I have been fascinated by the character of Conan since I was a child and it is funny that all this fascination never led me to going to the source as I have done recently. Just this week I finished reading the last of the completed stories by Robert E. Howard. The collection I found had all of them but four which I had to track down online.
As I read, I was following John C. Write’s commentary on the stories which he has written over the last few years on his own blog. As of writing, he has only a few more stories to cover before his commentary is complete. Once it is finished, it will make a worthy companion to the series.
I would assume that most people know the character of Conan through the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Conan the Barbarian and did see this in my youth. However, I believe my earliest engagement with the character was in the television series called Conan the Adventurer from 1992. The aforementioned film also heavily influenced one of my favourite video games, Golden Axe. These are just a few examples but I have always found the sword and sorcery genre interesting and it wouldn’t have gone very far without Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Despite my interest in the genre, good films in particular are few and far between.
None of my earlier experiences with the character quite prepared me for what I would find in the original stories. From what I remember of the cartoon, it was rather silly and due mostly to its audience, had none of the brutality and terror of the source material. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal is one I can appreciate even more with his magnificent physique, jawline and certainly a demeanor matching the Cimmerian warrior. The movie also included many staples of Howard’s stories from evil sorcerers, warrior maidens and eldritch horrors. It even integrated characters and plot points from the original stories which I can now better appreciate. My only real criticism of the film (if you can call it one), was the way Conan was given a backstory not present in any of the stories which takes away much of the mystery behind the character. I also remember at the time (and still now), finding the tone of the film quite weird. I do realise Conan was published in a magazine called Weird Tales but I didn’t generally find them so. Perhaps the definition has changed.
What was an immediate curiosity to me was the way Howard begins the tales not with the classic loin-clothed barbarian even the uninitiated know, but with a weary king at war with court intrigues and conspiracies. The more recognisable barbarian doesn’t appear until the third tale and when reading the stories in order of publication, the reader is continually seeing different periods of Conan’s life. I was particularly fascinated by his turn as a pirate and two tales set at this time were favourites including Queen of the Black Coast. The events of these tales are isolated to the point that several different orders of chronology exist for fans to argue about.
This lack of order gave Robert E. Howard a lot of freedom with what to write and despite Conan’s several occupational transitions, it never seems implausible that a man from such a background could make these changes. The necessarily abbreviated writing also means each story’s plot is quickly and artfully established and the majority of the stories are engaging from beginning to end. I actually found I enjoyed the lengthier tales far less with the one significant exception of Red Nails which also happens to be one of the best.
With all the variety, there is still quite a lot of repetition to be found. There are multiple stories where Conan finds himself in desperate wrestling matches with giant ape creatures. He meets many evil sorcerers and even more lithe and shapely females whose figures are seductively covered in a revealing silk ensemble if covered at all. I imagine my adolescent brain deriving even more enjoyment from these stories which is another reason I’m surprised I didn’t read them sooner. It is worth adding here that while the stories aren’t lacking in sexual or violent gratuity, they are never pornographic and much is expertly left to the reader’s imagination.
As well as the recycling of plot points and themes, the stories do vary in quality but I wouldn’t describe any of them as bad. The Hour of the Dragon is the longest and probably the one I enjoyed least but this is merely because I felt it went on too long and when it did come to an end, it was far more abrupt. It read more like a couple of Conan stories stretched into one long one than a genuine standalone story. Due to the nature of pulp writing, it is hardly surprising that Howard was forced to be economical not just with how much he wrote but with an eye on what could be reused and recycled in subsequent stories.
When you also consider how the brief life of the author as well as the short window in which he was writing, one can’t help but be amazed by his output. Conan is his most well known character but not his only one and I’m quite looking forward to reading the Solomon Kane stories next. These are stories that can be appreciated not just for the undeniable influence they continue to have but also as entertaining works on their own merits that have not depreciated over time.