I first encountered Conan as a teenager, like many people of my generation I'd read Lord of the Rings and was looking for something else in the same kind of line. I read Marvel Comics like a maniac and Dungeons & Dragons had only just appeared in the UK and I was an avid player. I desired fantasy, sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy, call it what you will. It bit me like a bug. I discovered Conan first of all in the pages of Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan magazine, and was hooked by this dark and sombre hero in his dark and sombre world. There wasn't much solace in this world that I discovered was called Hyboria, no. It was not a pleasant place. It certainly wasn't Middle-Earth. No, Hyboria was brutal and savage, but it was also sinisterly exotic – and I'll go as far as adding sinisterly erotic. At least, as erotic as things can get when you're 11 years old. I fell in love with Conan's world and his adventures. I devoured the Sphere paperback collections of his remarkable stories and lost myself in that terrible fantastic age. But then, like many of us, I got too smart for Conan, didn't I? Yeah, too smart. I discovered the likes of Michael Moorcock who were cooler, hipper, more ironic. Yeah I discovered fantasy novels that were smart, smart enough for me. And I turned my back on Howard's creation, sneered and rolled my eyes at the foolishness of Hyboria and its denizens. I dismissed the Conan stories as 'something I read as a kid' and had grown out of.
But not long ago I decided on a whim to revisit Hyboria, I picked up a collection of Conan tales in a second hand book-shop and read them all again. I'm not 11 years old any more, I'm as good as 50 (by Crom!), and smart? Well, I'm a Lecturer in English Literature (that's the same thing as a professor in the US) – so, I don't know if I'm smart, but I'm exactly the kind of guy you'd probably expect to be snooty about Conan stories. What did I reckon? I loved them. Sure some are weaker than others, but when Howard's at his best he's on the money. OK, so let me tell you why a near 50 year old academic was bewitched by something he'd turned his nose up at when he was 12 or 13.
Firstly let me establish that I'm keeping my comments to the Conan tales written by Howard himself: I'm not talking about any of the work by any of the writers who produced Conan stories like some franchise industry after Howard's death. The image of Conan and his tales that exists in the mind of people who haven't read Howard's work are informed more by L. Sprague De Champ and Lin Carter's well-intentioned but perhaps rather unfortunate re-editing of the existing work and additions to the Conan saga. Oh yeah, and the Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s. Hmmm, yeah … let's not talk about them shall we? Agreed? OK. Let's also establish that Howard didn't write that many Conan stories at all: maybe nineteen short stories or so and one novel. Howard knew when he had exhausted the potential of this hero and when to move onto other things. Secondly, I wish to stress that it is not my intention to argue that Howard's Conan stories had insightful things to say about society or carried great literary merit; rather to highlight that they are good, well written examples of what Howard purported them to be: exiting adventure yarns and nothing more and nothing less. After all, the man himself went on record saying “ Literature is a business to me – a business at which I was making an ample living when the Depression knocked the guts out of the market. My sole desire in writing is to make a reasonable living. I may cling to many illusions, but I am not ridden by the illusion that I have anything wonderful or magical to say, or that it would amount to anything particularly if I did say it. I have no quarrel with art-for-art's-sakers. On the contrary, I admire their work. But my pet delusions tend in other directions.”
