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Barbarism
A Mythic Dimension in Fiction


“I never knew a man of intelligence so little fitted for adjustment in a machine-made civilization.”

-Almuric

The passage above refers to Esau Cairn, the protagonist of Howard’s savage science-fantasy, Almuric, in which a man distinctly born out of his intended time, in an epoch for which he was not suited, was permitted to escape to a fantastical realm that better suited his nature. This tale is largely anomalous in that most of Howard’s heroes live out their adventure-fraught lives in a time in which their barbarian ways, the lifeway they were born to beyond the bounds of civilization, live under threat from, or do themselves rise as a threat to civilization.

The decadence of civilization—its great, fatal and inherent weakness—is better pointed out by the author who employs a savage viewpoint character.

Kull

Conan

Bran Mak Morn

Cormac MacArt

These protagonists were all barbarians operating in, at the fringes of, and even in the halls of power of civilization. In a good Howard yarn civilization is must insightfully viewed from man’s natural perspective, that of the tribal warrior, its opposite, barbarism.

A common metaphor for barbarism in more civilized settings is the wolf pack. In settings such as Howard’s desert adventures featuring El Borak, in the Kane stories and in the stories of minor heroes like the Sonora Kid, the barbarian is viewed as an outsider in wolfish aspect. The wolf and the wolf pack are used in Howard’s adventure and horror yarns as metaphors for upwelling barbarity, of the threat of the savage outsider to a not yet irredeemably decadent civilization.

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Lynn D.April 11, 2016 10:32 PM UTC

I think of wolves as the European representation of the wild. Lions once occupied Europe, but they became extinct before written history really got going, though they persist somewhat in literature. Wolves were a menace until fairly recently and still inhabit the remote parts. To me Europe = wolf stories, Africa = lion stories.