Dec 7 2008 2:07pm

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 In the ensuing years, a number of his unpublished Conan stories found their way to print, and several authors—most notably L. Sprague de Camp—completed Howard’s unfinished tales and brought those to print.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 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.

1. Pop-Monkey
The recently-released books are wonderful, but you neglected to mention the incredible illustrations that accompany the text by superb pen & ink artists like Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz! The same publisher also released collected edtions for KULL and BRAN MAK MORN, which are equally nice!
2. DouglasCohen
Agreed on all accounts!
3. CBot
If anyone's into comics, the latest series from Dark Horse are absolutely gorgeous. They're written by Kurt Busiek (top-notch writer in the comics field), and are all based very closely on the original source material. I'd recommend them highly. They follow a chronological pattern, unlike the original stories, so the first few collections are a very young Conan. There's also a slew of mini-series that jump around in the timeline.
Anyone curious should check out the first Dark Horse collection: The Frost Giant's Daughter & Other Tales - its a personal favourite of mine.
Dave Robinson
4. DaveRobinson
I have seven of the Del Rey collections, and the Frost Giant's Daughter GN and they are all excellent.

Howard may not have been the world's greatest writer but he was a superb storyteller. I really recommend buying these books.
5. Chris Fleming
This article can also apply perfectly to Tarzan. A character with a popular image of brutish stupidity, despite having taught himself to read from reading primers and make ropes and spears based on the picture inside. Not to mention learning to speak at least two languages in the first book, let alone all the stuff he did in the later books.
James Enge
6. JamesEnge
This first volume in the Ballantine/Wandering Star series is the one with with my favorite Conan stories in it--especially "Rogues in the House" and "Tower of the Elephant."

I think you're right that Conan is not stupid... but REH uses a lot of words over a lot of stories to praise barbarism and the barbaric at the expense of the civilized. So, while I think people got the wrong idea, I also think this misconception is based on something that's actually in these stories.
Corey Parker
7. gandalfinafrica
Great post on Conan's character. It should be noted, though, that Frankenstein the iconic character is completely different from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--who was the scientist, not the monster of pop culture. In addition, Dracula was a real historical figure from the 15th century (Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, from present-day Romania) who was later afforded mass popularity by Bram Stoker. One could argue that Hollywood and Stoker invented versions of these characters, but they did not create the characters themselves.
Andrew Mason
8. AnotherAndrew
I would have said that both Dr Frankenstein and his monster are well enough known to count as icons, even if people do sometimes misapply the name.

(Mind you, what was the monster's name? If he didn't have a name of his own, would it not make sense to call him 'Frankenstein' after his 'father'?)
Gregory Manchess
9. GregManchess
Well spoken, Douglas. I did the paintings for the 3rd volume by DelRey. When I started the 5 stories, I was under the impression that Conan was a knucklehead, but quickly became impressed with Howard's wordsmithing and ultimately came away enjoying a less touted aspect of Conan: his stealthy intelligence. This was my angle. Trying to illustrate a book on Conan against such preconceived ideas was troublesome.

Frazetta buried that barbarian image so deeply, he managed to accomplish two things: he viscerally allowed Conan to explode onto our imagination, and destroyed any further interest in learning his subtler sides. That's why the quiet brooding side of Conan appealed to me, and I tried to bring that out. I made him more lithe and panther-like, just as Howard mentions, and this made the difference.

I tried to look beyond Conan's racist and misogynistic attitudes, and considered when and where the man was writing. Sadly, Conan is not the perfect hero, but fun to debate. And this will ensure that he'll be 'captured' over and over again. No one person will nail him completely.
10. DouglasCohen
Thank you, Greg. Conan has a special place in my heart, as he represented my introduction to speculative fiction. BTW, I just went back and took at your illustrations ...nice job!
David Lev
11. davidlev
Even in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (where probably most people know him from) Conan isn't at all stupid. He's an excellent fighter, good at making complex plans, good at adapting those plans when the circumstances change, and incredibly charismatic. All of these skills require some measure of intelligence to accomplish so while the Cimmerian may not be booksmart (and most of the characters that are in the various versions of Conan turn out to be evil, take that how you will) he's certainly street smart and experienced
David McCloskey
12. Desajuste
The depth and clarity within the original Conan novels is somewhat lost in mainstream perception of the character, that being a sad yet solid truth. Yet, misconception or not, there is no denying that Conan is an Icon.

Between Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and the sometimes overlooked genius of Fritz Leiber (with his unforgettable Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, and their rabid cult-like reader following), they cut a literary thread which still weaves itself through authors today, be it as a direct influence, or as an indirect one.

Personally, my sanity would have been long lost if it wasn't for those three.

All hail Conan!
13. rogerothornhill
Yes, it's amazing how many people I know think they know Conan but all they know is Arnold. Their eyes glaze over when you say the word "Cimmerian."
14. Taranaich
Excellent work, Mr. Cohen! You've voiced sentiments felt by a number of long-time Howard fans lamenting the depiction of Our Favourite Cimmerian as a brutish dullard, when it is clear from the stories that he was an exceedingly sharp and intelligent man. In addition to the examples you cite, Conan is also a polyglot who is seen to speak at least a dozen different languages, likely more, and can decipher ancient heiroglyphs and runes that died out millennia before he was born.

If I have a criticism, it's the way you word the paragraph on barbarism vs civilization: Howard did indeed find barbarism superior to civilization, but he certainly didn't idealize it as having "noble beauty". If anything, he viewed it as the lesser of two evils: barbarism is still brutal, bloody and a hard life, but it's more natural than the unnatural rise of civilization. Civilization is a brief flame of art, culture and light that is smothered in the darkness of barbarism.

I also think it's unfortunate so much is made of the racism & sexism of some Conan stories, since most of said stories are not up to the quality of his greatest. We don't judge Spielberg's cinematic merits on "1941" and "The Lost World": we judge him on "Schindler's List", "Jaws" and "Saving Private Ryan." It should be the same for Howard - any author, director or artist really.

Overall though, a very good read indeed!
15. darjr
Thank you.

Yours was what pushed me over the edge to read this. I was worried that I'd choke on the originals, and forever be cursed with a dislike for Conan. How could I have been so stupid. Conan, my king, how I have missed you.

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