Indeed, I'd argue the greatness of the Conan tales lies in their use of fantasy as a romantic (in the true sense of the world) and heroic fancy, rather than utilizing fantasy as a device for metaphorically representing the reality. In other words, the Conan stories are exactly what critics who deride the fantasy genre deride it for: it is total escapist hokum with no bearing on reality. My only point being that it is very good escapist hokum. Nevertheless, Howard gives his fantasies a deeper, darker richness than one might expect from “just escapist fantasy”. Howard fantasies are very much a product of the 20th Century despite them being set in a pre-historic age. They feature a cynical anti-hero rather than a gallant hero, it was the fiction of the 20th Century that saw the anti-hero appear and it was a century that eschewed notions of the 'true heroic' in its fiction. Even other 20th Century heroes – for example James Bond and Spider-man – renege on the duties and expected personality types of the epic hero, and Conan is in this case very much a 20th Century hero with his flaws and his failings. And whilst the Conan stories themselves are heroic fantasy adventures, Conan the hero is not an impossibly heroic or masculine figure. There's a temptation amongst some critics to engage in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis, particularly when discussing male heroes, and imply that they provide both writer and reader with a compensatory wish fulfilment figure, i.e. someone they would like to be like, but are not. In the case of Conan, who is of course a physically strong and muscular male, we need to note before we start engaging in such ill-informed pathologizations that Howard himself was not some 'weedy guy' who was living out some fantasizing through his fiction about having a 'masculinity' he lacked in his reality. Far from it, all contemporary accounts of the author himself describe him as a physically imposing man. Fellow writer E. Hoffman Price said that Howard was a 'broad towering man with a bluff, tanned face and a big hearty hand … a powerful, solid, round-faced fellow.' Furthermore, Howard claimed to have based Conan on many men he knew in the actuality of his own life in Texas in the 1930s. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith he wrote:
“It may sound fantastic to link the word 'realism' with Conan; but as a matter of fact – his supernatural adventures aside – he is the most realistic character I have ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my subconsciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.'
It's interesting to note Howard's use of the word 'evolved', as this is exactly what the character does throughout the series, and another facet of the stories that add to their and the character’s appeal. Unlike many heroes in popular fiction he ages and changes. Over time we see Conan evolve from a tempestuous street thief, to a taciturn soldier to, eventually, a wiser and more self-aware king. What makes this evolution more interesting is the fact that the Conan series of are told out of chronological sequence. In the first tale “The Phoenix in the Sword” (1932) he is introduced to us as a middle-aged king; this is followed both in publication time and narrative sequence by “The Scarlet Citadel” (1932); however the third story, “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933) features a seventeen year old Conan living on the streets. Between 1933 and 1935 the Conan stories appear to shift in time between these two periods. We return to the middle-aged King Conan in the only novel featuring the hero, The Hour of the Dragon (1935), and Howard's final Conan story “Red Nails” (1936). Whilst this may seem like an odd strategy, I would claim that it does add to the feeling of authenticity present in these sword and sorcery tales, in that it gives them a certain organic verisimilitude. As Howard himself stated, he wanted to present the series as if they were almost being told by the adventurer himself:
“In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less like I was creating them than as if I were simply chronicling them as he told them to me. That’s why they skip around so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”
We must remember of course, that despite all this talk of “realism” and verisimilitude, the stories I am discussing here are wild adventure tales that as often as not take place in exotic cities, decadent decaying civilisations, marvellous palaces and forgotten tombs. They feature sword-wielding swashbucklers and diaphanously clad maidens who are invariably beautiful. Nevertheless, there is a quality to the Conan stories that sets them above the standard-issue heroic fantasy of the 1930s. Like his friend and fellow writer for Weird Tales H.P. Lovecraft, there is a quality in the writing itself that transforms what would be abject bunkum in the hands of other writers (see the work of both their emulators) into quite wonderful, atmospheric and appealing dark tales that seem to burn with an energy of their own and one feels compelled to read them irrespective of how ostensibly ludicrous they are. Partly this is down to the simple fact that Howard was no mean writer in terms of skill, he had a knack for handling action and pace and could certainly paint a vivid picture of his exotic locales. But more important of all, there is a “feeling of realness” or believability in the fantasy world which is not present in the work of many of Howard's contemporaries or imitators. Whether we are in discovering lost cities in the deserts of Turan, sailing a pirate ship on the Vilayet Sea, or trudging through the marshes of the Pictish wilderness, there's an urgency and immediacy to his savage and exotic pre-historic Europe that breaths life into the fantastic and makes Hyboria as three dimensional a fabrication as Tolkien's Middle-Earth and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar.
© March, 2015 Rick Hudson
Rick Hudson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. He specializes in the study of Fantasy, SF, and horror fiction. He is also a writer of literary fiction.