Robert E. Howard: Godfather of Grimdark?

Last Updated on April 7, 2021

Grimdark is a relatively new label for speculative fiction. Maybe the term first rolled around on your tongue while painting Warhammer miniatures back in the 90s, or perhaps it took Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle to embed this compound word into your personal lexicon. But the content that’s come to define this genre—the morally ambiguous characters, bleak circumstances, and thought-provoking dilemmas—is far from novel. Of course, dark stories have been around since long before the written word existed, but much of what we’ve come to associate with grimdark fantasy is rooted in the stories of pulp master Robert E. Howard.

Sure, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and countless others helped provision the journey from dark fantasy to grimdark. But before their time,way back in the 1930s, the Texan known as ‘Two-gun’ was spinning fantasy yarns driven by morally deficient heroes with selfish and sometimes  disturbing motivations. Notably, these sword-and-sorcery tales, as they came to be known, were antithetical to the more hopeful and altruistic writings of Tolkien and those who trailed him. Howard was among the first writers to blend gritty, blood-pumping adventure yarns with dark fantasy elements, and in this regard, I don’t believe he is always given his due credit.

Though Howard’s settings aren’t aggressively bleak, they are as cold and cruel as one would expect from pseudo-historical settings. But it is not so much the plots or the places that resemble our modern concept of grimdark (though there are similarities)—it is his characters and their motivations. His most popular and enduring creation, Conan the Cimmerian, is not a typical hero. While many claim he is an anti-hero, and certain traits favour that description, that label is both vague and wide. Conan should not be so carelessly categorized, nor should Bran Mak Morn, another of Howard’s barbarian kings. After a careful examination of these two characters, I’m comfortable asserting that Howard was the godfather of the grimdark protagonist.

According to Novalyne Price, Howard once described Conan as “the damndest bastard I ever saw” (Price, One Who Walked Alone, 20). I think it’s fair to say that this is no way to describe a hero. And while Conan does play the hero when it suits him, if he doesn’t totally shatter the heroic archetype, he certainly cracks it. His motivations for slaying are manifold. Supported by his capable sword arm and near super-human constitution, he seeks money, wine, women, power, and sometimes vengeance. Time and again, he proves to be unrestrained by moral scruples. In ‘Rogues in the House’, he is jailed after slaying a priest to avenge his fellow thief and partner-in-crime. Then, in negotiations to win back his freedom, he agrees to kill a man he doesn’t know. In ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, after slaying a judge, he hops aboard a merchant ship and threatens to “drench (the) galley in the blood of its crew”. In what is perhaps Howard’s most controversial tale, ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’,  Conan reveals his dark lusts as he stalks a nymph-like woman across the barren northern wastes, threatening to “warm (her) with the fire in (his) own blood.” While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he is literally bewitched by Atali’s magic, it’s disingenuous to claim rape—in this story—is not a motivator, whether he has been charmed or not. These are certainly not heroic traits, not by today’s standards, nor when compared to other fantasy fare of that era.

By his own admission, Howard injected a degree of realism and grit into Conan—aspects shared by modern grimdark protagonists and/or point of view characters. In a 1935 letter to his peer Clark Ashton Smith, Howard wrote:

“Sent a three-part serial to Wright yesterday: “Red Nails”, which I devoutly hope he’ll like. A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest and most merciless story of the series so far. Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung. It may sound fantastic to link the term “realism” with Conan; but as a matter of fact — his supernatural adventures aside — he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that’s why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. (Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, 32 July 1935, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3. 366-367)

It is this warts-and-all realism that separates Conan from other fantasy characters and makes him more akin to grimdark protagonists like Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers. He is a man motivated by appetite—whether it’s for “rich juices of red meat”, “lithe and voluptuous” females or for “the feasting of swords”, Conan wears his heart’s desire on his vambrace. And in ‘Red Nails’, the final and arguably most grimdark Conan story, we see the Cimmerian as driven as ever to satisfy his needs. It is a tale of lust, tribal feuds, trophy killings, and the slow, horrifying decay of civilization. In the middle of all this is Conan—horny, hungry and vicious as a panther, giving little regard to the fate of the warring citizens. After a crescendo of blood and thunder, as bodies bleed out in the streets of Xuchotl, readers may find themselves aghast at the bleak themes and ultra-violence on display. But not Conan. Despite all he’s witnessed and all he’s wrought, when the final screams cease, his mind immediately sets back to his purpose, ‘“Well this cleans up the feud,” he grunted. “It’s been a hell of a night! Where did these people keep their food? I’m hungry.”’

