Sunday, 14 March 2010

Conan: The Central Tenets of an Origin Story

Hollywood is obsessed with origin stories. Sad, but it seems we're stuck with it. The very idea of an "origin story" for Conan runs counter to a lot of his mythos: he just stalks from the mysterious, unknowable Cimmeria, land of darkness and the night, without any true knowledge of his beginnings save hints and statements sprinkled throughout his adventures. It's understandable for superheroes: there's a natural curiosity as to where someone like Spider-Man got his superpowers, or why Batman chose to fight crime, or where the Joker came from. Conan? He's a barbarian, from a barbaric people in a barbaric land. Do we really have to spell it out?

However, *if* we're going to do a Conan origin, that doesn't mean we can make any old garbage up. I believe there are enough known elements of Conan's life to form an origin and basis strong and iconic enough for any superhero. Although I dislike comparing Conan to a superhero, being very different in tone and style, his spectacular history in Marvel and Dark Horse mean that Conan is frequently considered a "comic character," with a defining event that made him who he is.

Well, I say, let's give him one. And what greater "defining" event could there be than the infamous Battle of Venarium?

First, let's have a look at comparisons. These are the tenets of some major superhero movies released in the past few years. Just about every iteration - film, television, animated series, comic, novel, game - adheres to them like biblical canon. Any that change them significantly are either deliberate reimaginings that make no claims to be faithful to the original or classic visions, or universally derided. Appended to each entry are the many films, television shows, cartoons, comics, novels, games, radio shows and others which adhere to these tenets.

Superman is born Kal-el. He is from Krypton, the son of Jor-el, sent to earth on a spaceship just before Krypton is destroyed. He lands near Smallville, Kansas, where he is raised by the Kents to be a good boy, under the name Clark Kent. He grows up a black-haired, blue-eyed, athletic and muscular young man, goes to Smallville High and goes out with Lana Lang. When he grows up, he goes to Metropolis, joins the Daily Planet newspaper, falls in love with Lois Lane, works for Perry White and with Jimmy Olsen. Under the name Superman, Kal-el removes his glasses, wears a variation of his original costume, while he battles the machinations of Lex Luthor. His powers include but are not limited to at least a few of the following: incredible strength, flight or great agility, superspeed, heat vision, x-ray vision, freezing breath.

Batman is born Bruce Wayne, son of the wealthy Bruce family. After going to a family outing, his mother and father are gunned down by a petty criminal in a botched mugging. In one dark period in his life, he is faced with the image of a bat, a vision which he realises as a symbol of terror and superstitious dread. With only his butler Alfred assisting him, Wayne uses his fortune to train in martial arts, construct suits, weapons and vehicles in his quest to fight crime. Wayne uses the bat as his symbol, to strike fear into the hearts of superstitious criminals. He works with Commissioner Gordon, occasionally fellow vigilantes Robin and Batgirl, and he battles an eclectic rogue's gallery including the likes of the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and recently Ra's Al Gul and Bane.


Peter Parker is an ordinary youth, if quite a bit brighter than average, living in New York with his his aunt and uncle after the death of his parents. One day during a science-related educational event, he is bitten by a radioactive spider. This gives him an array of superpowers evocative of the arachnid: this may include super strength, pre-cognitive reactions, incredible wall-scaling ability, and great agility. Initially, Peter uses his powers for personal gain, but one fateful day, he has the opportunity to stop a thief from escaping: this results in the death of his uncle, who was killed by that same thief. Peter then resolves to use his powers to benefit society, and becomes a crimefighter - Spider-Man.

Even so, his life as a teenager is at odds with his vigilantism. He takes up a job at the Daily Bugle, whose editor vilifies Spider-Man, and he pines for the red-headed Mary Jane (or Gwen Stacey), while befriending Harry Osborn, son of Norman Osborn (also known as the Green Goblin, Spider-Man's nemesis). Peter has to juggle his life as a teenager with his alter ego, all while dealing with the growing pains of adolescent and early manhood.

