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Conan the Barbarian is the ultimate primeval man

Conan de Barbaar. Bloed druipt van zijn zwaard.

Conan the Barbarian is a striking appearance in a unique context. Even if you don't like the stories, you might find his background fascinating. Read about his universe, its literary significance and the man who conceived it; Robert E. Howard. You get the links to his stories for free!

The character Conan

In comics and films, Conan visually offers enormous muscle masses. He is a big broad guy whose main characteristic is his strength. That's how he is in the very first descriptions. You can find them in the magazine Weird Tales:

His (Conan’s) cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead. From his girdle hung a sword in a worn leather scabbard.

Robert E. Howard; The tower of the elephant (1933)

During violent confrontations, Conan's intelligence is only apparent from stratagems and an unerring killer instinct. He knows exactly when an ambush is imminent or when supernatural powers are at play. In such situations, his usually offensive attitude gives way to a more wait-and-see and cautious attitude. This shows that Conan is an ultimate primeval man; a powerful and smart survivor. He does not waste his time on intellectual reflections or emotional processing. Only the result counts.

Drawing Conan, fighting a demon
Sketch inspired by Barry Windsor-Smith artwork

Conan the Barbarian: Hero or Not?

Is Conan the Barbarian a hero? It depends… If you think a hero should always stand up for the weak and successfully maintain law and order, then Conan the Barbarian is definitely not a hero in your eyes. He steals and kills. His relationships with women are frequent and have little depth. Despite all this, he maintains a moral in which loyalty plays an important role. He always chooses for himself and sometimes he makes alliances that he stays very loyal to. Deception is foreign to him. He does nothing against his will. And be honest? Doesn't that make him some sort of moral hero?

Who is Conan the Barbarian?

In his adventures, the narrator and other characters often refer to Conan the Barbarian as "the Cimmerian." That means he's from Cimmeria. That corresponds geographically to England, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. By profession, Conan is all kinds of things; mercenary, thief, warrior, army commander and eventually even king. It's just what comes his way. At least, if you take the books and comics as a starting point. The later movie Conan the Barbarian 1982 with Arnold Schwarzenegger puts an unexpected twist on Conan's identity. In it, Conan is originally a slave. Many fans find this an important flaw of this otherwise quite excellent blockbuster. The slave role does not fit the original character of Conan.

Time and space of Conan

If you read in the comic books or novels, the universe of Conan the Barbarian comes across as largely unbelievable. Nevertheless, the close reader recognizes a kind of historical and geographical connection between the stories. That's the credit of its creator, Robert E. Howard. His literary legacy consists not only of stories and a poem about Cimmeria, but also from an extensive treatise on the time in which Conan lives. 

Conan de Barbaar met bebloed zwaard. Tekening.
Sketch of Conan the Barbarian

All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,

With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,

And the dark woodlands brooding over all,

Not even lightened by the rare dim sun

Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away

I have forgotten the very name men called me.

The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,

And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall

Only the stillness of that sombre land;

The clouds that piled forever on the hills,

The dimness of the everlasting woods.

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Robert E. Howard; Cimmeria – A Poem (1932)

Where does Conan the Barbarian live?

The Cimmerian travels around. His adventures are set not only in pseudo prehistoric interpretations of England, Ireland and Scotland, but also in deserts, jungles, at sea and on tropical islands. The barbarian travels all over the world. The tribes, peoples and history of that so-called Hyborian world are detailed in The Hyborian age from 1936. It's kind of Silmarillion. Howard even drew a map with it. All his heroes – including those from stories other than the Conan series – can be placed in it. Interested? Then take a look at Gutenberg.org. You can download The Hyborian age for free, even as some other stories by Howard.  

When did Conan the Barbarian live?

The adventures of Conan the Barbarian are set in prehistoric times. But yeah, that doesn't mean anything in itself. After all, prehistory lasts two million years. The fictional Hyborian era mentioned above is set 6,000 years after the fall of Atlantis. Experts and authors disagree on the meaning of that date. The interpretations range roughly from 30,000 to 10,000 BC. Just before, during or just after the last ice age. This fantasy era gives Howard and his successors the space to create numerous stories without research. And to incorporate gods, demigods, devils, wizards, witches and monsters from mythical lore. In addition, it is good to know that Howard conceived Conan at a time when DNA-research and archeology had revealed little about prehistoric times.

Harry Wibier and some of his Conan the Barbarian comics
Harry Wibier and some of his Conan comic books

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) and Conan

Howard lives all his life in Texas. He spent his childhood as an only child in the countryside. At fifteen he starts writing fantastic stories. Weird Tales publishes his story Spear and Fang while he is still in school. This strengthens his ambition to want to live from his stories. That doesn't work right away. That is why he is following exams for a position as a bookkeeper. He succeeds, but ultimately chooses an uncertain existence as a writer.

Howard's career

Initially, Howard's career is on the rise. He publishes a lot, gets paid well and invents heroes like Red Sonja, Solomon Kane, King Kull and Steve Costigan alongside Conan. But the economic crisis at the beginning of the 1930s reduced his sales market. On top of that, he is personally dealt a blow when his mother turns out to be terminally ill. He becomes depressed and commits suicide the day before his mother dies of tuberculosis.

The Career of Conan the Barbarian

After the war, bundles of the adventures of Conan appear, which until then only could be read in Weird Tales . These books get reprint after reprint. The new title Conan the Barbarian is a hit! Marvel - in 1970 a small company - sees opportunities for a comic. Talented draftsmen such as Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema provide the drawings. Screenwriter Roy Thomas stays true to Howard's world of ideas. This applies to a lesser extent to the screenwriter of the film Conan The Barbarian from 1982. Nevertheless, this film with Arnold Schwarzenegger definitively establishes the fame of the barbarian.

The meaning of Conan and Howard

It's a remarkable story; the creation of a young pulp writer from the 1930s lives on and grows into the core of a multimillion-dollar industry with fans and imitators around the world. What is behind this success? Where is it from? What can we learn from it?

Sword and sorcery

There is no single reason for Conan's stormy career. Howard's writing talent is definitely a factor. But perhaps more importantly, with his stories, Howard is the spiritual father of a new genre; Sword & Sorcery, a fantasy subgenre. Fantasy worlds with mythical elements and heroic battle did not exist in the 1930s. Certainly not in Howard's elaborate way. Conan's success is therefore partly the success of a new kind of story.

Our inner ape

Conan's character is also a success factor. He is the ultimate primeval man, powerful and free, uncompromising and consistent. Enthusiasts like to dream away to a world that is less complex and rational than our own. They prefer monsters, princesses and brute force to work pressure and information overload for their relaxation. They want heroes; strong creatures that force solutions where others run into walls. It's kind of primeval nostalgia, given in by our inner ape. And thanks to Conan, that need is given space in a very civilized way. At least, that's how I experience it. Do you also want to give way to your primitive sides? Listen to Conan's stories for free via this link: