This week's Friday Five is improperly barbaric - five distinctive looks at one of the oldest tropes in sword & sorcery, selected by writer JM Canning (who keeps a lamentably low-profile internet presence, but keep your eyes peeled for his work...).
Whether they come in the form of a muscle-bound swordsman with laughable hair or a chainmail bikini-clad hellcat, the barbarian hero is one of the oldest, most iconic and, for many, most cringe worthy tropes of fantastic fiction.
They’ve been with us since the beginning, at least since Conan the Cimmerian strode forth, sword in hand, from the pen of Texan pulp fictioneer Robert E. Howard in the early part of the twentieth century, and a lot longer than that if you want to include the epics of Homer and the sagas of northern Europe. It’s hard to think of a trope with a more ancient pedigree, but it’s also hard to think of one more despised, dismissed and maligned by readers and critics alike over the years.
Barbarian heroes are often written off as poorly characterized vehicles of adolescent wish fulfillment. Aside from being worthless as literary subject matter, don’t they also provide a dangerously warped and immature view of violence and gender politics for both men and women, among other things?
Well no, the majority of them don’t, and that seems to me to be one of the best-kept secrets in speculative fiction. For now, forget every Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo cheesecake painting you’ve ever laid eyes on, and consider these five trope-defying barbarians.
Kull of Atlantis
Before Conan there was Kull. The Atlantean first appeared in the pages of Weird Tales in 1929, in a short story entitled The Shadow Kingdom, now widely considered to be the first (and finest) example of American sword & sorcery fiction.
The reader is introduced to a Kull already enthroned in Valusia, the Land of Enchantment, and from the outset we see that here is a man beset by doubts and inner fears, a man who, having achieved his wildest dreams already, realizes he is now doomed to a life of suspicion, intrigue and betrayal if he is to keep what he has won.
King Kull is still a savage at heart, a hunter-gatherer who has lost none of his raw physical potency, but one who is overawed by the ancient civilisation that he’s found himself ruling, who struggles with the enshrined rituals and Byzantine politics of his court. Over the course of Howard’s Kull series of tales, we don’t see him charging around rescuing slave girls and looting tombs (he actually shows no physical interest in women at all), we instead see him defending himself from xenophobic nationalists, trying to alleviate the boredom of civilised life, helping several young couples avoid unwanted arranged marriages or simply sitting and pondering the mysteries of time and space.
Kull is the thinking man’s barbarian. His tales have a wonderful dream-like, melancholy quality, and feature little in the way of physical action. They are more preoccupied with philosophical themes such as the nature of civilisation, how it compares and interacts with so-called ‘barbarism’ and other such notions.
The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, for example, seems to be a metaphysical pondering on the nature of existence itself, as Kull sits for days in front of a series of enchanted mirrors and ends up wondering if the moving reflections are the real Kull and him the illusion. The story also features a very appropriate epigraph from one of Howard’s favourite poets, Edgar Allan Poe, which I find sums up this series perfectly:
“a wild weird clime that lieth sublime
Out of Space, out of Time.”