The Newcomer's Guide to Robert E. Howard

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Conan and the Issue of the Origin Story

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Well, wait, if Howard never wrote an origin story for Conan, then what’s the problem with the one in Conan the Barbarian?

There are a few reasons Howard fans are not pleased with the film’s storyline. For one thing, Howard’s stories are some of the most influential, brilliantly written, and downright enjoyable Sword-and-Sorcery stories ever written, and many of the tales could form the basis of a rip-roaring, action-packed adventure film. Many stories and novels have been written by other writers, but none have eclipsed the original author: indeed, almost all of the Conan stories written by other authors have been out of print for years, while the Howard tales are experiencing a renaissance. The original stories have been adapted into the medium of comics, some many times, with very little difficulty in translation from literary to visual media. Thus, it seems baffling that a studio would choose to create a new story when the originals are so good in the first place.

Secondly, the idea of giving Conan an origin story in the first place does not sit well with many Howard fans. Conan, to many, is like Indiana Jones, James Bond, or The Man With No Name: he appears fully-formed and characterized, with no introduction that tells the audience how he came to be. This adds a certain mystique to the character, one that would be diluted if young Conan was actually depicted on screen. Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t start with eight-year-old Indy scuffling with grave robbers; Dr. No didn’t begin with twelve-year-old Bond dispatching school bullies while spouting pithy one-liners; A Fistful of Dollars didn’t have a prologue with The Boy With No Name picking out his first poncho. Why should a Conan film start off with Conan’s childhood?

Finally, the story contradicts every clue Howard left. Howard gives a detailed description of Conan’s early life in a letter to a fan, P.S. Miller, in 1936:

He was born on a battle field, during a fight between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir. The country claimed by and roved over by his clan lay in the northwest of Cimmerian, but Conan was of mixed blood, although a pure-bred Cimmerian. His grandfather was a member of a southern tribe who had fled from his own people because of a blood-feud and after long wanderings, eventually taken refuge with the people of the north. He had taken part in many raids into the Hyborian nations in his youth, before his flight, and perhaps it was the tales he told of those softer countries which roused in Conan, as a child, a desire to see them. There are many things concerning Conan’s life of which I am not certain myself. I do not know, for instance, when he got his first sight of civilized people. It might have been at Vanarium, or he might have made a peaceable visit to some frontier town before that. At Vanarium he was already a formidable antagonist, though only fifteen. He stood six feet and weighed 180 pounds, though he lacked much of having his full growth.

There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir, fighting with the Vanir and the Hyperboreans, and developing a hate for the latter which lasted all his life and later affected his policies as king of Aquilonia. Captured by them, he escaped southward and came into Zamora in time to make his debut in print.

There are Howard fans who would accept an origin story if it would result in a true adaptation down the line, but only if that origin story gives due respect to Howard’s creation. Rusty Burke, one of the foremost Robert E. Howard scholars, wrote a “Purist Manifesto“: it is important to note that Burke does not denounce pastiches in and of themselves. However, if a film is advertising itself as being faithful and respectful to the original Howard stories, then coming up with a story that is completely contradictory to them, is simply false advertising.

Oh yeah? Well, I’d like to see you try a Conan origin story!

My pleasure. Based purely on what Howard wrote in the Miller letter and through the stories, one can form a fairly action-packed, compelling, exciting concept:

For completeness’ sake, I included annotations, showing sources where applicable.

Conan is born on a battlefield, during a skirmish between his clan and a band of raiding Vanir warriors. His clan is situated in Northwest Cimmeria(1). Cimmerians are a harsh and dark race(1a), who inhabit a dark land(1b). He grows up hunting mountain-beasts(2), felling hawks with stones(3), and participating in wars among other Cimmerian tribes, as well as along the Nordheim border(4). He becomes an excellent climber among the crags and cliffs of his homeland(4a), and develops strong woodcraft skills, where he can blend into the wilderness so easily that even wildlife ignore his presence(4b). He grows up to become a black-haired, blue-eyed man. His father is a blacksmith(5). His family teaches him of Crom and his dark race (5a) and Cimmerian theology(5b).

His grandfather is a warrior from a southern tribe who was chased out during a bloodfeud, and after long wanderings–perhaps among the Hyborian kingdoms–settled among the northwesterners. Grandfather inspires young Conan with stories of the Hyborian kingdoms far to the south, which he raided frequently when he was still among the southern Cimmerians, possibly instilling in the boy a desire to see those wonders(6). At the same time, the mythology of the Cimmerians gives him a healthy fear of the supernatural: ghouls, goblins, necromancers, night fiends, ghosts, hobgoblins, dwarfs, wizards and sorcerers abound in his people’s dark folklore(7).

At some point before he becomes a man, Conan breaks the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull with his bare hands(8). As a youth, Conan is so formidable a warrior that his name is repeated around the council fires of Cimmeria, even becoming a slayer of chiefs(8a). Conan himself takes part in the assault of Venarium, an Aquilonian fort-town, part of an Aquilonian attempt to conquest and colonize southern Cimmeria. The Cimmerians puts aside their blood-feuds and conflicts to gather en-mass, where they annihilate the Gundermen colonists and raze Venarium to cinders(9). It is here that Conan may have had his first encounter with civilization(10).

