What do readers want out of fantasy fiction? Epic quests to banish evil from the world? Coming of age stories of young wizards and warriors growing up and into their great, latent powers? Many do: I enjoy these types of stories myself, from time to time.
But when my heart yearns for pulse-pounding, savage adventure, curvaceous women and thrilling sword fights, forgotten, vine-grown cities, and ancient, monstrous evil guarding hoarded gems and gold, I turn to Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian.
Now, thanks to Tantor Media, we have the luxury of listening to pure, unaltered Howard as well. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is the first of three planned releases by Tantor collecting all of the original Conan tales. This 15 CD set (18.5 hours) includes the first 13 Conan stories, in the order Howard wrote them. Narrator Todd McLaren delivers the stories with passion and precision.
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian was originally published in 2005 by Ballantine Books/Del Rey, followed shortly by The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. Taken together, these three books for the first time included all of Howard’s original, unedited Conan stories. For those who may not know, Howard’s tales first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s, and were later published in edited form, along with pastiches of variable quality, by Lancer/Ace books in the 1960s and 70s.
The stories in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian include:
• The Phoenix on the Sword
• The Frost-Giant’s Daughter
• The God in the Bowl
• The Tower of the Elephant
• The Scarlet Citadel
• Queen of the Black Coast
• Black Colossus
• Iron Shadows in the Moon
• Xuthal of the Dusk
• The Pool of the Black One
• Rogues in the House
• The Vale of Lost Women
• The Devil in Iron
Rather than provide a simple plot summary of the short stories listed above, I thought I’d use this platform to talk about Howard’s place in fantasy fiction and the broader field of literature. Many fantasy readers turn their nose up at Howard. They think his stories are all surface, pure story with no depth. Or they mistakenly conflate Howard’s Conan with the dumb brute of the films Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Destroyer. These folks are of course wrong.
It is true that many of Howard’s tales were written for quick publication in the pulp magazines of the era. As a result, some are rather formulaic. But Howard at his worst captivates with his seemingly effortless ability to produce breathless action. He had a talent for depicting whirling combat and wonderful images in a few words, and for poetic turns of phrase.
At his best, Howard wrote with surprising depth worthy of closer analysis, even study. His most ubiquitous, well-known theme was civilization vs. barbarism. Howard believed that as nations became civilized they grew correspondingly decadent and corrupt. Men who fight savagely and shed their blood to carve out shining kingdoms grow soft in times of peace and plenty until greed and sloth set in. Old kingdoms weaken through internal strife until they collapse from within or are invaded from without. In Howard’s works and in the mind of the author himself, the howling “barbarians at the gates” were always waiting to pounce when kingdoms grew weak, and Conan himself was one of the horde. Honest rule by might and the axe was preferable to the soft lies and deception of civilized men, whose faces were masks concealing their falsity.
To quote Conan from “Beyond the Black River,” “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Other critics have noted existentialist strains running through Howard’s stories, as well as a hard-boiled realism that leant even his most fantastic, otherworldly tales a feeling of grounded, earthly reality. Howard also infused his stories with the myth of the American frontier. Born in Texas in 1906, Howard listened with rapt and wistful attention to old men who had witnessed first-hand the closing of the frontier, settling virgin wilderness and fighting Indians in savage wars for territory.
In my opinion Howard’s best Conan tales don’t appear in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian: “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails” represent Howard at his peak, and are scheduled to appear on Tantor’s later discs. But “The Tower of the Elephant” is worth the purchase price alone, and “Queen of the Black Coast,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “Rogues in the House” are all terrific as well. “The Vale of Lost Women” is the only true dud here (it went unpublished in Howard’s lifetime, and was probably better off left in a footlocker), while “The Pool of the Black One” didn’t do a lot for me, either.
In addition to Howard’s stories, Tantor also includes a wonderful introduction by Patrice Louinet, which does a far better job than I describing Howard’s themes. “If the true work of art is something that at once attracts and disturbs, then the Conan stories are something special, an epic painted in bright colors, featuring heroic deeds and larger-than-life characters in fabled lands, but with something darker lying beneath,” Louinet writes.
The one problem with the set? Tantor inexplicably failed to include track listings. You have to skip around to find the stories, and while it didn’t bother me too much for this review (I listened straight through), you’re out of luck if you ever want to just pop in a disc and listen to “The God in the Bowl,” for example. Ah well. I know Tantor has corrected this oversight and plans to include track listings on its future releases.
Still, this omission aside, Tantor Media should be commended for releasing the audio versions of the books that every true Howard fan should have in his or her collection.
Posted by Brian Murphy