Conan the Chad and Tolkien the Virgin

| Timothy Zila |

An altar of a snake consuming its own tail, adorned with skulls placed amongst the snake and at the base of the altar.

Conan the Barbarian plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, April 5th, through Sunday, April 7th. Visit for tickets and more information.

I never saw Conan the Barbarian growing up, nor did I read any of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. But I thought I knew what to expect based on my impression of the vibrant covers depicting a burly, muscle-bursting man in a loincloth next to a busty woman wearing even less. The art, along with my Evangelical upbringing, told me that Conan was bad. It was shallow and pornographic. It was quite simply—though I wouldn’t have used the word at the time—shit.

 Naturally, I had no idea what I was talking about. Conan is indeed an entirely different type of fantasy than what I’d discovered and loved in Tolkien’s oeuvre with its maps and made-up language; its long passages of poetry and song; and, quite frankly, its politeness. Conan the Barbarian is not polite. Conan’s mother is beheaded in the first scene, for no apparent reason. The narrator chimes in on this, saying “Who knows what they came for? Weapons of steel or murder? It was never known, for their leader rode to the south.” So much for explanations!

Child Conan is immediately enslaved after this. After escaping, the very first thing he does is have sex with a woman who turns out to be a witch. And it’s not long after that that Conan and the two sidekicks he’s teamed up with infiltrate the camp of a religious cult, steal some loot, and slaughter a giant snake on their way out. If it sounds like I’m just paraphrasing the first act of the plot here (I am), well, it’s to make a point. Conan cannot be boiled down to its plot, which is generally absurd. Conan is about something more

And what that more is—for the purposes of this blog, anyway—is a kind of counter to the dignified and stolid fantasy embodied in the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are no Hobbits with their cozy holes and six square meals a day here, no siree!

Tolkien was an informative literary figure in my youth, but there’s an awful lot that’s missing in his work (and I don’t just mean giant orgies and punch bowls the size of a Mini Cooper full of indiscriminate liquid). Incredibly obvious things are missing, in fact—just look at the scarcity of female roles! And what about sex? The only real sex in Lord of the Rings is an absence—the unconsummated, chaste, impossible relationship between Aragon and Arwen. While touching (well, not literally), it’s an old-school, literary kind of romance—one that seems totally out of touch with the way most people experience sex or love.

But Conan? He hooks up with Valeria (the badass female warrior who seems like a possible Xena prototype) right after they rob the snake cult! That’s a little more like life; a little more like meeting someone at a party and hitting it off. Now, to be clear, Conan is obviously not some progressive, feminist piece of cinema. It is very much not that. But there’s a frankness about the sex that’s refreshing.

Conan and Valeria are seated together at a tavern. Valeria’s hand is outstretched on the table, with Conan’s hand on her wrist. (The guy has a sensitive side.)

The Tolkien comparisons aren’t totally out of left field, mind. Growing up, I remember fantasy being divided into two sub-genres that, for all intents and purposes, could have been rival sports teams—sword and sorcery (your representative: Conan) and high fantasy (Tolkien). I, of course, was in camp Tolkien. Now? Well, consider me a neutral bystander.

So Conan bodies Tolkien. Great. What’s next? How about the Bible? Can Conan take on the Bible? Fool, you know he can. The thing that’d most scandalize twelve-year-old Tim wouldn’t be the sex or the violence or the Mini Cooper-sized punch bowl (I really want to know what’s in that punch), it’s just how damn Biblical this movie is.

he three heroes—Subotai, Conan, and Valeria (from left to right)—stand facing the camera. Conan and Valeria’s hands are outstretched, and Conan wears a look of steely determination on his face. Though perhaps his bare chest stands out more.

This is evident in the very first scene by the narration which loosely structures the film. We get a condensed creation myth explaining how Conan’s people came to be where they were. And then, when the focus shifts to Conan himself, the narrator says “It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga.” That’s Biblical as fuck. But Conan isn’t just Biblical—it’s also deeply heretical. Conan is crucified on a tree, like Christ. But unlike Christ, he’s raised from the dead not by his Father, but by the love of a woman who’ll ward off demons to see that he’s raised from the dead. And you know what? That’s pretty fucking cool.

The Biblical nature goes further than that, too. What struck me most about Conan the Barbarian when I first watched it was the way the world is presented without explanation or context. If The Lord of the Rings is obsessed with explaining and categorizing every aspect of Middle Earth (its people, its history, its myth), Conan just is. There are points in the film where the loose narration from Conan’s chronicler is the only thing providing the audience with any sense of what’s happening or why. Conan does not give a shit if you know what’s happening or why. And, rather than the elaborate, interconnected narrative structure of Tolkien, we have a thoroughly episodic adventure film. One thing happens, then another thing happens, then later, after a few interludes, the events are strung together, but the connective tissue is loose. If The Lord of the Rings is about the fate of the world, Conan is about one dude and his (gender-neutral) bros.

And so, like Conan on that fateful day he decided to sneak into the camp of the snake cult whose leader just so happens to be the guy that killed his family and ends up meeting the love of his life,1 I too have found an appreciation for Conan the Barbarian—for its swashbuckling sense of adventure, its frank sexuality, and its heresy. And unlike Lord of the Rings, there are no laborious battles between armies that stretch as far as the eye can see. Just a Chad and his mates, ready to take on the world.

The end credits sequence depicts Conan as king in regal attire sitting on a throne, accompanied by the following text: So, did Conan return the wayward daughter of King Osric to her home. And having no further concern, he and his companions sought adventure in the West. Many wars and feuds did Conan fight. Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand … And this story shall also be told.


1 The movie at first makes it seem like Conan is purposefully hunting down the cult leader. He remembers the snake-laden symbol seen on the armor from when he was a child. But then, when Conan is actually in the lair of said cult leader, he seemingly has an out-of-body experience upon seeing the symbol again, which makes it seem like he had no idea he was robbing the guy who murdered his mom and dad and him being there is just one big coincidence. It’s confusing!

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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