King Arthur Pendragon

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Literature: The Conan Chronicles – Volume 1

I only began reading swords & sorcery material a few years ago. Opinions diverge about what exactly constitutes this particular genre of literature but Fritz Lieber said it best:

"I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!" (Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961)

Until a few years back, my knowledge of Conan, the barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard, was limited to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1981) and the occasional pop culture allusion. Regardless of the opinion of some, I consider this movie one of the best adaptations of Howard's stories, though it does not adapt a specific tale. Strange as it may seem, I began readin the Conan tales when I came into contact with the Solomon Kane stories. To me, Howard's writing was primeval, energetic and full of spirit. It piqued my curiosity and encouraged me to find out about his most famous character. A friend of mine lent me the Conan Chronicles: Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle, a collection of stories, sorted by chronological order regarding Conan's timeline, not by publishing date. In the first story, Howard describes a 17-year old Conan thus:

"A touch on his tunic sleeve made him turn his head, scowling at the interruption. He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him. This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters. His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead. From his girdle hung a sword in a worn leather scabbard."

These are excellent stories, told in a style that is very Howardian. They tells us of a primitive world so long ago, but so familiar to us that we cannot but believe it exists. This is powerful stuff. Howard conjures images like no other author and draws us into these tales of violence and sex from the very first page. Who can forget Arnold tied to the tree of woe, inspired by this passage in A Witch Shall be Born:

"By the side of the caravan road a heavy cross had been planted, and on this grim tree a man hung, nailed there by iron spikes through his hands and feet. Naked but for a loin-cloth, the man was almost a giant in stature, and his muscles stood out in thick corded ridges on limbs and body, which the sun had long ago burned brown. The perspiration of agony beaded his face and his mighty breast, but from under the tangled black mane that fell over his low, broad forehead, his blue eyes blazed with an unquenched fire. Blood oozed sluggishly from the lacerations in his hands and feet."

Earlier stories show very strong Mythos elements, not surprisingly, considering Howard corresponded regularly with H.P. Lovecraft. Another common misconception, much to do with the Arnold movie, is the depiction of Conan as the silent and brute type. This couldn't be farther from the truth. In Howard's stories, Conan is articulate and a philosopher, even. He frequently dons a chainmail and a shield. His "barbarian" typecasting is imposed by the more civilized nations where Cimmeria is a far away land, little known to these people and, therefore, the stuff of many a rumor and legend. In Queen of the Black Coast, Conan philosophizes a bit about his life:

"He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. 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.”

These tales represent Howard at his best and most known. They set all the elements we associate with swords & sorcery: beautiful, alluring women; evil wizards; sword-wielding warriors; and strange, lost ruins with horrors lurking in the shadows. As much as I enjoy reading Fritz Lieber or Michael Moorcock, Howard is still my favorite swords & sorcery author. Highly recommended.
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