Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
Winning Conan Bingo Card: “thew,” “(blue) balefire,” “tigerish strength,” “ivory breasts,” “by Crom!”
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is a series of short stories that introduce Conan, as well as the Hyborean Age in which he lives (like a mythical, prehistoric Iron Age). Written in episodes that cover different times and circumstances in the barbarian’s life, the stories and their various scenarios show Conan to be a primal, instinct-driven type of mankind, who often conflicts with (though is rarely seriously threatened by) both primordial forces and monsters as well as more civilized – and, in the world of the book, thus more vicious – men.
Published in the 1930s alongside Lovecraft’s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the Conan stories often involve consistent themes and motifs (see Bingo card suggestion above). Conan is beset by trouble, and he must get out of it — usually without craft beyond his sword arm. There is usually a woman involved, and she unerringly discovers that she wants to be possessed by Conan. Men of civilization (members of court, politicians, magicians, tacticians, etc) are internally threatened by Conan, as are their pretensions.
This last point touches on one of the deeper themes of the Conan stories: the fragility, irony, and decadence of civilization. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages,” Howard writes, “because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Another quote indicative of this theme is, “The more I see of what you call civilization, the more highly I think of what you call savagery!” Throughout the stories, by the magnitude of his will for life (in battle, at board, in bed) and his respect for the primordial, Conan reveals those who presume themselves his betters to be fragile, inferior, and untrustworthy. His difference from them is the difference between being and seeming, and it becomes an indictment of civilizations that might think themselves infallible or beyond the more basic need for (or threat of) thew and steel. Many stories involve the discovery of the remains of past civilizations, and much of Conan’s wisdom inheres in his consistently keeping the rise and fall of empires in mind when engaging in the power politics of his time.
The Conan stories are excellent in their characterization of the titular hero, as well as the consistency of theme and setting. They can be read for both entertainment as well as for critical understanding of the role which fantasy literature plays in culture (is he an artistic concretization of the values readers wanted and needed during the height of the Great Depression? One could also read Conan as a Nietzschean overman — or do a compare/contrast with Superman, who was noteworthily created at the same time).
While my only complaint is that certain phrases/vocabulary appear so formulaically, that might be, for some, a good thing, since one of the major virtues of Conan is his reliability and simplicity. Besides, The Silmarillion (written by Tolkien at the same time as Conan), itself, contains only about 350 words it reuses, so perhaps I need to take a cue from Conan.