The Newcomer's Guide to Robert E. Howard

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Conan the Barbarian (2011) and King Conan: Crown of Iron

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Is this the King Conan movie I’ve been hearing about?

No. King Conan: Crown of Iron was written by John Milius, and intended to continue where Conan the Barbarian left off (ignoring Conan the Destroyer). It was to be the second film of a projected trilogy, preceded by Conan the Barbarian and followed by King Conan: Beneath My Sandalled Feet. Crown of Iron has been in development for twenty years, and came close to being produced a number of times: however, various obstacles transpired to keep the film in development hell. After a deal with the Wachowski Brothers and Warner Brothers fell through, the project was abandoned. Another project intended to be the third Conan film eventually became Kull the Conqueror.

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Written by alharron

27 December, 2010 at 7:28 am

Conan and the Myth of the Special Sword

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So what’s the story with the Atlantean Sword?

There isn’t one. Conan didn’t really have a favoured sword.

But Conan the Barbarian

Forget Conan the Barbarian for a minute.

… But in Conan the Adventurer

Forget that too.

… I mean, the live action-

Forget that too!

Ok, then what was Conan’s favourite weapon in the Howard stories?

There was none. Conan’s favourite weapon was the one in his hand in that story, and that varied from location to location. In “The Tower of the Elephant,” it was a simple dagger; in “Queen of the Black Coast” it was an Aquilonian broadsword; in “The People of the Black Circle,” it was a tulwar; in “Beyond the Black River,” it was an axe; in The Hour of the Dragon, goes through a dozen weapons.

The idea of Conan being partnered to a particular weapon subtly ties Conan to other hero/sword combos in history, mythology and myth, to the point where the two are inseparable. Bring up Excalibur, and one immediately thinks of King Arthur; a mention of Stormbringer conjures Elric; Anduril recalls Aragorn, Hrunting evokes Beowulf. There was no such duality in the original Howard stories: there, swords and other weapons were tools to be used, not symbols to be venerated or scrutinized.

The special sword of great power, antiquity or quality is central to the mythology of Conan the Barbarian, as well as in the live action and animated series, but it has no basis in the original stories.

Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Robert E. Howard

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I’d like to read Howard’s version of events: what story was Conan the Barbarian based on?

None of them.

What, really?

Yes.  Conan the Barbarian was almost entirely based on a story Oliver Stone and John Milius thought up themselves.

Well, what Howard stories have Thulsa Doom, Valeria, Conan’s family and Subotai?

Technically, none of them.

Thulsa Doom’s name was taken from that of another Howard character, the sorcerer who was thwarted by King Kull of Atlantis, in Howard’s unsold story “The Cat and the Skull” (later published as “Delcardes’ Cat,” which was the name of an earlier version that lacked the Doom character). The original Doom was very different from his cinematic namesake: he was a gaunt, skull-faced, undead horror with flaming orbs in place of eyes, and his magical powers included teleportation, supernatural strength, and horrific vitality. He only appeared in a single story, but is considered to be Kull’s nemesis nonetheless. Cinematic Doom’s snake imagery has led some to suggest a link to Thoth-Amon, but again, the similarities between the two are negligible: aside from his name, he is a mostly original creation of Stone & Milius.

Valeria’s name and a few traits were taken from a character in the seminal Conan story “Red Nails.” In this story, Valeria is an Aquilonian adventurer very like Conan himself: a pirate, the equal of any man on a ship’s rigging, whose deeds are regaled in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather; a soldier-of-fortune and adventurer who dazzles her opponents with her finesse and; utterly fearless; stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious; the veteran of a thousand battles on land and sea. Unlike her cinematic namesake, Valeria survives to the end of her adventure, she has no desire to settle down for a quiet life, and she certainly never makes a deal with otherworldly forces to resurrect her lover.

The details of Conan’s family are vague. We know more of Conan’s grandfather than we do of his parents: all we know of his father is that he was a blacksmith, and of his mother, all we know is that she gave birth to Conan on a battlefield. Anything else — their names, appearances, history, whether they’re alive or not — is completely unknown. However, Howard notes that Conan made periodic trips back to his homeland, suggesting that at least some of his family remain after he leaves Cimmeria.

Subotai is a completely original creation, with no direct origins in the Conan stories at all. So too are the Wizard (later named Akiro in Conan the Destroyer), King Osric, Rexor, Thorgrim, the Princess, the Eastern Generals, Red-Hair, the Pederast Priest, or any of the ancillary characters.

Aw, man.  Well, where can I read the story of how Conan became a man?

Howard never wrote an origin story for Conan.

You’re kidding, right?

Nope. The closest we get is a few morsels scattered throughout the stories, as Conan reminisces or remarks upon his youth in Cimmeria. There isn’t any story set in Cimmeria at all.

Written by alharron

22 December, 2010 at 8:36 pm