If you’re a real fantasy fan you’ve heard of Conan and Elric. It’s that simple. The Cimmerian barbarian and the Melnibonean prince have dominated the imaginations of sword-and-sorcery fans (and heavy metal album covers) for decades. But why? What is it about these two warriors that made them poster-boys for an entire genre? Well, I’m gonna tell you. It’s not the epic battles. It’s not the philosophical underpinnings of pseudo-Fascism (Conan) and Existentialism (Elric) that elevates their stories into something not quite high art, but not exactly low pulp, either. A big reason for their enduring popularity has everything to do with the interplay between the characters’ honor and cynicism.
First we have Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the quintessential fantasy barbarian. Lusty and id-driven, Conan’s mind and body have been shaped by the rigors of a strife-filled world. Conan isn’t a particularly sympathetic protagonist. It isn’t easy to relate to someone who shares none of the anxieties and frailties that define contemporary man and woman. Of course, that is kind of the point of the barbarian, who in his preternatural self-confidence and stoicism serves as more of a wish-fulfilment fantasy than a believable human being. Howard wasn’t stingy in expressing his viewpoint on civilization through the barbarian, who he held up as an exemplar of bygone values. Per Howard, education and comfort lead to self-deception and timidity. In contrast to the civilized man, Conan has no illusions about the kill-or-be-killed nature of existence, nor any moral issues about his careers as thief, mercenary, assassin, and pirate. Conan’s naturalistic philosophy means that he doesn’t live for causes: he lives to live. First and foremost to ensure his own survival, then later for sensual pleasure. The man loves his drink and wenches.
Michael Moorcock’s Elric is the inverse of Conan. That, too, was intentional, as Moorcock deliberately set out to create the anti-Conan. The albino emperor of Melnibone is physically frail, requiring a steady diet of sorcery and narcotics to sustain his life. He is pensive, scholarly, and neurotic. Unlike Conan, whose adventures usually involve getting rich or settling scores, Elric’s motivations are more esoteric: to halt the cultural decline of the Melnibonean Empire, and to uncover the truth behind his destiny. At its core, Elric’s quest is an egotistical search for self-discovery and personal meaning, and one that claims the lives of friend and enemy alike (which further deepens his feelings of guilt and self-doubt).
Take the classic sword and sorcery scenario: the hero assaults a wizard’s lair to steal a treasure. Conan would kill the wizard, make off with the booty, then blow it in on booze and whores before the month was out. That’s Conan: he lives big, and like there’s no tomorrow. Elric’s version, however, would play out differently. Elric would have a philosophical conversation with the wizard. Then, compelled by his patron god or the bloodlust of his demon-possessed sword, Elric would slay the wizard, all the while lamenting that cruel fate left him no recourse. The treasure would remain untouched – all but a few coins Elric tossed away as he mused over the impermanence of material wealth.
So, we have two adventurers: one an over-sexed thug devoid of pity or compassion, the other a solipsist tormented by questions about his place in the cosmos. On paper, they’re shitty people. But, they have something else in common that not only redeems them as people, but makes them worth rooting for as characters: honor.
Honor means different things to different people. In feudal Japan, it may have meant sacrificing your life to atone for failure. The Pashtun people of Afghanistan practice Pashtunwali, the code of honor that dictates, among other things, that every guest is guaranteed comfort and protection while under a Pashtun’s roof. Worldwide, concepts of honor have – regrettably – been linked to cultural preferences for sexual purity, especially women’s. For me, the concept of honor follows the vague, Western definition: a combination of honesty, accountability, gratitude, adherence to duty, and strength through kindness.
Honor is where the aspirational figures of fantasy literature shine. They are compelled to settle their debts and make good on their words. Take Conan, for example. While Conan is contemptuous of weakness, he is not cruel. Like all honorable men, he knows that cruelty is itself a form of weakness, and would never lower himself to inflicting harm on the vulnerable as a means of entertainment. As a monarch from a very old bloodline, Elric is even more attuned to his sense of honor. He makes great sacrifices to keep safe those he considers under his protection, even when they have no tangible benefits to offer him. He will attempt reason and negotiation with an adversary before resorting to violence, and usually with a courtly assortment of pleases, thank yous, and my lords.
Honor is crucial to these characters because, without it, they are mere cynics. Conan follows the law of the jungle. Elric is too aware of humanity’s destiny as pawns of Fate to have anything but a fatalistic view of life. Without honor, Conan would carve a swath of rape and destruction across Hyboria. Elric would stand by impassively as the forces of Chaos devoured his world, too disconnected from his humanity to care. But, because both characters draw their self-esteem from their sense of honor, they are obligated to act heroically. Empathy may be the end-all best method of encouraging ethical behavior, but empathy is rare at birth and difficult to acquire later in life. Honor, however, provides the flawed person with motivation to behave ethically by elevating the self through adherence to a moral code. Conan doesn’t rape because taking a woman by force would be beneath him. Elric doesn’t abuse his station as Emperor of Melnibone because doing so would imply he can’t win without a head start. That’s what honor is: pridefulness channeled into positive action.
Conan and Elric are perfect vehicles for this idea of honor precisely because they are cynics. Few people are more honorable than the cynic. To be fair, though, there are two kinds of cynics: the first kind believes in a dog-eat-dog world. Anyone he hurts has it coming because people too weak to protect themselves deserve whatever they get. Prisons are full of that kind of cynic.
Then, there are the ruined idealists – the honorable cynics. Their cynicism springs not from a lack of faith in humanity, but in holding humanity to a standard that it continuously fails to live up to. Rather than be a party to the great disappointment that is the human race, they stubbornly cling to the perception that, if everybody else is going to be shit, at least they will float to the top of the sewage pond. And, while pride can become a problem for the honorable cynic, rest assured that they are more trustworthy than most; their egos simply will not allow them to transgress in the same ways as the society they loathe.
There are some pretty easy ways to identify the honorable cynics in your life. If someone is an honorable cynic, they have a tendency to negotiate terms for simple social contracts between individuals. Ever untrusting, the cynic establishes the quid pro quo in a way that cannot be colored by either party’s interpretation at a later time. The honorable cynic may also seem disproportionately outraged by tardiness or lapses in communication which, in the cynic’s mind, is tantamount to a breach of contract.
Though often unpleasant, people possessing this personality are the most honorable among us. They keep their promises. They show up and put in work. They have no use, and no patience, for preying upon the vulnerable. You may resent the cynic for his apparent self-righteousness and pedantry, but contrast him with the idealist. The idealist has few qualms about backing out on a promise or breaking an appointment because, in keeping with their views of a subtle and benevolent cosmic order, they tell themselves that they are providing the aggrieved party with the opportunity for a different, though equally rewarding, experience.
That’s why honorable cynics are highly represented in fantasy literature, and particularly in the sword and sorcery genre. It would be quite a stretch to believe that a good-natured optimist would be capable of spilling blood at the rate of a Conan or Elric, or of maintaining their sunny dispositions after exposure to dark magics and cosmic horror. We can always root for a character who conducts himself honorably, even if we find their lifestyle unsavory.
I used this approach while writing Funeral Games. A political crisis in a Medieval peerage system is no place for an idealist, so I was careful to make the main character, Syphax, an honorable cynic. There was also the sticky issue of Syphax’s privilege – as a prince of Ingerval, he doesn’t have much justification for feeling miserable other than a sensitive disposition that recognizes the rampant injustice in his society. If you like Conan or Elric, you might like Syphax too.
And please, don’t forget to show a little love to the honorable cynics in your life.