To be fair—and at the risk of countering my own thesis—I must highlight Conan’s peculiar sense of honor. In these tales, Howard takes pains to explore the theme of civilization vs. barbarism, and one of his go-to tricks is to portray Conan as a man with a code, especially in regard to his friends. In ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, he kills the judge because he refuses, by order of his curious barbaric mores, to give up his friends. Again, in ‘Rogues in the House’ we learn the lengths he goes to avenge his thief friend, despite risking his own freedom. And regardless of the uncomfortable aspects of the ‘Frost Giant’s Daughter’, other tales give evidence that Conan would not take a woman against her will, nor would he accept sex as a payment for his services. This isn’t to say these examples preclude Conan from being a grimdark protagonist, as these could be considered character traits, but it is only fair to point out that he does have a moral compass.

Though several of Howard’s characters warrant a look under the grimdark lens, another in particular presents a truly compelling case: Bran Mak Morn, last King of the Picts. If Conan is Howard’s power fantasy—a man of sex, drugs, and dripping swords—then Bran Mak Morn represents a man bent beneath the weight of duty. I realize it doesn’t sound immediately grimdark to be married to one’s responsibilities, but the measures Bran takes to beat back the encroaching Romans and preserve his people are both extreme and unsettling, especially for a fantasy hero of the 1930s.

In what many consider Howard’s masterwork, ‘Worms of the Earth’, Bran’s back is to the wall. For years he’s raged against the inevitable; now he stands closer than ever to losing everything to the Romans. Unlike Conan, Bran lacks the luxury of pursuing base pleasures. He experiences all the melancholy with none of the mirth. In an earlier story, ‘Kings of the Night’, we see Bran is willing to condone human sacrifice to gain an edge on his enemies, but that pales in comparison to the depraved acts he commits in ‘Worms of the Earth’. In order to wreak vengeance on the military governor, Titus Sulla, Bran seeks the aid of a witch, whom he must bed in order to curry favour. Once the deed is done, he descends into the hellish depths of the earth to make a pact with the titular Worms—devolved reptilian creatures capable of killing by supernatural means.

While it’s fair to say Bran is doing this for altruistic purposes, it’s equally fair to claim he’s fully aware of what fates he tempts. Despite warnings from both his trusted seer and the devious witch who calls him mad, he remains undeterred, ‘“I seek a vengeance,’ he answered, ‘that can be accomplished only by Them I seek.’”

Further, ‘Worms of the Earth’ ends on purely grim and ominous note and, unlike Conan, Bran does not conqueror his enemies unfazed. Despite glutting his vengeance and surviving the fight, Bran’s actions make no significant difference in the ultimate fight against his enemies. In fact, he has probably made new and more elusive foes. What evils he unleashed we’ll never know, as this was the last Bran tale Howard would write. But if a grimdark story is one where the protagonists make questionable decisions and commit black deeds, only to find themselves deeper in the mud and blood, then ‘Worms of the Earth’ certainly fits the definition.

While it’s easy to suggest Howard’s contributions were nothing more than another branch on the evolutionary chain of speculative fiction, I believe he deserves more credit. If you consider his morally ambiguous characters, their motivations, and his stories’ bleak themes and ominous conclusions, it’s easy to spot the influences he has had on grimdark fantasy. Perhaps over the years, other authors have provided stronger inspirations, but when you follow the thread all the way back to Howard’s pulp tales of the 1930s, you will find the starting point for grim and dark fantasy as we know it.

Originally published in GdM#24

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Matthew John

Matthew John

Matthew John is an English Language Arts teacher and employee of Monolith Games (Conan, Batman: Gotham City Chronicles). He lives with his wife, two children, and countless cats and dogs in Nova Scotia, Canada. When time allows, he likes to write short fiction, waste time at the gaming table, and chat sword and sorcery on the Rogues in the House Podcast. His work has been published in Skelos (SkelosPress), Weirdbook (Wildside Press), and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the roleplaying game (Modiphius Games).

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