The James Clayton Column: why we need Conan The Barbarian

Sick of supermarkets? Crying in front of your computer? Conan The Barbarian will provide the perfect fantasy outlet, James writes...

“Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”

Yes, let me, because I think you need to hear about them. If you don’t engage with tales of high adventure every so often, you can end up severely deficient in high adventuredom, suffocating in drabness and ultimately experiencing imagination atrophy which will compel you to drown yourself in the kitchen sink.

We’ve had the wondrous old-school Spielbergian spectacle of Super 8, and the war story escapades of Captain America: The First Avenger in two terrific films, but the type of adventure I’m talking about hasn’t been visible at the cinema recently. There are different kinds of high adventure, and I’m itching for a fix of ye olde fashioned epic fantasy matter.

I want stories of strange realms and immersive alternate worlds riddled with monsters and heroes. I want to escape to bizarre, bold vistas that stretch your imagination and strike violently against the mundane, recognisable modern world that we inhabit in our daily lives. What’s more, I want to see hulking savage warriors brandishing massive swords, unleashing carnage on all the outlandish obstacle entities they encounter on their grandiose quests.

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Hither comes Conan The Barbarian to, hopefully, give me that shot of adventure adrenaline and fulfil my filmic desires for pulp fiction romance. I dig this stuff, and this stuff digs into me, usually with an axe blow to my brain that knocks me sideways into glorious daydreams about slaying dark sorcerers, wrestling dread creatures and going on barechested berserker rampages across battlefields wearing only an enchanted sword and a wolfskin loincloth.

Look at one of the old covers for Weird Tales magazine (the pulp fiction journal in which Robert E Howard’s Conan stories were first published), and you might come to appreciate what I mean. On offer are fantastical, fun tales of sword-and-sorcery and the supernatural. They have mystery, dark magic and degenerate violence coursing through exotic kingdoms. They bring forth visions of bloody battles, beautiful slave women (usually accompanied by words like ‘lithe’ and ‘sensuous’) and brooding warrior heroes who overcome their foes with merciless brutality.

Altogether, I’d say that anyone looking for enjoyable, visceral escapism could do worse than dig out something spawned from Howard’s Conan mythos. Books, films, comics, whatever – compared to banal kitchen sinkdom, Hyboria is never a bad place to be.

“What is best in life?” asks the Khitan general in the 1982 Conan flick. I’d answer “imagination”, and urge people to occasionally make a complete break with mundane reality and fly into fantastical realms of high adventure. Our 21st century milieu is only bearable if you can escape from it every so often, and pop culture provides that opportunity. Worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyboria, for instance, are appealing because they don’t have the familiar features and trappings of our daily lives.

Looking around at the over-complicated modern world with its gadgets, neuroses and artificial demands, I yearn for fantasy fiction to make an overwhelming, abrupt interruption. I get the impression that we’d all have happier lives if we migrated into The Lord Of The Rings or The Dark Crystal and found a home in Hobbiton or on Thra.

Imagine Ents and Gelflings next time you’re stuck in traffic or trudging round the supermarket. See soulless high streets packed with dehumanised tech-hybrid people, plastic and advertising fall away into ethereal forests, and feel your spirits surge.

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By Crom, sometimes I sit staring at a computer screen and find myself snapping. My blood boils and I just want to club the infernal contraption to death. I feel that “wild animal craziness” (to steal a description from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox) throbbing inside, and the power of sweet fantasy like The Dark Crystal won’t pacify it.

Gelflings cry and Hobbits flee at the thought of this kind of raw rage and bloodthirstiness. In this maddened, vexed state the only thing that will do is rapid descent back to primal nature, where civilisation as we accept it must be forcefully cast off in order to embrace our true living essence.

Previously repressed in our subconscious, but now rising furiously to the surface, animal instinct takes hold. To hell with etiquette, culture and all the pretence and intellectual knowledge we’ve acquired over the centuries – right now we’re all about survival, sex, violence and blood. We’re back barenaked in a pre-technological epoch of pure being, unashamedly embracing the beast within.

I’d argue that it’s important for humans to do this, otherwise they forget that they are human. What’s more, they run the risk of becoming even more neurotic and ridiculously sensitive about such fundamental stuff as blood, sex and – gasp! – bodily fluids. By sidestepping out of our heavily developed civilisation and experiencing a fantasy fiction alternative, you can fulfil those psychic primal urges, and I’d rate the Hyborian Age of Conan as an especially effective world in which this can be achieved.

The Beast wants a break from order in escapist art and the twee gentility of the Shire, and the magically-tinged boarding school hijinks of Harry Potter just aren’t going to provide that. This is why I’m personally stoked to see the new Conan The Barbarian movie, eagerly anticipating a visceral cinema experience where I face primitive life stripped down to harsher basics, divergent from the mundane truth.

Cynics may ask, “Why do we need another Conan the Barbarian film?” and view this as another unnecessary franchise reboot. Likewise, fans of Howard’s writings and the Arnold Schwarzenegger originals may be greeting the sight of Jason Momoa on posters with scepticism, but I reckon that this film is essential.

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This dreary modern world can get depressing if you dwell in it too long, and sword-and-sorcery cinema offers a welcome relief from reality. What’s more, Conan The Barbarian carries audiences closer to the truth of human life and stirs the psychic depths of primordial existence. Social standards, conventions and all the other facets of civilisation are superficial and meaningless. At the core, we are brute creatures struggling to survive and our existence is characterised by sex, violence, life and death.

Deep down inside there’s a repressed berserker who wants to rip off their clothes and revel in wild scenes of savagery, splashing the blood, guts and carnage far across the Earth. Hither comes Conan the Barbarian, then, to liberate us, let us fantasise and appease our inner beasts. By Crom! All hail these new days of high adventure!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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