For the holidays, my mother got me the Complete Conan Anthology, all the stories about the suspiciously-capable barbarian written by Robert E Howard. Writing in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, Howard wrote a whole host of various characters, though none was more famous as Conan. Set in an alternate pre-history, Conan tells the story of a barbarian who comes down from the north and enjoys a host of adventures in just about every walk of life.
Most people know Conan as the vehicle for which Arnold Schwarzenegger launched into stardom. And while those two movies were great (yep, two. Only two. Totally just two), they aren’t terribly accurate to the source material. In the short stories and novels, Conan is a dark-haired warrior who is grim, determined, and largely humorless. He’s also exceptionally self-serving and bright. The somewhat-goofy and kind-hearted blonde played by the Austrian Oak is quite a departure.
The stories are not high literature at all. In fact, they pretty much define ‘pulp fiction’. Compared to contemporaries like JRR Tolkien or Lewis Carol, they lack a lot of the intricate world-building and character development. Of course they also lack the ponderous morality lessons and pace-breaking songs. No, Howard’s brand of fiction is much more visceral. If you watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and wondered why somebody didn’t just shoot Gollum, then this might be the fantasy for you. Conan solves a lot of problems by punching them in the face.
What I find especially interesting to consider is what my life might have been like had I learned of Conan or any of Howard’s other writings when I was younger. Growing up, I found literature – especially fantasy – to be droll and boring. Growing up on Lord of the Rings, the Sword of Shannara, and the Belgariad, I found it all very dull. I grew quickly tired of whole swaths of the stories being dedicated to carvings and architecture, and yet when it came to the fights, all the reader got was ‘and then they fought’. Growing up on professional wrestling, early anime, and way too many 80s cartoons, I thought that was reprehensible. I would eventually pen my first novel pretty much solely out of frustration with the written medium because I thought there was a serious lack of action. Had I known about Robert Howard, and the wonderful world of the Hyborian Age, I might have gone in a different direction. I doubt it, but I would have felt less pressed to see some visceral storytelling in print.
Regardless, Conan’s stories are a LOT of fun. If you like fantasy at all check them out, especially if you think Aragorn is too damn wishywashy.