In the Hands of an Indifferent God: Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian, and the Angry, Aloof Crom
The Indifference of a God is Reflective of Howard's Reciprocal Indifference
''Did God make man or did man make God?'' is an open ended philosophical question both theologians and secularists ask. The answer can be arrived at with ease or difficulty based on the particular God in question. Anyone who is familiar with the fantasy tales of Conan the Barbarian knows the god Crom is one of pure fiction.
Crom, the angry god of pulp fiction, is more than just a ham-handed deity the author choose to create as a convention to help more a story along. Crom, the God of the Cimmerian people, god of Conan the Cimmerian, was a deity created by the man who envisioned the world of Conan. Crom is a character on non-existence devised by Robert E. Howard to reflect Howard's own tragic sense of cynicism about the natural world.
Robert E. Howard: The Life of the Man Who Walked Alone
Robert E. Howard was a uniquely talented man. Young man may be the most apt way to describe him. A tortured man as well. He committed suicide at the age of 30 after learning the news his beloved mother had passed away in a hospital. Surely, depression and other psychological ails had been building up in the man for some time.
We can get a very clear picture of Robert E. Howard from his own words. Long before social media, people communicated through the old and now archaic concept of being pen pals. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and many other interesting, albeit lesser known, characters wrote numerous correspondence to other fantasy writers.
We can learn a lot about Howard from his writings. His soul, like other fantasy and fiction writers, bares itself in the narratives, themes, and subtexts he crafted.
Howard created his fantasy worlds and the characters as a means of escaping his drudgery and dull existence in Texas throughout the 1920s. In his own writings, he revealed he could find freedom and escape via typing thoughts and words on paper. He explicitly noted that being a professional writer meant he had the freedom to work for himself and was not reliant on anyone else. He could live his life the way he wanted.
While a writer of fantasy, horror, and high adventure, he was hardly a nebbish. Howard was a boxer, bodybuilder, fencer, and shootist. The active life he lived was reflected in his works about sword fighting, gunslinging, and bare fisted. The outlook Robert E. Howard had on life was a very dark and cynical one, although what motivated this outlook is not something very clear. The depth of his cynical view truly does come through in the expression of his characters. Conan may be his most famous, but Crom, the non-character, deserves a closer look as well.
Conan, Crom, and Howard: The Three Heads of the Same Mythical Dragon
Conan was a character of action who typified the values Howard himself believed in. Conan spoke very little, was a man who was quick to use his sword and his fists, had no qualms about being a thief, killed without mercy, and, yet, had a code of honor. While brutish and hardly a deep thinker, Conan was able to survive in a world where life had little no no value. Strangely, Conan was a man who could be completely trusted. Never would be take advantage of the weak, although he had the abilities to easily do so. Always was he ready to right a wrong.
And when Conan did must, he was always, always, always expressing himself in a cynical manner. Not surprisingly, Conan is merely an amplified version of Robert E. Howard himself. Not surprisingly, the character that completes the triumvirate is Crom, an equally cynical deity we never see who expresses the notorious cynicism of Howard and Conan.
Crom is the perfect concept of a deity for the works of Robert E. Howard.
Crom does set himself apart from other gods throughout mythology in the sense he punitively despises all those who pray. Crom does not entertain prayers and he certainly does not help those begging for his aid. Crom sees prayers as a form of weakness and Crom has nothing but contempt for the weak.
Interestingly, Crom does not define weak vs. strong from the perspective of losers vs. winners. To Crom, someone who is soundly defeated but is willing to fight for himself and take a stand to be a noble person of honor. Results are not what counts for the great, indifferent Crom. Actions and character mean the most to him.
Who is Crom?
''He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you.''
From the Conan Tale, Queen of the Black Coast.
The god Crom lives in the Eiglophian Mountains of Cimmeria. He has been there for thousands of years and he only offers the Cimmerian people two benefits: He can aid them in the development of their sword fighting process and he may support them in attaining a fighting spirit. Beyond that, Crom merely observes and opts not to use his vast powers to intervene in the lives of mortals.
Cimmerians learn quickly of Crom's seeming indifference.
''It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian's mind, was all any god should be expected to do.''
From the Conan masterpiece, The Tower of the Elephant
The latter words in this quote are quite revealing: ''was all any god should be expected to do.'' This is Howard speaking directly to his audience and it reveals a theme prevalent in most of the author's work. Only through self-determination, strong will, and a desire to do things on one's own can success of any level be achieved. Howard had very little interest or belief in most institutions. He found them to be self-serving and fraudulent. A person only has himself to rely upon, an attitude commonly espoused by Conan himself in various tales.
Such lessons might not have a moral underpinning for the Cimmerians to follow, but it certainly delivers to them critical important advice. Life in the Hyborian Age was a brutally harsh one. Inclement weather, famine, and invasions from pillaging tribes were threats all must face at all times. Better to be reliant on the self than pray to an unseen, far removed, and disinterested god.
An Atheist's God
No person of strong faith would create an image of a god in such a cynical manner. Howard's presentation of Crom is actual an non-presentation. Other than casual mentions of Crom in the form of characters using his name as an exclamation point, Crom is nowhere to be found. Even a casual reader realizes there is no Crom and he is purely a mythical God of primitive people. What is stunning is Conan seems to realize there is no such entity as Crom as he is casually indifferent towards a god equally indifferent to him. Ironically, the Cimmerian people cemented a belief in atheism through creating a non-interventionist god who removes himself from his own worshipers. A god no one is to pray to or rely upon is created in the absence of disbelief.
Surmising Howard's opinion on religion based on this (non)characterization of a mythical god should deliver a not too difficult to arrive at conclusion.
Please check out my other Hubs on Howard's work: