembling an authentic version of Howard’s authorship to come on the market and for his copious correspondence with Derleth and H. P. Lovecraft to make its way into the catalogues.  Hollywood’s contribution in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Howard’s most notable character, Conan the Barbarian, in 1982 and 1984, exploited Howard’s name but did nothing to represent his achievement.  Vincent D’Onofrio’s biopic, The Whole Wide World (1996), based on Novalyne Price’s memoir of her relationship with Howard, by contrast, told the Conan-author’s story with genuine pathos, but enjoyed only a limited release.

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Considering that he died at thirty, Howard’s literary accomplishments can only impress.  Stylistically, he operates at a level many ranks above that of the typical pulp writer.  His vocabulary includes a rich lode of Latin and Greek derivations and likewise of English archaisms.  Brought up, from age thirteen, in the small and isolated Texas town of Cross Plains, in Callahan County, in the middle of the state, Howard almost miraculously overcame a lack of educational resources and acquired a reserve of knowledge in history, literature, myth, and folklore that would shame the modern holder of a college degree in any of those subjects.  The story circulates in the biographies that Howard, as a teenager, would break into school and town libraries at night, make off with the books, and return them in the usual way once he assimilated their contents.  Howard’s syntax follows varied patterns from short expostulations to sentences of many logically arranged clauses.  His paragraphs likewise arrange themselves according to different models, from the short description of violent action, to lapidary descriptions of landscape and architecture and subtle representations of a subject’s mood and thought.  Take a paragraph – chosen more or less at random – from Howard’s Conan story “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” which appeared in Weird Tales for April 1934 as “Shadows in the Moonlight.”  Howard sets the story early in Conan’s career, before he rises to the kingship of Aquilonia, during the time when he rode as a hetman of the mercenary kozaks.  The action takes place on an island where Conan and a young woman, Olivia, hide from their pursuers, the piratical Hyrkanians.  At one point, Olivia and Conan enter the ruins of a great temple or palace whose contents include a gallery of remarkable statues.  Howard writes –

Olivia glanced timidly about the great silent hall.  Only the ivy-grown stones, the tendril-clasped pillars, with dark figures brooding between them, met her gaze.  She shifted uneasily and wished to be gone, but the images held a strange fascination for her companion.  He examined them in detail, and barbarian-like, tried to break off their limbs.  But their material resisted his best efforts.  He could neither disfigure nor dislodge from its niche a single image.  At last he desisted, swearing in his wonder.

Of the seven sentences comprising the paragraph not one relies on a passive construction.  Howard activates his verbs.  The adverbs timidly and uneasily in the first and third sentences emphasize the girl’s alienation and nervousness.  When the objects of her survey meet her gaze, the active verb hints at their actively supernatural quality, the topic of which Howard has already broached.  In the second clause of the third sentence the phrase strange fascination underscores Conan’s keen curiosity and his sharp senses, always alert to danger, but possessing a deductive or inferential quality that signals the possessor’s intelligence.  The ascription barbarian-like that Howard applies to Conan takes a detour through Olivia’s perspective.  A subplot of the tale concerns Olivia’s revaluation of the terms barbarian and civilized.  Her father has cynically and brutally betrayed her, selling her to a marauding prince who wants her only as a sex slave in exchange for a truce on the border; the prince then gave her away to another for a similar reason.  Hitherto, Olivia has thought of her milieu as an instance of civilization, a concept that events have forced her to call into question.  In her suppliant condition, Conan, whom Olivia first apprehends only as a Cimmerian savage, has extended protection at risk to his own life and has refrained from laying a hand on her although he remarks her youth and beauty.  Conan’s testing of the statues, as the astute reader of Howard will have discerned, belongs to his grasp of magic based on his many experiences of its camouflaged deadliness and his habit of thoroughly examining every situation in which a threat might present itself.  When Conan swears in the seventh sentence, he expostulates not because the sculptures have resisted his vandalism, but because an examination has yielded a disturbing conclusion.  The sixth sentence displaces its subject; its two verbs, to disfigure and to dislodge, qualify as learned.  Also learned are the phrases ivy-grown and tendril-clasped in the second sentence.  All seven sentences announce a noticeable prosodic talent.  The phrase great silent hall, which brings the first sentence to a close, forms a rhythmic cadence.

Howard wrote according to formulas – for the sound economic reason that he wanted to sell his yarns – but his writing frequently transcends formula.  The “Shadows” story instantiates the phenomenon.  In a typical “pulp” story of the sword-and-sandals variety, Olivia, for example, would function in a purely ornamental way.  As Howard fashions her, she is in the story’s context an ornament, a dainty morsel intended for commercial trafficking on a monarcho-military game board.  When she first appears, she qualifies less as a damsel in distress (albeit distress impinges) than as a frightened but conceited adolescent whose cruelly altered circumstances she cannot deny but has not yet fully comprehended.  Olivia has, to her credit, escaped her captor, Shah Amurath, but he has caught up with her.  When she bemoans her probable fate, Amurath says sadistically, “I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears, and writhings.”  He calls her “slut.”  Howard now ushers Conan onstage.  He also flees, in a manner of speaking, from Shah Amurath, whose army has ambushed and slaughtered the kozaks, with no quarter given, thereby flouting the rules of battle.  In the ensuing contest of blades, Conan severs Amurath’s sword-arm at the shoulder.  Amurath begs quarter, but, reminding him of recent events, Conan delivers the coup de grace.  Olivia asks Conan for protection even though, as she says to him, “I fear you,” but she “fear[s] the Hyrkanians more.”  Commandeering a skiff Conan rows them away to seek refuge elsewhere in the archipelago of Vilayet.  Without explicitly agreeing, Conan has assented to Olivia’s request.  He treats her as fragile, but admires the pluck of her escape.  Without her intercessor, Olivia confesses, “I should be lost to all shame.”  They come to the haunted island, with its weird ruins and other disquieting mysteries.

