Brad's Reviews > Conan

Conan by Robert E. Howard
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's review
Mar 30, 2008

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bookshelves: fantasy, adventure, classic, short-story, faves
Read in March, 2009


I struggled with my star rating for Conan because, despite any mitigating factors, I really love the character of Conan, particularly in the hands of his progenitor, Robert E. Howard.

Howard had a fiercely creative mind and a burning work ethic that enabled him to crank out some of the most amazing pulp heroes and anti-heroes, including Kull, El Borak, Solomon Kane, the humorous Breckinridge Ellis, and, of course, Conan before taking his own life at thirty years old.

It is an impressive run, and his characters continue to live and breathe for us almost seventy-five years after his suicide.

Rereading the first Conan book, an attempt by L. Sprague de Camp (Howard's flame holder) to bring together Conan's short tales in something resembling chronological order, was a real treat: a return to my teenage years of sword and sorcery roll playing, pulp comic book madness, and pubescent wish fulfillment that everything could be answered with a strong fist, righteous violence and that women would swoon for the man who could deliver those things.

The fondness I have for Conan is hard to shake.

But there are things that mitigate the quality of the Conan books today, and they are unavoidable. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the partners who filled in the gaps in the Conan saga, wrote their own chapters and finished Howard's tales from notes and partially written drafts, are nowhere near as talented as Howard, and their work, which appears in every Conan book of the original cycle, gets in the way.

It is also tough to swallow the sexism and racism underlying much of Howard's work. The former is blatant and Howard made no attempt to hide Conan's patriarchal proclivities; the latter is not as obvious but Howard himself may have been totally unaware of its presence. Howard was fairly forward thinking for his day, but he was writing pulp in 1930s Texas and we can't expect him to share our supposedly "enlightened" opinions or views of the world. Even so, some of Conan's behavior is tough to take.

But there is so much that is entertaining and excitingly creative about Howard's writing that I find myself swinging the other way on the pendulum almost as soon as something bothers me. It's so easy to get swept up in Zamoran intrigue or Nemedian murder mystery or Stygian black magic that all other concerns disappear.

Howard's finest achievement, and one that I have never seen discussed, was the way his Conan narrative unfolded with Conan's role constantly shifting. I'm not speaking about Conan's move from thief to adventurer to mercenary and back again. What I find fascinating is that Howard tells the story of Conan using countless short stories, but Conan isn't always the main character. Sometimes he's nothing more than a peripheral supporting character, yet each occasion of his presence tells us something more about Conan and furthers the chronicle of his life. "The God in the Bowl" and "Rogues in the House" are perfect examples of Conan's shifting narrative role, and these are stories unmuddied by the hands of Howard's followers. The technique of allowing a major character to have his story told through drips and drops is, I think, underused in literature today -- and Howard mastered it with Conan.

This time through I marveled at Howard's creative and narrative genius, cringed at his antiquated social outlook, and moved through my discomfort to simply enjoy what is -- no matter its flaws -- a classic of Fantasy literature. I love Conan, and I probably always will, but tainted as it is, and as a potential recommendation for others, I can't give it more than three stars -- even if its a five in my heart.
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message 6: by Matt (new)

Matt I'm also struggling through my own reading of the Conan stories - in my case, my first. I have various problems with the stories, but Howard's lack of enlightenment isn't one of them. I've also noted the pervasive sexism (manifested in various ways) and racism (again manifested in different ways) in the culture of Conan, and don't in the slightest suppose that these artifacts aren't representative of Howard's biases as well.

And that assessment comes from someone who will quite strongly defend someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs from similar charges.

But I don't expect every culture to reflect my own beliefs, or every narrative to demonstrate some preachy moral point. Especially with a story with such simple ambitions as the Conan short stories, which seem to me to be largely pure entertainment, I can simply hold all the ethical and moral implications under the umbrella, "Conan believes...". While there are preachy stories out there where the author is writing a thinly disguised political, religious, or moral diatribe under the thin skin of being a peice of fiction, I didn't feel like this was one of them. Even compared to Burroughs, Howard clearly writing undidactic fiction.

I think part of the power of Howard's writing comes from the unapologetic antiquity of it, if you would. I don't consider the racism or the sexism to be a flaw at all. It would be very hard for me to believe in an ancient world governed by all the same ideologies, belief systems, and ethical concerns that are present today. I wouldn't approve of a technique where the narrator is always turning to the audience and saying, "But of course, this is a reprehensible attitude or description and we all know better." It would be so jarring that it would continually remove me from the story. Howard's writing comes to me as from a lost world as written by a denizen of that lost world. I don't know that anyone who wasn't at some level 'unenlightened' and angry and reactionary, could write quite the believable barbaric world that Howard creates. There is an inherent unashamed primitiveness to it that would be very hard to emulate. To the extent that there is any didacticness to it, it's that everything that is soft, every veneer of culture, is inherently deceitful and corrupt. But it is a pretense that I don't find really ever leaps off the page and out of the imaginary world into this one, because the story itself in the real world is a peice of writing in a book, and is a cultural artifact of civilization. Conan doesn't write or read exciting tales of fiction, and would likely express a combination of contempt, amusement, and bewilderment at them.

Brad Good points all, Matt.

message 4: by David (new)

David Katzman nice review!

message 3: by Bram (new)

Bram Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they learn why they fear the night.

message 2: by R.L. (new)

R.L. Burton THIS: "A return to my teenage years of sword and sorcery roll playing, pulp comic book madness, and pubescent wish fulfillment that everything could be answered with a strong fist, righteous violence and that women would swoon for the man who could deliver those things." You nailed it.

Brad R.L. wrote: "THIS: "A return to my teenage years of sword and sorcery roll playing, pulp comic book madness, and pubescent wish fulfillment that everything could be answered with a strong fist, righteous violen..."
Thanks, R.L.. I take it you feel similarly.

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