THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN
by Robert E. Howard
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
2006 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard, a man who lived in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, who only met one other author in his short life, and who, in just the thirty years he lived, created one of the most well-known characters of twentieth century literature. To mark this date, Gollancz has published the centenary edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan.
One problem when a character becomes part of the social consciousness is that he changes, sometimes beyond recognition. If you ask the average person on the street about Conan the Barbarian, they’ll describe Arnold Schwarzenegger grunting his way through two films and hacking and slashing at everyone in sight. A return to Howard’s original work, however, reveals a character quite different from the stereotype.In many of the stories, rather than being a protagonist, Conan is merely a witness. In “The Tower of the Elephant,” he spends much of his time in support of Taurus, whose death allows Conan to take a more central role. This is not an isolated incident. In many of the stories, Conan witnesses more than he does. Another good example of this occurs in "The God in the Bowl," in which Conan is accused of murdering Kallian Publico. Rather than fight his way out, as the popular image of Conan would have him do, he waits and bides his time.
In some ways, this idleness on Conan's part adds to the strength of the stories. They aren't what the new reader expects coming in to read Howard's stories cold. Howard demonstrates that Conan is more nuanced that he would later appear. Instead of creating a one dimensional barbarian who uses his massive thews to muscle his way out of any situation, Conan has intelligence. Of course, he still leaves a wake of corpses to indicate his presence.
One of the things which does appear again and again throughout the stories is Howard's colorful prose. He has adopted an archaic (if fictional) way of speaking for all of his characters to indicate the antiquity of his setting, and his descriptive passages mirror this style as well. One example is the opening of "Jewels of Gwahulr," in which Howard writes, "The cliffs rose sheer from the jungle, towering ramparts of stone that glinted jade-blue and dull crimson in the rising sun, and curved away and away to east and west above the waving emerald ocean of fronds and leaves." Howard's imagery is almost poetic in a way which many modern writers attempt to match, but are unable to.
Howard's nomenclature is a mish-mash of ancient languages and created tongues in a way which tends to detract from the stories. Unlike Tolkien, who was writing The Hobbit at the same time as Howard was writing, Howard was not a linguist. He borrowed names of characters and places and assigned them without apparent concern any historical baggage. Thus the Hellenic River Styx runs along the Semitic country of Shem and the Latin Aquilonia lies near to the Norse Asgard.
Many of the situations Howard places Conan in have since become cliché for the field, however there is still a freshness to them in the original stories. The influence of Howard's colleague, H.P. Lovecraft, can easily be seen in Conan's frequent run ins with elder gods. His own ancient races of Cimmerians, Shemites, Aquilonians, and Stygians, are allowed to show the strengths and weakness of civilization and of barbarism in a world where creatures can still be found who are half-way between ape and human.
Howard's stories and his language stand up extremely well at a distance of seventy years after his suicide. Conan is a much more complex character than many will realize and the stories in The Complete Chronicles of Conan are sure to attract new fans who only know the popular perception of the Barbarian.