Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Reading: Conan the Barbarian

A few summers ago it was A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in the shadow of the unfairly maligned John Carter (2012) movie, and this summer I decided to meet my desire for further reading of "pulps" by checking out some of the Conan source material by author Robert E. Howard. I had been looking for an anthology of Howard stories that were not a collection of comic book iterations of the character, and it was while I was in California a few weeks that I came across a paperback released to coincide with the most recent film adaptation Conan the Barbarian (2011) starring Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa.

Don't let the movie tie-in
cover fool you, this is old school
Robert E. Howard Conan!
Like many fanboys, I grew up with two seminal "Conans": Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie version and Roy Thomas's Marvel Comics in the 1970's. Not surprisingly, while both are highly entertaining on their own merits, both also represent something of a distillation of the character featured in Howard's original stories. This Conan the Barbarian movie tie-in collection, published by Random House Publishing Group, features a broad range of stories representing a significant amount of the character's publishing history in the pulps, specifically Weird Tales. The collection opens with December 1932's "The Phoenix on the Sword," and concludes with "Rogues in the House" from the magazine's January 1934 issue. The six stories collected here form can be read independently or as a single adventure, following Conan from his mercenary youth to his bloody conquests on the frontier and high seas.

As characterized in "The People of the Black Circle" (Weird Tales, November 1934), and throughout the collection, Conan is a fearless force of nature whose reputation proceeds him and invokes fear among those who would challenge him. In nearly each story, Conan does not begin as the focal point of the stories set-up, but rather plays the role of the unseen force waiting to be released. Once provoked (not a good idea!), Conan responds as one might expect: by cutting, punching and clawing his way through evil sorcerers, deadly monsters, and barren landscapes. This interaction from early in "People" captures Conan's approach:
"I climbed a bastion," snarled the intruder. "A guard thrust his head over the battlement in time for me to rap it with my knife hilt."
"Are you Conan?"
"Who else? You sent word into the hills that you wished for me to come and parley with you. Well, by Crom, I've come! Keep away from that table or I'll gut you." (38)
While clearly developed within the warrior archetype, Howard's Conan is a much more well-developed literary creation than that which those who grew up on movie character (it is difficult to discuss one without the other, so pervasive is our culture's acceptance of Schwarzenegger's incredibly quotable, quip-filled performance) will remember. Well-spoken (and plain-spoken in his time) and a tactician, Howard's Conan is as likely to plot and persevere as he is to simply attack and plunder.  Each of the stories contributes to developing the Conan character while building the Hyborian Age in which he dwells.

These are energetic, fantastic stories, in the truest sense of the word. Especially surprising is the literary manner in which Conan's tales are told, making it is difficult to see how stories such as these were seen as easily dismissed storytelling entertainment worthy of only inexpensive paper for publishing (thus the term "pulp").

If you are favored, Crom will guide you, as he did me, into a used bookstore where it can be purchased, though better libraries will likely have this collection in their "Fantasy" paperbacks section. For those lacking his blessing, it is definitely worth checking online stores for Robert E. Howard's influential and entertaining source stories.


Anonymous said...

I would wholeheartedly agree!! It was Howard's Conan that first drew me into the realm of fantasy novels as a pre-teen and into adulthood. His stories sent me searching for the likes of Tolkien, Terry Brooks and the Sword of Shannara, and George R.R. Martin! I would highly recomend going out and reading Howard's Conan in the summer, fall or winter some of which can be found in Amazons kindle store for as little as 99cents!


Mister Scott said...

Thanks for leaving a comment...It's good to hear that Conan stories are available electronically, I only wish they could be bought in hard copy, too. I haven't read Terry Brooks but will rectify that soon enough! :)