John Carter Vs. Conan the Barbarian

Comparing the Pulp Fiction of

Edgar Rice Burroughs and

Robert E. Howard

By James Lafond

The major comment that people make to me about the comparison of Carter and Conan is that Conan is a lone wolf operator and that Carter is a team player. This must come from TV, movies and comics, as they do not reflect the Conan character at all. 

Starting with style, Howard is atmospheric and Burroughs is romantic, Howard trafficking in horror and Burroughs in hope. That may be why Howard is still relevant and almost no one reads Burroughs, because Howard was realistic and Burroughs pie-in-the-sky.

Howard did write one novel aping Burroughs, and did basically a Conan as John Carter in the character of Essau Cairn. I will leave that for another discussion.

Basically, the misconception that Conan is a lone wolf is based on the fact that though both authors trafficked in outsider characters, Burroughs boys always marry the princess and get an in to the power structure through marriage, being defined by their women. This appeals to the traditional. Conservative, American male. Conan, on the other hand, as well as all Howard characters, are never defined by their relationships with women and a father-in-law, but by their relationships with their enemies. The single exception is Essau Cairn, hero of the novel Almuric, which Howard did not try and finish because he felt like he was writing too much like Burroughs, who he much admired.  

There is a lot of similarity in the heroes of the two writers:

-Burroughs’, Carter, Carson, Tarzan and others, are leaders of alien people, Tarzan even king of another species.

-Howards, Kull, Conan, MacMorn, Black Vulmea, El Borak and Kirby Smith, though outsiders in the main, are captains and kings of fighting men. 

Was Conan a lone wolf?

I will do a top of the head survey of the Conan stories, marking each as leader or loner or partner:

-1. Phoenix on the Sword: King, leader

-2. God in the Bowl: thief, employed by a rich man, a loner

-3. Tower of the Elephant: thief cooperating with the king of thieves, a partner

-4. Rogues in the House: hired assassin and team player, partner

-5. The Scarlet Citadel, king, leader

-6. Wolves Beyond the Border: king, leader

-7. Hour of the Dragon: populist king, leader

-8. People of the Black Circle: tribal chief, leader

-9. Queen of the Black Coast: tribal chief/pirate captain, leader

-10. The Frost Giant’s Daughter: young warrior, partner

-11. Isle of the Black One: pirate captain, leader

-12. Iron Shadows in the Moon: pirate captain, leader

-13. The Devil in Iron: bandit chief, leader

-14. Man Eaters of Zamboula: loner

-15. Beyond the Black River: captain of scouts, leader

-16. The Black Stranger: pirate captain, leader

-17. The Vale of Lost Women: tribal chief, leader

-18. A Witch Shall Be Born: mercenary general/tribal chief, leader

-19. Jewels of Gwalur: mercenary general, leader

-20. Red Nails: mercenary deserter, loner

 -21. Xuthal of the Dusk: mercenary soldier, last survivor of an army, an involuntary loner, partnered with a slave girl

-22. The Snout in the Dark: mercenary general, leader

-23. Black Collossus: mercenary general, leader

Of these 23 stories, Conan is only a lone Wolf actor in three, only otherwise acts in non-leadership positions as a youth or fugitive, is a good loyal partner when he teams up and a conscientious king. 

Of course, he is on his own for most of the action, as our Burroughs’ characters. The thing that makes the Conan character seem like a lone wolf when compared to Burroughs protagonists is not his alien statuss. Tarzan was not even a chimp. Carter was not a Martian. The following elements make Conan seem less social:

-1. Conan does not marry. He is a bachelor, while all of Burroughs 5 major series heroes marry. 

-2. Conan refuses to be elevated by a woman, and when a queen offers him her hand he declines to be HER king and remains a tribal chief.

-3. Conan becomes king through regicide! He is a usurper, not a hereditary king or the cucked husband of a queen or princess.

-4. Conan is a deserter, criminal or pirate or bandit leader in 11 of these 23 stories and when he is a leader he is either a mercenary or a usurper. 

Conan is self-made and self-defined, while more traditional romantic and sentimental heroes earn a place in a hierarchy through heroism. Conan just breaks the hierarchy, cutting a judge’s head off in court rather than testify against a brother-in-arms. Conan is a criminal. Conan is working class. All of Burroughs’ heroes except for The Mucker, are college educated or of noble birth. Even Tarzan the ape man is Lord Greystoke. Among Howard’s heroes only Bran Mak Morn is of royal birth and his subjects are pretty much subhuman. Solomon Kane may have been from the lower nobility and becomes a loner. That is the Howard character that is in strongest opposition to the leadership model of heroism favored by Burroughs.

Both pulp writers were selling to youths who were typically alienated, as defined by the fact that they were American males who read rather than attending sports venues in a largely illiterate society. There has never been a period in which most American boys would reader for pleasure, contemplation or self-improvement. The American male reader has always been alienated. This is the genius behind pulp writers casting alien men as interloping leaders of other peoples. Burroughs took the reader on a fantasy flight that made him feel like the outsider become the apex insider. Howard took the reader on a darker journey that permitted the reader to enjoy an outsider perspective of a hero who successfully interacts with the world without fixing it, saving it or joining it, but retreats again into his nature. 

Each type of hero has its appeal. I suspect that Burroughs worked better for readers of the “gee-whiz the good guys always win” era, of American ascendency, just like John Wayne did in cinema, by being a hero who submits to the church ladies and the politicians and is finally accepted by the cowards he saves from the bad guys, such as in Rio Bravo.

Howard appeals more to the postmodern reader, experiencing American decline as his heroes stalk an overtly evil world ruled by evil politicians in which women are not the ultimate moral authority, a world in which you have to be a bad man to beat the bad guys, who are often insiders. Just as Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name character appeals in a more cynical age than Wayne’s cucked heroes, so the ghost man reader, told he is evil by virtue of his birth, can easily identify with Conan the Barbarian, a man regarded as ethnically evil by the denizens of the world he interacts with. No other Cimmerian, ever appears in a Conan story, but Conan. That is the crux of the lone wolf vibe in Conan, that he, like the paleface of remnant Modernity a century after he was created, finds himself beset by evil and alone in a world of Hobbesian antipathy and leviathan scale. Even when he has made it to the Throne of Aquilonia, he will be attacked in his bedroom by assassins in the night, sold out by his captain of guards, making the sorcerers and shadow-haunted cities of the fantastical Hyborain Age come easily alive in the alienated masculine mind. 

In summation, bother Howard and Burroughs wrote of:


-who were outsiders

-who came to a leadership position through daring deeds

It is the settings that were different, with Burroughs generally sketching a society beset by outsiders and Howard generally sketching a society haunted by diabolical insiders, especially in the Kull stories.

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