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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 familiar with Conan the Barbarian's fantasy tales 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 move 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 reflects Howard's 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. A young man may be the aptest way to describe him. A tortured man as well. He committed suicide at 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 an apparent 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 privilege 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 obvious. The depth of his cynical view indeed 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 could survive in a world where life had little or no value. Strangely, Conan was a man who could be trusted entirely. Never would be take advantage of the weak, although he had the abilities to do so easily. Always was he ready to right a wrong.

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And when Conan did must, he was always, always, always cynically expressing himself. 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 Howard and Conan's notorious cynicism.

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 because he punitively despises all those who pray. Crom does not entertain players, 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

In this quote, the latter words 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 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 critically important advice to them. 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 a 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 by creating a non-interventionist god who removes himself from his 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 a conclusion.

Please check out my other Hubs on Howard's work:

Conan the Barbarian's Creator Trades Swords for Gloves, Bare-Knuckles, and Iron Men: Boxing Tales by Robert E. Howard

The Lessor Known Werewolf Stories of Conan The Barbarian's Creator Robert E. Howard


Tony Caro (author) on May 20, 2014:

Thank you

Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on May 20, 2014:

Interesting analysis. Keep up the good work.

Tony Caro (author) on May 04, 2014:

Thank you!

Phillip Drayer Duncan from The Ozarks on May 04, 2014:

Great hub!

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