The Incredible Hulk
Dr Banner is a meek, quiet scientist working on the development of a device involving gamma radiation: however, an accident at the site of an experiment bombards Banner with gamma rays. Whenever he undergoes stressful emotions, he is in danger of undergoing a transformation into a hideous, monstrous being known as the Hulk. The Hulk is greater than human in size, heavily muscled, and born of Banner's anger escalating into an incarnated form, usually of a colour unusual for humans (grey or green). Only his true love Bettie can quell his rage, though her father General "Thunderbolt" Ross will stop at nothing to contain and subdue the beast.

Iron Man
(I couldn't find any collages of Tin Can Man that have the movie, comics, cartoon etc contained, but you get the drift)

Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who made his fortune on technology, and the head of Stark Industries. Despite his incredible intellect and aptitude for innovation, he enjoys a carefree life of wine, women and song. This all changes when observing his technology tested in a war region, somewhere in the east: he is mortally wounded when captured by the enemy, and it is only by the timely intervention Ho Yinsen that a magnetic device prevents shards of shrapnel from reaching his heart. While incarcerated, he and Yinsen construct a suit of power armour, which Stark uses to escape.

Upon his return home, Stark is transformed by his experience. He develops his armour further, and uses it to defend himself and his company from external threats. With his friend James Rhodes (who would become his partner War Machine), Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan the only ones privy to his secret, he becomes Iron Man.


Some may say, "But Conan isn't a comic character, he's a literary character! It isn't fair to compare him!" Very well: let's look at some literary characters adapted to film whose central tenets are usually adhere to. To make things interesting, I'm even going to include characters who manage to be very different from their original iterations, yet even then, they stick to certain elements.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is a private detective, living at 221b Baker Street. He is nothing short of a genius when it comes to detective work: deduction, observation, forensics, and anything pertinent to his work. He displays an astonishing ability to deduce details about a person from their appearance and belongings, no matter how plain they appear to be. Holmes is also a competent combatant, with many skills in the martial arts, to supplement his forensic skills. However, he is also something of an eccentric, enjoys a pipe, and sometimes is known to indulge in recreational drugs. His partner Watson is not quite as impressive as him intellectually (varying by adaptation), but is nonetheless a valued partner and is frequently seen with Holmes on his adventures.


Tarzan was born an English aristocrat, the son of a British Lord and lady, before he is orphaned and left alone in the dark jungles of Africa. There, he is raised by a tribe apes who discover him, and name him Tarzan. Tarzan grows into a tall, powerful, athletic man with grey eyes and dark hair, and eventually becomes the Lord of the Apes, with his distinctive cry echoing throughout the jungle. He meets a young woman, Jane Porter, with whom he falls in love. At some point, he returns to civilization, but the call of the wild urges him back to his adopted home.


Count Dracula is a Transylvanian nobleman who claims descent from an Eastern European warlord. He is a vampire, an undead being which drinks the blood of the living, though his charisma and magnetic charm masks his hideous nature. He lives in a great castle in Transylvania, also occupied by his three Brides, but is interested in traveling outside his home country. He has a number of other powers linked with his vampirism and the forces of darkness at large: these might include hypnotism, transmogrification into beasts or even smoke, and other sorcery. He cannot be seen in reflections, and is vulnerable to one or all of the following: sunlight, a stake through the heart, beheading. While he seduces and turns young women into vampires, vampire hunter Van Helsing will stop at nothing to destroy him once and for all.


Now, let's see Conan. Is there enough sprinkled through the stories to make one? Of course there is. Note: every single thing written here is taken from Howard. No pastichery or fan-theories, everything is straight from a story or letter from REH.


Conan is born on a battlefield, during a skirmish between his clan and a band of raiding Vanir warriors. His clan is situated in Northwest Cimmeria(1). Cimmerians are a harsh and dark race(1a), who inhabit a dark land(1b). He grows up hunting mountain-beasts(2), felling hawks with stones(3), and participating in wars among other Cimmerian tribes, as well as along the Nordheim border(4). He grows up to become a black-haired, blue-eyed man. His father is a blacksmith(5). His family teaches him of Crom and his dark race (5a) and Cimmerian theology(5b).

