No, Aragorn and Conan Are Not Alike: A Reply to The Brothers Krynn
Due to a new laptop, I have been spending early November making excellent progress on Old Phuul. It turns out that when one has a functioning computer at one’s disposal, there is a corresponding renewal of interest in actually writing. So much so, I intend for the next couple of months to be quieter on the blogging front, while I catch up on original creative endeavours. Because, yes, contrary to internet reputation, I am a creative writer and not merely a blogger. But we shall see how things go there. Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men, and all that.
But in light of October’s reading, where I zoomed through the 1930s Weird Tales trio of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard, I do intend to write a blog reflection on these figures from Ye Olde Pulps. Coming back to these works for the first time in well over a decade, there was a fair amount of stuff older-me noticed that younger-me missed, to a degree I found worthy of comment. So that’s something to look forward to.
And having fully refreshed my memory of Howard’s Conan, I also feel myself well-equipped to comment on a certain recent YouTube video, as put out by The Brothers Krynn. And that, dear reader, is why we are here today:
Let me just say, I utterly disagree with the video’s conclusion.
Tolkien’s Aragorn and Howard’s Conan can only be considered similar in the most superficial of senses. The wasteland warrior who becomes King, and who gets married at the end. I am honestly surprised the video did not cite both characters as being male, scruffy, dark-haired, and having similar eye-colour (Aragorn: grey, Conan: blue), because as I see it, the two are more interesting to consider as an exercise in literary contrasts than as being two sides of a similar archetype.
The contrast works its way through every level of the characters.
Conan lives to fight and fuck. As per his famous conversation in Queen of the Black Coast, his interest is in the here-and-now material world. Carpe Diem. Slay, steal, and have a rip-roaring feast afterwards, with all the wine he can get his hands on. His underlying philosophy – not that he gives much thought to philosophy – is very much Might Makes Right, and while he does have a moral code, in terms of loyalty to friends and barbaric-chivalry towards women, his justification for actions comes from the blade of his blood-soaked sword. The son of a blacksmith* (The Hour of the Dragon), Conan has no right to the throne of Aquilonia, but he usurps it anyway, and just happens to make a decent fist of ruling, even if it puts him in the situation of being the metaphorical dog that has caught the car. Oh, and the fellow goes through women like toilet paper. Zenobia is really just another Girl of the Week who happens to find herself promoted. It’s not like Conan won’t have bucket-loads of royal mistresses on the side.
*Yes, the Cimmerians are descended from the Atlanteans. But since Howard’s setting presupposes Evolutionary Reversion, the Cimmerians are not notable for being last noble hold-outs of a bloodline, but rather people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from the ape-like beasts the Atlanteans devolved into.
Aragorn is a quite different creature. His ethos is not Might Makes Right, but rather Right Makes Might – relying on the power of legitimate royal lineage, piety, and virtue to get him through. Aragorn is a warrior, yes, but he is a warrior in the sense that Tolkien’s Faramir is. He fights to protect that which he loves, and not because he loves fighting for its own sake. Aragorn is not a fundamentally self-interested character, and while he does indeed share Conan’s wanderlust, one could never imagine him as a pirate, thief, or bloody-handed mercenary hell-bent on plunder. Aragorn is a King, specifically the Rightful King the metaphysics of the setting demand, and so his ascension to the throne of Gondor is the logical consequence of his character trajectory, not a holiday from his more standard and typical interests, as with Conan and Aquilonia. Oh, and suffice to say, Aragorn is a strictly one-woman guy. He’s been saving himself for Arwen for six decades, not leaving a slew of illegitimate children across Middle-earth.
In fact, the contrast between Aragorn and Conan seeps down to that most fundamental of questions – Whence Legitimacy? For Conan, political legitimacy operates in a strictly Hobbesian sense. A King is someone strong enough to be the King, and if one finds oneself confronted with injustice, well, you have a functional sword-arm, don’t you? In fact, the dynastically legitimate King of Aquilonia, Valerius, is actually a bloody and incompetent tyrant, and Conan at one point finds himself musing about why blood relationships ought to matter at all.
For Aragorn, political legitimacy is a self-evident matter of inheritance, and a demonstrable mandate from appropriate authority. Injustice is to be dealt with through the application of merciful justice – a demonstration of considered wisdom and not mere violence. The basis of Aragorn’s rulership is certainly not Thomas Hobbes, and basically the only thing he and Conan share in their rise to power is an acknowledgement of the “consent of the governed.” Aragorn asks the people of Minas Tirith for their consent, while Conan (in one of his less bloodthirsty moments) refers to the legitimacy that comes with popular support. But that is really it. These are two characters with utterly different philosophies on life and rulership.
So if Aragorn is a non-evil Valerius, as transplanted to a setting where legitimate lineage actually matters, what would Conan be to Middle-earth (we know Tolkien read at least one Conan story, Shadows in the Moonlight)? Obvious candidates include the likes of Boromir and Eomer, men who delight in warfare for warfare’s sake, and who enjoy popular acclaim for it. Another one would be Helm Hammerhand, the awesomely strong King of Rohan, with an amoral tendency towards violent solutions. But for me, I would suggest a different candidate.
Great military leader, usurper of the throne, massively popular with the people, defeater of an evil wizard… and someone who literally goes to war with the gods themselves in order to claim by Might that which he deems his Right. Poor Pharazôn. Guy just happened to have Tolkien as his author, and not Robert E. Howard. But the fact that Pharazôn – and not Aragorn – is the closest analogy I can concoct for a Tolkienian Conan shows how far off-base I feel this video actually is. I think the Aragorn/Conan thesis can only work with some hellishly convenient cherry-picking of the texts.