Friday, February 27, 2009

Conan - First Impressions

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I finally read my first Conan anthology last weekend. I feel like I am late to a party that has been going on for several decades. I realize that in some circles it is fashionable to be late, and I hope that I can sneak into this category. With this in mind, let me throw my measly coppers into the mix of this on going discussion.

The version I read through was the Del Rey version, which contained the original stories along with a number of unfinished drafts and his notes on the Hyborian age. This version is illustrated throughout by Mark Schultz, whose work is excellent. I can not say enough good things about his quality throughout the book.

Numerous articles and blogs have been written about the character of Conan, and the commentary that REH was making through Conan. His not so subtle bashing of civilized man and the praising of the savage are well known. I enjoyed reading such quotes as:

When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse’s feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.

— Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"


“ ”I am no dog,” the barbarian muttered. “I keep my word.” ”
— Robert E. Howard, "The God in the Bowl"

And further:

"Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content..."
— Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"

I could go on and on with the countless other jabs at the flaws of civilization in general. Speaking of Civilisation.

I am reminded of reading Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation back in high school, and the drone of his endless discussion on art and culture. While his TV documentary series was popular in 1969, the book was a bit dry, and I am not sure a good helping of British tea (or Chinese tea for that matter) could have made that text a bit more engaging. I think I must have blotted out the memory of that book, for it was not until I was reading Conan that those images of long ago came back to me. Conan is such a stark contrast to Clark’s work that I could not help but chuckle as I was reading it. I suspect that if REH wrote The Skin of our Teeth, the theme would have been slightly different. Clark’s stoic patrician demeanor clashes nicely with REH.

"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing. "
— Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"

While one could argue that Howard’s Conan is a bit formulaic, and his stories follow a perdictably familiar beat. That is a fully valid point, but there is certain prose interwoven with his jabs at society that makes it bit more than just a pedestrian teenage series in the vein of The Hardy Boys. His Conan is not the traditional hero that tends to dominate literature, but rather he is grizzly protagonist that reminds me a bit of the hero with no name and the anti-establishment hero.

While I cannot say for certain if Clint Eastwood ever read any of the Conan books, but I can say that his cowboy flicks that include, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, and Pale Rider have more than a little bit of Conan in them. In a number of the REH’s stories, Conan is a stranger that happens on to the scene, and has to introduce himself into the action, but once he is introduced, he is a force to be recognized with. Often Conan is on his own, running from something, or a part of a mercenary group that splits apart to join in the tale that is unfolding. Clint as Dirty Harry is the anti-establishment hero, and is called a dinosaur, but he might as well be called a barbarian, as that is how the department sees him. A throw back to an earlier era that is not fit for civilized society. As with Conan, Harry has a strong sense of right and wrong, and knows a corrupt system when he sees it. He has no time for idiots and neither does Conan.

“ ”Save your bullying for the fools who fear you,” he growled, blue fires smoldering in his eyes. “I’m no city-bred Nemedian to cringe before your hired dogs. I’ve killed better men than you for less than this.” “
— Robert E. Howard, "The God in the Bowl"

I am not sure if these words were spoken by the characters that Clint took on, but you can see that same theme and tone in the acting.

I suspect that this will not be the last time that Clint or Conan makes it into the blog, as their high testosterone, anti-establishment, bigger than life exploits are the type of thing that resonates well with me.


Sham aka Dave said...

I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content

I'm content as well. Minus the slaying bit.

Keep reading, I think you'll find a lot more to like with REH.

trollsmyth said...

Well done! Any chance we can get you to read Swords of Lankhmar sometime, assuming you haven't already?

Brian Murphy said...

Nice review Mr. Baron, and welcome to the REH party.

Mr Baron said...


WRT Swords of Lankhmar, that will have to wait until the second half of the year! The first half is "booked" up.