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Howard’s story appears in the same number of Weird Tales as C. L. Moore’s “Black Thirst,” one of her Northwest Smith sagas, and Clark Ashton Smith’s “Death of Malygris,” an item in his Poseidonia cycle.  Howard resembles Moore and Smith in achieving a signature literary style that betokens a profound literary basis, especially in the traditions of myth and epic, and an intuitive grasp not only of metaphysics, that science of the invisible, but of the deep structure of morality.  Twenty years ago, in an article for the journal Anthropoetics entitled Monstrous Theologies, an obscure scholar of genre fiction classified Moore’s Northwest Smith as a “Paracletic Hero.”  The author had discerned in reading Moore’s story-cycle the recurrent pattern wherein Smith acts to free an afflicted community from the tyranny of a sacrificial order.  The term Paracletic derives from the Greek name for the Third Person of the Trinity, who functions, in one of his roles, to bear witness against the injustice of scapegoating, a human propensity that manifests itself as ritual – the immemorial but hidden reign of which Christian revelation brings to light.  Smith’s stories likewise expose the gruesome vanity of sacrifice, but without the explicit moral framework of the Moore’s narrative and lacking a heroic protagonist.  Sacrifice furnishes a recurring theme in the Conan sequence to the degree that Conan also qualifies, if not quite so fully as Northwest Smith, as a Paracletic Hero.  Human sacrifice inspires Conan with revulsion.  Conan’s deity, Mitra, whom he regularly invokes, figures in a religion that explicitly rejects human sacrifice and in so doing differentiates itself from the other cults of Howard’s Hyborian Age.

Howard wrote an essay on the Hyborian Age, which falls between the sinking of Atlantis and the rise of the historical civilizations.  Howard tells how a Nemedian priest named Arus brought the religion of Mitra to the barbarians of the Northlands “to modify the rude ways of the heathen by the introduction of the gentle worship of Mitra.”  The life ways of the heathen up to that point “were bloodthirsty.”  When Arus expounded the morality of Mitra to the tribal chieftain Gorm, he “set himself to work to eliminate the more unpleasant phases of Pictish life – such as human sacrifice, blood–feud, and the burning alive of captives.”  Howard draws a picture of Arus proselytizing Gorm concerning “the eternal rights and justices which were the truths of Mitra,” while “point[ing] with repugnance at the rows of skulls which adorned the walls of the hut.”  Arus “urged Gorm to forgive his enemies instead of putting their bleached remains to such use.”  Gorm, an intelligent man, converted.  The Picts disseminated the teachings of Mitra to the neighboring tribes, including the Cimmerians.  In the story “Xuthal of the Dusk” (Weird Tales for September 1933), Conan tells Thalia, a devotee of the sacrificial god Thog, “The Hyborians do not sacrifice humans to their god, Mitra, and as for my people – by Crom, I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar!”  He adds, “There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”  In “Xuthal,” Conan extends his protection to a youthful female named Natala whose life and honor a wicked society threatens.  Crom is actually an old Irish deity, associated with war but also with honor and thus a twin of Mitra.  The name Mitra belongs to the onomastic pattern of the Conan sequence.  Howard uses Latin-, Greek-, Arabic-, and Germanic-derived names for people, places, and gods.

Mitra stems obviously from Mithra, the Persian deity whose cult enjoyed popularity among the Roman legions in the Second and Third Centuries, but it also takes its place in the primordial Indo-European trinity of Indra, Mitra, and Varuna.  Beyond the non-sacrificial specification, Howard elaborates not on the details of the Cimmerian Mitra cult.  It would not exceed possibility, however, that Howard had read, or least skimmed, Franz Cumont’s classic study, The Mysteries of Mithra (1903), which already in the 1920s existed in an English translation.  A number of Cumont’s characterizations of Mithraic ethics apply to Conan, whether by influence or coincidence.  In his chapter on “The Doctrine of the Mithraic Mysteries,” for example, Cumont writes that, “Resistance to sensuality was one of the aspects of the combat with the principle of evil.”  He adds that, “To support untiringly this combat with the followers of Ahriman, who, under multiple forms, disputed with the gods the empire of the world, was the duty of the servitors of Mithra.”  In survival mode or on the battlefield, Conan never succumbs to sensual distraction.  He enjoys wine and women in his hours of leave, but in these things too he exercises discipline.  Another sentence from Cumont aptly measures both Conan and the Mitra cult.  The followers of Mithra, Cumont writes, “did not lose themselves… in contemplative mysticism”; but “for them, the good dwelt in action.”  Conan directs his violence toward what might well be called “the principle of evil,” and he acts, broadly speaking, for the good.  In his universal iconography Mithra famously battles and defeats a rampaging bull using a dagger.  In “Shadows” Conan battles and defeats a rampaging ape, also using a dagger.

Weird Tales April 1934

The Paracletic element in “Shadows” emerges in a vivid nightmare that Olivia experiences while she sleeps under Conan’s watch in the ruined temple that they earlier explored.  In Howard’s words, “Olivia dreamed, and through her dreams crawled a suggestion of lurking evil, like a black serpent writhing through flower gardens.”  The dream begins in “exotic shards of a broken, unknown pattern,” but soon yields to “a scene of horror and madness, etched against a background of cyclopean stones and pillars.”  The architectural detail indicates that Olivia sees the ruined temple in its heyday.  A group of “black-skinned, hawk-faced warriors,” who “were not negroes,” crowd the space.  “Neither they nor their garments nor weapons resembled anything of the world the dreamer knew,” Howard writes.  A lynch-mob-type many-against-one scenario obtains.  The throng encircles “one bound to a pillar – a slender white-skinned youth, with a cluster of golden curls around his alabaster brow,” whose “beauty was not altogether human,” but “like the dream of a god, chiseled out of living marble.”  The persecutors jeer and taunt their victim “in a strange tongue” while “the lithe naked form writhed beneath their cruel hands.”  The victim cries out in pain.  The sacrificers slit his throat.  He slumps dead.  What does the cumulus of details thus far mean?  Howard has framed the story within Olivia’s re-evaluation of the opposite terms civilization and barbarism.  The ruined temple might offer itself as an artifact of civilization.  Its purpose, however, as the theater of bloody tributes to an unnamed but horrific deity, contravenes the truth of a civilized order.  That a society might boast technical advances, such as the perfection of monumental architecture, never qualifies it as civilized. Being shackled to a pillar, meanwhile, resembles crucifixion.  In “A Witch Shall Be Born” (Weird Tales for December 1934), Conan undergoes crucifixion.  Yet the link between Conan and the victim although undeniable remains a bit vague.

