“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.”
– Robert E. Howard, The Complete Chronicles of Conan
The Hyborian age and its barbarian hero have caught the attention of millions. We are, of course, talking about Conan, the Barbarian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, who was destined to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
So, how does his saga start? Quite modestly, actually, with a series of short stories written by an aspiring author named Robert E. Howard. They were published in an American pulp fiction magazine called Weird Tales in the 1930s. And this pretty much sparked the birth of a genre called sword and sorcery – arguably the cruder antecedent of epic fantasy. However, awesome though they were, the stories didn’t take the world by storm at that time. In fact, they were out of print for almost forty years and the barbarian king lay asleep in his deep tomb.
Then in the 70s the whole thing was revamped and we now have a couple of comic book series, films, cartoons and TV shows. Some are really good, some are plain terrible and should be erased out of existence and public memory (yes, I am talking about that 2011 movie, in which a unibrowed Khal Drogo wears a skirt and swings a large phallic piece of metal around), and others are funny and charming enough that we can overlook their lack of objective quality.
Interestingly, what most of these have in common is that their version of Conan is nothing like the character that Robert E. Howard made. And here, I intend to go on a mini rant over a few select interpretations (going through all of them would take too much time).
Conan the Original – the character from the short stories
Contrary to popular belief, Conan is not supposed to be a muscle bound oaf that can’t string a sentence together and solves all major life dilemmas with either his penis or his sword. No, Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was born in a savage time and in an unforgiving land.
Cimmeria was a country of hills and mountains, of rock and bog, perpetually overcast and cold. A cruel land that killed the weak and the stupid. And its god, Crom, was a disinterested deity that gave its people two gifts at birth: the strength in their sword-arm and the fire in their heart. Whether they lived or died was of no interest to him.
Conan was shaped and molded by this country, but it proved too small for him and so he set off to see this thing called civilization. In the beginning, he was perhaps a bit naïve, but never stupid. In fact, he was clever and cunning, and when the situation could not be resolved by trickery, only then did he resort to the sword.
He is a complex character; after he sees “civilization” he is disgusted by it, and yet always drawn back to it. Never tamed, never “civilized”, never broken, Conan the Barbarian eventually became king by his own hand and ruled Aquilonia – the most powerful country in the world.
And during his long life, he met and battled demi-gods, sorcerers, crazy high-priests, pirates, thieves, whores, giants and a bunch of sword swinging hopefuls. He was a thief, burglar, body guard, ship captain, mercenary general, Kozaki ataman and a lover of women.
And there were a lot of women in Conan’s life… From princesses, priestesses, tavern wenches and ladies of negotiable affections – all were crazy about him. Funny enough, he loved all of them – well most of them anyway, in a certain manner. None of his love interests was seen as thing, a sex object. Conan was a romantic. He got his heart broken a couple of times.
So, this is the character as envisioned and created by Robert E. Howard. Some later versions of the Cimmerian resembled him closely, while others had nothing to do with him. Btw, my favorite stories are The Frost Giant’s Daughter and Queen of the Black Coast.
The Dark Horse Edition
Conan the Barbarian appeared in a number of comic books, the two most famous ones were by Marvel Comics and Dark Horse. The Marvel version was hugely popular and in print from the 70s until the year 2000. However, the character depicted there was a pale and comical imitation of the original Conan. The illustration – done by a bunch of artists, the most famous of which are Barry Smith and John Buscema, was pretty good though.
Then in 2003, Dark Horse Comics acquired the rights to the character. And they stuck to the original storyline. Actually, the generally used unaltered Howard’s writings for the storyline. Arguably, one can say that this is still the original Conan, just given color by the artists from DH.
So far, there are six main series: Conan, Conan the Cimmerian, Conan: Road of Kings, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Avenger and Conan the Slayer. All are done by different teams of artists and writers.
The cool thing about the storyline is that they chronologically arranged Howard’s works. Since, it was originally published haphazardly – a story from Conan’s later years, followed by one from his childhood, this systematization was really useful. It gives a sense of completeness, of a beginning and ending, that was lacking in Howard’s stories.
While some issues are not bad – graphically speaking, others are just amazing. My favorite artwork was done by Greg Ruth, and these were genesis stories about Conan’s childhood and upbringing.
Conan the Terminator (1982)
Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one of my all-time favorite movies! It was directed by John Milius and co-written by him and Oliver Stone. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan and James Earl Jones as his nemesis, the sorcerer Thulsa Doom, the movie also had an amazing soundtrack composed by Basil Poleduris – the perfect score for your next D&D session.
For some reason, very few people take this movie seriously. I guess most have a half-remembered impression of it from their childhood. And this is a pity, since everything is solid: the camera, the script, the music, the scenography and costumes, the fighting scenes, even the acting.
Conan the Barbarian is a story about a young Cimmerian whose village was burned and family killed by an evil sorcerer. He grows up as a slave, becomes a gladiator, and is eventually set free by his owner – maybe in an attempt to ease his guilt ridden conscience. Using his wits and sword-skills, Conan seeks vengeance for himself and his parents.
Now, this guy is based Howard’s work, but doesn’t follow it as closely as the DH Comics Conan the Barbarian. Originally, Conan’s family was not killed by a raiding party. Conan was not brought up a slave – though he was enslaved a couple of times during his adventures. But he has fought a snake worshiping evil sorcerer – Toth-Amon.
But, that is not important. This character has worth in itself. He is consistent, well rounded and charismatic. However arguable his acting abilities are, Schwarzenegger did a really good job here.
The movie had a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, but it was not as good. Actually, it was quite bad – but in that charming way that I spoke of earlier. And Schwarzenegger is supposed to return to the role of the hero from Cimmeria in a couple of years with The Legend of Conan.
Anyhow, this is pretty much it. So, I didn’t go into any of the TV Shows, the cartoons or that gods-bloody waste of a time of a movie from 2011. That piece of crap will feel the sting of my pen in an article all for itself one of these days.
To summarize, the original stories done by Howard were inspirational. They pretty much had to invent a whole genre for his stories because they were so awesome. And a sure sign of their quality is how well they withstood the test of time. They aged perfectly; todays readers will still find them thrilling.
However, the same cannot be said about the whole sword and sorcery genre. Like a flower, it grew, bloomed beautifully, and then wilted. Many writers – such as Robert Jordan, tried to write about Conan the Barbarian, it just never felt right. I guess there was a time and place for the whole sword and sorcery thing in literature and it kinda passed.
But, we have an awesome comic books series and a great movie to keep us company.