Friday, May 18, 2012

The Conan Chronicles by Robert E. Howard

I’d never actually read any of Robert E. Howard’s Conan work. I knew about the character, everyone does these days, but most of my knowledge came from some random issues of the Marvel comics, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and the ravings of a school friend who avidly read second hand books about the character, although I suspect they weren’t collections of Howard’s original stories (mostly for Weird Tales), but the work of other authors who took over the character after his creator’s death. I did read the occasional s&s novel, I was rather partial to John Jakes Brak the Barbarian books, but that may have been because I was 10 years old at the time I read them. I’ve never been hugely into the sword & sorcery genre, but I was pleased when Howard’s name cropped up on the list, because he’s one of those authors I always wanted to read, but never got the time before being distracted by something new and shiny.

The collection I read is actually the first volume of Howard’s Conan work, before the character became King of Aquilonia, but it’s still a very good grounding and a good enough sampling of Howard and the character. It’s a collection of short stories that were mostly published in Weird Tales, and it has a few fragments and drafts, which I assume never made it into the pages of the pulp magazines.

The opening story doesn’t even feature the ‘iron thewed Cimmerian’, it’s an essay about the history of Hypborean Age, how it came about and the environment that nurtured people like Conan. I found it odd that he wasn’t even mentioned, when a few other conquerors and heroes of the age were, and one would think Conan would have at least been of some interest due to what he went on to do and he was the King of Aquilonia for a time.

The stories are very much what we know as standard sword & sorcery fare. I can see how they would have worked in serialised forms in the pulps, reading through them is less satisfying. After the first two or three they become very similar. Some evil creature or ruler threatens a city or population, in comes Conan, destroys anyone or anything that gets between him and his goal, flexes his impressive muscles a few times to win the admiration of whatever interchangeable female is there, then strides off into the sunset. Despite the overuse of the formula they are well written, and you have to keep in mind when they were written, which explains some of the attitudes and language, and it’s far less offensive and prevalent than I’ve seen from some of Howard’s contemporaries. Conan also becomes more and more superhuman as the stories progress. By the end of the chronicles he was about ready to take Superman out without breaking a sweat. He seemed to be able to take on largely any magic or creature with his physical strength, which rather negated the use of it in the first place.

I would have liked to see Conan get a regular partner or sidekick, generally whoever he met, and was helped out by him or helped him with his goal, got either killed off or didn’t appear in the next story. I was particularly partial to former slave girl Natala, who it was definitely hinted at having a history with Conan prior to the adventure they both featured in, but didn’t appear in the next story. It is possible that Conan was so much larger than life that he simply overwhelmed any other characters in the stories.

Readers today do owe Robert E. Howard and Conan a debt, though. He and his best known character are largely responsible for the still popular sword & sorcery genre. Later authors have certainly taken it, twisted it around and improved on it, but it may not have existed at all, but for Robert E. Howard. Considering that he really only wrote Conan material for the final 4 years of his life, before tragically taking his own life at age 30, his output is astonishing. The Conan Chronicles is a thick volume at over 500 pages and the second part of it is just as large.

There are plenty of places to go if The Conan Chronicles gives you a taste for this sort of writing. The Cimmerian’s stories were continued by a number of authors; Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan (of Wheel of Time fame) and Harry Turtledove, are just some of the names who have worked on Conan material. There’s a whole slew of Conan inspired works, aside from the Brak books by John Jakes that I mentioned earlier, Howard was largely responsible for the creation of an entire genre. I’d also recommend the first 25 issues of Dave Sim’s graphic novel Cerebus the Aardvark, I believe the collection is entitled Cerebus. Dave Sim was a huge fan of the work of writer Roy Thomas and especially artist Barry Windsor Smith on the original Conan comic and the graphic novel was originally conceived as kind of an homage to them. The storyline of the first issue is largely reminiscent of one of the first Conan stories; The Tower of the Elephant.   

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