The nightmare continues.  In supernatural response to the brutal sacrifice of the white-skinned youth there came “a rolling of thunder as of celestial chariot-wheels,” whereupon “a figure stood before the slayers, as if materialized out of empty air.”  Is it Mitra?  The figure takes the “form” of a “man.”  Nevertheless, “no mortal man ever wore such an aspect of inhuman beauty.”  Furthermore, “there was an unmistakable resemblance between him and the youth who drooped lifeless in his chains”; despite this, however, “the alloy of humanity that softened the godliness of the youth was lacking in the features of the stranger, awful and immobile in their beauty.”  Readers can only assume a paternal-filial relation of the awesome interloper and the slain ephebe.  The deific presence lifts a hand and speaks.  He utters the alien phrase, “Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla.”  The blacks fall back, affrighted; they retreat “until they were ranged along the walls in regular lines,” just like the statues of inky adamant in the ancient fane.  Olivia and Conan have heard the strange utterance before.  When they first landed on the island, they disturbed a bird that ululated the syllables as it started away.  The pronouncement takes effect magically: The offenders “stiffened and froze”; and “over their limbs crept a curious rigidity, an unnatural petrification.”  The Intercessor now releases the victim from his chains and “he lift[s] the corpse in his arms.”  He scowls at the frozen sacrificers and points to the moon.  Olivia awakes in panic.  She runs blindly, screaming.  Her spasm of fear diminishes not until she sees “Conan’s face, a mask of bewilderment in the moonlight.”  In their tense dialogue, Olivia tells Conan that the youthful victim was “as like as son to father.”  What further meaning can be extracted from these additional details?

In their long chapter on the Conan sequence in Robert E. Howard: A Closer Look (revised edition, 2020) Charles Hoffman and Marc Cerasini strangely omit any reference to “Shadows.”  In their commentary on “A Witch Shall Be Born,” they yet address the Texan’s attitude to religion generally and to Christianity particularly.  They note that when Conan escapes from his cross a lust for revenge overwhelms his previous desire, while still nailed to the crossbeams, to “turn his back forever on the crooked streets and walled lairs where men plotted to betray humanity.”  Instead, he works retribution on his tormenters, but in the process, as Hoffman and Cerasini cannot help but note, he liberates a city where the same men who persecuted him have imposed a murderous tyranny over the locals.  The co-authors draw a dubious conclusion: “Christ died on the cross and Conan did not because one is a lamb and the other a lion.”  Therefore, Conan can have nothing in common with Christ; he cannot be, as the present essay argues, a Paracletic hero.  The trouble is that Conan repeatedly frees people from the sacrificial dispensation, as he does in “Shadows.”  This makes the parallelism between Olivia’s oneiric vision and the Passion doubly poignant.  The similarity even permits speculation about the nonsense syllables that the father-figure speaks.  They condemn sacrifice as profanation.  The clue lies in the concluding word, xuthalla, which echoes the Lovecraftian name of Cthulhu, whose appearance in “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales for February 1928) provokes a worldwide outburst of the primitive sacred including, in the chapter entitled “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse,” human sacrifice.  As noted, Olivia and Conan first hear the phrase when a bird bleats it out.  Birds belong to the iconography of the Paraclete.

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There is more.  Hyrkanian pirates land on the island.  Conan encounters their captain, who immediately draws his sword.  Conan defeats him.  Bearing in mind the laws of the freebooters, Conan makes himself known to the dead captain’s crew, some of whom seem willing under custom to acknowledge him as their new leader-in-chief.  As they lower their blades a betrayer slings a stone at the Cimmerian that knocks him out.  The treacherous part of the crew wants to slay the unconscious warrior immediately, but he has enough defenders to postpone the deed.  The buccaneers drag Conan, bound, to the ruined temple, where they undertake their usual practice and drink themselves unconscious.  Olivia observes all of this from the hiding place on a cliff top where Conan has bidden her to remain.  Olivia has two fearsome worries, that the pirates on awakening from their stupor will murder Conan and that the statues will spring to life under the magic of the moonlight and will murder everyone.  The shackled Conan reminds Olivia of the pathetic victim in her cauchemar du sacrifice.  Conan has saved her; she now decides to overcome her fear, a mighty struggle, and save Conan.  If Conan in his straits resembled the son, Olivia in her resolution would resemble the father.  She releases Conan from his bonds.  While they flee the ruins, the statues come to life.  As Olivia and Conan make their way to the pirate galley – the monstrous ape attacks them.  Conan prevails.  The remnant of the pirate crew shows up, at least half of them having been killed by the statue-men.  They now readily submit to a new captaincy.  As the ship unfurls its sails and heads into the main, Conan promises Olivia that he will make her “Queen of the Blue Sea.”  The triumphant final act of “Shadows” corresponds truly to the pulp formula for adventure-heroism.  The bizarre dream with its motif of redemption from a collective murder stands out in its anomaly.  Howard redoubles that anomaly by his total insouciance regarding an explanation.  Whether incidental or a conscious gesture of storytelling, the lack of an explanation makes “Shadows” both memorable and challenging, as if Howard had signed off with a “figure it out for yourself.”

Howard’s Hyborian Age is a pre-Christian phase of semi-fictive chronology, so that no one in a Conan story can be nominally a Christian.  Scattered remarks in Howard’s Conan stories and those in his essay on the Hyborian Age make it clear that Conan adheres to what is probably a minority conviction in his world – what one could call the anti-sacrificial ethos that anticipates later developments in religion that go misunderstood even today, two thousand years after the Passion.  Man approaches God – man honors the image of God that is in him – when he abjures the immemorial custom of sacrificing a victim.  The impulse to sacrifice a victim acts like a hard-wired instinct.  It belongs to the lower nature that man must overcome in order to honor his higher nature.  The Mitra cult and Conan’s frequent invocations of the name Mitra constitute a salient feature, not a mere incidental or decorative one, in Howard’s Conan sequence.  Another Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant” (Weird Tales for March 1933), which traces an incident in Conan’s thieving youth, links itself by prolepsis to events in “Shadows.”  The young Conan, seeking to steal an immensely valuable and extravagantly protected object, finds himself in the depths of a tower where an alien being has been trapped by the sorcery of an evil wizard for thousands of years.  Conan and the being communicate.  Their exchange of words evokes in Conan an overwhelming sympathy for the plight of the victim: “He stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own”; then “all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by great pity.”  Conan identifies with the victim; he likens the being to himself.  Conan goes out of his way to liberate the being from the torment of paralysis and captivity, even to the extent of forfeiting his prize.

