Conan the Swordsman by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Björn Nyberg
Bantam, 1st printing, 1978
Genre: fantasy, adventure, sword & sorcery
Synopsis & Review: Before he wore the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow, Conan the Cimmerian (or more popularly, Conan the Barbarian) traveled the Hyborian world. From Asgard in the north to Vendhya in the east he wandered, from southern Stygia to the Barachan Isles of the west, and into the Pictish Wilderness. He was a thief, a pirate, a mercenary, and a general. He battled men, demons, and monsters. He was Conan the Swordsman.
Oh, hells yes. In theory. You see, though Robert E. Howard created Conan, after his too-shirt career and too-early death, the Conan stories became a lucrative franchise, with more stories, novels, and even comics, games, movies, and television series, both animated and live action. These later pastiches were written by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Björn Nyberg, Robert Jordan, Poul Anderson, Leonard Carpenter, and Harry Turtledove, among others. Some of Howard’s original works were even expurgated of some content, and also revised and rewritten, notably by Cater and de Camp. And in the comics and movies, Conan and the Hyborian world differed noticeably from Howard’s depiction. Due to the vast body of work (over fifty novels and dozens of short stories) and the many and varied writers, there is not even one agreed upon chronology of Conan’s life, but five. Of course the quality varies drastically, some writers being accomplished in their own right, while other efforts are simply elevated fan fiction.
This volume is a collection of seven stories and two non-fiction pieces; the two non-fiction pieces are by de Camp, and explain the Conan saga and Hyborian world, and also the derivation of names in the Hyborian world. The stories range from Conan’s adolescence fighting among the Aesir, to nearing middle age as a general in Aquilonia. Each is prefaced by a helpful little introduction about where in his life they are and what events preceded them. There are also numerous illustrations for various objects such as a poniard, a carrack, and a helm and hauberk, presumably for non-RPGers. And sadly, none of the stories are in any way distinguished. Oh, they have a capacity to entertain; although it took me two or three tries to actually read the book, I did roll fairly merrily along to the finish once I got started. But the entire time I read them, I suspected they were lacking. I had read The Hour of the Dragon once, long ago in high school, and I was sure in my memory that Howard’s Conan was different.
The Queen of the Black Coast & Red Nails by Robert E. Howard
Originally printed 1934 & 1936
86 & 70 pages
Genre: fantasy, adventure, sword & sorcery
Summary: Fleeing Argos rather than betray a fellow, Conan bullies his way onto a merchant vessel, which is subsequently captured by pirates. Impressing their splendid queen Belit with his battle prowess, Conan joins the pirates in raiding the Black Coast. When he and his lover come across the ruins of a nameless city, they also plunder it’s lost treasure, despite the horrors of the surrounding jungle. Fascinated by a jeweled necklace, Belit spirals into madness, ordering her crew to their doom.
Summary: After murdering a Stygian officer who sought to debauch her, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood crossed the wilderness with Conan in pursuit. Discovering a lost and presumably abandoned city, Conan and Valeria begin exploring, only to discover a supernatural evil and a race of men who have sunk from the heights of civilization into the depths of savage depravity.
To confirm my suspicions, I perused some of Howard’s stories, including Red Nails and The Queen of the Black Coast, and the later pastiches suffered by comparison. In their defense, I will say that the two stories I selected to read all of also happen to feature two of Howard’s strongest female characters in the Conan canon, Bêlit and Valeria, which heightened the contrast between styles. Unlike the conquests depicted in Conan the Swordsman, these heroines are strong and lively, fit counterparts to Conan.
Howard’s stories are not simplistic as the pastiches so often are. Conan accepts the brutal world in which he lives for what it is, and understands the futility of railing against it; He is what he is, and he will live as well as he can before dying, but he expects no more than that. Howard’s stories explore the clash between civilization and barbarism, and the effects of the former upon humanity, with pessimistic conclusions as his hero looks on in sorrowful wonder. That darkness, which often manifests as humor in Howard’s work, is conspicuously absent from the later pastiches.
Though the prose is purple in Howard’s work, it is also clean and clear, bare of the excessive wordiness and circumlocution that plagues many imitators. The stories move quickly, maintaining momentum and intensity; they are “ripping good yarns,” and the imitations are pallid in comparison, as cliché-ridden exercises. They trivialize and contain Conan, taming him from Howard’s wild, dark barbarian, trying to make him fit a stationary pattern dictated by current fantasy tropes, when Howard’s Conan embodied them. This serves to remake Conan into a less instinctive, primitive man, and into a more civilized one, which was surely not Howard’s intent. Worse, the pastiche writers destroy the atmosphere of savagery and the eerie that Howard created; their efforts at the supernatural are awkward, clunky, and never thrilling, which is perhaps the best description for their work as a whole. Technically, the stories are not terrible, for some of the imitators are good writers in their own rights, but whatever their quality, they lack the driving force, the personality Howard imbued his work with, to their detriment. That being said, Conan the Swordsman represents some of the better work done by imitators, but it should not be mistaken for authentic Conan.
In summary, read Howard’s stories, and perhaps a few pastiches only for comparison.
Cover: Well, it is a bitchin’ fold-out, but otherwise, it’s an inferior imitation Frazetta. Conan looks appallingly simian, in fact.
Conan of Cimmeria, soldier, adventurer, pirate, rogue, and thief, had come to the land of Punt with his love of the moment, the Corinthian dancing girl Muriela, former slave to Zargheba. They came to search for treasure, having escaped a hideous death at the hands fo the priests of Keshan. (CtS)
His eyes swept the blood-stained ranks, seeking expressions of wrath or jealousy. He saw none. The fury was gone from the ebon faces. He realized that to these men Belit was more than a woman: a goddess whose will was unquestioned. He glanced at the Argus, wallowing in the crimson sea-wash, heeling far over, her decks awash, held up by the grappling-irons. He glanced at the blue-fringed shore, at the far green hazes of the ocean, at the vibrant figure which stood before him; and his barbaric soul stirred within him. To quest these shining blue realms with that white-skinned young tiger-cat–to love, laugh, wander and pillage–“I’ll sail with you,” he grunted, shaking the red drops from his blade. (QotBC)
Her hands tiring from clinging to the spirelike pinnacle, she let herself down on the shelf, frowning in indecision. She had come far–from the camp of the mercenaries by the border town of Sukhmet amidst the level grasslands, where desperate adventurers of many races guard the Stygian frontier against the raids that come up like a red wave from Darfar. Her flight had been blind, into a country of which she was wholly ignorant. And now she wavered between an urge to ride directly to that city in the plain, and the instinct of caution which prompted her to skirt it widely and continue her solitary flight. (RN)
20 May – 28 May