Conan The Barbarian is the Embodiment of American Manhood
Everyone knows the character Conan. Most know him from John Milius’ 1982 movie Conan The Barbarian, where Conan was portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was Arnold’s breakout role. At the time it cost $20 million to make. Today’s equivalent would be a $200 million comic hero movie.
The movie was and is excellent. It’s well-made, exciting, even emotional at times. But if you only know Conan from film you’re missing out.
Conan was created by the king of all pulp authors; Robert E. Howard. Over a dozen Conan stories and one Conan novel were published in the 1930s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales.
Howard’s Conan wanders the Hyborian lands seeking adventure, gold, war, women, you name it. We see stories from Conan’s life as a thief, pirate, mercenary, warlord, leader, and even a king. He started from the bottom and worked his way to the top. The American dream if ever there was one.
Conan Uses His Strengths To Get To The Top
Conan has a few strengths and a few weaknesses.
He is incredibly strong. Not superhero strong, an important distinction, but stronger than nearly everyone and everything he encounters. The same goes for his endurance. He picks up languages quickly, but this might be a necessary character trait to tell the stories of a man that regularly travels to distant realms. And when the time comes, he loses all thoughts. He runs on pure instincts charging in to impossible odds because it is the only hope he has of seeing tomorrow.
But sometimes those instincts take him in to troublesome situations. When he wants a woman he will take horrible risks to have her. He drinks too much. And of course, like any great man, Conan has many enemies.
Conan’s stories reflect the path of the American entrepreneur. What we love about American entrepreneurs is their rags-to-riches stories. They start with nothing but grit and determination and resourcefulness and a good idea. Despite the odds they are able to use those strengths to become titans of industry. Their stories serve as a beacon to others; if I did it you can too.
It’s a narrative we love though it isn’t necessarily true. Conan’s story is similar.
Conan’s Rags-to Riches Beginning
Conan was raised in Cimmeria, a savage hilly land where hard physical labor was a daily way of life. He left Cimmeria seeking adventure. Because he had nothing he started as a thief.
In the story The Tower of the Elephant Conan is determined to burgle the tower of a powerful sorcerer. This tower is in the heart of city known for attracting the most talented thieves who swear the tower is ultimately secure, yet the novice Conan decides that he can break-in to this impenetrable tower.
While he is breaking through the perimeter surrounding the tower he runs in to another thief, possibly the best. This thief invites Conan to join him. What does Conan bring to the table? His fierce instincts and strength. While at the base of the tower the thieves are attacked by a lion. Only Conan instinctively senses the impending danger. He turns at the last second and hacks downward with his sword. The lion is dead and the pair are free to ascend the tower.
Later the more experienced thief dies while trying to breakthrough another booby trap. With some luck and his savage instincts Conan fights his way through this trap and in to the tower where treasures and mysteries await him.
This is the beginning of Conan’s career as an adventurer. It demonstrates his strengths, his delusional confidence, and his determination to achieve greatness, traits common to American entrepreneurs as well.
What is American Masculinity?
E. Anthony Rotundo, in his book American Manhood: Transformations In Masculinity From The Revolution To The Modern Era, demonstrates that the ideals of American masculinity formed in the 19th century. Before then men were beholden to their communities, families, and predetermined station in life.
But during the 1800s all of that changed. America was settled but so much of the country was still unexplored. Free market capitalism allowed men to rise above or fall below the stations of their fathers. Men were free to pioneer new areas of the country. They were free to earn as much as they could without any societal restraints.
The measure of a man then was how hard he worked. His hard work and energy determined his masculine character. Lazy men were hated and shunned. Energetic men who got up everyday to bust their asses and earn some extra money were respected and admired. In this environment the American dream and American masculinity were born.
This is why we love rags-to-riches stories. It’s why Drake can sing “Started from the bottom now we’re here” and become the most popular rapper in the world. It’s why Jay-Z’s first big hit, Hard Knock Life, can propel him to super stardom and millions and millions of dollars.
It’s Not Just an American Story, It’s the American Story
Of course there are many examples of rags-to-riches stories we idolize that are not in the pop music realm. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are two more examples.
This is American manhood in a nutshell. It requires energy, consistency, determination, and at least one skill that be converted to wealth and status through hard work. And that is exactly how Conan went from a Cimmerian warrior to King of Aquilonia.
This transformation is best explained by Conan in the story The Scarlet Citadel. In the story two rival kings, Amalrus and Strabonus, and a sorcerer, Tsotha-Lanti capture King Conan using deceit and betrayal. While Conan is thoroughly restrained the treacherous kings have an exchange with him about the legitimacy of his rule over the Kingdom of Aquilonia;
“What are you but an adventurer, seizing a crown to which you had no more claim than any other wandering barbarian?” parried Amalrus. “We are prepared to offer you suitable compensation—”
“Compensation!” It was a gust of deep laughter from Conan’s mighty chest. “The price of infamy and treachery! I am a barbarian, so I shall sell my kingdom and its people for life and your filthy gold? Ha! How did you come to your crown, you and that black-faced pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger— except to poison a few brothers— I fought for.
“You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty— bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors?”
How could any man achieve a superior feat? The feat that is the American dream? Be like Conan The Barbarian.