A friend and correspondent, one M.P., likes to say that Howard’s Conan is the greatest literary creation of the Twentieth Century.  M.P. knows the great books backwards and forwards.  He mistakes not Howard for Thomas Mann or Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  He yet understands that Howard intuitively carried forth the ancient Indo-European tradition of epos – the hero-tale that also serves as a guide to male initiation in the lore of dimensions higher than those of civilized routines with their effeminate fastidiousness.  Some tasks permit themselves only to be undertaken messily.  Feminist English professors cannot undertake them.  Most probably, feminist English professors do not even know that such tasks exist, that their consequences will overwhelm the order of things unless someone bold takes them up at risk to his life.  The hero-tale indeed serves as a guide to the order of things, the origin and bases of which the conceit of modernity has put away beyond memory.  A kind of Platonic anamnesis, or “unforgetting,” undergirds Howard’s Conan sequence, framed as it is in the vision of the Hyborian Age.  The fiction of the Hyborian Age adds up to what Plato would have called a true myth.  Howard’s phase before history hails the present in dreams to be remembered.  It must be resurrected from the prevalent amnesia to make good a lack in the character of modernity.  Every astute adult knows what a feminist English professor would say about Robert E. Howard and his creation, Conan the Barbarian.  Early Twentieth-Century genre fiction – pulp fiction – foresaw the effeminacy of cultural changes coming down the pike.  The genius of a Robert E. Howard, a Catherine L. Moore, or even of a Clark Ashton Smith, was to intuit that the feminization of Western culture would suspend the anti-sacrificial bias of the Christian dispensation, opening the way for the “cancel-culture” that bestrides us in 2021.

Wiener Dog

62 thoughts on “Robert E. Howard’s Conan: A Paracletic Hero?

  1. Thanks Professor! I’m glad you mentioned artist Frank Frazetta. My father had four different books featuring Frazetta’s art. Quite racy, so popular with all us boys. I think mom at some point made him sell them in a garage sale. Women civilize us I guess.

    I enjoyed Howard’s other characters, particularly Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane.

    I had a large collection of Marvel Conan comics starting from about 1981 when I was six years old. Definitely darker than Marvel’s other offerings. Blood was shown but it was always black never red.

    • Thank you, Cameron. I vividly remember the large softcover books of Frank Frazetta’s art — not only Conan and the other Howard characters, but also Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and his princess, Dejah Thoris. Already in the 1960s and 70s, the schools had us reading pablum. The Burroughs and Howard paperbacks were what made me want to read, and read I did. The city of Santa Monica, where I attended high school, boasted a half-dozen used book stores. My buddies, the Cunningham brothers, and I used to skip class in the afternoon to make the rounds of those stores in order to add to our collections of science-fiction and adventure-story paperbacks. I would insist that immersing oneself in Burroughs and Howard (and soon in many other authors) amounted to initiation — in a society where public-schooling had replaced initiation. In the “Western Heritage” course that I taught for twenty years, the sequence of books was: Hesiod’s Theogony; Homer’s Odyssey; the first six books of Virgil’s Aeneid; the Beowulf epic; and Burroughs’ Princess of Mars!

  2. Respectfully, you may want to revisit portions of your article. The deity of Conan’s Cimmerian people is Crom, not Mitra, and no story of Howard’s flags Conan as a Mitra worshiper. Conan does not worship as much as respects Crom, as he is cold and uncaring, and more akin to Wotan/Odin than Mithra

    • Respectfully — Conan invokes Mitra (precisely as I write) at least three times in “Shadows” and countless times in other stories. Conan’s aversion to sacrifice comes from Mitra, not from Crom. Conan is, in his behavior, more heedful of Mitra than he is of Crom, in that Mitra proposes an ethical principle that he puts into action. A man of the Hyborian Age could have more than one god, after all.

      From the article: “The Mitra cult and Conan’s frequent invocations of the name Mitra constitute a salient feature, not a mere incidental or decorative one, in Howard’s Conan sequence…The Picts disseminated the teachings of Mitra to the neighboring tribes, including the Cimmerians. In the story ‘Xuthal of the Dusk’ (Weird Tales for September 1933), Conan tells Thalia, a devotee of the sacrificial god Thog, ‘The Hyborians do not sacrifice humans to their god, Mitra, and as for my people – by Crom, I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar!'” Apparently the Cult of Mitra has influenced the Cult of Crom or has in certain respects overridden it.

      • From memory, Crom is an Irish deity and is associated with a particular place. A stone I think (but maybe I’m thinking of the Blarney stone).

        I can only remember the comic books. Conan would exclaim “sweet Mitra” and “Crom’s beard” – I guess that wasn’t Cimmerian blasphemy.

  3. “”…make it clear that Conan adheres to what is probably a minority conviction in his world – what one could call the anti-sacrificial ethos that anticipates later developments in religion that go misunderstood even today, two thousand years after the Passion. Man approaches God – man honors the image of God that is in him – when he abjures the immemorial custom of sacrificing a victim. The impulse to sacrifice a victim acts like a hard-wired instinct. It belongs to the lower nature that man must overcome in order to honor his higher nature. “”

    Wow. That took us places we had not expected to go. Who would have dreamed that an analysis of Conan the Barbarian would lead to explaining the rise of the abortion cult, as well as the cancel culture you name.

    I’ve never even read any of Howard’s books. Liked Ahnold’s movies. Have visited the REH house, which is not far from where I live. I guess it is high time I get some of the man’s work and read it for myself.

    • Thank you for commenting, Tina. The anti-sacrificial bias is probably a minority characteristic in every age — as in our own, notably, as you observe. My argument comes, as you might know, from Rene Girard. A good book to read concurrently with the Conan sequence by Howard would be Girard’s Scapegoat (1980), the best introduction to Girard’s thinking. I strongly recommend the work of Catherine L. Moore, too, her Northwest Smith stories, published in Weird Tales in the 1930s alongside Howard’s work.

      I also strongly recommend the Vincent D’Onofrio movie The Whole Wide World (1996), if you can find it. Or give Novalyne Price’s book of the same title a try. She dated Howard, was in love with him, and judging by the movie knew him better than anyone else. Renee Zellweger plays Price in D’Onofrio’s production.

      I’m jealous that, living where you do, you can visit the REH Museum — presumably in Cross Plains. (Idunno.)

