Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Conan the Barbarian - an Appreciation

‘Know, oh 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 beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, 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 jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet…’
 - The Nemedian Chronicles, The Phoenix On the Sword 

It feels like I’ve grown up with Conan. Whereas Tolkien offers classic High Fantasy, Conan offered something a bit more earthy and brutal. My introduction came through looking at my elder brother’s Savage Sword of Conan comics when I was nine or ten. I say comic, but this was wholly different from the comics such as the Beano which my friends read. Being one to always pick up a pencil and draw when I was young, I loved the artwork and the depiction of monsters and warriors, not to mention the… well let us just say that I had to be careful reading these comics as my mother didn’t fully approve of the scantily clad women shown within. It seems very funny when I look back at it, all part of growing up!

Savage Sword of Conan Magazine covers


If I recall Savage Sword of Conan was a monthly and through it I found that the character and the world of the Hyborian Age was the invention of a Texan writer called Robert E Howard. As well as the comic there was a whole series of novellas and short stories published by Lancer books, written by either Howard himself or by L Sprague le Camp and Lin Carter among others. Each had a glossy cover by such amazing artists such as Frank Franzetta and each tale would draw you in to a world of fast-paced adventure; I was hooked!

Conan paperback

Robert E Howard was a complex and tragic character. He was born in 1906 and committed suicide at the age of 30.  He was the son of a travelling physician and his childhood took him through a variety of boomtowns. It was his mother who inspired him intellectually through her love of literature and poetry and at the age of nine he began to write, the ability to make his way in the world through his writing was his dream. Howard hated the boom-bust nature of the oil towns of the time and the crime that followed in its wake and the tuberculosis that afflicted his mother was a constant cause of concern. He hated the jobs he had to undertake to earn a living and finally quit in 1926 to pursue writing by taking a college course. He submitted stories to the pulp magazine Weird Tales. It took another three years but he finally became a full-time writer at the age of 23. He entered into a correspondence with HP Lovecraft and look set for a comfortable life when the Great Depression struck. It was at this low ebb, whilst travelling the state, he conceived the land of Cimmeria and over the course of nine months he developed the character of Conan and the world of the Hyborian Age. Unknown to him he had invented the whole sword and sorcery genre.

Robert E Howard

Howard became preoccupied in caring for his ailing mother and writing became increasingly difficult. When his mother slipped into a terminal coma he took his own life in 1936. In truth Howard’s Conan writing had been brief and he had lost interest in the character from 1934, preferring to write westerns (two of the later Conan tales, Beyond the Black River and The Treasure of Tranicos, both set in the Pictish Wilderness had a decidedly western feel to them). Yet the research and fragments of unpublished work he had put into his world building, enabled others to pick up the baton to give us the great number of Conan stories that we have today.

So who is Conan? Conan is described as a black haired warrior of the northern land of Cimmeria. As the name suggests he is perhaps Celtic. He is described as having a mane of black hair and eyes of smouldering blue. In stature he is tall and muscular; a born fighter but also possessing intelligence and tactical skill. The various stories have him travelling far and wide over Hyboria, during which he becomes adept at several languages and (most surprising for a barbarian) able to read and write.
Hyboria - Wikipedia - Gnome press by David Kyle

 I always liked the maps reproduced in the books showing the pre-flood Hyboria transposed with the modern. With his love of history Howard purposely used similar names to make the Hyborian world seem plausible.

The genius of the Conan stories is that you can dip in and out at different stages of his career. So you can catch him as a young barbarian still in the vicinity of Cimmeria in The Frost Giant’s Daughter and then read of him as the King of Aquilonia in The Scarlet Citadel (the latter almost gives a blueprint for the future RPG Dungeons & Dragons!)

Of course I couldn’t write of Conan without making mention of the films. I remember the excitement building about the impending film project in the pages of The Savage Sword of Conan. Everyone already had Arnold Schwarzenegger as playing the titular character, indeed the future Associate Producer of the film (Edward Summer) had put his name forward in 1975 after seeing Schwarzenegger in the film Pumping Iron. Schwarzenegger was approached in 1977 and convinced to sign up to the role. However it took five years  until finally  the film Conan the Barbarian was released in 1982.

Conan the Barbarian poster 1982
The Heavy Metal music magazine, Kerrang, reviewed it and called it the "Cinematic equivalent of a Motorhead concert". They weren't wrong; for the time it was quite a violent film I suppose with a degree of nudity. The world of Hyboria was recreated in Spain with an original story using elements of Howard's stories, most notably from A Witch Shall be Born and The Phoenix on the Sword.

The film begins with a chronicler reciting part of the Nemedian passage as above.  Conan is born the son of a blacksmith in Cimmeria. His father forges a mighty sword and tells him  that he must quest for the riddle of steel but his village is raided by an evil wizard and his retinue under a snake banner. His parents are killed and his father's sword taken. The child Conan is led to captivity where he works on the wheel of pain becoming large and muscular after many years pushing it. He is then put in a gladiatorial ring where he proves his worth, receiving weapons training and education. He is freed  and becomes a thief with a Hykrainian archer called Subotai and a female warrior called Valeria.

