I was first exposed to Conan via the Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 1980s and to “sword and sorcery” stories more generally via the many films and comics trying in cash in on Conan fervor. I still quite like The Beastmaster, Krull, and even The Scorpion King. Though I knew the character most of my life, I had never read any of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Fortunately, there is a three volume set put out by Del Rey in 2003-2005 which collects all the original stories along with drafts, synopses of unfinished stories, essays and notes. In 2016 I set myself the goal of reading one of these collections a year and this year I completed the third volume. It seems apt I should make some comment on what I’ve read. This won’t be an organized review of the volumes or the stories, just a smattering of my thoughts.
One thing I found amazing considering the long life of the character is pop culture is how little time Howard spent writing Conan stories. The character first appeared in 1932 and the last story was written in 1936, the year of Howard’s death. Even by 1934 he already casting around for other types of characters to write and beginning to repeat himself with the Conan stories. Lin Carter observed in Imaginary Worlds that it’s hard to write something new in the sword and sorcery genre because there just isn’t that much to say about muscled sword-wielders Howard didn’t already cover.
I don’t feel much needs to be said about the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard. It’s very obvious if you know what to look for. They were playing with a very similar deck of cards in regards to racial prejudice and ideal northern European heritage. They also have the same tricks for making terror: darkness, ancient ruins, pale-skinned monsters, large beings from somewhere “beyond” earth.
Howard’s Hyborian Age has been praised for its economy of storytelling. He doesn’t need to explain the politics and geography of a country if he can just use what a reader already knows. It works. When Conan leaves Vendhya, rides up into the Himelias, over the Zhaibar Pass and on into Afghulistan – this is all geography I know. Similarly, Stygia in the south with its pyramids and great river can really only be one place. The problem is, of course, the horrible stereotyping of the people involved. In “Beyond the Black River,” for example, a group called the Picts are thinly disguised Native Americans, right down to the trope of lighting their arrows on fire as they attack “settlers” in a wooden stockade. They are consistently described in dehumanizing terms and called savages. The veil of fiction seems so thin over Howard’s feelings about real people it made that story hard to finish. The only thing worse is the way Howard describes people from his sub-Saharan analogs. The “product of his time” argument could come in here, but I don’t think it’s good enough. Several tales in the Conan canon can be consigned to the proverbial dust bin.
Yet, while waifs which need saving from stone alters are common in the Conan tales, there are exceptions. In “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan falls in with the pirate captain Bêlit who is shown as capable of hunting her own treasure and commanding her own troops (though she does also end up naked). Valeria is another capable fighter, an assassin of the Red Brotherhood, who shares and adventure with Conan in the story “Red Nails.” In the only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon, he meets Zelata who possesses many magic powers. She is described as an old woman, but is treated respectfully by both the text and by Conan. Devi Yasmina of Vendhya, whom Conan kidnaps in “The People of the Black Circle,” has perhaps the best treatment. After the story’s climatic battle with a shape-changing wizard, when Conan has rescued Yasmina, they look down from the mountain and see their respective followers in different valleys and they essentially challenge each other to meet again on the battlefield at the head of their armies. There is a respect, albeit begrudging, for each other’s position as leaders which has developed during the tale.
Perhaps an even better example of the power of Conan’s leadership occurs in “Beyond the Black River.” I mentioned before how that story is a gloss on America’s “how the West was won” theme. Conan learns of a planned invasion of Picts into the recently settled edges of “civilization” and he proceeds to take charge of the defense of the frontier. An important section of the story does not feature Conan, but a party of men fighting as hard as they can because they know Conan is right when he says they must hold the crossroads or the “settlers” sleeping in their homes will be overwhelmed and killed. The story highlights something Howard wanted to say about the way a strong leader inspires people to be strong. There is something very American about Howard’s ideas about how civilization weakens men and so they must be led by men who are still barbarians from the frontier. I can’t help but think it is Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis turned into fiction. Howard was from Texas, after all, a state which takes great pride in its frontier history. I also can’t help but think about the rhetoric of the 2016 American presidential election. Howard’s themes of in-groups and out-groups and the ideal simplicity of heroic action are still themes societies deal with. Just as Lovecraft is famous for turning his racial prejudices into effective stories of psychological terror, I think Howard turned very similar fears into effective stories about the clash of vigorous individuality with anesthetizing conformity.
Cover art for The Bloody Crown of Conan by Gary Gianni. Weird Tales covers featuring Conan used in this post by Margaret Brundage. Read more about her here.
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