Review: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

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.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

  1. I was simultaneously anticipating and dreading this review, especially considering this volume consists of a LOT of formulaic stories towards the end. Nonetheless…

    “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.”

    It should be pointed out that while Patrice Louinet’s theory of Howard using Bulfinch as a source, there’s one major problem – there’s little actual proof that Howard read Bulfinch at all. It’s equally likely that Howard never read Bulfinch, and drew his mythological inspirations from many sources, which we do have evidence Howard read.

    ““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.”

    I consider TF-GD to be a bit more subtle than that: it’s the story of a supernatural monster utilizing psychic and probably magical compulsions to drive men into a maddening desire in order to sacrifice them, only to try and pull this trick on the wrong man. Perhaps a little too subtle, since an initial reading does give the impression that Conan is simply aflame with lust rather than the “strange madness” too lightly alluded to.

    I’m with you on “The Devil in Iron,” though (what a terrible note to end on): that was Howard clearly pandering to the audience. The stories which seem “formulaic and mechanical” are exactly that: churned out to make money, with elements specifically added to titillate the audience. Far from Howard’s finest hour, and you can easily see the difference between the stories he wrote with white-hot inspiration from the ones wrought from a frustrated typewriter. Interestingly, Howard wrote of how while “The average man has a secret desire to be a swaggering, drunken, fighting, raping swashbuckler,” the actual practise of such a thing disgusted him:

    When I see the actions of girls I sometimes think they deserve all that they get and yet again I am nauseated at the injustice of life in regard to women. Woman-beating, for instance, goes on a lot more than most people realize especially in regard to young girls. Getting down to basic stuff, when a man and woman alone, her only real protection against him is his better nature or weaker nature, which ever you prefer. It must be Hell to have to beg for everything you get, or to beg out of abuse or punishment. Obedience – discipline – gah, I dont believe I hate any other words as I hate those two. The taste of them is as the tang of dung in the mouth of me. As regards sex, you and I are lucky. Think of the disparity of Nature’s gifts. A woman gets on her knees to some bastard and begs like a slave whereas if the same bastard even made an off color crack to you or me, he would get the Hell knocked out of him with one smash. And another thing – if a man is a Hell-whooper among men, wading in without fear or favor, a real tough nut, one can pardon wife beating in him easier than in some shrimpish bastard who is afraid to look into the eyes of a real man, and exercises his inferiority complex by knocking a woman around.
    – Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, November 1928

    Howard wrote a great many strong female characters – AND some strong black characters, for that matter – but unfortunately the world wasn’t ready for the likes of Dark Agnes, and couldn’t stomach more than one Ace Jessell story.

    “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.”

    Again, this is a story which started out with a solid idea – a motif on the Cynthia Anne Parker tale mixed with classic tribal warfare – which didn’t work at all, especially since Conan comes across as some racist demagogue. A bit of a strange stance for someone who had many black friends in the stories, and had no problems sailing with a mostly black crew. Indeed, Howard highlights the inherent hypocrisy and superficiality of racism in his Pictish stories, where the Picts – who Howard points out are white – are never called such by the other white characters, much like how the Irish weren’t considered truly “white” at the turn of the 20th Century.

    “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. ”

    Unfortunate, as Howard really picks up steam after this mediocre run. “The Conquering Sword of Conan” in particular has far more variety in terms of story.

    “And it’s a dark, cynical worldview; you get a choice of barbarians or depraved civilization—there’s no in between.”

    Well, I don’t know if that’s quite fair: Aquilonia and Nemedia are considered cultured, virile and hearty, if not quite as brutally honest as barbarism, and with some heavy rot under the veneer of civilization. It’s places like Koth and Zamora which are the truly depraved civilizations, and even Zamora has its philosophers. Howard certainly dwells on the wonders and glories of civilization in a few tales – it’s just Howard isn’t fooled by the perceived infallibility or incorruptibility of civilization, like his pal Lovecraft.

    “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. ”

    My favourite Conan story, and one of my favourite Howard stories, and part of it is because it’s everything you’d think a Conan story wouldn’t be: he doesn’t get a girl (there isn’t any girl to begin with), he doesn’t get the treasure, he doesn’t destroy an evil monster, and he doesn’t defeat the wizard.

    “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.”

    I dearly hope you reconsider. While this volume has some great Conan stories, including two of the very best (“Queen of the Black Coast” and “The Tower of the Elephant,”), and Howard does have a few clunkers on the way, the real masterpieces are still to come.

    The Bloody Crown of Conan has two absolute crackers in “The Hour of the Dragon” (featuring no less than two awesome female characters, one of whom is an old woman, the other being the most resourceful damsel-in-distress ever) and “The People of the Black Circle,” another fine story with a strong female character who comes out on top of Conan (purely figuratively) in the end. Then The Conquering Sword of Conan has two absolute masterpieces in “Beyond the Black River” (considered by many to be THE finest Conan tale, and Howard’s finest tale of all by some) and “Red Nails,” starring one of Howard’s strongest female heroines in Valeria, the closest anyone – male or female – comes to Conan’s equal. “The Black Stranger” is a solid story, but it sports two fascinating female characters evocative of “The Scarlet Letter” – and Conan shows no desire to bed either, and shows remarkable generosity seen only later in his king years.

    There are some bumps along the way – “A Witch Shall Be Born” has a very strong female villain but has a weird narrative construction, “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” is like an Indiana Jones story with its own Willie Scott, and “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” is… well, it’s a shade above “The Vale of Lost Women,” let’s leave it at that.

