Conan stories of Robert E. Howard

"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars" - Robert E. Howard


In many ways, Conan of Cimmeria was a character that was born ready. He was a culmination of Howard's work, a character that took elements from his other creations and combined them into a single, awe striking character, who like a true anti-hero fought his way through vast, magical and violent Hyborean world in order to get what he wanted. This culmination is quite clear in the very first Conan story, "Phoenix on the Sword",  which is a re-written Kull story "By This Axe I Rule!"

On this story, Conan is already an older man, who has managed to conquer himself the throne of Aquilonia, but it's not that easy to stay in power, as those that came before him want to take what they see is their birthright. In this tale, we learn, that Conan is not a man to be trifled with and that he's not a man bred by a civilised word: he's a man of iron will, who doesn't shy away from a battle, as that is what he was born into. 

The later stories offer more glimpses into the life Conan lead before he became a king. In those 21 completed short stories and novels, Howard crafts an ancient, forgotten world, which draws inspiration from real history as well as of the works of H. P. Lovecraft as well as probably some other writers time has mostly forgotten. The Hyborian world Howard uses as a backdrop for Conan works as much as a character on its own, being peopled with both civilised and barbaric beings, be them snake god Set worshipping Stygians barbaric, savage race of Picts who have no love for the civilised world nor does the civilised world have love towards them.

Howard didn't write Conan stories in a chronological order but jumped all around to points he saw interesting a the time. He also did re-use elements from some of his shorter stories in the longer narratives he did, but that in its own right makes the longer narratives feel more fleshed out as well as better thought out as.

In these many adventures, we learn that Conan is a complex character, filled with personality. He's not a hero, but a man, who travels the world and who's not afraid to take what he wants with a sword point if need be. He's a fighter, a thief, a murderer or pirate. He's just as content being a mercenary as he's being a war chief for savage Afghuli nomads if either of those is to his benefit. He can form alliances as fast as he can betray them if the need arises, but if you are his friend, then he will do everything he can in order to help you if you don't betray his trust.

Another notable trait he has is his chivalric attitude towards women. He has is eye to the beauty, but unlike many other men of the age he strides on, he is willing to go an extra mile to protect women. At times, when someone promises herself to him in order to pay for a service, Conan can decline the offer, if he feels the offer was made under duress, but he still does what was asked of him, just because of the fragment of barbaric chivalry in his persona.

Conan also is, as a character, much more than the grunting barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger played him as in John Milius's "Conan the Barbarian". While the movie itself is good and has a great portrayal of the Hyborian world itself, Conan in it lacked a grim sense of humour and at times scheming nature. In the movie, Conan was taken into slavery as a young boy after his tribe is slaughtered by Thulsa Doom (who's actually a villain in Kull stories). Howard's Conan has never been a slave, but a warrior from a young age. At the age of 15, he already was a notable warrior among the Cimmerians and it was soon that he left his home world to find adventure and glory from other lands.

Another thing that Milius's movie captured well was, that just like in the Howard stories, Conan is rarely seen in only a loin cloth he's also often linked to. The Hyborian world has mastered the making of armour, chainmail, plates and helms. As a warrior, Conan knows the importance of proper armour and is very often donning one. And if he's not wearing an armour, he is often seen in some form of clothes other than just a loin cloth. Though on a couple of stories he's wearing such, but only if it's climate appropriate.

The rich tapestry of the world Conan lives in and the life he leads provide a wide supply of situations, people and locations to Conan adventure on. The Hyborian world is already an ancient world, built upon the skeletons on ages past. A lot of that even more mysterious past has been forgotten and many times the stories do revolve around those ancient mysteries, which cause destruction and havoc. Often Conan doesn't seek that, as he happens to arrive at some location in the right time or he's been hired to do something, which leads to problems. He might be a member of a sellsword crew in the midst of a battle, he might be a thief on a mission or a king on his throne, but he doesn't shy away from trouble if it happens to find him.

While the Conan stories are fantasy, first and foremost, Howard does splash other elements here and there as well. Some of his stories are straight cut adventures, some dwell in elements of horror, some even can be seen containing elements of science-fiction. The latter comes through the best in stories, that contain fragments of cosmic beings, arrived at the Hyborian world aeons past. Many of the demon beings as well are described as other-worldly or out of this world. Stories like the "Tower of the Elephant" or "Queen of the Black Coast" don't try to shy away from the fact, that beings presented in them have arrived ages past from the far side of the galaxy, only to be trapped in this ancient world.

From Conan stories also rises up the grim worldview of Robert E. Howard. His civilised races are either new or ancient ones, teetering on the brink of destruction. Each civilisation has its time, but in the world of Conan, barbarism and savagery are the underlying traits of humanity that will overthrow even the most ancient or vibrant and strong cultures. It's the barbaric races of Cimmeria or the savage Picts and southern black tribes that will over last even the most prestigious cultures, as the more civilised a culture becomes, the more prone it comes to succumbing into depravity.

In Hyboria, the Aquilonians or Nemedians, which are newer civilisations, are still doing well, but are already too arrogant to understand the world around them. Stygia, on the other hand, is an old civilisation, that has already fallen into down spiral with the leaders and priest becoming more depraved. decadent and perverted. Once great races will slowly decay with their own arrogance, but it is the races like Cimmerians who will prevail in the end.

This worldview is also something that allows Conan to be able to come along with a wide diversity of different races. He might not be politically correct, nor is Howard shy at using a certain amount of racial prejudices, but at the same time Conan himself can respect some of the other barbaric or savage cultures more than he can respect most of the civilised ones, as with the races that resemble more the Cimmerians, he knows where he's at and how they behave while civilised people are more prone to cheating and betrayal.

Considering that Howard was a writer in 1930's Texas, the racial prejudices he had himself aren't really that strong of an element in Conan stories. They are at times present, but very rarely do they feel malicious or intended as such. The thing is, that despite there are your standard black cannibals in the world of Hyboria, many of those savage cultures also are something Conan himself can at times look up to and appreciate them for what they are, as they still have a natural sense of honour and manners the civilised people lack.

The only race Conan freely admits to hating are the Picts. And despite there are lines like "no white man should die in the hands of a Pict", the thing about them is, that Howard himself described them as a white race. They are a wild, feral people, whom Conan has hereditary hate towards, nor do they try to exist peacefully among other races either. And yet, according to the worldview of Howard, even the Picts will survive some of the greater civilised lands because of their ferocity.

it is no wonder, that Conan has survived as long as he has. He's a character that has inspired many other works, be them re-telling of his tales in comic books or movies or other writers taking a jab of creating Conan stories of their own. As a character he has a strange amount of vitality, that has withstood the time, turning this creation of a depressed, alcoholized schizophrenic into one of the most well-known fictional creations.

If you are interested taking a plunge in the Hyborian world of Conan, doing that should be simple enough. Thanks to their age, Conan stories have fallen into public domain, so they are available for free in many places like Project Gutenberg. There are also many ebook collections offering them cheaply, or if you prefer, printed editions as well.

Comments

  1. But was Howard really schizophrenic? I have heard about deppression or bipolar disorder though.

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    Replies
    1. I recall some bio snippet mentioning that he might have suffered from that also. though not official diagnosis was made of that.

      Be it however, in the end, he was a troubled man.

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