This is a return to a post I wrote three years ago this month after first reading the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. I have since re-read all of them and want to write in more depth than I did last time and some of this will likely overlap with what I wrote previously. That original post came soon after my introduction to Howard’s writing and I have since read a great deal of his work beyond Conan and even looked into authors like Fritz Leiber who coined the term ‘sword and sorcery’ to describe this subgenre of fantasy that Howard created and he admirably continued. What follows will also contain a series of direct quotes from various stories which I thought best show the appeal of both the character and setting.
One immediate observation on re-reading the Conan series is that while all (including the incomplete drafts and fragments), are worth reading; the stories published in Howard’s lifetime are certainly the best. Towards the end of the post I will share the five I consider to be the very best but these likely won’t be a surprise as they fit with general opinion. I do get why some are critical of stories such as The Frosts-Giant’s Daughter but still think even this more juvenile work is worth the reader’s time if they are invested in the character. At the very least it helps place the stories in a workable chronology.
Another is the way the focus outside of Howard’s stories has always been on him as a barbarian when some of the best stories were when he’d worked himself a somewhat higher place in civilisation. His jaunts as a reaver and mercenary are among the best of the stories and yet he is still more often imagined as the muscular young wanderer wielding a sword and wearing sandals and a loin cloth. Although the series began publication with King Conan, I find these stories less interesting than what came later — though still very good.
When reading again, I didn’t try to read the stories along one of the multiple proposed timelines but strictly in order of publication. Thus many of the stories I mention from now will be in that order. The first story revealed the character as most know him was in Black Colossus where he was still quite young but had gained some reputation as a warrior. It is in this story that we get some backstory to his life of which there is very little. This story arguably began what became a common formula for the Cimmerian. Conan caught in battle, a dark sorcerer to overcome and a beautiful damsel to rescue.
The young beauty in Black Colossus is Princess Yasmela who prompts Conan to share a little of his biography:
‘I place my trust in Mitra,’ she said, bending her gaze on Conan, who was now devouring the food placed before him by the trembling Vatessa. ‘You have seen much war?’
‘I was born in the midst of a battle,’ he answered, tearing a chunk of meat from a huge joint with his strong teeth. ‘The first sound my ears heard was the clang of swords and the yells of the slaying. I have fought in blood-feuds, tribal wars, and imperial campaigns.’
The Black Colossus, Chapter 2
Although two films and even the animated Conan the Adventurer series showed the audience Conan’s origins, Howard never felt the need to give much backstory which both adds to the character’s mystique and more practically gives the stories the necessary brevity to ensure they saw publication.
We also get a sense of the martial confidence and simple philosophy of the character on hearing of the strength of an approaching army.
Conan listened unperturbed. War was his trade. Life was a continual battle, or series of battles, since his birth. Death had been a constant companion. It stalked horrifically at his side; stood at his shoulder beside the gaming-tables; its bony grasp would close; that was all. It was enough that he lived through the present.
The Black Colossus, Chapter 3
Next we move on to Xuthal of Dusk which begins with a passage that describes what became a quintessential image of Conan but also brilliantly establishes the situation the young warrior has found himself in:
THE desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze image in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.
At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blonde head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure.
Xuthal of the Dusk (The Slithering Shadow), Chapter 1
Also here we get some of the wry humour found in the stories which is a lot more frequent than many who have not read Howard may realise. This next exchange is between Conan and Natala, the blonde beauty described above. This is shortly after Conan has killed a man he thought dead who suddenly attacked him.
“Well,” he growled, “this creature would have killed us if I hadn’t lopped off his head.”
He glanced at the archways that gaped blankly from the green walls above them. He saw no hint of movement, heard no sound.
“I don’t think any one saw us,” he muttered. “I’ll hide the evidence—”
He lifted the limp carcass by its swordbelt with one hand, and grasping the head by its long hair in the other, he half carried, half dragged the ghastly remains over to the well.
“Since we can’t drink this water,” he gritted vindictively, “I’ll see that nobody else enjoys drinking it. Curse such a well, anyway!” He heaved the body over the curb and let it drop, tossing the head after it. A dull splash sounded far beneath.
“There’s blood on the stones,” whispered Natala.
“There’ll be more unless I find water soon,” growled the Cimmerian, his short store of patience about exhausted. The girl had almost forgotten her thirst and hunger in her fear, but not Conan.
Xuthal of the Dusk, Chapter 1
This same humour doesn’t leave him when they discover greater danger within the lost city of Xuthal.
“It is all a nightmare!” whimpered Natala. “We are dead and damned! We died out on the desert and are in hell! We are disembodied spirits—ow!” Her yelp was induced by a resounding spank from Conan’s open hand.
“You’re no spirit when a pat makes you yell like that,” he commented, with the grim humor which frequently manifested itself at inopportune times. “We are alive, though we may not be if we loiter in this devil-haunted pile. Come!”
