The Newcomer's Guide to Robert E. Howard

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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

The Newcomer’s Guide to Robert E. Howard

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About the same time that Mark Finn was writing his New Manifesto, I’d been creating my own attempt at forming an introduction to newcomers of Robert E. Howard and his work. This will always be a work in progress, as there’s always a new discovery, perspective or explanation for the mysteries and intricacies of the Man from Cross Plains’ life and art. It’s basically taking some of the elements of the Manifesto and adding my own thoughts and expansions, and footnotes/annotations/citations will be added when I can track them down. Since the article’s quite long, I’m going to try and figure out hyperlinks like on a wiki too.

The Newcomer’s Guide will also be less confrontational than the New Manifesto for a very specific reason: covering all bases. Some people will be convinced to reassert their beliefs through reevaluation in the face of righteous indignation, while others will simply write off the New Manifesto as the rantings of a sensitive fanboy. Therefore, I think it important to have two approaches. I don’t disagree with Mark on any of his assertions, but that doesn’t mean Mark, or any one man, can speak for all of REH Fandom, who have opinions, beliefs and interpretations as varied as any fandom could have. As the great Rusty Burke said, getting Howard fans to agree on something “is like herding cats. Big nasty saber-tooth cats.”

Think of Mark Finn’s New Manifesto as the bad cop, and Newcomer’s Guide as the good cop.

Remember, this is still quite incomplete: it will be updated over time.

Written by alharron

22 December, 2010 at 12:45 pm

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