…and thus begins "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first published tale of Conan of Cimmeria.
The first thing that strikes you about Robert E. Howard (who took his own life at 30 years of age) is, Damn, can this man write. It's hard not to spout the cliches when describing his writing: Howard’s prose indeed burns like coals, and yes, his words do leap off the page. Is it literature? No. But if your idea of fun is swordplay, colorful characters, clashing armies, wondrous lands, decadent civilizations, sanity-bending magic, monsters, and voluptuous women, then Howard’s your man. He was and is the reigning champion of the branch of fantasy known as swords and sorcery.
If your only exposure to Conan is the big, dumb brute of the film Conan the Barbarian (which I admittedly liked), get ready to meet a Conan you never knew. He’s smart, ruthless, ambitious, three-fourths savage, and just plain cool. And he’s a barbarian to the core, the walking embodiment of Howard’s philosophy:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
You can feel this phrase at the heart of all of Howard's Conan stories, and it's what makes them so different than the mass of "fat fantasy" novels lining the shelves of bookstores today. Howard truly felt that, as a nation became more civilized, it grew correspondingly decadent and ultimately, corrupt. Men who fight and struggle to claim their kingdoms grow soft in times of peace and plenty until greed and sloth set in. Old kingdoms weaken through internal strife until they collapse from within or are invaded from without. Conan knew that tension as he simultaneously sought to rule the great kingdom of Aquilonia while experiencing the ever-constant pull of freedom and adventure, living life as a wild corsair on a ship or a raiding cossack on horseback.
In Howard's works and in the mind of the author himself, the howling "barbarians at the gates" were always waiting to pounce when kingdoms grew weak, and Conan himself was one of the horde. And maybe, Howard believed, rule by might and the axe was for the best. While at times that philosophy seems appealing to me, I can't say I agree with it. But there you have it.
Howard himself was a paradox: While he was a bit of an eccentric, attached to his mother, and wrote out of a small bedroom in his parents' home in Cross Plains, Texas, he nevertheless had no patience for academics and pacifists. He embraced rugged individualism and boxed and exercised himself into formidable shape. And he was a prolific, self-taught writer. Alas, his life ended far too soon, and we can only speculate on what works his prodigious talents may have eventually produced.
My first exposure to the barbarian came as a young boy of 10 or so through the old Conan the Barbarian comic book. While not a bad read, I didn't understand true greatness until I stumbled across a trove of back issues of The Savage Sword of Conan and Conan Saga. These magazines are loving adaptations of Howard's classic tales, and featured some amazing black and white artwork that captured the savage wonder of Hyboria, Howard's setting for the Conan stories. I still have my old back issues and I guard them jealously. One of these days I might even pull them out and read them again.
While great, the old black and white mags aren't as good as the classic Howard texts, and I was lucky to find the whole series of Conan paperbacks next. These helped start me on the path of becoming a lifetime reader and lover of fantasy. Of course, it wouldn't be until 15 years or so later that I realized even these books--published by Lancer and Ace--were in fact heavily modified (some would say mangled and bastardized) by editors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Many of the stories were in fact pastiches, or stories told by different authors than Howard, and thus, not "canon." Some were bad. Even so, overall I found the old Lancer and Ace editions to be great reads, at least at the time.
Howard's best stories are the following: "Red Nails," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Hour of the Dragon," "Beyond the Black River," "The Devil in Iron," 'The Queen of the Black Coast," and "The Jewels of Gwahlur." But hell, they’re all good. None are novels; Howard’s longest tale is "The Hour of the Dragon," which checks in at a slim 174 pages.
All of Howard’s stories first appeared in the 1930’s pulp magazine Weird Tales, noted for publishing not only sci-fi, fantasy, and horror between its lurid covers, but also H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. While Howard had a loyal following in the magazine, it wasn’t until well after his death in 1936 that he and his tales gained widespread acclaim.
Just make sure that if you read Howard, look for the unedited and pastiche-free stories. Real, raw Howard in his own words is fortunately now available in a nicely illustrated collection by Del Rey, which I highly recommend.
Until then, think on this quote from "Queen of the Black Coast":
“In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle … 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 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.”
Postscript: There's a ton of cool Howard and Conan Web sites floating around the internet. Check out these:
Post-Postscript: If there is a god, and his name is Crom, he will let this movie be made: http://www.conanrednails.com/site/index.html.