Review: Conan the Cimmerian

Conan the Cimmerian continues to capture the imaginations of readers 80 years after Robert Ervin Howard penned the first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, in 1932. Since then, the iconic character of Conan has graced magazines, books, comic books, cartoons, television serials, video games and the big screen. This particular tome contains all of the original tales written by Howard and published in Weird Tales during his lifetime, including thirteen novelettes, three novellas and the novel The Hour of the Dragon. The stories are presented in the order they were written and published, rather than in the linear order of events in Conan’s life. Although each story deserves to be reviewed individually (a few of which I have already reviewed in the past), this particular review attempts to capture whether the stories have truly stood the test of time.
Conan is the definition of a character larger than life. His fiery blue eyes, Herculean physique and box cut mane could be a template for superheroes, video game avatars and screen stars. His physical strengths are very near superhuman, making him stronger, faster and more agile than any civilized man, and combined with his fierce intelligence, command of languages, military tactics and encyclopedic knowledge of the world, make him the most dangerous man walking the face of the Earth during the Hyborian age.
The Hyborian age is a lost period of time that between the fall of Atlantis and the rise of the known civilisations. The world of Conan is made familiar due to the parallels of architecture and people in the modern world, though it seems rather inconceivable that so many different races would live in lands neighbouring each other. Maps of Hyboria suggest that it combines southern Europe, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent as one linked up landmass, and as a result, each of the lands posses a unique characteristic and social order. The Hyborians are the predecessors of the white, Aryan races and dominate the middle kingdom of Hyboria, with the other races pushed to the frontiers of the known world and the black people typically portrayed as savages and a slave race. It could be argued that Howard was writing within accepted norms within the West, but then it is not the job of a writer to reinforce social norms, and read with the sensibilities of our post-post-modern world, it does leave the reader with a sense of ire. The Cimmerians have more in common with Norsemen and Visigoths in their barbaric nature, and although Conan often describes ‘whites selling whites into slavery’ as the most reprehensible act, he has adventured and fought alongside every race in the Hyborian age. The treatment of women in the Conan stories is just as eyebrow-raising as the evident racism. Most of the female characters fall into the staple damsel-in-distress stereotype, albeit in an advanced stage of undress in comparison to medieval romances, but even the strong female characters, like Valeria in Red Nails, eventually fall for Conan’s unsubtle advances and eventually require rescuing.
Sword and Sorcery is described as low fantasy and the Conan tales were written as pulp fiction. But by today’s standards, the language is of a good standard and the writing doesn’t have the archaic, lofty voice of high fantasy epics. The stories are formulaic in their pacing and exposition in the style of pulp fiction and the outcome is rarely surprising. Conan is such a fiercely elemental character that you rarely ever fear for his life, and even a normally debilitating injury does little to slow down Conan. When you contrast this with nail-biting reads by David Gemmell, James Barclay and George R R Martin, then the Conan stories don’t fair as well.
Essentially, the Conan stories, despite his iconic place in fiction, rarely transcends its low-brow roots of pulp fiction, and combined with its now archaic treatment of race and gender, means that although it will continue to enjoy a cult following, its appeal remains narrow. Although the barbarian remains an evocative character in modern sword and sorcery fiction, the genre has evolved with each generation of writers. The Conan stories will remain an essential study for writers of fantasy fiction, but do not merit an entry in the annals of masterworks of fantasy.

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