His grandfather is a warrior from a southern tribe who was chased out during a bloodfeud, and after long wanderings--perhaps among the Hyborian kingdoms--settled among the northwesterners. Grandfather inspires young Conan with stories of the Hyborian kingdoms far to the south, which he raided frequently when he was still among the southern Cimmerians, possibly instilling in the boy a desire to see those wonders(6). At the same time, the mythology of the Cimmerians gives him a healthy fear of the supernatural: ghouls, goblins, necromancers, night fiends, ghosts, hobgoblins, dwarfs, wizards and sorcerers (7).

At some point before he becomes a man, Conan breaks the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull with his bare hands(8). As a youth, Conan is so formidable a warrior that his name is repeated around the council fires of Cimmeria, even becoming a slayer of chiefs(8a). Conan himself takes part in the assault of Venarium, an Aquilonian fort-town, part of an Aquilonian attempt to conquest and colonize southern Cimmeria. The Cimmerians puts aside their blood-feuds and conflicts to gather en-mass, where they annihilate the Gundermen colonists and raze Venarium to cinders(9). It is here that Conan may have had his first encounter with civilization(10). (Everything up to Venarium alone would make an epic origin movie: just fling in a sorcerer or horror from Cimmerian mythology to spice things up and you're good to go)

After Venarium, Conan's first journey outside of his homeland is northward, where he fights alongside a group of Aesir for some time, raiding and battling Vanir and Hyperboreans. On one ill-fated raid, he is captured by Hyperboreans, and his incarceration instills a lifelong hatred for them in the young warrior which affects his policies as king of Aquilonia. He escapes, and flees southwards into the Hyborian Kingdoms(11) of Brythunia, Nemedia, Koth and Aquilonia(12). A year after Venarium, he finds himself at the Thief-City of Zamora, where he practises his thievery for another year before the events of "The Tower of the Elephant" (with "The God in the Bowl" and possibly "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" preceding it.)(13)

Or, to condense: Conan is a strong & dangerous warrior because he was born & raised among a race of strong, dangerous warriors. He is distrustful and confused by magic and civilization because he's a barbarian. He came to the Hyborian lands to search for adventure, wonder and excitement. That's all there is to it, and really, do we need an origin story to tell us that?

1. He was born on a battle field, during a fight between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir. The country claimed by and roved over by his clan lay in the northwest of Cimmerian, but Conan was of mixed blood, although a pure-bred Cimmerian. - Letter to P.S. Miller

“Life seems bitter and hard and futile. The men of those dark hills brood overmuch on unknown things. They dream monstrous dreams. Their gods are Crom and his dark race, and they believe the world of the dead is a cold, sunless place of everlasting mist, where wandering ghosts go wailing forevermore. They have no hope here or hereafter, and they brood too much on the emptiness of life. I have seen the strange madness of futility fall upon them when a little thing like a spinning dust-cloud, or the hollow crying of a bird, or the moan of the wind through bare branches brought to their gloomy minds the emptiness of life and the vainness of existence. Only in war are the Cimmerians happy." - "The Phoenix on the Sword" (draft)

1b. “A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing. As far as a man may see his eye rests on the endless vistas of hills beyond hills, growing darker and darker in the distance. Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray. Winds blow sharp and cold, driving rain or sleet or snow before them, and moan drearily among the passes and down the valleys. There is little mirth in that land.”

2. I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts. - The Hour of the Dragon

3. ... in his youth he had felled hawks on the wing. - The Hour of the Dragon

4. Conan grinned savagely, involuntarily touching the scars on his dark face. “You had known otherwise, had you spent your youth on the northern frontiers of Cimmeria! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the borders.” - "The Phoenix on the Sword

5. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.” - The Hour of the Dragon

5a. “Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?” - "Queen of the Black Coast"
“By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!” - "The Phoenix on the Sword"
“Lir an mannanan mac lir!” - "Xuthal of the Dusk"

5b. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” - "Queen of the Black Coast"

6. His grandfather was a member of a southern tribe who had fled from his own people because of a blood-feud and after long wanderings, eventually taken refuge with the people of the north. He had taken part in many raids into the Hyborian nations in his youth, before his flight, and perhaps it was the tales he told of those softer countries which roused in Conan, as a child, a desire to see them. There are many things concerning Conan's life of which I am not certain myself. - Letter to P.S. Miller

