The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard
I’ll be completely honest—the reason I wanted to read some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories was because of the upcoming film adaptation starring Jason Momoa. It looks like it’s going to be satisfyingly cheesy and violent, and Momoa’s Conan voice is awesome. I wish I could do that. But I thought it would be a good idea to get, well, a good idea of who Conan actually is in the original stories. After casting around for a good starting place, I found this, the first in a three book collection of the original short stories, and settled in for some swashbuckling. And violence.
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian collects the first twelve short stories featuring Robert E. Howard’s infamous barbarian, stories that almost single-handedly invented the sword and sorcery genre. We meet Conan as king, as thief, and sullen youth, his almost feral strength pitted against civilization and the one thing he truly fears—the supernatural. There’s plenty of violence, buxom maidens, and cosmic horrors to go around, as well as bonus content for any true Conan fan.
If you’re a Conan fan, this volume—which is followed by The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan—is a fantastic edition to have, if you don’t already have the original Howard stories in some other version. The stories are presented in chronological order, liberally illustrated by Mark Schultz, and it comes with a lot of bonus material that I, to be totally honest, paged through instead of read properly. There’s first drafts, Howard’s history of the Hyborean Age, story outlines, maps, and articles about Howard’s influences and, oddly enough, a document that details exactly how they pinpointed the written chronology of these stories. It’s also a good size for reading while still being hefty enough to cover a lot of ground. I did find the article about his influences a little too pat, especially when it pointed to a specific book on mythology as an influence, rather than learning about mythology via other sources. And, while they’re technically quite lovely (and peopled—womened?—with sturdy beauties), Schultz’s artwork occasionally ignores what’s in the stories and makes Conan look, well, kind, fundamentally decent, and good-hearted… which he most certainly isn’t.
In the bonus material, Patrice Louinet discusses a time when Howard was apparently asked to put in a love scene at the end of “Black Colossus”; the scene he put in is quite sexual and violent. Commenting on this in a letter to a friend, Howard confides that “The average man has a secret desire to be a swaggering, drunken, fighting, raping swashbuckler” (448). And that’s what Conan is. Yes, he’s clever and capable of magnanimity—especially when he’s older—but he’s fundamentally, as my mother would say, all id, and it’s this the stories celebrate, the “wish to drown oneself in a turbulent life” (434). “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is essentially about Conan trying to rape a demigoddess, with a battle to interrupt the action, and I was very put off by the end of “The Devil in Iron”, where, when the girl of the week rejects his advances, he physically overpowers her. And that’s on top of the racism, which starts off actually quite decent for its time—one black jailer tries to kill Conan, but Conan did kill his entire village—and gets revolting in “The Vale of Lost Women”, when Howard introduces the idea of blood purity to the whole proceedings. Howard is capable of writing strong female characters; the titular “Queen of the Black Coast” is Bêlit, a clever pirate who hooks up with Conan because she feels like it and becomes the idea man in their criminal partnership and relationship. But Conan as written by his creator is still very problematic.
The last few stories collected in this volume do get formulaic after a while—cosmic horror, buxom maiden, Conan mauls everything and gets the girl, the end—but the first few stories are fantastic. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m quite interested in pre-Tolkien fantasy, and while Hyboria is technically a past age of our world, so is Middle-Earth, so there. In fact, the first story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, involves a magic ring someone kills for, which delighted me. The worldbuilding isn’t particularly enthralling; it’s a loose amalgamation of ancient cultures formed more by Howard’s fancy than logic. And it’s a dark, cynical worldview; you get a choice of barbarians or depraved civilization—there’s no in between. The first stories manage to take Conan and put him in interesting situations that he can’t simply fight his way out of; in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, he’s dealing with transitioning from freewheeling mercenary to king and how that changes his response to a small rebellion, and in my personal favorite, “The Tower of the Elephant”, Conan faces the cosmic horror of the week and has to solve it with, well, kindness. These are interesting incidents in his life that look at him as he grows and develops, and I feel that’s missing in the later stories that can feel churned out and slightly mechanical—their enjoyment derives from a pleasure in violence and titillation rather than seeing Conan interact meaningfully with his environment, which, combined with the hugely problematic politics from its time, makes me feel better about not pursuing the rest of Howard’s stories.
Bottom line: The adventures of Conan—a clever brute who is all id—can be fun, especially when the stories focus on him interacting meaningfully with his environment, but Howard’s treatment of women and people of color is hugely problematic, and the later stories can feel formulaic and mechanical. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Howard, Robert E. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York; Ballantine Books. 2003.