The Complete Chronicles of Conan – Book Review
- By Robert E Howard
- Edited by Stephen Jones
- Gollancz, London.
Name a dozen great fictional characters of the 20th century.
Most likely, you’ll run out at around number five, and start uneasily asking if it’s okay to use comics, TV and movies. And most likely, when I remind you that Conan the Barbarian started out in fiction, carved a bloody path through the comic books, then swaggered across the silver screen and even had his own cartoon series, you’ll smite yourself on the forehead and curse your stupidity to Crom.
Okay. Maybe not the last bit. But you know, if you were going to make a list of Great Fictional Characters of the last century, it’d be a rare list that didn’t have Conan kicking arse somewhere in it.
For those of you who know him only through the gravel-mouthed Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 1980s, Conan was the brainchild of Robert Ervin Howard, a writer who lived in Texas in the early part of the 20th century. Howard was a staple of the great Pulp Fiction era: while Conan is the best-known of his creations, he brought to live another half-dozen or more swashbuckling heroes including King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailor Steve Costigan, Turlough O’Brien, Breckinridge Elkins, Francis X. Gordon, and my personal favourite of the lot, the Puritan swordsman Soloman Kane.
Howard’s own story is brief enough, and tragic. He wrote like a sonofabitch, pumping out the words as fast as he could to make a decent living the the era of the Depression. His stories were popular enough in their time, but Howard himself was never wholly confident of his own place as a writer, nor as a person, and shortly after the death of his mother, he took his own life at the age of thirty.
Howard’s writing was never Ëœart’, as such. He had little enough training â€ like most of us! â€ and started young. What he did have was vigour, and imagination, a knack for bold, vivid images and an ability to envision larger-than-life characters. His most famous character Conan is simple enough in concept: a powerful primitive, a tribesman from the icy lands of Cimmeria who rises by virtue of his courage and his fighting prowess to become the king of the foremost country of his own time â€ Howard’s imaginary Hyborian Age, some ten thousand years before our time, between the fall of Atlantis and the earliest kingdoms of our known history. Yet despite the fundamental simplicity of the character, in Conan the Barbarian Robert Howard managed to create one of the enduring icons of 20th century pop culture.
There are a lot of ways to get to know Conan. You could read the incredibly long-running Marvel comic series, for example. Or you could watch Governor Schwarzenegger at his muscular peak, parading around in a furry loincloth and a horned helmet in the movies. You could even try the cartoon series, now available on DVD, though I really wouldn’t recommend it. But for my money, the best way to get a taste of the magic would be to buy the Centenary Edition of the Complete Chronicles of Conan, brought out in 2006 in paperback by Gollancz.
The book is a long overdue marvel. It contains every Conan story and every Conan fragment known to come from Robert E Howard’s typewriter. That’s important, by the way: Conan was so very popular that after Howard’s death, a truly incredible series of writers picked up the character and ran with it, riffing off letters and notes and fragments left by the big guy himself. Some of the best known writers of fantasy and horror in the 20th century turned their talents to extending the Conan legend, and though many of them made a good fist of it, the original is always the best.
Buying the book, you get 21 complete tales of various lengths, three drafts, a synopsis, a fragment, Howard’s lengthy essay on the Hyborian Age (including the inevitable map), a bunch of notes on the various races of the period, a complete list of Howard stories, and a very useful afterword by Stephen Jones.
My only issue with this volume lies in the way it was assembled. One of the genuine strengths of the Conan stories lies in their continuity. Howard envisioned his Hyborian Age in considerable detail, and Conan has quite the arc of story. That score or so of stories follows him from a brawny, savage youth dwelling on the outskirts of civilisation to a brooding, scarred king, ruling with an iron fist over the mightiest nation of his era. The slow rise of Conan against the backdrop of the Hyborian Age is one of the most interesting aspects of the series, and it’s actually damned annoying (to me, anyway) that the stories are presented in order of publication, rather than in continuity-order.
