I spent a holiday recently reading, among other things, The Conquering Sword of Conan and The Bonehunters. Both of them excellent reads, by the way. But a similarity that turned into a difference between them intrigued me.
Both talk about the fragility of 'civilization'. But they mean very different things by that. Howard's Conan is the savage heart unchecked, ready at any time to leap into hot-blooded fury. Much like Erikson's Icarium, who is the kindest of people and yet unleashes such epic-level rage that he has laid waste entire societies. What's the difference?
"Barbarism always triumphs" says Howard -- the hollow assertion of the 'civilized' man who knows his people have unjustly eradicated one 'barbaric' culture after another. For what is Conan but Howard's apology to the Lakota, to the Cherokee, to the Hopi? Conan allows Howard to indulge in the myth that the genocide practiced by his nation was not as final as it really was -- that the victory of American Forces over one out-matched nation after another is an anomaly that will be set right by the inevitable forces of, uh, inevitability. That not only does there exist hope for the exterminated 'barbarians' but that their rebirth and eventual victory is assured.
Again and again in the Conan stories Howard refers to the primacy of 'barbaric' strengths, and of the fragility of 'civilization'. Eventually all our 'civilized' accomplishments turn hollow, our supposed strengths revealed to be weaknesses, and only those who retain their 'natural' barbaric strength will survive.
That this flies in the face of all recorded history concerns Howard not at all. Such a view of civilization lends poignancy to its efforts. It's less horrific to exterminate an entire nation if they (or some other 'barbaric' group indistinguishable from them) are destined to rise again and cast down the civilization that brought them low.
Of course Howard is far too intelligent and talented a writer to settle for easy conclusions in this or any other question, but it has to be said that, especially in the light of his historical expertise with respect to the 'settling' of North America, his bold assertion that "barbarism always triumphs" is a politically loaded statement.
Erikson sounds a similar horn in his "Malazan Books of the Fallen" series. Civilization here falls away readily, it is but a thin veneer over the savage animality that truly drives men. But Erikson's worldview is notably different from Howard's in two ways. Firstly, Erikson does not divide nations into barbaric or civilized. In the world of the Malazan Empire, ALL societies stand on the brink of savagery. All men bear within them both possibilities equally. Secondly, Erikson looks on the advent of savagery with none of Howard's hand-rubbing glee. You can sense how thrilling Howard finds the inevitable onslaught of barbarism, the relief that comes every time Conan discards the trappings of the civilized world and reverts to the savage within. Erikson sees very little to enjoy in that onslaught.
But then Howard's savage is very different from Erikson's. Conan is far more noble than any civilized man can hope to be. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of 'civilized' men in Howard that they lack moral strength. Even when good-hearted, these weak, unforged souls cannot offer the strength of conviction, the nobility of spirit that Conan possesses. In many ways, Howard's barbarians (at least, his WHITE barbarians) are more civilized than any others in Hyboria.
For Erikson, civilization means a world where the more noble inclinations of man can thrive and provide frameworks for justice and compassion. Without some guiding order, it seems, people are stranded in a nightmarish world of horror and brutality. And yet that very order can only arise out of the individual actions of determined folks -- folks stranded in the chaos of savagery.
When Kalam Mekhar assists Keneb and Minala, when Ganoes Paran makes his decision about the Chained God, when Adjunct Tavore returns to the army that has claimed her, when Itkovian kneels before the T'lan Imass, they are choosing courage over fear, compassion over calculation, and faith over suspicion.
Erikson recognizes that civilization requires strength to maintain itself, that a balancing act must always be conducted between freedom and tyranny. But where the Conan stories celebrate only individual strength, Erikson's remarkable work celebrates much, much more: the deeply entwined relationships that influence all our decisions and that provide us with the real strength. The strength that preserves civilization.
Because as much as Howard may wish (or WANT to wish) otherwise, the piercing truth of history is painfully clear: civilization ALWAYS triumphs.
Well, maybe the truth is that 'civilized' cultures always triumph over 'savage' ones. Again and again the ancient pattern plays out: the violent, dangerous nomads are brought to heel and at last consumed by the determined farmers. Be they Hittites or Lakota or Mongols, the 'savages' are always overwhelmed in the end. Those stubborn little farmers always live to see the smug ranchers put down. The question of who is truly civilized may be hard to answer, but there is no question who triumphs in the passage of history.
But at the same time, that which is savage in all of us is always near the surface. Whether it comes out in violence or in subtler forms of cruelty, it lurks waiting for our vigilance to lapse. We are all of us Icarium, ready to unleash pain and suffering whenever we lose control of ourselves. But then maybe we're all also Conan, full of strength and nobility if only we will release ourselves from the bonds that pain us.