The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
Robert E Howard
(Compilation published 2002, stories written 1932-1933)
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing. - "The Tower of the Elephant"
Fantastic. I'm so delighted I got around to reading these, and I'm actually glad I didn't do it sooner. There are certain styles, especially dated styles, that I've grown to enjoy over time. This book contains the first thirteen Conan stories, in the order they were (probably) written. I don't know that I would have been able to understand or appreciate the prose and the undercurrents of these stories if I were hung up on the scantily-clad females.
There are plenty of such women, but I find it actually honest, on a certain level. Howard has created a complicated war-torn world, in which plenty of its fairer denizens are used as pawns by the men around them. Many of them are happy to stay with Conan in return for protection, and that seems reasonable in the circumstances. Let me put it this way: it was less sexist than I was anticipating. I got tired of the more than occasional mention of the weakness of “girlish strength”, but there were clever women and vicious women, silly women and brave women scattered throughout. None of them wore very much, but Conan usually didn't wear much either.
It is a product of its time. The stories are unthinkingly racist here and there, until I came upon one story in particular so over-the-top in revolting description and behavior that I felt embarrassed just reading it. Even that story [The Vale of Lost Women], though, in the last third, had beautiful moments and amazing description. Reading the appendix, I found that Howard scholars believe that this story was a botched attempt to blend Howard's interest in Westerns into Conan's world, with the black-skinned Kushites standing in for “Indians”. I'll let you guess how horribly awkward that gets. It was not even accepted for publication until the 60's.
There are lots of other amusing bits that date the writing, for example a decidedly odd understanding of evolutionary theory is scattered into Conan's speculations on the origins of some of his supernatural foes.
Overall, I was struck by the beauty and dark humor of the writing. I really enjoyed the poetry in some of the pieces, and the fantastic descriptions (despite spotting a few 'favorite' phrases used over and over).
Before midnight they crossed the Ophirean border and at dawn the spires of Khorshemish stood up gleaming and rose-tinted on the south-eastern horizon, the slim towers overawed by the grim scarlet citadel that at a distance was like a splash of bright blood in the sky.
- "The Scarlet Citadel"
The writing is extremely visceral. Not just the violence of battle, but the constant sensuality of all the characters, men, women, things from beyond space, was surprising to me. I can understand both why these were popular from the time they were written and inspired an entire sub-genre of fiction.
In my current experience, though, that aspect of it, the sense of vibrant life, has departed from much of modern fantasy, even sword-and-sorcery itself. Part of this is the decline of using female characters as sexual objects, and that I certainly can't complain about. I found it amazing, though, that in tone some of the stories almost have more in common with modern romance or erotica than with modern fantasy.
Left alone...she realized how much the protection of the Cimmerian had meant to her. There intruded vaguely a wonderment at the mad pranks of Fate, that could make the daughter of a king the companion of a red-handed barbarian. With is came a revulsion toward her own kind. Her father, and [her captor], they were civilized men. And from them she had had only suffering. She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there were an ulterior motive behind his actions. Conan had shielded her, protected her, and – so far – demanded nothing in return.
- "Iron Shadows in the Moon"
She was no longer a princess, but only a terrified girl.... In her frantic fear she had come to him who seemed strongest. The ruthless power that had repelled her, drew her now.
For answer he drew off his scarlet cloak and wrapped it about her, roughly, as if tenderness of any kind were impossible to him. His iron hand rested for an instant on her slender shoulder, and she shivered again, but not with fear. Like an electric show a surge of animal vitality swept over her at his mere touch, as if some of his superabundant strength had been imparted to her. - "Black Colosuss"
The unabashed sexuality, while hardly ever moving into something openly sexual, was kind of great. These belong to a very masculine tradition of adventure that unapologetically embraces battle for the sake of combat, sexuality for the sake of lust, and death as a constant threat. It's not what I want to read every day, but it's a powerful experience to explore these lands for a while.
5 Stars - An Awesome Book