Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Return of Conan

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
-- Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Conan the Barbarian in one of those iconic characters--like Sherlock Holmes or Dorothy Gale--that people think they know without bothering to read the actual stories they appeared in. After years of imitations, parodies, and cheesy movies, the popular imagination has reduced Conan to a brain-dead killing machine with all the personality and finesse of a sledgehammer. Thankfully, there's a slow but steady push going on to change that skewed view of one of fantasy's most arresting characters.

Conan was created by Robert E. Howard, a pulp writer born in 1906 in Cross Plains, Texas. Growing up only a few decades after the final closing of the frontier, he was surrounded by people who had known the west when it was truly wild and lawless.

In a letter to fellow writer, August Derleth, Howard wrote...

San Antonio is full of old timers – old law officers, trail drivers, cattlemen, buffalo hunters and pioneers. No better place for a man to go who wants to get first hand information about the frontier. The lady who owned the rooms I rented, for instance, was an old pioneer woman who had lived on a ranch in the very thick of the “wire-cutting war” of Brown County; and on the street back of her house lived an old gentleman who went up the Chisholm in the ‘80’s, trapped in the Rockies, helped hunt down Sitting Bull, and was a sheriff in the wild days of western Kansas. I wish I had time and money to spend about a year looking up all these old timers in the state and getting their stories.

Despite his sword-and-sorcery setting, Conan embodies the spirit of the cowboy more than the Medieval knight. Like any frontiersman, he's tough as nails, but also smart and endlessly resourceful. Through his adventures, Conan picks up several languages, along with knowledge of woodscraft, military tactics, and other skills a wandering swordsman and fortune hunter needs.

When Howard calls Conan as a barbarian, he doesn't mean he's stupid. Actually, "barbarian" is pretty high praise from Howard, who carried a vague distrust of civilization his whole life. A strong theme throughout his writing is how civilization makes men weak, petty, and cruel. Conan, on the other hand, doesn't obey any authority except his own moral code. He's a dangerous enemy, and just as loyal a friend. He can gain and loose a king's ransom with hardly a shrug. He drinks and feasts and chases more than his share of tavern wenches, but his passion is for life itself and for adventure. He'd never chose those pleasures of civilization over the chance to see what lies beyond the next mountain. That's what Howard means when he describes Conan as a barbarian.

And what did lie over that next mountain? Often, something very large with lots of tentacles. In a recent GLW post, Jesse Karp described Howard's world-building as "massively atmospheric," and his Conan stories are set in a "vanished age" after the sinking of Atlantis and before the dawn of recorded history. Strange relics, ancient before the coming of men, pulse with vile magic. Forgotten gods lurk just outside the firelight, searching to recapture their lost glory.

In "The Frost Giant's Daughter," one of my favorite Howard stories, Conan finds himself the only survivor of a border skirmish high in the icy north countries. As he walks away alone...

The Cimmerian stood upright, trailing his sword, a sudden sick weariness assailing him. The glare of the sun on the snow cut his eyes like a knife, and the sky seemed shrunken and strangely apart. He turned away from the trampled expanse, where yellow-bearded warriors lay locked with red-bearded slayers in the embrace of death. A few steps he took, and the glare of the snow fields was suddenly dimmed. A rushing wave of blindness engulfed him, and he sank down into the snow, supporting himself on one mailed arm and seeking to shake the blindness out of his eyes as a lion might shake his mane.

A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight slowly cleared. He looked up; there was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not define--an unfamiliar tinge to the earth and sky. But he did not think long of this. Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. To his dazed eyes her body was like ivory, and, save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed down at the bewildered warrior with a laughter that was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains and poisonous with cruel mockery.

The beautiful creature goads Conan into chasing her, leading him deeper into the frozen wastes. Then...

Two gigantic figures rose up to bar his way. The scales of their mail were white with hoarfrost; their helmets and axes were covered with ice. Snow sprinkled their locks, in their beards were spikes of icicles, and their eyes were as cold as the lights that streamed above them.

"Brothers!" cried the girl, dancing between them. "Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart, that we may lay it smoking on our father's board!"

Once again reminiscent of the frontier stories he grew up with, Howard presents a dangerous, untamed world where even the strongest man is barely more than an bug.

Conan's adventures were originally printed between 1932 and 1936 in Weird Tales. Howard dabbled in every genre the pulp magazines published--fantasy, horror, westerns, sports stories, and mysteries--but Conan quickly became his most popular character. Howard died tragically when he was 30. Soon after, the owners of his copyrights started making some questionable decisions concerning Conan and his other creations.

The market was glutted with new, ghostwritten Conan stories and novels. Even worse, other writers were allowed to "fix" Howard's original stories when they were gathered into paperback collections. And the less said about Arnold Schwarzenegger's muttering, meat-head take on Conan, the better. Once able to speak multiple languages, suddenly Conan could barely manage one. By the 90s, Conan had become a joke. The original stories--along with Howard's other work--fell out of print.

A few ardent fans kept the lamps lit, though. They maintained websites devoted to taking a serious look at both Howard's and other pulp writers' work. They kept enough interest alive that Del Rey finally republished the tales of Conan--restored to Howard's original vision of the character--in three illustrated volumes. They were popular enough for Del Rey to publish more of Howard's creations, including Kull, another fantasy hero considered a precursor to Conan, Solomon Kane, a Puritan who travels the world fighting demons, and Bran Mak Morn, the last Pictish king, fighting a doomed war against the Romans.

Dark Horse Comics published an Eisner-winning Conan series that finished its run last year. It was followed by a Kull mini-series and an upcoming mini-series featuring Thulsa Doom, an immortal sorcerer who's battled both Kull and Conan.

Also, there's a Conan MMORPG and another movie, directed by Marcus Nispel, slated to come out in 2010, which will hopefully be better than the two from the 80s. (And couldn't be much worse.)

And besides preserving Howard's work, many of the fans who grew up reading his work in the 60s and 70s became writers themselves. Historical novelist Scott Oden, who says his own writing is heavily influenced by Howard's, points out...

Howard's legacy to fantasy is as prominent as that of Tolkien. Together, the two created the modern genre: Tolkien with high fantasy and Howard with low fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery. The influence of his style of writing is evident in the pages of writers as diverse as George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, or Richard Morgan.

And through them, Conan lives on to capture the imaginations of another generation.

(I got a lot of help on this post from Rusty Burke, the editor of several collections of Howard's stories and letters, and Scott Oden. Thanks to both of them.)

Cross-posted on my blog.


Colleen said...

I completely grew up on Conan - my brother loved him so we read the comics over and over and over. (He is still a fan of the collections.)

I keep meaning to read the biography of Robert E. Howard - I never caught the movie that came out about him either although I heard it was good.

Thanks for this post Kris - it was great!

Kristopher said...

Thanks, Colleen.

There's a couple biographies about Howard I think, but the one by Novalyne Price-Ellis, "One Who Walked Alone" was the one that got turned into the movie, "The Whole Wide World."

I haven't read the book, but the movie was pretty good. Vincent D'Onofrio does a good job of making Howard both eccentric and very likable.

Scott Oden said...

Small quibble (and I totally missed this when I read your draft, Kris): REH was born in Peaster, TX, not Cross Plains, TX.

Otherwise, excellent post!