7. Conan listened attentively. The natural skepticism of the sophisticated man was not his. His mythology contained ghouls, goblins, and necromancers. - "Iron Shadows in the Moon"
Conan did not press the matter, nor did he look incredulous. His beliefs included night fiends, ghosts, hobgoblins and dwarfs. - The Tombalku Fragment
Wizards and sorcerers abounded in his barbaric mythology, and any fool could tell that this was no common man. - The Hour of the Dragon

8. "Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man..." - "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula"

8a. "I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark..." - "Rogues in the House"

9. "My uncle was at Venarium when the Cimmerians swarmed over the walls. He was one of the few who escaped that slaughter. I've heard him tell the tale, many a time. The barbarians swept out of the hills in a ravening horde, without warning, and stormed Venarium with such fury none could stand before them. Men, women and children were butchered. Venarium was reduced to a mass of charred ruins, as it is to this day. The Aquilonians were driven back across the marches, and have never since tried to colonize the Cimmerian country. But you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted the other. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." - "Beyond the Black River"

10. I do not know, for instance, when he got his first sight of civilized people. It might have been at Vanarium, or he might have made a peaceable visit to some frontier town before that. At Vanarium he was already a formidable antagonist, though only fifteen. - Letter to P.S. Miller

11. There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir, fighting with the Vanir and the Hyperboreans, and developing a hate for the latter which lasted all his life and later affected his policies as king of Aquilonia. Captured by them, he escaped southward and came into Zamora in time to make his debut in print. - Letter to P.S. Miller

12. These people were strange and mysterious to him; they were not of his kind – not even of the same blood as the more westerly Brythunians, Nemedians, Kothians and Aquilonians, whose civilized mysteries had awed him in times past. - "The Tower of the Elephant"

13. If Conan was almost 15 at Venarium, and 17 in "The Tower of the Elephant," but arrives at the Thief-City a year after Venarium, then that leaves at least a year for Conan between arrival at the Thief-City and the events of TTotE.


Now what was so hard about that?

You'll notice there isn't an image of Conan from the movies, TV show or cartoon. That is because none of them actually adhere to enough of those tenets to count in any way. To illustrate, I'll list the Conan adaptations into other media, and note everything they get right. I'm not going to mention stuff that is condescendingly obvious, like "he is a barbarian," "he wields a sword," "he is muscular and big" - aye, that's the stuff you'd get from looking at a bloody picture of him, and it doesn't distinguish him from other barbarians/swordsmen/warriors. You don't get points for that, any more than you give WW2 movies points for having period tanks or guns, or featuring Nazis. It's the stuff you just do. However, things that are more unique to Conan, things some people miraculously miss - that's Conan's a Cimmerian, as opposed to Sumerian or Serbian or Siberian - do get a mention.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan is a Cimmerian, born in Cimmeria. His father is a blacksmith. His god is Crom. He travels to Zamora in his early adventures.

"Conan the Adventurer" (Animated Series)

Conan is a Cimmerian, born in Cimmeria. He is black-haired and blue-eyed. His father is a blacksmith, and his grandfather inspires young Conan with stories of the Hyborian kingdoms far to the south, which instill in the boy a desire to see those wonders. His god is Crom. He travels to Zamora in his early adventures.

"Conan the Adventurer" (Live Action)

Conan is a Cimmerian, born in Cimmeria. His god is Crom.


Conan is a Cimmerian, born in Cimmeria. His father is a blacksmith. His god is Crom.


Compare any recent film adaptation of a comic or literary hero to its requisite paragraph. You'd notice that the plots of Superman Returns, Batman Begins, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man have just about everything in common with the tenets, from events and characterization to appearance and setting. A great deal of others do too, even the '60s "Batman," "Super Friends," and other family friendly shows.

Compare the amount of text in the first Conan entry. Especially note that not even the comics get everything, and they're far and away the closest adaptations thus far. Now compare to the four above. See the difference?

Hopefully this illustrates that nobody in their right mind could consider Conan the Barbarian a faithful adaptation. As for theme and tone, that old "sometimes to be faithful to the spirit, you can't be faithful to the letter" horseradish - that's for another discussion. What is important is that the details are so different, they might as well be different characters, stories, and universes altogether.

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