After Venarium, Conan’s first journey outside of his homeland is northward, where he fights alongside a group of Aesir for some time, raiding and battling Vanir and Hyperboreans. (“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” may take place during this period.) On one ill-fated raid, he is captured by Hyperboreans, and his incarceration instills a lifelong hatred for them in the young warrior which affects his policies as king of Aquilonia. He escapes, and flees southwards into the Hyborian Kingdoms(11) of Brythunia, Nemedia, Koth and Aquilonia(12). A year after Venarium, he finds himself at the Thief-City of Zamora, where he practises his thievery for another year before the events of “The Tower of the Elephant” (with “The God in the Bowl” preceding it.)(13)

1. He was born on a battle field, during a fight between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir. The country claimed by and roved over by his clan lay in the northwest of Cimmerian, but Conan was of mixed blood, although a pure-bred Cimmerian. – Letter to P.S. Miller

“I was born in the midst of a battle,” he answered, tearing a chunk of meat from a huge joint with his strong teeth. “The first sound my ears heard was the clang of swords and the yells of the slaying.”
– “Black Colossus”

“I saw again the battlefield whereon I was born,” said Conan, resting his chin moodily on a massive fist.
The Hour of the Dragon

1a. “Life seems bitter and hard and futile. The men of those dark hills brood overmuch on unknown things. They dream monstrous dreams. Their gods are Crom and his dark race, and they believe the world of the dead is a cold, sunless place of everlasting mist, where wandering ghosts go wailing forevermore. They have no hope here or hereafter, and they brood too much on the emptiness of life. I have seen the strange madness of futility fall upon them when a little thing like a spinning dust-cloud, or the hollow crying of a bird, or the moan of the wind through bare branches brought to their gloomy minds the emptiness of life and the vainness of existence. Only in war are the Cimmerians happy.” – “The Phoenix on the Sword” (draft)

1b. “A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing. As far as a man may see his eye rests on the endless vistas of hills beyond hills, growing darker and darker in the distance. Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray. Winds blow sharp and cold, driving rain or sleet or snow before them, and moan drearily among the passes and down the valleys. There is little mirth in that land.”

2. I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts. – The Hour of the Dragon

3. … in his youth he had felled hawks on the wing. – The Hour of the Dragon

4. Conan grinned savagely, involuntarily touching the scars on his dark face. “You had known otherwise, had you spent your youth on the northern frontiers of Cimmeria! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the borders.” – “The Phoenix on the Sword

4a. … his thews had been steeled in boyhood on the sheer cliffs of his native hills. – “The Man Eaters of Zamboula”

4b. “… there is something hidden, some undercurrent of which we are not aware. I sense it as in my youth I sensed the tiger hidden in the tall grass.” – “The Phoenix on the Sword”

But the instincts of the wild were there, that had caused him in his childhood to lie hidden and silent while wild beasts prowled about his covert. – The Hour of the Dragon

5. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.” – The Hour of the Dragon

5a. “Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?” – “Queen of the Black Coast”

“By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!” – “The Phoenix on the Sword”

“Lir an mannanan mac lir!” – “Xuthal of the Dusk”

5b. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” – “Queen of the Black Coast”

6. His grandfather was a member of a southern tribe who had fled from his own people because of a blood-feud and after long wanderings, eventually taken refuge with the people of the north. He had taken part in many raids into the Hyborian nations in his youth, before his flight, and perhaps it was the tales he told of those softer countries which roused in Conan, as a child, a desire to see them. There are many things concerning Conan’s life of which I am not certain myself. – Letter to P.S. Miller

7. Conan listened attentively. The natural skepticism of the sophisticated man was not his. His mythology contained ghouls, goblins, and necromancers. – “Iron Shadows in the Moon”

Conan did not press the matter, nor did he look incredulous. His beliefs included night fiends, ghosts, hobgoblins and dwarfs. – The Tombalku Fragment

Wizards and sorcerers abounded in his barbaric mythology, and any fool could tell that this was no common man. – The Hour of the Dragon

8. “Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man…” – “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”

8a. “I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark…” – “Rogues in the House”

9. “My uncle was at Venarium when the Cimmerians swarmed over the walls. He was one of the few who escaped that slaughter. I’ve heard him tell the tale, many a time. The barbarians swept out of the hills in a ravening horde, without warning, and stormed Venarium with such fury none could stand before them. Men, women and children were butchered. Venarium was reduced to a mass of charred ruins, as it is to this day. The Aquilonians were driven back across the marches, and have never since tried to colonize the Cimmerian country. But you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?”

“I was,” grunted the other. “I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn’t yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires.” – “Beyond the Black River”

10. I do not know, for instance, when he got his first sight of civilized people. It might have been at Vanarium, or he might have made a peaceable visit to some frontier town before that. At Vanarium he was already a formidable antagonist, though only fifteen. – Letter to P.S. Miller

11. There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir, fighting with the Vanir and the Hyperboreans, and developing a hate for the latter which lasted all his life and later affected his policies as king of Aquilonia. Captured by them, he escaped southward and came into Zamora in time to make his debut in print. – Letter to P.S. Miller

12. These people were strange and mysterious to him; they were not of his kind – not even of the same blood as the more westerly Brythunians, Nemedians, Kothians and Aquilonians, whose civilized mysteries had awed him in times past. – “The Tower of the Elephant”

13. If Conan was almost 15 at Venarium, and 17 in “The Tower of the Elephant,” but arrives at the Thief-City a year after Venarium, then that leaves at least a year for Conan between arrival at the Thief-City and the events of TTotE.

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Written by alharron

22 December, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Conan

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