      • Thank you for your suggestions! I’ve put the movie in my cart at eBay, and a collection of Howard’s Conan stories.

        PS I posted with a link to some photos on my blog from our visit to the museum… the post is stuck in moderation. Not trying to market my blog (which is mostly inactive) but just to share the photos , and my description of the house, since there seems to be interest. 🙂

  4. Sad story about the author.

    Dr. TB, you wrote, “Brought up, from age thirteen, in the small and isolated Texas town of Cross Plains, in Callahan County, in the middle of the state, Howard almost miraculously overcame a lack of educational resources and acquired a reserve of knowledge . . . .” And Professor Smith hasn’t commented on your slights!?!?! Well, he’s in the best place to judge the lack of educational resources in good, ole’ Texas — as he is situated upon ground zero of the modern state university.

    I see that Mme. Tina has visited the Howard museum. How about another Texas adventure by JS? I want pictures — lots of pictures. (I know the Lone Star State is BIG, but this is for the enlightenment of your online disciples.)

    TB, you remarked on the unresolved, unexplained details of the story. A friend of mine requires this feature in fantasy and science fiction. He dismisses material where the author feels compelled to explain every aspect of the story. He reasons that we are largely ignorant of what we experience in our own world — why would we have omniscience in another? Of course, careless writing won’t attempt to tie up loose ends, either, but I get his point and agree.

    I wonder whether Howard’s works are enjoying a new level of interest among the neo-pagan righties who have renounced the world of masks, Cheetos, and sensitivity-training (those BAP fans). I can see why. The barbaric heathen have a proper place in the imagination, but I personally would like to see more Arthurian bridgework . . . that straddles the Greco-Roman pagan, northern heathen, and Christian worlds. Popcult garbage from the last 20 years that comes close to that intersection pretty much has the opposite aesthetic and moral principles to the ones that would benefit young men.

    • I apologize to Cross Plains.

      I second your hope that Prof. Smith might visit the Howard Museum and gift The Orthosphere with photographs.

      You wrote: “you remarked on the unresolved, unexplained details of the story. A friend of mine requires this feature in fantasy and science fiction. He dismisses material where the author feels compelled to explain every aspect of the story.”

      This is why 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great film (unsurpassed in science fiction cinema) and 2010: The Year We Make Contact is stupid and oooooh sooooo boring!

      You wrote: “The barbaric heathen have a proper place in the imagination, but I personally would like to see more Arthurian bridgework.”

      My long-time friend Bill Carpenter has just seen published his epic poem about Alfred the Great. Now Arthur was a Celt and fought against the Saxons, but Alfred, although a Saxon, was a civilized man who defended Christianity against Heathendom. In a way, he inherited Arthur’s mantle. I hope in the next few months to write about Bill’s poem.

      • Dr. Smith might also provide commentary and photos from Cushing Library, a few minutes’ walk from his building on the Texas A&M campus, which has a world-class science fiction collection and no doubt some of Howard’s work and papers.

      • If I ever get out to Cross Plains, I’ll be sure to get the photography. But Texas is a really big state and Brownwood is a good ways off. This was an enjoyable eye-opener for me. I didn’t know that the genius behind Conan was a Texan, or that the idea first came to him in Fredericksburg.

      • {Not sure if your site received this; there was no “comment received” type message}
        Thank you — a charming house. I also like visiting period homes — from the Breakers to Glasgow’s tenement museum. Little details observed spark questions that lead to the docent lectures . . . it’s quite enjoyable and a horizon-expander.

      • Your tour of REH’s house in Cross Plains delighted me. My takeaway? — A very civilized home.

    • Probably right about pagan righties. Young men are desperate to escape our feminized world of masked Karens.

      Arthur is not popular among them. Right or wrong, Arthur is seen as the beginning of the cult of chivalric female pedestalization.

      • I suppose that, among my students, few were even familiar with the name Arthur. For a few weeks in 2013 when the Jason Momoa Conan-film was in the theaters, a few of them might have been transiently familiar with the name of Howard’s protagonist, but they no doubt quickly forgot it. What boys and male adolescents have been offered as reading in the last thirty years turns them off reading and leaves them functionally illiterate. The desperation that you speak of is a foggy, inchoate confusion that cannot assign meaningful names to its symptoms and knows not where to seek amelioration or solace. The disservice that “progressive” education has done to the male half of the human race in the US of A rises to the level of a felonious crime.

    • Because this was all new to me, I just read the Wikipedia article on Howard. It mentions that when his only girlfriend first met him, she was disappointed that he was not dressed like a writer. That’s one of he bad things education will do for you–fill your head with claptrap about the literary lifestyle. A writer writes. Whether he is pale and gaunt and sits in coffee shops smoking Gauloises is beside the point. In fact, it is strong although not dispositive evidence that he is a poseur and a phony. I’ve not read much pulp fiction, but my guess is that a pulp author would be ruined by too much education. Even if it didn’t persuade him to dress like a beatnik, it would make him worry about vulgarity, and robust vulgarity seems to me the life-blood of pulp fiction.

      • Howard was an introvert. Novalyne Price did him a world of good in awakening his genuine erotic feelings and drawing him out from his introversion. At the same time, Howard did much the same for Price. When she met him she was some kind of assistant English teacher in the Cross Plains High School. She had writing ambitions of her own — when she met Howard, she was submitting true-confession stories to the ladies’ magazines, but without success. She later went to graduate school at LSU to earn her master’s degree in teaching. That is where she learned of Howard’s suicide.

        I suspect that you are right that a pulp author would be ruined by too much formal education, but, just maybe, everyone would be and is ruined by too much formal education. I was…

        Added later: The Puritans of education have long condemned pulp fiction under the epithet of escapism. My standing response is that escapism must be judged in relation to that from which it seeks escape. Pulp fiction was a spontaneously emerging escape-hatch from effeminate modernity.

      • I’ve driven through Cross Plains. I may be confusing it with Rising Star, the next town down the road, but I remember CP as a very tatterdemalion town. It’s on the divide between the Colorado and Brazos River drainage basins, and with your Louisiana roots you may be interested to know that the Colorado tributary south of CP is called Pecan Bayou. To my knowledge, this is the westernmost instance of that Louisiana toponym. Larry McMurtry grew up in in Archer City, which is northeast of CP but otherwise similar. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy QueenMcMurtry writes about the end of hope in what is often called the Rolling Plains. I’ve never read McMurtry’s Last Picture Show, but I think this is one of its themes.

