Conan the Barbarian has long been a favorite character of mine, I’ve read the comics, seen all the movies, and read the original short stories by Robert E. Howard. I remember my first introduction to Conan in sixth grade in comic book form, I don’t remember how I got my hands on it but I must have read that comic two dozen times. At the time I think I enjoyed it mostly for the incredible variety of almost naked women which commonly grace the pages of the comic. I was twelve, filled with hormones, and couldn’t have told you the difference between a good story and a bad one if my life depended on it. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but I still love Conan, not for the pictures anymore, but for the characters and their stories.
Conan is often lauded as the original morally gray hero, he has been followed by a long line of morally gray heroes ranging from assassins to wizards who walk the line between good and evil (yes I’m talking about you Harry Dresden) to morally compromised starship captains. However I take issue with the original thesis that Conan was a morally gray hero at all. A morally gray hero is one who cannot see, or regularly steps over, the line between right and wrong. The church assassin who has taken his holy orders and visits the confessional to rid himself of sin after each mission is a morally gray hero. Harry Dresden, of Jim Butcher’s ‘The Dresden Files’, is a morally gray hero. He often flirts with dark powers in an attempt to do the right thing, he gathers up artifacts of magical wickedness and stores them ‘just in case’ rather than destroying them or turning them over to the proper authorities.
Conan on the other hand is impeccably moral, to his own understanding. While his morals do not reflect the standard of Judeo-Christian society he operates within a set cultural standard of right and wrong. Look at one of the early stories ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’, in this story we see Conan lured away into the wilderness by a vision of a lovely woman promising favors of an intimate nature, the Frost Giant’s Daughter of the story title. The daughter lures Conan into a trap set by her brothers, a game of sorts where she lures unsuspecting men in for them to slay and eat. Conan, being the barbarian hero that he is, kills her brothers and then promptly rapes the fae woman. This action is wrong from a Judeo-Christian perspective, however when we examine it from the perspective of Conan’s statements and actions throughout the stories we see that he understood this as entirely acceptable behavior.
The morality under which Conan operates considers the strongest to be in the right. He who is able to take something through strength has every right to do that, and indeed, we never see Conan react badly when beaten in a fair fight. He sees deception as the greatest evil, to lie or betray a fellow is worthy of death while cutting down a man who has wronged you is virtuous, no matter that he had no chance against you in the first place. Unlike most western writing, which would cast such a character as the villain, Robert E. Howard castes Conan as his hero and tells the stories from Conan’s perspective. We feel Conan’s outrage towards the cowardly city dwellers who rely on conniving to make their way in the world, his disgust at the weak wizards who trust in otherworldly powers. We see the world through Conan’s moral lens and understand his view of right and wrong.
Another excellent hero who operates on a completely foreign understanding of right and wrong is Captain Jack Sparrow from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Sparrow sees the world through the pirates code and acts accordingly, one of the only morally upright characters in the entire trilogy of movies Sparrow always measures his actions according to the code. The one scene that crystallizes his perspective on morality for the viewer shows Sparrow, Elizabeth Swan, and Will Turner rowing away from the Isla De Muerta after a major battle.
Previous to this scene we have seen a running sequence of gags where pirates act like pirates and everyone else gets mad at them. We hear the line ‘bloody pirates’ repeated several times by different characters, many of them pirates themselves. Three sides take part in the battle, the English navy, Sparrow’s crew of pirates, and Barbossa’s undead pirates. Each side curses the selfishness and unreliability of pirates as they steal and kill their way to freedom, even though all three sides are doing the exact same thing.
This sequence of events lays the groundwork for Sparrow to show his moral character. As they exit the cavern bay of Isla de Muetra Sparrow asks his companions, ‘Where is the Pearl?’ referring to his ship the Black Pearl. They respond by telling him that his crew took the Pearl and fled when they had the opportunity to escape. Unlike the repeated invective of ‘Bloody Pirates’ Sparrow responds with a nod and a sigh, then he says ‘They followed the code, did what was right by them. Can’t ask for more than that.’
Sparrow’s moral character is revealed in this one line as much as through the movie as a whole. While he might not operate on a moral compass which points in the same direction as Turner or Swan his character is of unwavering virtue. He measures everything through his understanding of right and wrong and does what he understands to be right. In this way Sparrow and Conan are extremely similar. Both have a core of unwavering virtue, though their virtues may not correspond with those of Judeo-Christian society.
Compare this with a character like Dresden or the characters of the TV show Heroes, who quite often question their actions or commit acts which they believe to be wrong, and we see the vast difference between the two. While both character types have their place in literature I have always enjoyed characters like Conan or Captain Jack more than truly amoral or immoral heroes. I find these characters to be more likable, more upright, and ultimately more useful than the morally gray heroes which are often favored in fiction today.
So the question is, which do you want to write, which do you understand better, and which does your story need more, a character with a firm and unwavering grasp on a very different version of morality or a character who regularly steps over the line of morality into the darkness?