Conan the Cimmerian is a tough dude who wanders around pre-Ice Age Eurasia beating up baddies and rescuing beautiful women. The Weird Tales of Conan collects some of his strangest and most iconic adventures.
The interesting thing about Conan’s pre-Ice Age Eurasia is that it contains numerous civilizations reminiscent of cultures you may know about from your history books. The story Hour of the Dragon includes fantasy Zoroastrians, identifiable by their references to Asura and Ahriman, and you can tell that the trapped inhabitants in the Red Nails are descended from South Americans because of how their names are spelled. According to this essay Howard wrote, which Dover Publications should’ve included in this collection, all the nations Conan encountered are the ancestors of actual, real, cultures you’d see today. I like this, because it always bothers me when a country in fantasy world is a blatant knockoff of Italy, or when dwarves have Scottish accents for no good reason. There’s also an element of black magic that, at its very worst, shades into Lovecraftian horror. Conan even meets a dinosaur at one point. However, the unfamiliar names can make it difficult to guess where Conan is meant to be adventuring, which shows that fantasy world maps aren’t always a waste of time.
Characterisation is where these stories really falter. I really don’t like Conan; his main character trait is being hyper-competent and having a slight sense of humour about it. He’s similar to Sherlock Holmes in that he’s so good at what he does that he’s impossible to relate to, or even sympathise with. There’s also an element of James Bond to him as well, in that he’s one of those men other men are supposed to want to be like because he sleeps with a lot of beautiful women, although unlike Bond Conan actually has a conscience. Most of the other characters either admire Conan or are trying to kill him.
What Conan really needs is an element of continuity, since his presence is the only thing that binds these stories together. I’d give him a sidekick, to be the Watson to his Holmes, the Jimmy Olsen to his Superman and so on. The young man who was the focal point of Beyond the Black River could’ve been great in this role. A relationship with such a constant character would allow Conan to demonstrate his character development throughout the stories.
I see the appeal of Conan and his world, well maybe just his world, but these stories weren’t right for me. They could provide a useful model for fantasy writers tired of imitating Tolkien, and I think that the people who write the scenarios for video games would find a lot of inspirational material here. And I’m totally interested in seeing the Conan movies with Arnie in them. But I’d only recommend this collection for people who are already Conan fans or those interested in knowing what all the fuss is about.
I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a review, you can get yours here.