WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 13, 2006
FROM PEN TO SWORD
Robert E. Howard’s Conan
JOHN J. MILLER
Actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger recently won an easy re-election as California’s governor. His movie-screen alter ego, Conan the Barbarian, never had to bother with yawping masses of voters — but he seems no less popular these days, judging from a revival movement that’s winning a new generation of fans for one of the best-known characters that American literature has produced.
If Conan isn’t first remembered as a literary figure, it’s because the culture has embraced him so completely on film, in comic books, and as an icon of thick-muscled, sword-wielding manhood. Yet he got his start on the printed page as the invention of Robert E. Howard, a rural Texas pulp writer who lived from 1906 to 1936.
Enthusiasts have celebrated Howard’s centenary all year long with pilgrimages to the tiny town of Cross Plains, where a family home has been turned into a shrine-like museum, plus the release of several anthologies of stories and a new biography, “Blood &Thunder,” by Mark Finn. These festivities culminated at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin, Texas, last month when a group of devotees announced the establishment of the Robert E. Howard Foundation, which hopes to arrange for the publication of everything its namesake ever wrote — an estimated 3.5 million words of prose and poetry.
The Conan stories make up only a small fraction of this huge output: There are 21 of them, including a novel, and they were written at breakneck speed between 1932 and 1935. As with everything by Howard, their quality varies dramatically: A fantasy classic such as “Beyond the Black River” remains a riveting tale that undermines popular notions of frontier progress and manifest destiny; “The Vale of Lost Women,” however, is a clunky piece of hackwork that would be instantly forgotten were it not for the fame of its star character.
Yet the stories share a fundamental power because Howard was a skilled action-adventure storyteller. So were a lot of other pulp writers, of course. What ultimately set Howard apart was a dazzling imagination that dreamed up the sword-and-sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature before anybody had heard about J.R.R. Tolkien and his hobbits.
With Conan, Howard created a protagonist whose name is almost as familiar as Tarzan’s. In his influential essay on Howard, Don Herron credits the Texan with begetting the “hard-boiled” epic hero, and doing for fantasy what Dashiell Hammett did for detective fiction. Suddenly, the world — even a make-believe one such as Conan’s Hyboria — was rendered seamier and more violent, and Howard described it in spare rather than lush prose.
Conan has a knack for locating damsels in distress, but he is no knight in shining armor who piously obeys a code of chivalry. Instead, he is a black-haired berserker from a wild and wintry land called Cimmeria. He has little patience for social conventions he doesn’t understand. “The warm intimacies of small, kindly things, the sentiments and delicious trivialities that make up so much of civilized men’s lives were meaningless to him,” wrote Howard in “Beyond the Black River.” Conan occasionally thinks his way out of a problem, but more often he reaches for a weapon and slashes his way out. “There’s nothing in the universe cold steel won’t cut,” he boasts.
The Conan stories don’t unfold in a straight, sequential narrative. Each one is a stand-alone episode from an action-packed life. Howard once claimed that he wasn’t creating “these yarns” as much as “simply chronicling [Conan's] adventures as he told them to me.”
In the tales, Conan takes his turn as a thief, pirate, mercenary, tribal chieftain and, finally, king. He is never comfortable in any of these roles. You can take the boy out of Cimmeria, but you can’t take Cimmeria out of the boy: Just about everywhere Conan goes and no matter what he does, he is an outsider who follows only a rough sense of personal honor. He has been called an existential hero because he feels no responsibility to be anything other than his authentic, barbaric self. “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content,” he says in “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Conan’s view of life is predictably bleak and brutal: “In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle; dying, their souls enter a gray, misty realm of clouds and icy winds, to wander cheerlessly throughout eternity,” he says. “I seek not beyond death.”
Neither did Howard. When he learned that his mother had slipped into a fatal coma, he typed a four-line couplet: “All fled, all done/So lift me on the pyre/The feast is over/And the lamps expire.” Then he went to his car and shot himself in the head. He was 30 years old.
Fans sometimes speculate about what would have happened if Howard hadn’t committed suicide — and kept on writing into, say, the years of the Reagan presidency. Would he have gone on to write westerns, a genre in which he dabbled and displayed a growing interest? Would he have matured as an author?
Whatever the case, Howard did leave behind a big pile of material — much more than many writers who live twice as long. In addition to Conan, there are stories about Solomon Kane, a Puritan swashbuckler; Kull, a warrior from Atlantis; and Bran Mak Morn, the king of an ancient race. Many aficionados consider “Worms of the Earth” and “The Dark Man,” a pair of Bran Mak Morn stories, to be his finest.
Since 2003, Del Rey has issued definitive texts on each of these heroes, based on Howard’s own manuscripts rather than the edited and bowdlerized versions that have appeared elsewhere. Three of these collections contain everything Howard ever wrote on Conan, including previously unpublished story fragments. With October’s release of “Kull: Exile of Atlantis,” the sixth in the series, Del Rey says it has put out more than 200,000 of these books.
A small industry of armchair scholars has made it possible. “We’ve gone pro,” says Leo Grin, the editor of a journal and blog called “The Cimmerian.” Yet they’ve also had to battle for respectability. “The comics and the movies have brought in fans, but they’ve also been an albatross,” says Rusty Burke, an editor of the Del Rey books. “We’re maybe 10 or 20 years behind H.P. Lovecraft.”
Last year, Lovecraft, another 1930s pulp writer, slithered his way into the literary canon when the Library of America issued a definitive book of his influential horror fiction. Howard is not nearly as cerebral as Lovecraft, but Lovecraft never seized the Zeitgeist with a character like Conan.
The albatross may grow heavier before it grows lighter: Dark Horse Comics calls Conan one of its best-selling titles, Funcom will launch a highly anticipated online game next year, and Warner Bros. reportedly wants to make a new flick. All of this will expand Howard’s growing fan base.
One thing seems certain: After Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of us are long gone, Conan will still be wandering, sword in hand and ready to excite ever more readers.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of “A Gift of Freedom.”