The Hidden Burden of the Icon: Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian

Most authors would love to create an iconic character. And why not? It’s one of the ultimate literary achievements, to create a character that lasts through the ages, whose name is instantly recognized among mass culture. Speculative books, comics, movies, etc. have certainly contributed a number of such characters over the years. To name a few: Dracula, Frankenstein, Tarzan, Superman, Batman, the Joker, Spider-Man (I’ll leave it to the comic experts to debate what other comic characters qualify as truly iconic), Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and of course, the subject of this post, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

The character of Conan made his first appearance back in the December 1932 issue of the magazine Weird Tales. Conan would prove to be wildly popular, and along with fellow Weird Tales authors H.P. Lovecraft & Clark Ashton Smith, Howard would go on to become one of the magazine’s Big Three during the golden age of pulp fiction. Howard sold quite a number of stories to Weird Tales and other venues before he committed suicide in 1936, but Conan was his most enduring creation. During Howard’s lifetime he sold 17 Conan stories to Weird Tales (“Red Nails,” the final Conan story to appear in Weird Tales, was published posthumously). In the ensuing years, a number of his unpublished Conan stories found their way to print, and several authors—most notably L. Sprague de Camp—completed Howard’s unfinished tales and brought those to print.

Since then, Robert E. Howard has come to mean to sword & sorcery what J.R.R. Tolkien means to epic fantasy. As to Conan, he has appeared in just about every medium you can imagine: books, comics, B&W illustrated magazines, comic strips, movies, live-action TV, cartoons,video games, RPGs, figurines …you name it. Somewhere along the way, Conan transcended into the realm of icon among the public consciousness. The character is still going strong today, all thanks to some 17 stories published in the space of 4 years.

But along the way, something else happened, too. Those unfamiliar with the original tales came to think of Conan as a stupid barbarian. While there’s no debating the barbarian aspect, Conan is far from stupid. Those who consider him as such clearly haven’t read Howard’s original tales. Instead, they’re believing in an unconscious public perception that is straining the character down to its simplest inaccurate depiction.

Howard actually combats this very perception in his first published Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” In this story, Conan is in his 40s and has already become king of Aquilonia, the greatest nation of the Hyborian Age. To provide a bit of quick background, the Hyborian Age is supposed to take place in our world, somewhere after the fall of Atlantis and before the rise of recorded history, during a time when sorcery existed. Before Howard wrote his first Conan story, he wrote an in-depth essay called “The Hyborian Age” that traced the rise and fall of the Hyborian Kingdoms. This provided him the necessary backdrop of fabricated history that allowed him to write comfortably in his world.

Anyway …

The first time we meet Conan, he is a king and still a powerful man. But this supposedly mindless barbarian isn’t chopping off heads, making war, drinking himself into a stupor, or pleasuring himself upon every wench available. Instead, he’s filling in the missing spaces on a map. The mapmakers aren’t nearly as well traveled as he is, and so Conan is bringing his vast knowledge to improve upon their faulty geography. Eventually, threats arise during the story—both mortal and magical—and we witness the king shed the veneer of civilization and embrace his barbaric roots as he meets these various threats.

Yes, he is a barbarian and in many of Howard’s stories we witness Conan killing, drinking, wenching, and generally carousing. These are fairly mindless activities, whether you’re a barbarian or not. But there are plenty of mercenaries from civilized lands living the same life as Conan. The main difference between Conan and these others adventurers—other than the primitive land he hails from—is that Conan is better at what he does.

But think about this. Before Conan led the revolt that allowed him to wrest the jeweled crown of Aquilonia from the mad king Numedides, he was general of this country’s armies, the greatest fighting force in the world. Generals are not stupid men. Quite the opposite, in fact. Consider also that during his lifetime Conan was adaptive enough to rule among a wide variety of men and cultures, from desert outlaws, to both inland sea & ocean pirates, to jungle savages. Each scenario requires a different set of survival skills. In the original stories we witness Conan fall in love, too, meaning he is capable of more than wenching. But he is a man who believes in living life to its fullest, and given the sort of world he lives in and his background, this is how he does it. All these various experiences made him ready to assume the throne of Aquilonia.

We should also consider the predominant theme in most of Howard’s original tales: the triumph of barbarism over civilization. Howard saw a certain noble beauty in the simple ways of the barbarian, and considered them superior to the decadence of the civilized world (he and H.P. Lovecraft actually exchanged a series of renowned letters that debated the virtues of barbarism vs. civilization). Conan was by no means a philosopher or a man of deep thoughts, but when the story came back to Howard’s predominant theme, Conan proved himself more than capable of elucidating his thoughts on what he wished from life. Conan was never stupid; he lived life through his body as opposed to his mind because that’s what appealed to him. When he needed to use his mind though, he was more than up to the task. Obviously, in his later years, when he became king, necessity demanded he modify his ways, but as we witness in “Phoenix on the Sword,” the barbarian is always lurking just beneath the surface.

There are negatives to be found in Howard’s writing. His depiction of black characters often depicted a racist attitude, and his treatment of women in some of his tales was somewhat misogynistic. Robert E. Howard was by no means a saint. But he understood the art of storytelling as few others did, enough that he created an icon. It’s just a shame that along the way that icon become rather misinterpreted.

If you’re curious about the original Conan tales that created this mighty barbarian, Del Rey has put out a wonderful trilogy of books featuring all of the original tales—those published during his lifetime and otherwise—along with a host of Howard’s notes and incomplete tales. Wherever possible, these tales are unexpurgated, as a number of authors and editors sought to reinvent Howard’s works in the years after his death. The first book is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and it offers a wonderful sampling of the most important character ever created in sword & sorcery fiction.

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