Conan and Valeria become lovers after they rob a temple of the snake god Set. During the robbery Conan recognises the symbol of Set as the one carried by his parent's killers. While celebrating their newly found fortune they are arrested by city guards and brought before King Osric. The temple of Set has demanded the king deal harshly with the perpetrators. Osric reveals that his own daughter has fallen under the spell of Thulsa Doom, the leader of the cult. He offers wealth beyond measure if the trio liberate her and bring her home. Subotai and Valeria refuse but motivated by his thirst for revenge Conan embarks on his own where he meets a wizard guarding an old burial ground, the chronicler of his tale.
Subotai, Conan and Valeria before King Osric
Attempting to infiltrate Thulsa Doom's mountain of power while disguised as a priest Conan is captured. Interrogated by Thulsa Doom he reveals who he is. Doom tells him the riddle of steel before ordering Conan's crucifixion on the tree of woe. Under the baking sun and surviving the predation of vultures Subotai rescues him. Valeria demands the wizard heal Conan. He says he can summon spirits to effect the healing but they will extract a heavy toll, which Valeria agrees to pay. The wizard works his spell and during the might the spirits attempt to take Conan who has been tethered to the ground. His companions ward them off and Conan is restored to health.
The trio now infiltrate the Mountain of Power during a cannibalistic orgy, during which Thulasa Doom transforms into a snake. Rescuing the daughter of Osric they make good their escape but Doom, back in human form, shoots a snake arrow which kills Valeria, thereby confirming the heavy toll she had to pay for Conan's life.
Thulsa Doom taking snake form.
Valeria's funeral pyre alerts Doom of Conan's whereabouts and he and his retinue, including his high priests Rexor and Thorgrim attack the burial site which Conan, Subotai and the wizard have fortified. During the battle Valeria in spirit form saves Conan and they successfully fend off the attack, killing Thorgim and Rexor. Seeing his men defeated Doom tries to shoot the princess with another of his snake arrows but Subatoi defends her with a shield. Conan recovers his father's sword from his enemies in shards, after it was shattered during the battle. Perhaps this symbolises the riddle of steel, that flesh is stronger.

Back at his temple Doom addresses his followers but Conan confronts him, avoiding the wizard's attempt to control him and beheads Doom with his father's sword. With the cult destroyed Conan sets fire to the temple.

The film ends with an older Conan sat upon a throne, wearing a crown upon a troubled brow.

The sweeping orchestral score by Basil Poledouris is to my mind quite brilliant, with its recurring themes possessing an operatic quality. The soundtrack is now one of my most listened to pieces of music. 
It was through Conan that the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger took off. His certainly looked the part, although his physique and movement possibly lacked the "cat-like" agility that Howard described.
The film spawned a sequel  two years later- Conan the Destroyer  - and also a cinematic rendition of the comic book creation of Red Sonja (loosely based on one of Howard's characters). However I feel that the less said about these the better!
Although being 35 years old the effects hold  up very well.

In 2011 a reboot was released with Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo from Game of Thones) in the titular role. In many ways Mamoa is a superior depiction of Howard's hero. He swings a sword more naturally than Schwarzenegger and has that cat-like agility the character was supposed to possess. You could believe this Conan could climb whereas the original seemed too solid to do so. It promised much with modern CGI and indeed the 2011 Conan the Barbarian is a feast for the eyes, albeit a violent one. However, personally its disappointing and a wasted opportunity, the story completely losing its direction after the death of Conan's father (played by Ron Perlman). Despite Mamoa, Perlman, the superior special effects and strong female characters played by Rose MacGowan and Rachel Nichols, nothing can make up for the disjointed and cliched storyline. It possesses none of the operatic grandeur of the 1982 film.

Jason Mamoa - Conan the Barbarian 2011
Perhaps Conan was the man that Howard wished he could be. Although being a bookish child he took up body building and boxing. However after passing out in the heat whilst working as a surveyor he discovered he had a heart condition. He suffered badly from stress and was riddled with self doubt, despite his commercial success. His mother suffered from TB for decades and his father's work took him away from the family home frequently. It seems that Howard was his mother's primary carer and would explain why he stayed living with his parents, perhaps through a feeling of duty. The one chance of romance was passed by due to his devotion to his mother. Its been suggested that perhaps he had a latent Oedipus Complex but its likely that today he would likely have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed. When his need to care for his mother ended he went to his car shot himself in the head.  Throughout his 160 odd stores of men in control of their own destiny, maybe this was his decision to finish his life on his own terms.
Pulp writer he may have been but personally I owe him a debt of gratitude for the fantastic escapism he has given me over the years. He has received much criticism over the years and been described as a poor imitation of Lovecraft, whereas in truth they both influenced each other. I would argue that his influence in the fantasy genre is equal to Tolkien. Most of all he is a master spinner of fast paced and highly enjoyable yarns. As the horror writer Stephen King noted - "Howard's writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks."
Back in 2013 rumours began to circulate that a script was being prepared, based around King Conan and having Schwarzenegger reprise his role. As of yet we are still waiting for what might be...

King Conan - Conan the Barbarian 1982

When I was a fighting-man, the kettle drums they beat;
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse' feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.
The Road of Kings