Sunday, June 13, 2010

Conan Canon

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles under the stars--Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."--The Nemedian Chronicles

This was the world's introduction to Conan, in a story that appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in its December 1932 issue. "The Phoenix on the Sword" was a rewrite of a rejected story featuring another of Robert E. Howard's creations, King Kull. Howard wrote two more stories in rapid succession, but after writing an essay detailing the history and geography of what would become known as the Hyborian Age, setting and character truly began to coalesce with a story called "The Tower of the Elephant", one of the best of the canon.

Ah, yes. The canon. The tales generally accepted by scholars and serious fans alike as the definitive representation of one of the most well-known ( if not THE most well-known ) figures in the sword-and-sorcery genre. In Howard's lifetime, he had written twenty-one stories and numerous fragments and synopses featuring Conan of Cimmeria. However, most readers and fans of Conan were introduced to the character through a comprehensive, mutli-volume collection of stories, under the "guidance" of authors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who edited, completed or in some cases rewrote Howard's existing stories, much to the chagrin of readers who longed for the original stories in their raw, original form. Thankfully, blessedly, efforts were made to collect Howard's stories, ignoring the pastiches and adaptations by de Camp, Carter, and other writers who churned out scripts and novels featuring Conan, but not really "about" Conan. There's a feel and a style that seems to have been lost in the literary continuity...except for Frank Frazetta's covers for those de Camp/Carter editions published by Lancer, then by Ace Books, between 1966 and 1976.

( As I don't feel comfortable infringing upon the Frazetta estate by possibly violating the copyright, it's perhaps best you follow the link above to view some of his artwork. "Barbarian" is probably THE iconic image associated with Conan. There are several other paintings in that gallery specific to the Conan books. Go on, take a look. )

Me being me, I was REALLY interested in reading Howard's material as it was originally completed and /or published. A three-volume omnibus of those stories, notes, drafts, essays, and fragments was published in the U.S. by the Del Rey imprint, with wonderful illustrations ( no Frazetta ) throughout. And in reading those stories, one really gets a sense of the grit, the drama, the violence and can virtually smell the adventure. Howard wasn't the greatest writer, and mind you, he was a product of his time and of his upbringing. But Conan was never portrayed as a mindless sword-slinger bent on wanton destruction and debauchery--although he was a "live in the moment" man who drank deeply from the goblet of life. He was not a jolly old soul, nor particularly altruistic. He didn't live by any particular code of conduct. Conan didn't trust civilization or government, and yet the very first story featured him as king of Aquilonia, the grandest nation in the Hyborian Age.

So it's a little irritating, as a fan and scholar, that any Conan tale absolutely must feature him wearing nothing but a loincloth and a scabbard, hacking and slashing his way to rescue some nearly-naked damsel in distress or to acquire some fabulous bejeweled prize. Somehow, that seems to have become the template not only for Conan, but for any number of imitations. Bread and circuses, indeed.

There's little that Robert E. Howard himself can do to defend what is arguably his most enduring creation. Born in 1906 in Cross Plains, Texas, his writing career, however prolific, was very short. Plagued by his own "gigantic melancholies" ( the general consensus of those who have written about him ), he committed suicide in 1936. His surviving notes and letters to his contemporaries give much more information about his motivations and thoughts behind chronicling those adventures than any one story or collection can reveal. I'll tell you this: those Del Rey editions are an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to know the history of Conan, both in his stories and as his creator saw him.

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