The Complete Chronicles of Conan, by Robert E. Howard – While I’d obviously heard of the famous barbarian hero before, I’ve never seen any of the movies or anything, and I really wanted to explore the original source first. I’d recently read about how Howard frequently corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft, and often intended his stories to be set in the same universe. The little of Lovecraft I read didn’t really grab me, and I’ve heard he was pretty racist, although that doesn’t always make someone’s writing bad. I wondered if Howard had some of the same tendencies, and there are definitely some hints of it. He writes a lot about whether or not his imagined races (which are based on real nations) were pure-blooded, and black people are often spoken of in not-too-positive ways. It usually doesn’t affect the stories much, and I don’t think Howard ever specifically says certain races are superior to others, but it can be a bit off-putting. The weird thing is that I think one major theme in the tales is the clash of civilization with barbarism, and Howard and his character often ponder whether the former is really superior. Yet while the uncivilized Conan is a hero who sticks to a certain moral code despite being a murderer and thief by civilized standards, other wild and primitive tribes like the Picts (who, despite being named after early inhabitants of Scotland, were really more like Native Americans in Westerns, another genre in which Howard frequently worked) are often viewed negatively. It’s strange how so many authors seem to have held contradictory positions like this. I think of how, as per a recent Baum Bugle article by J.L. Bell, L. Frank Baum described the tribe of Tottenhots in The Patchwork Girl of Oz in racist terms, yet ultimately presented them as just wanting to live out their own lifestyle that wasn’t hurting anybody else. Mind you, Baum was probably more progressive than Howard.
With that out of the way, I did like the stories. They were simple but fun sword-and-sorcery adventures with some hints of a deeper philosophy lurking below the surface. Conan is a character who’s quite adeptly characterized and rather more thoughtful than the label “barbarian” makes him sound. He’s a larger-than-life character, being able to defeat nearly any foe and irresistible to women, yet there’s still a fair amount of humanity to him. And despite some of its racist implications, I liked the idea of the setting being a mythical version of our own world, with equivalents of many actual ancient cultures. Some seemed to be pretty direct parallels, like Stygia for Egypt, while others were more of a mixture. Cimmeria, the name of Conan’s homeland, is actually an ancient name for the Crimea, yet its inhabitants seem to be based more on mythical Teutons like Siegfried and Beowulf, and Conan is an Irish name. Lovecraft’s influence could also be seen in Conan’s encounters with dark, amoral gods, although while Lovecraft’s Old Ones were beyond the capacity of humans to fight or often even comprehend, Howard’s generally went down with enough hacking and slashing, a concept that’s made its way into the role-playing world.
Many of the gods mentioned are real ones or at least based on them. Crom, the deity by whom Conan is always swearing, was presumably named after the ancient Irish Crom Cruach, although little is known about this god. The Cimmerian take on religion is that their gods don’t really give a crap about human affairs and it’s usually best not to attract their attention, certainly an intriguing idea. This volume presents the Conan stories in the order in which they were written, which is not at all chronological. In fact, the first two are about an experienced Conan who has become King of Aquilonia, while later ones detail earlier events in his life.