The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It just goes to show, things are not always as they seem. My conception of Conan the Barbarian came from Arnold and a long line of imitators using the name in the franchise for the cheapening of literature for the sake of nude, panting women in print.
Robert E. Howard, the original prolific writer who had died VERY young, had kept food on the table by writing these stories, and while he sometimes did the market thing, he was very conscious of and headstrong in his craft. He was about the farthest thing from being a hack. His prose, alone, is all kinds of gorgeous and erudite. The titular character may not be educated, but he is quite smart and cunning, trying his hands at being a thief, a mercenary, a king, and above all, a barbarian. He has a lust for life that cannot be denied and it shows.
In the background of these tales, I was endlessly fascinated with the conscious and complex mixtures of history, myth, religion, and cultures. When we think of an ancient, post-Atlantean world with already ancient ruins, strange but familiar gods, and enough tidbits and hints to keep any comparative myth scholar busy for a month, we know we've got something truly special going on.
Indeed, I read this and then I look at another later writer, a certain J.R.R. Tolkein, and gasp in alarm and surprise and joy and suspicion. Howard made something DEEP and RICH. He paved the way in a very specific manner. A huge manner. I'm not saying J.R.R.T is worse, but Howard sparked more than just a generation of imaginations, but the whole Sword and Sorcery genre and that guy, as well.
Credit where credit is due.
Halfway through the roaring twenties until his untimely death at 30 in 1936, he became the godfather of the fantasy tradition in much the same way as his friend, Lovecraft, became the godfather of the horror tradition.
These collected short stories (and even poetry) are something quite special. Conan is complex, dark and light, sometimes cruel and sometimes merciful, but he's always a man's man. I wanted to find some fault in a particular story that seemed to confirm a huge bushel of racism, but the more I thought about it, the muddier it got. Skin color and barbarianism did seem to go together, but it wasn't a fast rule. A noble black justly called Conan out for being a dog and scum and the kinds of complexities in the mercenary corps transcended normal caricatures. In other words, it was complex and felt real and it was a brawling muddy mess from hell. But it also felt true. All sides want justice.
To be sure, my conception of Conan had to get realigned as I read this, and all for the better. Arnold might have been very fascinating in this role, but even this was a caricature compared to the complex original. I'm very happy to get to read the subtleties at long last.
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