The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Book Review)

Title: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 
Author: Robert E. Howard 
Publisher: Del Rey 
My Rating: 3.5 stars
Summary in a Sentence: A compilation of all the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, this collection is a classic that not just defined but created the "swords and sorcery" genre; Howard's bold style and somewhat purple prose make for good clean fun well-worth the modern reader's attention.

I picked-up the Kindle version of this book a few months back after Sophia's Favourite mentioned on his blog that he considered the Conan stories "good clean fun".  On the whole, I agree with the assessment and considered this collection a good read. Being an older work, you can get it for a fairly decent price as well, although unfortunately the version I got (which was only $0.99) is no longer available on Amazon.

When I say "good clean fun", there's quite a bit of violence with descriptions of brains splattering in the tradition of the Roman classics and Medieval chansons de geste, and while there are a fair number of scantily-clad ladies Conan is rather gentlemanly in his conduct with them, at least "on-screen". The stories are uncomplicated, pure action/adventure, so you should take them for what they are. These are to be read for fun and relaxation. One complaint I had, and which brings the collection down to a 3.5 where it might have been a four, is that the stories get a little repetitive after a while. There's definitely a formula to them, and while Howard does a pretty good job of mixing this up,  there's only so much variety available. I found the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books.

But these stories are certainly better than most of what passes for fantasy fiction today. Aside from creating the "swords and sorcery" subgenre, this collection also features one of the seminal "anti-heroes". Conan is not just a barbarian, but a mercenary, brigand, and thief. He lives for the thrill of battle, the taste of wine and good meat, and the embrace of a woman. For all that, he does have a certain honour and decency which especially comes out when he is placed in positions of authority or when a vulnerable young woman is in his power. So he's certainly a palatable "anti-hero" although he seemed to have a bit of the "noble savage" about him which is a trope I've never been a fan of.

On the whole, the collection deserves a solid 3.5 stars and I recommend that any fan of fantasy in general and swords and sorcery in particular, read it.


Sophia's Favorite said...

Interestingly, some Libertarian's praise, on a blog was reading, of the Conan movie (the most recent one) was eerily similar to the way leftists talk about Native Americans. Arguably this "Arcadian" impulse, the idea that civilized life is inferior to rustic or barbaric conditions, is as old as civilization—since you do get a little soft, if you don't have to kill things with your teeth quite so often.

Personally I think the Kull stories are a bit better than Conan, and less formulaic, too. One of them even shows the folly of a pure Noble Savage idea—Kull's Atlantean tribe may have virtues the civilization of Valusia lack, but they also stone a woman for talking to a foreigner. In a nutshell, huh?

Taranaich said...

The Noble Savage archetype is something Howard had absolutely no stock in: his view of the barbarian's life was that it was brutish, nasty and short. He had no illusions about the savage having some sort of virtuous, naive idyll, which is explored in later books. Conan voices his preferences for barbarian ways, but then, Conan is a highly complex and contradictory character: a barbarian who becomes a civilized king, a man who lives in the moment yet immerses himself in ancient knowledge, distrustful of magic yet not averse to using it for his own ends, and so forth.

It's unfortunate that the first of Del Rey's three volumes has nearly all the generic, formulaic Conan stories: the next two books have not only more variety, but are vastly superior in quality to the "middle period" stories. As such, reading from "Iron Shadows in the Moon" to "The Devil in Iron" can be pretty repetitive, with only "Rogues in the House" breaking up the repetition.

Sophie's Favorite: Kull's tribe may not be decadent and civilized, but they still have their "tambus." They plan to burn a woman at the stake for planning to elope with a Lemurian, whose people intermittently warred with the Atlanteans. Howard's sympathies lay with the barbarian in the way one favours the underdog.

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