“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural; it is a whim of circumstance… And barbarism must always ultimately triumph!” – Beyond the Black River
For me, November is directly linked to sword-and-sorcery. Some people, when they think of Thanksgiving, they think of turkey, football, and family. Me, being the odd duck, I suppose, I think of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings which used to play annually on a local syndicated television station back in the day. It was usually followed by The Last Unicorn and, later in the evening for obvious reasons, Conan the Barbarian.
That early period Arnie movie acquainted me to the world of Robert E. Howard. In the succeeding years I read all of Howard’s original Conan stories (there aren’t many, sadly). I have several collections of them, along with a few comic book adaptations. Despite sacrilege and heresy, and blasphemy be damned, I readily admit that none of Tolkien’s hobbits, Uruk-hai, orcs, elves and various hangers-on can hold a candle to Howard’s barbarian or the Hyborian Age. I may be blinded by bias. I prefer my high fantasy (or low fantasy, depending on your interpretation of the definitions) to be hack-and-slash now and ask questions later.
With Tolkien, I never had much patience for all the singing and wordiness and who begat who and who lost what. The mighty Cimmerian was more brutal, the adventures more fevered as only befitting their pulp origins. The abundance of the Conan stories’ more scantily clad women also appealed to my younger imagination, and my near middle-age imagination doesn’t mind it either (respectfully so, of course). According to Lin Carter’s Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, L. Sprague de Camp had a somewhat chummy conversation with Tolkien and was quoted as saying, “He [Tolkien] indicated that he ‘rather liked’ Howard’s Conan stories.”
So…put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Conan of Cimmeria was everything from a pirate to a slave to an eventual king. That’s quite the professional trajectory, but he was always, at heart, a barbarian. He fought evil, wooed the women (who were at times as cutthroat and barbaric as himself), and was loyal to his friends. He lived a free, nomadic life and traversed the diverse lands of the Hyborian world as if following the wind.
One of my favorite stories, and Howard’s last Conan tale, is “Red Nails” in which Conan and his cohort, Valeria, discover an enclosed city with an emerald dome. Inside, they find divided residents at war. “Beyond the Black River” with a battle against vicious Picts is another of my favorites.
Naturally, some are better than others– I’m no fan of “A Witch Shall Be Born” or “The Hour of the Dragon”– but for every “The Devil in Iron” there is a “Shadows in the Moonlight” and “The Scarlett Citadel”.
There are several digital collections available of the Conan stories. Some are missing a few here and there despite their claims of completeness. I’ve linked to the ones I own and enthusiastically recommend them to any and all Conan fans.