    I wouldn’t blame you for missing out some of the above, but I really think you’re missing out on some true masterpieces of fantasy literature if you don’t at least try out “Beyond the Black River,” “The Hour of the Dragon,” “The People of the Black Circle” and “Red Nails,” and though it’s harder to get than the other four, “The Black Stranger” is worth the hunt too. None of the stories have anything remotely like the racist or sexist elements which drag down the more mediocre stories, and certainly none of them are formulaic or mechanic.

    Overall, though, I’m pleased you gave it 3 1/2 stars knowing that “The Vale of Lost Women,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “The Pool of the Black One,” “The Devil in Iron” and “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” And I still really think you should check out The Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, if only because out of all Howard’s characters, I think Dark Agnes and Red Sonya could kick Conan’s arse.

    • I’ll definitely check out Dark Agnes and Red Sonya, as well as see if I can’t find the short stories you recommend at the end. And thank you for that quotation—it makes Howard’s approach towards women a little more complex, although still problematic for me.

      • (Hope you don’t mind a three-month-late reply!)

        If there’s one thing that can sum up Howard’s views on anything, it’s ambivalence. Be it race, gender, politics, civilization, barbarism, or his own perceived Celtic ancestry, Howard had a habit of loving and hating any one subject in almost equal measure. That includes women: sometimes he’s decrying them as temptresses, crones or liars, and other times he makes an impassioned defense of their plight.

        One of my favourite Howard letters is an impassioned paen to the great women of history, prompted by one of his friends’ essays in a local journal wherein he argues that there is no such thing as an intellectual woman. Howard retorts with numerous examples of female philosophers, poets, playwrights, novelists, political activists, queens and heroines from many walks of life:

        http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/06/howard-what-he-really-thought-of-women.html

  2. You said:
    “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is essentially about Conan trying to rape a demigoddess

    What was actually written in the story:

    “The woman came and taunted me. She was beautiful as a frozen flame from hell. A strange madness fell upon me when I looked at her, so I forgot all else in the world. I followed her. Did you not find her tracks? Or the giants in icy mail I slew?

    Niord shook his head.

    “We found only your tracks in the snow, Conan.”
    —-
    So entranced is he, that he has trouble discerning reality from fiction when speaking to his comrades after the event: “Only now do all things seem natural and familiar.”

    The “strange madness”, the lack of visible evidence of her passing, his state of mind upon being found by his comrades; they all speak a lot more to witchery and that of a siren’s song driving the chase much more so than just a common Roman Polanski-driven desire to rape… don’t they?

    • But the impulse is still there. I’m not saying the Frost-Giant’s Daughter isn’t evil—she’s essentially a corrupted valkyrie—but the way Conan is described pursuing her was so brutal, hateful, and sexual that it’s still couched in the language of rape. Pinning it on witchery brings with it connotations of “the throes of passion”, where rape is committed because the rapist couldn’t “help” himself.

      You’re right to try and think about it in a more complex manner—Howard, as Al has rightly pointed out, had a more complex relationship to women than I knew when I read the collection—but it still reads fundamentally the same to me.

      • “But the impulse is still there.”
        – The impulse for what? Rape? There is no impulse of rape which is not born from the witchery. The FGD’s power is her ability to influence a man’s natural desire for a woman, not the natural desire to rape.

        “but the way Conan is described pursuing her was so brutal, hateful, and sexual”
        – Such is the power of the spell she has over him (and others that have fallen prey to her). It’s this brutality (as you put it) in the description that is one of many indicators within the text that should be telling the reader that Conan is not acting as a reasonable person would, given the circumstance. If her spell were to produce a melancholy reaction among men, it wouldn’t serve the purpose of bringing men to her brothers to slay. Her point in the story is to influence an already existing desire for women in men to a point that they cannot resist it, and will even tempt and accept death in fulfillment of that desire. Similar to the calls of the sirens in the story of Odysseus.

        “Pinning it on witchery”
        – I’m only using the author’s words to demonstrate what was actually written. I’m not ‘throwing darts’ at a possible explanation, it’s pretty well laid out why Conan is acting the way he is in this story, and it has nothing to do with an uninfluenced desire to rape her.

        In spite of that glaring oversight I feel you have made in that portion of your review, and despite being a long-time Howard fan, I agree mostly with your overall review of the book, and you have actually rated it higher than I would (given the content of the book overall, though I do quite like FGD, I would have rated it a 3). Good job, and thanks for the review.

      • There is no natural desire to rape—rape is power-motivated, not desire-motivated. And I think it says a lot about Conan’s character that when the Frost-Giant’s Daughter, who uses lust to lure men to her brothers to say, tries to inspire lust in Conan, that it immediately becomes a power thing for him.

        Ultimately, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, although I’ve enjoyed our discussion and I think it complements the review nicely. Thanks!

  3. Well debated Tara, as usual, good sense talking.

    Conan was only half developed by the time Howard left his mortal coil. He was nurturing something great and he new it at the time. He just did not get to flesh out the bones of Conan as other authors in his time did to their characters. He was struggling with his concept and used the formula to churn out some typical barbarian yarns, but in the time he did have, he created amazing aray of stories that flowed like trickle onto pancakes. Delicious they were. Tolkien could inject time and energy into his baby with LOTR’s, Howard did not have the middle England beauty and time at his disposal. He was working in a store and trying to provide cover for his sick mother and churn out the stories for the cash. I reckon given time, if only he would have blown the roof off that genre with a two barrelled shotgun.

    Not to be though. But what he did leave was enough for us to be still debating many decades later.

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