The Sons of Hercules – The Barbarian HeroesThe Dark Herald
BUMPED: I got a special Barbarian-flavored treat coming for you tomorrow night.
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” Robert E. Howard
The mighty barbarian. The avowed enemy of civilization when its people most need it to have an enemy. A man of strength, savagery, and endurance. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer but all the stronger for it because he cannot be corrupted by subtle arguments and petty temptations. Able to endure relentless torture without complaint, yet his vulnerabilities are almost those of a child. He cannot control his appetites and betrayal will wound him to his heart. Although, betraying him is a terrible idea for he will hound his betrayer to the ends of the Earth, not resting until his sword tastes blood.
What is a Barbarian hero?
What defines a Barbarian? Why do we look up to him? What is his purpose to those around him?
More importantly, why do we need him?
First and foremost, the Barbarian is a servant of the realm of Chaos. There is not a shred of Law in him unless you count the Law of the Jungle. The Barbarian hero is not at all limited to Nordic origins and any true Barbarian is just as much at home in the steaming jungles, or the burning deserts, or the brutal steppes as he is in ice-covered mountains.
Like the Trickster hero, the Barbarian is a disruptor. He is savage but he is pure in his savagery.
His heroic virtues are Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude. He is extremely weak on Temperance. In fact, self-control and moderation are nearly unknown to the Barbarian hero. So much so, that it frequently brings his status as a hero into serious question. A temperate Aspirational hero would never think of chopping off the head of an enemy who is on his knees begging for mercy. A barbarian hero wouldn’t think about it either, his axe would automatically fly.
The Barbarian can be hilariously problematic to define in the current year because modern intellectuals are terrified of offending the indigenous peoples they look down on. At the end of the day, the intelligentsia is trying to redefine something that they find secretly terrifying into something harmless. Something that they can saddle and use for their own purposes. There is nothing new in this. And in the end, it always works out about as well as civilizing Arminius did for the Romans.
The Barbarian is the enemy of civilizations that are in the most dire need of an enemy. The corrupt and failing society where a chosen few enjoy every pleasure of the flesh in vast degenerating wealth, and the rest of its citizens have to get by on what few scrapes the corrupt aristocracy sees fit to cast from their balconies. The common man is little better than a slave in this kind of a city. And it is always a city. The common man himself is weak and broken by his culture, utterly dependent on charity for his survival. He has lived under a yoke for so long, he welcomes its weight. And from highest to lowest, all fear what will happen when their crumbling walls finally collapse, and the barbarians invade with purifying fire and sword.
Which brings us to the Barbarian hero’s major problem. It can at times be difficult to find anything heroic about him at all.
The Barbarian heroic archetype is on the face of it, no different from the Brawn villain archetype, On the surface, the two seem nearly identical. “The Brawn: This guy is the muscle, and muscle is about all that he brings to the party. The Brawn is characterized by low intelligence and is very much a creature of the id. He is driven by his baser desires. And is as quick to anger as he is to drooling lust. He doesn’t eat, he gorges. He doesn’t drink, he gets drunk. His typical weakness is that he has very little self-control.”
How is that any different from a Barbarian? A sensible Darkling asks.
Mostly, they aren’t different. The Brawn villain is the shadowy mirror opposite of the Barbarian hero. But there is a key difference that creates an impenetrable gulf between them. The Brawn has been corrupted by civilization. He has made himself a willing servant of the enemy of any Barbarian, the Sorcerer.
The Sorcerer is a subcategory of the Brain villain archetype, “The Brain: Pretty much the mirror opposite of the Brawn. Where the Brawn is compelled by the id the Brain is a creation of the super-ego. He is all intellect. Unconcerned with the desires of the flesh, the Brain lives only to expand his mental prowess. His ambitions are as vast as his ego. He views other humans as less evolved organisms barely worthy of his contempt. His typical weakness is his ego.”
The Sorcerer is the natural opponent of the Barbarian. The civilized man who became so civilized he lost all interest in normal or even abnormal human pleasure. He is a slave to his intellect. And while a devoted servant of the realm of Law, is far too empty inside to be a hero. There is no room in his heart for the virtue of Justice and Prudence would just get in the way of his pursuits. And his primary pursuit is always power. The expanded power of his mind is his highest priority.
The Barbarian instinctively recoils from intellect and not without good reason. It’s always the really terrible ideas that need space to grow and blossom. However, he is not an imbecile, it is simply that from childhood onward his intellect was developed for animal cunning instead of mental abstracts.
This is the thing about the Barbarian that most infuriates the Sorcerer. When someone is about to do something really bad it always starts with the words, “I know it’s wrong BUT…” The Barbarian stops cold at, “I know it’s WRONG.” It’s hard to tempt somebody with strong a sense of prudence and is immune to argument. So, Sorcerers find it easier (and more emotionally satisfying) just to kill the Barbarian.
The Barbarian archetype has been around for a very long time. Martin Luthor thought very well of Arminius back when proto-Europe was still pretty barbaric. The Germanics and the Nordics have always been quite drawn to their Iron Age ancestors. The French have never forgotten that the Franks got their name from their favorite battle axe.
Yet it was in America in the 1930s that the Barbarian would be given the form by which we know him today when Robert E. Howard published the first Conan short story. The Conan stories (at least the ones by Howard himself and NOT De Camp) were far more layered and better written than is generally admitted to by the highbrow literati. Mass appeal never has appeal for snobs although there was a more basic reason they didn’t like Conan. They identified with the effete and infective types of men that Conan laughingly backhanded out of his way in contempt.
So why do we need the Barbarian?
Because when civilization is clearly failing due to corrupt, effeminate, weak pleasuring seeking men, who can barely be called men. When every part of a simple man’s everyday existence becomes a facet of a lifelong surrender ceremony to the city-state. When children are preyed upon by the rulers for no better reason than corrupting the innocent is the only means of exciting their jaded tastes. When all of that has come to pass, the coming of the barbarian hero with fire and sword is not only inevitable but he is longed for night and day.