        When modern Puritans chide us for escapism, it reminds me of stories about the stern measures the old Puritans took to prevent sleeping in church. My schoolteachers used to chide me for daydreaming, as if I would want to wake up to the nightmare of their school.

  5. Has anyone read Howard’s Bran Mak Morn (“Raven, son of mourn”) stories? The character is the last representative of the once noble Pictish warriors. Other than Bran, the remaining Picts have physically degenerated. Howard had quite an imagination.

    • I have acquired a handsome anthology of the Bran Mak Morn stories and will be reading them soon. Imagination — that is what is missing from the modern mind.

  6. Conan is a Celtic name and quite common as a patronym in Brittany.
    I had always assumed Conan to be a Celtic Hero, as seen trough the lens of an American’s eye.

    • Howard was of Scots-Irish ancestry. He was deliberately honoring his genealogy in endowing his central character with a Celtic name. In history, there was a people known as the Cimmerians, but they belonged to Thrace and Western Anatolia at the end of the Bronze Age. They played a role in the demise of the Hittite Empire. Howard derived Cimmerian from Cymbri, the ancient self-designation of Wales and its Welshmen.

  7. @Nathalie: The name Bertonneau originally meant someone from Brittany although my Bertonneaus came via New Orleans from Saint-Domingue de l’Ouest.

  8. Dear Dr. Bertonneau,

    Thanks for your writing, and I enjoyed it as always. I enjoyed it so much I swiped some very cheap used copies of the Conan series to begin reading hopefully soon – my Orthosphere inspired reading list is rather large. I have always been struck by how sympathetic (?) a reader you are. I would be very interested to read something by you regarding those works and authors you *don’t* profit by or perhaps ones you even view as harmful. That may seem a gloomy topic, but I for one would find it very interesting. Just in case you don’t have too many things on your plate 🙂

    • Thank you, Wood. You are generous with your words. I like “cheap used copies” of good books. On “cheap used copies” of good books, I established the foundation for whatever education I can claim at age sixty-six. There is a verve in Howard’s prose that stems from his belief — his faith, as you might say — in his characters. Conan was extremely real to Howard, who knew that he was writing against his time. I, too, try to write against my time.

      I will take your request under consideration. Being retired, I only have what I want on my plate!

      Good reading!

      • Indeed, we could generate a whole page of Abhorrent Books. The problem there is where to begin, and where to end. Abhorrent books far outnumber their opposites. Almost everything published is trash. This has always been so. But few books are actively malevolent. Those are such as we should call out, and condemn. Maybe Satanic books would be the right title for the page.

        One acid test I feel confident in proposing: if a book made you want to throw it at the wall, it is surely abhorrent enough to warrant warning off all other readers. I have encountered only a few such. What is more, I have driven them from all recollection.

      • If a reader still has the spirit to throw the book at the wall, it has failed in its malignant mission. A truly Abhorrent book will make the reader throw himself out the window. I’m not talking about books that are merely sobering. Sobriety is good. I’m talking about books of nihilistic pessimism that were written to induce terminal despair. I would add a second category of Abhorrent books that make self-destruction glamorous. The Beats seduced me for a while. Many people never found their way home from Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.

      • Kristor:

        One acid test I feel confident in proposing: if a book made you want to throw it at the wall, it is surely abhorrent enough to warrant warning off all other readers.

        I have only encountered one such book, because I am very selective with my reading and even more selective (one might say neglectful) of my reading time. But in a good faith effort to connect with a distant family member, I briefly joined their book club. Confederacy of Dunces had been recommended to me on multiple occasions, was billed as a comedy, was hailed as a masterwork. What I found was disgusting and stupid and I kept waiting for the funny bits which never came. You’ll pardon me if I am alone in thinking this, because I didn’t make it past the first couple chapters and if there is any redemption in the book I could not get to it.

      • That’s another acid test. If you can’t force yourself past the first third of a book because reading it hurts too much *in any way,* it is garbage, and should be deleted.

        Unless it is already canonical, that is. For most readers, a first attempt at certain bits of Whitehead, Aristotle, or Aquinas is going to be quite heavy going, and seem so full of jargon and neology and … shillyshallying … as to be just silly. But if a writer is canonical, the likelihood is that his work should not be derelict, but rather shelved for later, when the wits have matured. The first time I read Aquinas, as a young man, I found him impenetrable and in any event irrelevant. That was then.

        Sartre is an interesting test case. I hate that guy’s stuff. I hate *most* of the Continentals. Something about them fills me with bile. But he’s canonical. So, I had to think really hard a few years ago before I finally decided I really should get rid of old Sartre at last.

        What happened to the French, anyway? How do you go from Pascal and Montaigne to the Continentals?

      • “. . . if a book made you want to throw it at the wall, it is surely abhorrent enough to warrant warning off all other readers.”
        I know that you mean in one’s final consideration, but I’ll ignore the spirit and go with the letter (which is fitting for the current year). Readers may have seen the chick flick Silver Linings Playbook. I actually really liked the film, especially once I witnessed an early scene wherein Bradley Cooper’s character angrily throws A Farewell to Arms out a window in the middle of the night and then wakes up his sleeping parents to complain about the plot. I teared up laughing because I saw myself, in all my ridiculousness, on display.
        Here is that clip (rated R language warning):
        I have behaved similarly . . . and twice with LOTR . . . at the moments you’d expect — with Gandalf and later with Frodo. I actually threw my book across the room each time (breaking no windows) and stormed out, unable to believe that Tolkien could have intended such a travesty. I fell for that twice in the same trilogy. I don’t think that I returned to FOTR the first time until the next day. It was just too much for me! The second time, I do think that I cooled off and returned, suspicious of what ole, tricksy J.R.R. was up to.
        Several other episodes involved Hegel. I respect many admirers of Hegel (e.g., J.N. Findlay), but I just cannot stand reading him. He is, in my opinion, the most frustrating of the Krauts, und das sagt viel aus! You may condemn me as an idiot prole, but let’s see how you do 150 pages into The Phenomenology of Spirit. It was the book, some sharp object, or possibly a heavy, blunt one. I chose the book. Aufheben und abwerfen!

