Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
Crom, but how I love that stuff! Many are the times when, in my cups, that has just burst out of me! Just as well I know some understanding bartenders, although I’m sure that they’ve often wanted to throttle me.
This is the fragment from Robert E. Howard’s fictional Nemedian Chronicles that introduced his giant barbarian warrior, Conan of Cimmeria, to the world ‘way back in December of 1932 in a story entitled The Phoenix on the Sword for the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Right there you damned near have it all: the way in which Howard revelled in words, his ability to conjure up vivid images in a beat or two and his headlong rush to drag you over and yell a story into your ears.
Of course, in the heroic fantasy field of the 21st century you may, if you wish, pick up dozens of novels—and they seem to get bigger all the time—that will introduce you to a realm that never existed but which you find yourself believing in completely; and there are many good writers out there who are putting out interesting and exciting stuff. But Robert Howard was the original of the species and he was in my opinion the best. No one could string words together like him. You only need to look at the pale imitations of him and the tedious pastiches of the Conan stories themselves to know that. I can’t be bothered with them, myself. For me it has to be the pure Howard experience. Even if it’s just an 800-word fragment I want to read that, not the story that has been completed by somebody else, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.[pullquote align=”left”][/pullquote] In the small volume at hand, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard, the author Darrell Schweitzer touches on this:
“None of the pastiches have the same drive as the originals; they lack the headlong emotional intensity. Howard could sometimes get himself into a frenzied state, and carry the reader through by sheer force of it, whether the story made any sense or not. [Other writers] lack the fury of Howard… not only do [they] lack Howard’s more limited (and neurotic) point of view, but none of them are as crazy as he was.”
I would go along with most of that except that, crucially and despite his suicide I don’t believe that he was crazy at all. At least, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest he was “no crazier than the average asshole out walking the streets.”
So who was Howard? Well, briefly he was born in Peaster, Texas in January of 1906, an only son. The Howards moved several times until in 1919 they settled in the small town of Cross Plains in Callahan County. The population was only around 2,000 and Howard lived there for the rest of his short life. However, he got around in his car as much as he could and as has been noted often, since the town went through sporadic oil booms the world pretty much came to him; and often it was the kind of ugly world that followed booms of the period.
Despite being very well read within the limitations of his environment he always favoured the physical aspect of things and was a keen bodybuilder and boxer. He also gained a wider view of the world due to his correspondence with other fantasy writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffman Price and, in particular, H. P. Lovecraft. And Howard was a born spinner of yarns. He could never have been other than a writer.
He wrote whatever he thought would sell to the pulps of his day, be it historical, detective or Western and regional stories; but it is as the creator of Heroic Fantasy or Sword-and- Sorcery that he will always be remembered and even though he created the form in the late 20s in a terrific King Kull story called The Shadow Kingdom it was his creation of Conan that really grabbed the attention of the readers of Weird Tales.
He was always given to black moods and had talked of suicide for years. In June of 1936, upon learning that his beloved mother had fallen into a coma that she would not recover from, he shot himself in the head.
It’s not the remit of Schweitzer’s book to go into that, though; and although he touches on it is only fair to point out that this was written in 1978 and there is far more information available now than there was then.
The Natural State of Mankind
Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard is part of the Milford Popular Writers series from Borgo Press and I only recently dug it out of my collection, having bought it years ago from the sadly-missed—oh isn’t it just?– Fantasy Centre in London’s Holloway Road. It’s only about 65 pages long but if you don’t know Conan then it provides a breezy and often humorous introduction to him. Also, if you don’t know him through Howard, then please for Ishtar’s sake don’t confuse him with the big lump of wood that played him in the John Milius version in the cinema back in the eighties. I like Schwarzenegger in some things but he should never have been let loose in that travesty. Not that it was his fault, he was just trying to make a name in movies, but as to everyone else involved… well, I guess that John Milius and Oliver Stone were only interested in… something that wasn’t Howard. Not that I’m exactly crazy about last year’s version either but at least Jason Momoa looks a bit more the part, which is to say not so frigging muscle bound that he couldn’t move!
Schweitzer takes us through the saga in the ‘accepted’ chronological order that de Camp and Carter stuck to for the Lancer books of the 60s; but few now take that seriously. In fact I’ve yet to come across a timeline that I could completely agree with. Except for my own, of course; but that’s another day’s work. He does a nice and succinct summary of the tales, despite some baffling errors—how exactly did Conan betray his fellow thief in Rogues in the House, pray tell. And as for Beyond the Black River being “pretty poor”…ah here, away with you! It’s not only one of the best Conan stories but one of Howard’s very best ever! Here he took the barbarian in a completely different direction with a tale that might have sprung from one of the frontier stories that Howard would have listened to in his youth. In fact, it has even been compared favourably to the work of James Fenimore Cooper. And as if that wasn’t enough it is the one that concludes with Howard’s famous dictum:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Still, the author was only twenty-seven when he wrote this introduction and he has written a lot since then. So I have no doubt that he has seen the error of his ways!
Truth to tell, though, I’m just using this book as an excuse to introduce all you Howard virgins out there to the great man, so off with you and haunt the second-hand bookstores or get out the plastic and hit Amazon; but get some Howard down ye! Conan isn’t even the best of his stuff, after all. And this blog will definitely be coming back to him again!
If you want to check out some websites then there are several very good ones to look at; but you might be best off starting with the granddaddy of them all: REHupa (the Robert E Howard United Press Association).
Myself, I’ve been reading REH off and on for over forty years now. If you are just about to discover him, oh how I envy you.