Conan and Howard: Those Damn Barbarians

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Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.

With a month to go until the launch of Under a Colder Sun, I will be posting a series short blogs on some of the inspirations behind Khale the Wanderer and his world.

Now, there are more critically-approved authors and creations I could start this with but I am going to give the first honour to Robert E. Howard and his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian.

Like many of my generation, my initial exposure to Conan came through John Milius’Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzengger. It may not be a perfect reflection of the original stories but its antediluvian atmosphere, powerful score composed by Basil Poledouris, the casting of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, and Milius’ decision to shoot it as a visual tone poem raise it above the imitators that would follow in its wake, including the lacklustre sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

But after the film, there came the stories and they belie many of the criticisms often levelled at Howard and the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre of Fantasy that he inadvertently created. The Phoenix on the SwordBeyond the Black River and Red Nails create a sense of another world that is as couched in historical knowledge and research as much as Howard’s rich imagination for the demonic and supernatural. Even his weaker stories have passages to recommend them, a favourite of mine being Iron Shadows in the Moon. The story itself is somewhat derivative but the descriptions of the iron statues of the title and their dilapidated temple are great examples of haunting prose.

I’m verbose. I’ve got plenty of words.”

The Conan stories, as much as the rest of Howard’s output, show a writer of talent and skill – the latter being a quality he has rarely been credited with. His literacy is evident throughout with a broad vocabulary that is frequently put to deft use, but because he was writing stories to sell rather than for literary glory this is why, in my opinion, he is often overlooked or dismissed. His contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, has fared much better with critics in this regard because his attitude was the opposite and he cared little for the whims of the marketplace.

It may sound fantastic to link the term “realism” with Conan; but as a matter of fact – his supernatural adventures aside – he is the most realistic character I ever evolved.”

So, how are Howard and his barbarian an inspiration for me?

The quote that opens this brief appreciation comes from Howard’s story, Beyond the Black River, and reflects how the barbarian was not an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy as he is often portrayed, but a reflection of Howard the man and how he saw the world around him. Conan may not be a creation of mundane reality but he is an expression of individual and personal truth for the author and that is what makes him inspirational.

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