A strange admission for someone of my long tenure in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction, but I’d never actually read Robert E Howard’s Conan stories before. I know they’re almost archetypal examples of the genre but for some reason I’d never got round to picking them up.
That changed recently, when I bought the Audiobook “Conan the Cimmerian Barbarian” which contains every one of Howard’s tales of the black haired barbarian that was published in Weird Tales magazine. Thirty five hours long and I enjoyed every moment.
Consisting of a number of short stories and some novellas the canon covers episodes from the titular hero’s life, ranging from stories of desperate heists to cover his penury to intrigues in the throne rooms of great empires. In contrast to most of the fantasy works I’ve read these tales were tightly focused narratives of adventure, not epic feats of worldbuilding and exploration. I have to say that I am more likely to return to Conan’s world for entertainment than to Middle Earth… the latter has the grand sweep of history and fine detail, the former has pace and excitement that I never really got from Tolkien, much as I enjoy it.
Some of the stories in the Conan canon (I like those two words together) are formulaic- what the editor of the omnibus refers to as the ‘mid period stories’ when Howard, a struggling Depression era writer was writing what he knew would sell and put food on the table. These stories all had a beautiful female companion, a forgotten ruin, some diabolical enemy and usually a supernatural revelation of the ‘ancient, nameless abomination’ sort of thing. Amusingly or appallingly there was usually some (barely described, these were the 1930s after all) fanservice in the form of “lithe limbs and naked flesh” since Howard knew that if he included these there was more chance of his story getting illustrated on the cover of Weird Tales and that meant more money. It is telling that his better, longer, more developed stories eschew such gimmicks.
By the time he moved on from this period (maybe four or five short tales) he really got into his stride, abandoning the cheap cliches that the stories are perhaps unfairly identified with, and addressing larger themes of savagery and civilisation, of honour and courage. Still pacy, action-packed and engaging there is much more depth and it’s clear why his stories are still known and his character has become an iconic figure.
As for Howard’s worldbuilding – it may lack the mythic and poetic underpinnings of Middle Earth, but it is well thought out and consistent. Howard wrote a lengthy essay about the rise of the Hyborian age in which he traces the origins of each of the kingdoms and races over the course of thousands of years and the effort pays off. It’s a pleasure to vicariously visit the Hyborian kingdoms and tread the jewelled thrones of the earth beneath the sandaled feat of the grim eyed reaver – a much more complex, engaging and amusing character than he is presented in the media. No half-naked bullish beefcake, the original Conan is cunning, witty and principled exemplifying Howard’s recurring theme of contrasting the decadence of civilisation with the purity of barbarism and personal values.
I’d recommend the stories to anyone and, from a gaming point of view, even so late in my GMing career I think I’ve learned new things about pacing and description that I will bring to bear.
Finn’s first novel A Step Beyond Context is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com and a few others as well. It’s a punchy genre-busting mystery with a heroine who is a Regency lady, a high tech mercenary and much more.