If I think about the most iconic characters ever, I’m quite sure that Conan—mostly known by his moniker “The Barbarian”—must be among them and, furthermore, I dare to say that he is one of the most easily recognizable and everpresent in pop culture, even to this day.
The only problem is that most “translations” of Conan to other media—such as movies, comic books, and art—have been, to say the least, simplistic and inaccurate. Both Schwarzenneger’s movies from the 80’s (1982’s Conan the Barbarian and 1984’s Conan the Destroyer) suffered from a version of the character that presented him a dumb brute whose strength lies, well, solely on his strength. Although this in depth analysis of Conan the Barbarian gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for the film, I still consider it a poor translation of the character, one that has too much independent artistic vision and too little of the original flavor of the character. About Conan the Destroyer, the less said the better.
The 2011 cinematographic version (horrifyingly entitled Conan the Barbarian 3D), although widely considered a worse movie than his namesake from 1982, hews much closer to the original character and even its pulp, sword and sorcery style of narrative. The problem is that almost everything else in the movie leaves much to be desired. I think Momoa as Conan was a good casting decision, but the material he was given to work with is very much subpar.
When it comes to the comic books, I’ve read a lot of them but I haven’t read them all. My impression, from the large sample I was exposed to, is that they suffer more or less from the same problems as the movies: an incomplete, reductionist view of the character. Writers and artists seem obsessed with making the character as hulking and ridiculously strong as they can while, at the same time, robbing him of all subtlety.
Finally, and even though this may appear like heresy to some, I don’t like Frank Frazetta’s depictions of Conan. Although great pieces of art in and of themselves, they are a “bodybuilder’s version” of the character, so to speak. Considering Frazetta’s huge influence on many artists, I wouldn’t be surprise if he was one of the main reasons for the poor conception of the character we’ve had since the 1960’s onwards.
So, since I considered Robert E. Howard one of my favorite (although problematic, I know) authors—and Conan one of my favorite characters—I’ll try to present you with a more well-rounded version of the Cimmerian, as well as inviting you to expose yourself to the original stories.
Conan the Cimmerian is a character created by the American writer Robert E. Howard and who first saw the light of day (aka “it was published”) on the pages of Weird Tales magazine in December, 1932 in the novellete The Phoenix on the Sword. Although I’d love to talk at length about Howard’s creative writing process and the textual history of how Conan was created, I’d leave that for another ocassion. Since 1932 Howard published sixteen other Conan stories with Weird Tales, up to and including Red Nails, a posthumous novel published between July and October 1936.
To this sixteen published stories we can add at least a couple others that were published after Howard’s tragically successful suicide. All of those, along with some unfinished drafts and other assorted manuscripts form what I’ll call “The Conan Canon”.
The “Posthumous Collaborations” Problem
The problem, of course, is that “The Conan Canon” hadn’t been made available to us until just a couple of years (more like 17, but you get what I’m trying to say 😉). Then what are all those other books people have bought since the 1960’s that have colorful titles such as Conan the Conqueror, you ask? Those are the results of direct editorial contorsionism, falsification and, well, poorly written fanfic.
Although they weren’t presented as such back then, what authors like Lin Carter and others—especially so Sprague L. Camp—did was, in practical terms, to rearrange, alter, and rewrite everything that Howard wrote in life to suit their “biographical” presentation of the life of Conan the Cimmerian, from humble thief to aging king. I have no doubts that they did so out of good will and love for the original material, but the fact of the matter is that they probably did more harm than good to Howard’s creation and legacy by meddling with stories that should have been left in their original state and in their composition order, as far as we can attest it.
I say this because doing so would have actually been respectful to the author’s wishes. In a letter quoted by scholar Patrice Louinet in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (2002), Howard says that,
In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he [Conan] told them to me. That’s why they skip about 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 episode widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.
Luckily for us, we have now more than one collection that take out all of the posthumuous collaborations and, instead, focus on presenting the original material in as faithful a form as possible. I’ll take the opportunity here to recommend the one I own and have read (more than once):
- Conan of Cimmeria Volume 1: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
- Conan of Cimmeria Volume 2: The Bloody Crown of Conan
- Conan of Cimmeria Volume 3: The Conquering Sword of Conan
The Original Conan
But, what makes the original character—the one from the Howard “yarns”—so good? Of course, this is a matter of taste but, in my opinion, the character is complex and compelling for the same reason as many iconic characters in History.
First of all, Conan is special. He is the only Cimmerian we meet throughout the stories written by Howard. Moreover, hailing from that place is nothing to be proud of. Before the author wrote the first Conan story, he wrote a poem entitled “Cimmeria”. In that poem, the poetic persona describes a hellish place, a “land of Darkness and the Night” that is the place where Conan was born and from where he escaped in his youth. Why did he escape? And how he did so? How did he survive in such a place? All these questions are never answered but, instead, add to the mystery and appeal of the character.
Second: Conan is a character described, at the beginning of his first story as someone with “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth”. Note that there’s no description of his physical strength in that introduction, no mention of his love for stealing women or any of the nonsense usually associated with the character. He is, instead, presented as a character of extremes, one who lives life in a very intense manner.
Moreover, Conan is a thinker and sometimes could even be considered a philosopher. In The Phoenix on the Sword Conan says things like “a great poet is greater than any king” (and Conan is a king in that story) and, in Queen of the Black Coast—perhaps the finest Conan story ever written—the Cimmerian presents his practical philosophy in these terms:
In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle […]. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illussion. I know this: if life is illussion, then I am no less an illussion, and being thus, the illussion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.
Finally, Conan represents a perspective on life itself, one that celebrates action and bravery over a false sense of security and predictability. This is, I think, the core of the often misinterpreted idea that barbarism is better than civilization according to Howard. The author does not present barbarism as something to aspire to, but the terrifyingly effective origin of Humanity as a species. What Howard condemns is not the idea of civilization in itself, but the notion that people who are born and live in civilized areas have that the world around us can somehow be controlled, dominated, and ultimately tamed—other people included.
As it must be clear by now, Conan is a character that is dear and near to my heart. Although I’m not a person who praises the value of violence—far from it—I admire the way Howard presents us with a character who is able to act and overcome impossible (and usually supernatural) obstacles through his sheer strength of will. More than muscles, what makes Conan strong is his undomitable will, one that bends to no extraneous laws and that values being alive more than anything else.
In this sense, the Conan stories are fun and profound adventures more relevant now than perhaps ever before. They show us a dangerous world from which we shouldn’t hide but, instead, we should confront head on. They invite us to reconsider the choices we make based upon what’s secure and safe and, in contrast, we lose the love for life itself by abandoning the risky options which could makes us truly happy.
That is why, in spite of all the problematic aspects of his stories, I now and always will recommend the Conan the Cimmerian stories, written by Robert E. Howard more than 80 years ago.
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