Even if you don’t read much fantasy, the odds are good that you’ve heard of Conan the Barbarian. December 2022 marks his 90th birthday.
Conan the Barbarian is the quintessential sword and sorcery hero, created by Robert E. Howard nearly a century ago.
Conan the Barbarian made his first appearance in the story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Since 1932, Conan has been the hero of short stories, poems, novels, comic books, movies, TV shows, and video games.
Who Was Conan?
Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths, to tread the jeweled thrones of Earth under his sandalled feet.”
Conan began a warrior from wild Cimmeria. He wandered into the “civilized lands” of Ophir, Nemedia, and Aquilonia, washing his blade in the blood of his foes. He spent time as a thief, a pirate, a sellsword, and eventually became king of fair Aquiloniia. Conan lived in the fictional Hyborean Age, after Atlantis sunk and before our modern world developed.
There is a tendency to think of Conan as all brawn and no brain, but he was multilingual and multiliterate. If you only know Conan from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal, get thee to the library or to Project Gutenberg online and read the stories. You’ve got a treat ahead of you. However, social mores have changed considerably since the 1930s. Howard’s stories, while containing crisp description and bloodcurdling action, also contain the casual sexism and racism of the era. This will offend some readers.
Conan in the Comic Books
In 1970, Roy Thomas introduced Conan the Barbarian to Marvel Comics. With artist Barry Smith, Roy Thomas adapted Howard’s stories and wrote original stories about the battling barbarian. Roy was responsible for bringing Red Sonja to Marvel Comics. For male readers, she was a pretty redhead in a chain mail bikini. For female readers, she was a role model: a strong, fierce character in a genre where, as Marion Zimmer Bradley once complained female characters were generally relegated to “bad conduct prizes.” Years earlier, author/editor George Scithers in the Hugo-winning fanzine Amra praised Red Sonya of Rogatino, a heroine from one of Howard’s historical fiction stories, “The Shadow of the Vulture,” in Magic Carpet Magazine, and suggested if she lived in the Hyborean Age, she might have been more than Conan could handle. Roy Thomas made it happen. He changed her name to Sonja, because he thought the J looked more exotic and the 16th century swordswoman became the She-Devil of the Hykrainian Steppes, from Conan’s world and time, but southwest of Cimmeria.
Conan and Hollywood
Twice Conan has been the subject of big budget adventure films, Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984) both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Conan the Barbarian (2011), starring Jason Momoa. There was a syndicated television show, Conan the Adventurer, starring Ralf Moeller. Being syndicated, not all areas of the country saw it, and it was cancelled before it gained a widespread audience.
Who was Robert Ervin Howard?
Robert E. Howard was a Texan writer, who used his short 30 years in this world well. He was born January 22, 1906 in Peaster, Texas, USA. He spent most of his life in Cross Plains, Texas, and died there June 11, 1936. Howard was famous for his westerns, sports stories (mostly boxing), quite decent poetry (which he gave up when he discovered Sword & Sorcery paid more), swashbuckling adventures, and ghost stories.
Most pulp writers in the 1930s wrote in a variety of genres. He is regarded as the Father of Sword & Sorcery, not only for creating Conan, but also for his stories of King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Dark Agnes. He committed suicide when he realized his mother, to whom he was very close, was dying.
Although they never met in person, for years he was pen pals with H. P. Lovecraft, who also wrote for Weird Tales. In his tragically short life, Howard entertained thousands of readers (millions since his death) and inspired hundreds of other writers.
British fantasy author David Gemmell said of Conan, “I adore these books. Howard had a gritty, vibrant style – broadsword writing that cut its way to the heart with heroes who are truly larger than life. I heartily recommend them to anyone who loves fantasy.”
Happy 90th Birthday, Conan!
You’re in pretty good shape for an old man. You’ve done a fictional character’s greatest duty: uou outlived your creator.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.
I’ve known Conan for a long time. That includes more than the original stories and the films. I’ve adventured with Conan more than once. OK, it was in the GURPS roleplaying game. Oh, and I also played Conan–in GURPS.
I remember when I learned that Howard committed suicide, this when his mother was in a coma and was not expected to ever recover. That, along with Ray Bradbury’s going to high school in Los Angeles but never getting a driver’s license, and Isaac Asimov being afraid to fly, helped me understand that fiction adventure writers are not necessarily like their characters.
Great introduction to a complex and tragic writer.