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Conan: The Definitive Collection by Robert…
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Conan: The Definitive Collection

by Robert E. Howard

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I first read the stories of Conan the Barbarian over thirty years ago, in the Lancer/Ace paperback versions that included stories by his creator Robert E. Howard as well as new tales by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. The Lancer/Ace editions presented the Conan stories in the order of the fictional barbarian's life, and traced his progress from thief to king. For my Classics Challenge, I wanted to read only the original stories by Howard, and in the order they were first published, so I chose a Kindle edition that included all 18 stories as published in Weird Tales magazine from 1933 to 1938.

The 18 tales move back and forth through the timeline of Conan's life, but that wasn't as jarring as I thought it would be. In fact, it felt just as Robert E. Howard described in a letter to P.S. Miller in March of 1936:

"In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him."

Those "widely separated" narrated episodes are classics in the heroic fantasy genre, influencing countless writers, for good or ill. This definitive collection contains stories from every stage of Conan's career: thief, pirate, mercenary, king. In over 800 pages, the muscular barbarian from the north with "volcanic blue eyes" and a black "square cut mane" faces giant apes, alien gods, and sorcerers brought back from the dead, to say nothing of the many scantily-clad women he encounters.

Taken as a whole, these are dark tales with dark settings. But behind these stories lies a philosophy that hearkens back to the Romanticism of the early 19th century: "Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical." Much of that is evident in this collection. The thematic thread running through the Conan stories is a disdain for civilization and a preference for freedom, nature and simplicity. Conan succeeds because he is powerful, direct, and fiercely independent.

I think it is fair to say that he is the kind of character that could only have arisen in America. He may be a rogue, but he is a virtuous rogue, that quintessentially American character. He is cut from the same cloth as the fallen private eye of film noir, or the lone gunfighter with the heart of gold.

After reading the Conan stories in their "pure" form--unedited and in order of publication--I have to say that I have mixed feelings about them. I love the exotic settings, the way Howard is able to create an eerie atmosphere so efficiently, and the action-oriented plots. But the stories do get repetitive after awhile, especially when read continuously. And while I appreciated Howard's criticism of the hypocrisy and phoniness of modern life, I grew tired of the repetitive violence, the stereotyped women, and the episodic plots. A better way to read them is probably to take one story a week or maybe one a month. Even then, however, they portray an ideal and a philosophy that I think does damage to the heart of America if left unchecked. Perhaps the way to view the Conan stories is as an entertaining corrective to the passionless routine that modern life can sometimes become. ( )
  nsenger | Dec 7, 2016 |
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