  9. In the eighth grade, I wanted to throw Catcher in the Rye out the school-bus window, but the book wasn’t mine, so I kept it for ten days until Mrs. Farmer, the English teacher, collected back the distribution of the novel from her students. Show me a copy of Catcher to this day and my overwhelming impulse is to toss it à travers la fenêtre.

    Added later: Hegel is a different proposition. His books are so heavy that it’s hard to heft them let alone to throw them through the window.

    • I now feed the brandlings all bad literature, as long as the pages are rough paper, as in paperbacks.
      I get angry at all the trees felled to print such trash and I have come to the conclusion that the most ethical thing to do is to return it to the soil, where it can do good as compost.
      My latest addition is “To catch a mocking bird”.
      It is quite bewildering the amount of utter tosh that gets printed

    • Heavy volumes may be used either as steps to reach the upper shelves, as doorstops, or, if you gouge out the interior, as a nifty little hiding place for a bottle of your favourite spirit.
      I would advise not to give old Hegel books to red wrigglers, as they are pretty indigestible and you would risk a rebellion in the compost heap with all the worms moving to a less book-wormy neighbour…

  10. “What happened to the French, anyway? How do you go from Pascal and Montaigne to the Continentals?”
    Isn’t asking that and similar questions the very point of this site? To be charitable aux grenouilles, what about Maritain or Gilson? They join Malebranche without shame in L’Académie française céleste.

    • France was ahead of the curve in reducing human consciousness to a set of slogans; the French were also better than other nations at dressing up their slogans into long, complicated, and ultimately self-contradicting sentences — as in those to whom you refer as continentals.

      On the other hand, the French (or at least the Francophones) invented reaction, beginning with Maistre and continuing in Guenon, Lubac, Gilson, and many others. Vive la vraie France!

  11. There’s a lot to chew on here, and it goes hand in hand with my own pet theory, which I’ve broached in comments elsewhere on your writings about Howard, that the explicitly Nietzchean basis of the Conan stories is actually esoterically betrayed by a latent, necessary salvational Christian grace.

    I’ll have more to say once I’ve read and digested the whole, but this kind of essay is worth digesting. I just want to mark one thing as a sort of, “I see what you did there.”

    When Conan escapes his own cross, in an apparent contradiction of Christian softness, he actually fulfills the Christ metaphor as Christus Vincit, even, as you note, liberating the city of the damned.

    • Even Nietzsche couldn’t help being a Christian despite himself. His mental breakdown came in Turin when he witnessed a cart-horse being beaten by its owner in the street. Nietzsche’s last letter — sent to August Strindberg — he signed as “The Crucified One.”

      I could have written about half a dozen more Conan stories, including “The Black Colossus,” in which Mitra, the anti-human-sacrifice god, seems to choose Conan as his agent — using a naked girl, of course, because what else would get Conan’s attention?

      Thanks for commenting. (T)

      • I think the Christological significance goes deeper than metaphor and structure, too. The very claims about salvational grace are central to the Conan stories, where Howard attempts to subvert them but actually ends up affirming them. I’m thinking, for example, of the dream sequence from The Phoenix on the Sword or the beginning of The Hour of the Dragon where what is effectively one of the Starspawn comes down from the Outer Heavens and chills Conan’s soul.

        Compare Lovecraft’s atheism, which I respect immensely, because the cosmic horror he embraces and showcases is necessarily the only possible grounds and the necessary conclusion to atheism properly understood. (I still think it’s philosophically contradictory, but not narratively.)

        Thanks for the spur. I really should get around to banging out my thoughts on paper about how Conan, by attempting to exemplify the Nietzchean superman, forces the type through a dialectical sublimation into latent Christianity.

  12. @Rhetocrates: Another reason that Conan endears himself to me derives from the sole Conan novel, The People of the Black Circle: Conan has been tricked by magic and dethroned from his kingship of Aquilonia. In Conan’s presence his usurpers discuss the policies that they intend, immediately, to impose. One is to raise taxes astronomically. This appalls Conan, who gives a short speech justifying a low tax-rate. High taxes destroy the economy; low taxes increase the state’s revenue. By Mitra, what’s not to love?

    (I think it’s The People of the Black Circle, but my Conan anthologies are in another room and I’m too lazy, in writing this comment, to consult them.)

    • It is beginning to sound like REH’s friendship with Cecil Azar Lotief, Texas’s first Lebanese state Congressman, and a devout Catholic, may have been rather influential on his writing. The People of the Black Circle was published shortly after the Cross Plains merchant was elected to the Texas House. The Find A Grave website has a good little article about Lotief, with a quote from REH, with additional comment about some of the artifacts in the REH museum.

  13. Pingback: Burroughs’ Amtor – A Satire of Ideologies – The Orthosphere

  14. Pingback: A Bit More on Amtor – Is Carson of Venus a Paracletic Hero? – The Orthosphere

  15. Great fun to read this essay. Before I had turned 13 or so, reading to keep pace with my father’s voracious consumption of all sci-fi and fantasy writing, I had read all of Robert E. Howard then published in the paperback editions whose covers (including those above) I remember so well. Fond memories of being so engrossed in the story by 9 am on a Saturday morning that when I had finished by mid-afternoon, I’d not noticed the time had gone.

    But analysis of the stories, as you’ve offered, never occurred to me. I don’t think a contemporary reader of the pulps would have seen these ideas in his writing either (not that this would impinge upon the rightness of your analysis) because these were throw-away stories written for the hopeful super-smart teenagers of the 1930s, like my father. Lou Kuslan was one of the earliest sci-fi fans, writing and distributing several fanzines for the very, very small sci-fi and fantasy following composed of nascent science-minded intellectual lights across the country. There were perhaps several hundred of them, at most, who were active and the readership was only in the thousands. It was such a small coterie that he easily arranged a meeting at age 15 with Hugo Gernsback at his cramped office in Manhattan and several other fans. Evidently received their ideas eagerly, perhaps because they were his best word-of-mouth to his market. These young men (my aunt, Dad’s younger sister, was perhaps the only girl in the group) were looking for imaginative thrills, stimulated both by dreams of splitting the atom and the creation of alternate worlds.

    Yet surely not by religious ideals, for most of these readers were agnostic, at best. This is not to say that my father, or these youths, worshipped at the temple of science, for he, and perhaps they, tended towards belief in a deity. But there were atheists a-plenty. I recall my father’s disdain for Donald Wollheim and other Communists among their group. There was even a kind of coup d’etat attempted at the earliest SciFi Con among the teenagers, to derail it into a quasi-Communist platform, which my father somehow helped to curtail.

