The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E. Howard is a wonderful collection of classic fantasy stories. By and large they were serialized in a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, which is why they are arranged in an episodic fashion. Originally written in the 1930’s, the Conan stories have fascinated readers ever since. Howard is lauded as the “grandfather of the sword and sorcery genre.”
The world of Conan is richly embellished, based on the actual history and speculative prehistory of reality. Even the names of the various peoples and places in the tales are often derived from antiquity. Howard was highly interested in the past, and that line of study served to lend authority to his writing. Even now, the free-to-play MMO Age of Conan is based in Howard’s world; Red Sonja – whom was based upon a character created by Howard – is also popular in comics and saw her own movie produced in the 80s. But what exactly makes Conan so interesting?
Conan is based rather directly upon Howard himself. Howard was a large man who took up bodybuilding in order to be strong enough to take down anyone who might try to bully him. He had blue eyes just as his main character, and his demeanor and bearing were often likened to Conan’s. Conan in that way is an alter ego for Howard, who admitted that the character more or less “wrote himself” unlike other protagonists he’d envisioned. This is by far the point which made Conan so strong and likable: he was real. His stories and situations were invented, but he was none other than the author himself.
Conan’s character is that of a wild white barbarian from a rugged land. Despite his lack of understanding for the pomp and procedure of civilized society, Conan is not without his own moral code. He protects women, and though he lusts after pretty much every female in every story, he never forces himself on one (most of the time they fall over themselves, madly in love with him). He is “moody” but also as quick to laugh as to draw his sword. He is easygoing but alert, and full of wry humor. He does not fear death. He does as he pleases, and assumes new roles simply because he had never assumed them before – so why not? Throughout the course of Chronicles, he is a mercenary, a freedom fighter, a pirate, a thief, a king. Though he was not raised among society, he is intelligent, eloquent, and knowledgeable about various customs, languages, and histories. He is in short a little bit of everything, and seems to accept and absorb every new situation or bit of information like a dry sponge.
His stories were written in no particular order, so the chronology is a bit jumbled. Certain characters are recurring and will pop up occasionally for a repeat performance, however, so paying attention to names and places as you read will yield surprising results. The stories are at times somewhat redundant, as certain scenarios are repeated for multiple stories (inserting new names and with a few small tweaks to the plot, but otherwise identical), and after a certain point a reader will come to understand how the story will end (Conan getting the girl and becoming victorious, with either new loot or new prospects for what he will do next) much as a reader of Sherlock Holmes knows that Holmes will always clear up the mystery succinctly by the end of the story.
Certain aspects are products of Howard’s upbringing in a rural Texas town in the early part of the 20th century. In his stories, for example, dark-skinned races such as the Picts are considered savages and Conan would save even a treacherous white person from them due to a loyalty to his skin color. Although Conan does not exhibit particular prejudice towards black people (other than saying that he doesn’t care for black women), the stories almost always pit him against some dark-skinned race of crazies. Back when Howard was alive and writing, however, that sort of mindset was popular in the South. His contemporaries such as H.P. Lovecraft (who was also featured in Weird Tales) also expressed this same sort of opinion in his own writing. It doesn’t lessen the quality of the work itself, but it does speak volumes about the man behind the writing and the world he lived in.
Another “dated” aspect is the portrayal of women. All of the women were shapely, with huge breasts and curvy hips; they were almost always either naked or half-naked, or at some point during the story their clothing would be torn off. They often were portrayed kneeling before Conan, clinging to his shins, which is now a trope of the sword and sorcery genre’s art. They cried, they begged, they fantasized about being Conan’s woman. Howard wrote the women as having inborn instincts driving them towards supplication to Conan. Although a few would at times manage to be useful and either help free Conan from imprisonment or guide him through some maze or challenge, they all invariably were useless and needed to be rescued.
There were only a couple strong female protagonists that I can recall from the stories, and only one who lives through her part in Conan’s world: Valeria. However, Howard made her into a lesbian. Only a few hints of lesbianism made it to the final, published version of her story, but his intention was clearly stated in a letter to Weird Tales prior to its publication. Even Valeria found herself impotent for a good half of the story, falling at the feet of Conan and depending on him to save her. An ironic note is that in the 80’s movies, Valeria is the name of Conan’s one true love, who dies during the first movie and is pined for in the second.
Combining these two attitudes together, let’s talk about black women in Conan stories. Well, there’s not much to talk about. They don’t really show up to any great degree. Conan fights against the evil black men, and that’s about it. There are black women, but to my recollection they are mostly unnamed and are only appear for cameos, often juxtaposed with the a white woman of some variation or another. It gets tedious to read the keyword “white” as respects the females in the stories – that’s how you know Conan will get some action (except that one time with Valeria, although Conan saves her just the same).
Being pulp fiction, the tales of Conan the Cimmerian are full of gore and violence. There is a lot of blood, a lot of political intrigue, and a lot of nudity. The audience for these stories has always been white males, so these sorts of aspects are to expected. Yet despite the pulpy nature of the writing, Howard’s style is richly detailed and full of wonderful descriptive and memorable passages. The work is, all in all, a delight to read, though not of course everyone’s cup of tea. I was raised on action movies (including the old Conan flicks), so this book was well worth the time to read.