Xuthal of the Dusk, Chapter 1
Although sometimes portrayed as morally loose, Conan is disdainful of cultural decadence as shown in his response to learning about the Lotus Eaters of Xuthal:
“The people of Xuthal… live only for sensual joys. Dreaming or waking, their lives are filled with exotic ecstasies, beyond the ken of ordinary men.”
“Damned degenerates!” growled Conan.
Xuthal of the Dusk, Chapter 1
He later shares his frank opinion on the nature of women:
“It’s all your fault,” she interrupted. “If you had not looked so long and admiringly at that Stygian cat—”
“Crom and his devils!” he swore. “When the oceans drown the world, women will take time for jealousy. Devil take their conceit!
Xuthal of the Dusk, Chapter 4
This interestingly may be a hint at the flood as the Hyborean Age of Howard’s mythology could easily pass for the sinful civilisations that God decided to wash away — sparing only the righteous Noah and his family. Conan is usually (though certainly not always), more virtuous than the people he encounters and it is more exciting to read about this world than it would be to actually live in it.
Howard uses the Conan stories as a vehicle for his ideas about civilisation and barbarism — thinking the latter to be more morally pure. The problem with this is that it is often contradicted in the stories themselves. The Picts in particular are the most barbarous people found in the world and one would have a better chance of survival falling afoul of any of the other civilisations no matter how decadant. The two passages below are observations from Olivia, a girl Conan had rescued in Shadows in the Moonlight.
Olivia did not reply. From her bed of leaves she watched the immobile figure, indistinct in the soft darkness. How strange, to move in fellowship with a barbarian, to be cared for and protected by one of a race, tales of which had frightened her as a child! He came of a people bloody, grim and ferocious. His kinship to the wild was apparent in his every action; it burned in his smoldering eyes. Yet he had not harmed her, and her worst oppressor had been a man the world called civilized. As a delicious languor stole over her relaxing limbs and she sank into foamy billows of slumber, her last waking thought was a drowsy recollection of the firm touch of Conan’s fingers on her soft flesh.
Shadows in the Moonlight, Chapter 1
Left alone and unprotected, she realized how much the protection of the Cimmerian had meant to her. There intruded vaguely a wonderment at the mad pranks of Fate, that could make the daughter of a king the companion of a red-handed barbarian. With it came a revulsion toward her own kind. Her father, and Shah Amurath, they were civilized men. And from them she had had only suffering. She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there was an ulterior motive behind his actions. Conan had shielded her, protected her, and—so far – demanded nothing in return. Laying her head in her rounded arms she wept, until distant shouts of ribald revelry roused her to her own danger.
Shadows in the Moonlight, Chapter 2
If Conan were truly barbaric, he would not have helped Olivia or indeed any of the other damsels he encounters in his adventures. Conan is generally sympathetic to the humble or weak and often gains nothing from risking his life to help others though he still often begins in search of treasure. This is hardly the behaviour of a barbarian. The Picts would have flayed Olivia alive if she had merely made the mistake of stumbling into their territory. She certainly wouldn’t have had any chance to muse on the situation as she does with Conan. Conan is disdainful of the corruption and decadence found in the various civilised races he encounters but he doesn’t actually behave like a barbarian — even at his worst.
Conan is found at his most ruthless while living as a pirate, an occupation he takes up at least twice during the course of his adventures. One of the most famous in Queen of the Black Coast begins with him forcing his way onto a merchant ship:
“I am Conan, a Cimmerian,” he answered. “I came into Argos seeking employment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I might turn my hand.”
“Why do the guardsman pursue you?” asked Tito. “Not that it’s any of my business, but I thought perhaps—”
“I’ve nothing to conceal,” replied the Cimmerian. “By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.
“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.
“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign ports.”
Queen of the Black Coast, 1. Conan Joins the Pirates
One could sympathise in Howard’s time as well as now with Conan’s violent contempt for the legal system however he isn’t shown to be much better in the pages that follow. He leaves this same crew for dead when the pirate queen Bêlit attacks their ship. He joins her and together they go marauding up and down the coast. This also brings to mind that many Conan stories have the light-hearted fun of swashbucklers which Howard certainly enjoyed. Conan’s world is not always the grim-dark fantasy it is best known for and the latter is really more true of the Solomon Kane stories.
An interesting conversation between Bêlit and Conan follows in the second chapter showing Conan takes religion very seriously and can think more deeply than one supposes of a typical barbarian.
“Mystery and terror are about us, Conan, and we glide into the realm of horror and death,” she said. “Are you afraid?”
A shrug of his mailed shoulders was his only answer.
“I am not afraid either,” she said meditatively. “I was never afraid. I have looked into the naked fangs of Death too often. Conan, do you fear the gods?”
“I would not tread on their shadow,” answered the barbarian conservatively. “Some gods are strong to harm, others, to aid; at least so say their priests. Mitra of the Hyborians must be a strong god, because his people have builded their cities over the world. But even the Hyborians fear Set. And Bel, god of thieves, is a good god. When I was a thief in Zamora I learned of him.”