I can understand the choice, of course, and as a writer it’s interesting to watch Howard’s prose change, improve and tighten with time. But the number of writers picking up this volume will be relatively few, and the book would have been a hundred times more interesting and approachable if they’d followed the chronology of the character, rather than the publications. As it is, the first couple of tales deal with Conan as King of Aquilonia, and then wander off towards the middle of his career as a pirate, a bandit, a rebel, and so forth.
Having got that off my chest, I’ll go on to tell you why you really, really want to read this book: it’s goddam fun.
Robert Howard wrote at a time when the fantasy genre was young and fresh, and not yet saddled with five-book trilogies in which some pathetically emasculated stable-boy discovers he’s secretly The One Heir to the Almighty Boogalooga Stone, and must Use His Unbelievable Power Wisely to Overthrow the Ultimate Evil of Spung-wand the Horrid before the Forces of Darkness Close In to… to… to do whatever it is Forces of Darkness do in interminably long and boring fantasy series with pictures of wavy-haired dickheads riding white horses on the cover. Howard couldn’t get away with that kind of shit. Howard wrote during the Depression, when the pulp magazines were at their strongest, and he wrote to live, which meant he had to create stories that caught the readers attention and held it.
And he was successful. Very, very successful.
It’s a simple formula. Conan is the hero every man secretly wants to be: he takes no shit from anyone, be they man, beast, sorceror or hideous demigod from the forgotten realms of hell. Fiendishly fast and strong, he’s a devil with the sword, tough as nails, a complete winner with the babes, but ultimately a good guy. Not because he’s born to the task, or because Eeevul Threatens The World, but because he’s just basically a decent man. Left to his own devices, he’d happily steal, fight, and shag his way across the world from one end to the other, but being the kind of epic larger-than-life character he is, his idea of a little harmless fun usually winds up running afoul of the machinations of some villain or another â€ much to the villain’s regret.
The Conan tales are marvellous, full of swash and buckle, with plenty of sword-play, heinous monsters, ancient temples, haunted ruins, fiendish wizards, gorgeous princesses and slave girls, and an endless supply of hapless, sword-waving extras for Conan to chop down in passing. And if I make the whole thing sound like simple, low-brow fun… what of it? The truth of the matter is that sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Personally, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve found myself wishing I could just stand up and follow Conan’s example. There would be a bloody trail of savagely maimed waiters, hat-wearing Volvo-drivers, politicians, telemarketers and reality TV stars behind me, and the world would be a far better place for it.
But the Conan stories aren’t mindless. For all that the prose is nothing special, Howard put a great deal of thought into the character of Conan, and into the Hyborian Age that he inhabited. The textures and the colour of the stories have that special sense of verismilitude that only the best of writers achieve, and reading them now, they remain as fresh and vivid as they were some ninety years ago, when Howard first began to put them on paper. By way of comparison, if you try reading Patrick White’s Nobel-prize winning novel from 1973 ËœThe Eye Of The Storm’, you’ll find it’s dated, slow, painful, turgid stuff. It couldn’t find a publisher today.
I could write more; much more. I could talk about Howard’s influences, discuss his fictional geopolitical history, analyse his psyche, and explore his wide-ranging effect on modern genre fiction in all media. But all these things have been done elsewhere, by people with more expertise. There’s been more scholarship and research written about Howard and Conan than ever Howard actually wrote about his hero, which is an irony truly beautiful on many levels. Instead, I’ll leave you with a question: which is the greater art â€ the Nobel prize-winner that nobody reads any more, or the cheerfully bloodthirsty pulp-fiction that continues to inspire writers, artists and fans the world over after almost a century?
These days, I’m not interested in such arguments; they’re for the weak, soft-skinned men of the supposedly civilised world. Personally, I’m planning to sling my good steel sword over my shoulder, strap on my sandals and my loincloth, and follow Conan the Cimmerian on a bloody rampage across the face of the Hyborian Age…
The complete chronicles of Conan is now available to buy from Amazon.com.
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