    Not that this means religio-spiritual ideas are not present in Howard’s writing — but rather, in my reading (perhaps I ought to re-read them? I’ve just completed an essay on the value of re-reading literature, which, if it is published, I will share here), Howard reconstructed those ideas into a simulacrum of Catholicity (if that’s a word) without the force of the original argument. That is, thus made more tolerable to those who could not readily be induced to abandon science. Remember, Howard was published only 50 years after John Draper’s “History of the Conflict between Religion and Science” (1874), which all the sci-fi fans had read in the 1930s. I know because my father had his original first American edition and told me they’d all discussed its implications for science.

    When one reads the commentary in the fanzines (including my father’s, and I have most issues of those my father published at age 16), one is struck by the impressive intelligence of these 13 to 23 year old readers. My father was but one of them, as was Asimov, whom stayed in my father’s home several times, Bradbury, who corresponded with him, and all those who, virtually unknown then, made big names in sci-fi and fantasy. For them, science and the imagination was pre-eminent. All other ideas took a back seat. Or, rumble seat, as they would have called it.

  16. What a rich comment! You must give a day or two to digest it and respond…

    I’ll state here that I have been reading the correspondence of H.P.L. with Howard, H.P.L. with August Derleth, and H.P.L. with Clark Ashton Smith. The depth of learning and the breadth of interest of these men (and Derleth was the only one who went to college) surpasses that of most current Ph.D.’s in the humanities. Howard had read books, not only on ancient history, but on religion in ancient history. It all went into his imaginary environments. I would say, on that basis, that it is unsurprising that Conan must deal with cults and religion. But I will write in more detail when I get my thoughts in order.

    I must add this: I suspect that the readers of Weird Tales, where Howard published the Conan sagas, belonged to a somewhat older group than those of Astounding and Amazing.

  17. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Howard Days, Derleth Christmas Card, Tolkien Society Seminar –

    • I certainly will read it. I accept Walter Ong’s thesis that alphabetic literacy remade the human mind. This explains why primary and secondary educators are hostile to the phonetic principle and why, under CRT, literature has been banished from English departments. The very shapes o the Greek letters are perniciously waaaaaycist!

    • I am reading Ong, Orality and Literacy, now. I see his contention about “remaking” the mind, as you accurately describe it. Glad you recommended it, but I don’t understand very much of what I read in this tome, i.e. what has been remade, consciousness? Ratiocinatory ability? The dream state, etc.? Of all humanity? Even peasants?

      In the mid-80s, I was in China and met real peasants who lived in the muck much like their ancestors 500 years before had. Illiterate, they had their stories and songs, all unwritten. The Japanese had an extensive research bureau recording many of these legends, operas and folktales in the fifty years before the end of the war, but otherwise only the peasants themselves transmitted their traditional tales and songs down the generations.

      These peasants were unlike any persons I had ever met. Granted, I was only 21 or so, and had met few people. But they were, in our lingo, totally unconscious. The look in their eyes was altogether other-worldly to me, buried, always seeing ghosts and shadows we did not. And to them, the written word, mastered by the officials to whom they were subservient, was super-human, from a realm unknown to them, feared, venerated. Modern Chinese peasants do not have a similar countenance, perhaps as exposure to the wider world has extended to the far reaches of the farms and paddies. And they may be able to read and write, but they are only barely functionally literate and see far more video images than that ever read. (Some few of the peasants in the DPRK I’ve seen in German documentaries have the same cast of gaze as the Chinese peasants I spoke with decades ago.)

      Yes, in my own anecdotal experience, the illiterate population that I was briefly exposed to, the illiterate seem to live in another idea world. I just don’t see (yet) Ong as having demonstrated the thesis that it is literacy or literate culture itself that remakes the mind.

  18. It is the phonetic principle, inherent in the alphabet, that remakes the mind. Eric Havelock, whose argument parallels that of Ong, speculates in “The Muse Learns to Write” that the Atomism of Democritus and Leucippus derives from the analysis of the continuous stream of speech-sound into discrete phonemes made possible by the Greek, the first true, alphabet. We don’t naturally remember our own passage from illiterates to literates, but, on the basis of Ong’s phenomenology, we can reconstruct it. We can also see its lack in kids who have been deprived of the phonetic principle and brought up instead on “Whole Language” or “Whole Word” instruction. It’s fairly late at night on the East Coast. I might add some additional commentary tomorrow. Thank you for your thoughtful words.

    • I’ll keep reading him. I wonder, though, this principle with regards to Chinese. The theory behind written traditional Chinese characters is that they are composed of, generally speaking, two parts: the radical (supposed to give an indication of meaning) and the phonetic (an indication of sound, but not tone). Perhaps they once did, but, after millenia of usage and abusage, they now work to purpose only minimally.

      Bernard Karlgren traced etymological origins with the help of early Japanese syllabari and arrived at the perhaps likely or at least possible sounds of early Chinese, which we, as students of classical Chinese, read aloud (much as we read aloud middle English as it is thought to have been spoken). Although I am not up to date on current research into Chinese, there are no true discreet phonemes in Chinese — no alphabet and tone is not and was never marked in the written language.

      Indeed, with thousands of local, mutually unintelligible dialects, the only dialect that was, until the last century, written down, was that of the mandarins who needed some way of communicating to and from the imperial seat. (Language was also used for divination, e.g. the carving into a turtle scapula of identical questions, heating it over an open fire and reading the cracks for an answer.) And that written language is so unlike the oral — at least classically so — having its own ritualistic organizations that perhaps mimicked courtly behavior.

      Might it be the other way ’round then? That the change in mental state (if there was one) came about from the necessity of communicating what had always been oral — oftentimes, anecdotally, change in habit of thought in one’s own life comes from circumstance requiring it, rather than from one’s own, so to speak, Saul of Tarsus moment.

      • Havelock and Ong would argue that alphabetic literacy stimulated an increase in intellectual capacity. Types of thinking that you and I take for granted were and are impossible for illiterates. This is the real — and horrific — implication of our century-long educational crisis. And it explains the plunge into primitivism that has taken place in the public society.

        As you read Ong, pay particular attention to his summary of Luria.


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