“What of your own gods? I have never heard you call on them.”
“Their chief 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; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?”
“But what of the worlds beyond the river of death?” she persisted.
“There is no hope here or hereafter in the cult of my people,” answered Conan. “In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout eternity.”
Bêlit shuddered. “Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny. What do you believe, Conan?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
“But the gods are real,” she said, pursuing her own line of thought. “And above all are the gods of the Shemites—Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish, for he was born in ancient Shumir, long, long ago and went forth laughing, with curled beard and impish wise eyes, to steal the gems of the kings of old times.
“There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria—” she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish embrace—”my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you – aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!”
Queen of the Black Coast, 2. The Black Lotus
Many of these gods are similar to those worshipped by ancient civilisations on earth. Conan is shown here to have grown beyond the grim nihilism of his own race. Though he believes in the gods and is weary of offending them, he mostly lives for the pleasures of the world. Bêlit’s profession of her love foreshadows the climax of this story and it seems from the change Conan goes through in later tales that he learned profoundly from this experience.
In Beyond the Black River, one of the later stories, Conan makes a statement very similar to Bane’s in The Dark Knight Rises. Here he is describing the change found in civilised men on the frontier. This is something Howard personally knew well in the rough Texas town he grew up in:
They were wild men, of a sort, yet there was still a wide gulf between them and the Cimmerian. They were sons of civilization, reverted to a semi- barbarism. He was a barbarian of a thousand generations of barbarians. They had acquired stealth and craft, but he had been born to these things. He excelled them even in lithe economy of motion. They were wolves, but he was a tiger.
Beyond the Black River, 3. The Crawlers in the Dark
For contrast, here is Bane’s direct quote from The Dark Knight Rises:
Ah you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding!
Later in the story Conan reflects on the life he has lived and speaks prophetically of becoming the king her first appeared in print as:
“I’ve roamed far; farther than any other man of my race ever wandered. I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians, the Shemites, the Stygians, and the Hyrkanians. I’ve roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell, I’ve been everything except a king of a civilized country, and I may be that, before I die.” The fancy pleased him, and he grinned hardly. Then he shrugged his shoulders and stretched his mighty figure on the rocks. “This is as good a life as any. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on the frontier; a week, a month, a year. I have a roving foot. But it’s as well on the border as anywhere.”
He felt lonely, in spite of his companion. Conan was as much a part of this wilderness as Balthus was alien to it. The Cimmerian might have spent years among the great cities of the world; he might have walked with the rulers of civilization; he might even achieve his wild whim some day and rule as king of a civilized nation; stranger things had happened. But he was no less a barbarian. He was concerned only with the naked fundamentals of life. The warm intimacies of small, kindly things, the sentiments and delicious trivialities that make up so much of civilized men’s lives were meaningless to him. A wolf was no less a wolf because a whim of chance caused him to run with the watch-dogs. Bloodshed and violence and savagery were the natural elements of the life Conan knew; he could not, and would never, understand the little things that are so dear to civilized men and women.
Beyond the Black River, 5. The Children of Jhebbal Sag
This suggests Conan’s nature hasn’t changed but he really does change over the course of the stories. In this story Conan is no longer a thief, pirate or mercenary living merely to plunder. He is actively helping desperate people for little gain and it is this that makes him worthy to be the king he later becomes. He develops a very pure sense of justice despite his flaws. He may not be able to appreciate the little things as he says but he is at least able to make sure others can. If Conan was really just a ruthless barbarian he would have abandoned the people in this story to their fate. The fact that he didn’t and risked his life to save them shows by the end of the stories, he had grown beyond his barbaric origins.
To finish, I will share my five favourite Conan stories. Once again, I am of the opinion that the best were published in Howard’s lifetime and were usually the shorter of his short works (Red Nails being the exception in both cases here). The five are listed below in order of their publication.
The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk)
The Pool of the Black One
Rogues in the House
The People of the Black Circle
I don’t have a favourite of the above but I will say that if you could only read one Conan story it should be Rogues in the House. It contains all the elements that one associates with the character in a brief but highly entertaining adventure. The Pool of the Black One is the first story of Conan’s turn as a corsair and has plenty of the weirdness that explains why the stories were first published in Weird Tales. I mentioned The Slithering Shadow above and this would be my second suggestion for new readers and is probably the first story that really came to define the character. The People of the Black Circle is one of the longer stories and makes one wonder what might have been had Howard not ended his life so young. Lastly, Red Nails is probably the most famous and certainly deserves the high praise. I wrote about it a few months ago when reviewing the terrible prequel by S.M. Stirling published late last year. This also showed promise of what could have been though Howard’s longest story Hour of the Dragon is less coherent than the former two and borrows noticeably from previously published stories. The five above are the best but I still enjoy almost every word written about Conan by Howard. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I read them — or write about them.