The Conan mythos

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: The Conan mythos

Why it’s daunting: Although the fictional barbarian warrior Conan The Cimmerian is one of the most recognizable characters in 20th-century fiction, few people could give a coherent accounting of his origins, and fewer still have read the stories in which he originally appeared. Though Conan has shown up in every modern storytelling medium from novels and short stories to movies, television shows, comics, videogames, and role-playing games, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are probably the least familiar to casual Conan fans; in fact, for decades, many of them weren’t even in print.

On top of that, most of the existing Conan stories aren’t by Howard, who created the character. He committed suicide at age 30, leaving behind dozens of half-formed and unfinished Conan stories; these were later completed, and new material produced, by different writers of different ability over the decades. For a while, most of the Conan books available contained few or no stories by Howard. Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Harry Turtledove, and many others have written stories featuring the Cimmerian barbarian; some of these so-called pastiches are worthwhile, but others are downright awful, and none match the intensity and passion of Howard’s originals.

Opportunistic publishers and well-intentioned authors aren’t entirely to blame, either. Howard had little conception of how iconic his character would become, and wrote the Conan stories—some of which are extraordinarily good pulp fiction, others of which are cash-in stories written in haste for a quick paycheck—in no particular chronological order. Still, understanding Conan means understanding the beginnings of the swords-and-sorcery genre, and Howard’s Conan stands alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings as essential to an appreciation of how modern fantasy developed.

Possible gateway: 1982’s Conan The Barbarian

Why: After all that buildup of Robert E. Howard, it might seem odd to recommend an entry point he had nothing to do with. But what sets apart the original Conan The Barbarian movie (a remake is planned for 2011) is that its primary creative forces, director John Milius and screenwriter Oliver Stone, had a genuine affection for and understanding of the character. Milius, an old-school Hollywood conservative, was drawn to the warlike nature of the character and his simple, brutal philosophies, while Stone liked his essentially gloomy, melancholic nature. Stone’s script is full of lines drawn from Howard’s original Conan stories, and Milius infuses every scene with the lively pulp energy of the stories. They play a bit fast and loose with the character’s history, but overall, it’s one of the best realizations of Conan: effective, thrilling, and a perfect way to draw new fans into the mythos.

The film has plenty of other merits, as well; it provides a good overview of the geographies and cultures of Howard’s “Hyborian Age” (a thinly veiled amalgam of the classical era of a number of European and Asian cultures), and has a tremendous soundtrack by the late film composer Basil Poledouris. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t do the world’s best acting job, but he looks perfect, and is surrounded by a great supporting cast. The action scenes are terrific, the dialogue is highly quotable, and it captures the spirit of Howard’s stories surprisingly well. (It also has an amusing DVD commentary track featuring a wry Milius and a goofy Schwarzenegger.)

Next steps: Once the movie has worked its magic, a good next step is the Conan comic produced by Marvel in the 1970s. Written by Roy Thomas in high-fantasy mode, and illustrated by the phenomenal Barry Windsor-Smith, the series not only played a major part in the 1970s revival of the character, it represents some of the best work to come out of the company at the time. Thomas’ stories draw on a mixture of original work and adaptations of classic Howard stories, and Windsor-Smith’s sophisticated art played a major part in creating the visual style later associated with Dungeons & Dragons, and from there, much of what became modern fantasy. Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s 1970-1973 run on Conan has been widely collected in a number of formats, most recently a lovely pair of hardcover reprints by Dark Horse.

After all this, it’s time to take a plunge into Howard’s original Conan stories. They can be found in literally hundreds of cheap paperbacks, mostly produced from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, but most of these contain only a few of Howard’s originals, often poorly edited and with major omissions, combined with pastiches of generally poor quality. There are also many collections of Howard’s short stories, but most of the Conan-specific ones are out of print. The book to go with here is The Complete Chronicles Of Conan, released by British publisher Orion Books in 2006 to mark the 100th anniversary of Howard’s birth. 

Widely available, affordable, and with lots of extras (maps, timelines, an overview of Hyboria, and an essay on Howard’s life and development by Stephen Jones), Complete Chronicles contains every Conan short story Howard ever wrote, as well as a handful of poems in which the character and his world appeared. Unfinished stories and fragments are clearly identified as such, and while the stories are presented in the order in which they were written, not in which they take place, the essay material presents possible character chronologies for those looking for a long-term continuity. Reading these stories really gives a sense of the visceral, morally dark philosophical strangeness that made Conan stand out against the one-dimensional pulp heroes of the day, and that appealed to readers long after many of Howard’s contemporaries were forgotten. Its thoroughness also obviates the need to sort through piles of paperbacks for completeness’ sake.

Where not to start: Conan The Destroyer, the 1984 film sequel to Conan The Barbarian, has its moments, but it’s a bit of a mess overall, and it’s for completists only. Every television version of the character (the animated series Conan The Adventurer and Conan And The Young Warriors, and the live-action Conan The Adventurer series) has been significantly defanged, dumbing down and infantilizing the character to the degree that he’s robbed of his savage appeal. And while there are very worthwhile comic adaptations other than the Thomas/Windsor-Smith Marvel run, much like the pastiche novels and short stories written by Howard followers, they’re of highly variant quality, and require a lot of sorting through garbage to get to the good stuff. DeCamp and Anderson in particular have written some good Conan stories, but finding them is a project best saved for after you’ve been exposed to Howard’s originals.