Friday, July 23, 2010

I Burn with Life: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

Quick quiz, readers: Who wrote or said these great lines of wisdom?

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.

Shakespeare? Byron? Thoreau? Here's a little more, in case it helps.

If life is an 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.

Give up? That's Conan, often called "Conan the Barbarian" by comic book writers and schlock movie makers, as he was written in the original short stories by Robert E. Howard.

Starting in 1929, long before anyone had ever heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, pulp writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard were writing stories set in far away times and places, often modeled on myths and folklore, usually with low technology and high adventure. These tales have come to be called "Sword and Sorcery," and their popularity has grown and shrunk and grown again with the varying tastes of the decades since.

Conan was one of the first and he's still one of the best, and if you love stories of adventure and discovery, you should certainly look for The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

(This is a preferred edition, untainted by later "editors" and "collaborators.")

In the thirteen stories of this book, we're introduced to a rangy, clever, and philosophical Conan. Part Indiana Jones and part Klingon, part Byron and part Odysseus, Conan uses the full range of his abilities in these early adventures -- everything from sneaking to swordsmanship -- as he rises from an orphaned thief to a proud warrior.

In "The God in the Bowl," Conan's thievery places him at the center of a murder investigation, one with an unlikely and terrifying culprit. In "The Tower of the Elephant," Conan frees a creature from the sorcerer Yara and learns about the early origins of magic in his world. In my favorite, "Queen of the Black Coast," Conan falls in love with a pirate queen and helps her raid an ancient city, fabled to be deadly -- and he is saved only by a surprising intervention.

These are stories infused with dark and terrifying magic, the kind that will eventually devour you alive. You will feel grit in your sandals, sweat in your eyes, and aches in your bones from long travels and desperate battles. There's something real and true in Howard's stories, and the movies and comic books tend to get it wrong. Or at least not get it all.

They're somehow primitive and sophisticated at the same time, full of grand pronouncements and dramatic ideas...but also laden with some silly ones about race and gender endemic to the times in which they were written. But at their core, these tales are about the collision of culture and ideals, so you'll be fighting that battle much as Conan does.

If you think you know sword and sorcery -- if you think you know Conan -- you're wrong until you've read these stories.


a. fortis said...

Sadly, because I am a certain age, this is all I can think of:

Taranaich said...

An excellent review, good sir!

Regarding the ideas about race and gender: while Howard was regrettably symptomatic of the time in regards to the former (even when he rose above it on rare occasions), in the latter, he was practically a proto-feminist.

Many of the women in the Conan stories are strong, and in ways more subtle than the sword-wielding Valeria, authoritative Yasmina or cunning Salome: many of them as strong simply because they're survivors. They've put up with a lot of cruelty and punishment, but they keep going. Howard scholar Barbara Barrett talked about this at length in an PCA/ACA conference.

That said, I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of the review. That paragraph from Howard should show anyone that there's much more to him than the grunting oaf of pop culture. That final paragraph is true too: Stacy Dooks said "If you’re a fantasy fan and you’ve never read Howard, you’re the equivalent of a rock fan who’s never listened to Jimmy Hendrix."

Tom said...

Excellent review, Will. Conan would appreciate you having his back -- especially after being shamefully maligned by Hollywood and the comic book industry for decades. By Crom, he has long deserved more respect! And you gave him his due.