Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Filmgoer's Guide to Conan the Barbarian (1982): Cimmeria

Milius' conception of Cimmeria is of a great mountainous landscape, with many snow-capped peaks, and even Conan's village is covered in snow. Conan's home village is situated in a dark, boreal forest.  During the summer, wild blueberries are picked, and the leaves are darkly green, indicating the snow of the early scene is only seen in winter.

But how does it compare to Robert E. Howard's descriptions of Conan's homeland?

Land of Darkness

The origin of Cimmeria can be seen in one of Howard's poems, which predates the Conan stories, and so may or may not be in reference to Conan's homeland. It could, in fact, describe the original homeland of the Cimmerians of Greek myth as much as it describes the Hyborian Age Cimmerians. Nonetheless, the descriptions are entirely compatible with what is known in the Conan stories, and so it can perhaps be viewed as a prelude to the Hyborian Age:
I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.
Vista on vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista – hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.
It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.
It was so long ago and far away
I have forgot the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.
Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.
 - "Cimmeria," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, ps 16-17

There are two inspirations for the poem, the first being the homeland of the Cimmerians of Greek mythology, as described by historians such as Plutarch:

Others say that the Cimmerii, anciently known to the Greeks, were only a small part of the nation... These, they say, live in a dark and woody country hardly penetrable by the sunbeams, the trees are so close and thick, extending into the interior as far as the Hercynian forest...
 - Plutarch's Life of Marius

The second was Howard's trip to Dark Valley, Palo Pinto County, Texas:

Man is greatly molded by his surroundings. I believe, for instance, that the gloominess in my own nature can be partly traced to the surroundings of a locality in which I spent part of my baby-hood. It was a long, narrow valley, lonesome and isolated, up in the Palo Pinto hill country. It was very sparsely settled and its name, Dark Valley, was highly descriptive. So high were the ridges, so thick and tall the oak trees that it was shadowy even in the daytime, and at night it was as dark as a pine forest – and nothing is darker in this world. The creatures of the night whispered and called to one another, faint night-winds murmured through the leaves and now and then among the slightly waving branches could be glimpsed the gleam of a distant star. Surely the silence, the brooding loneliness, the shadowy mysticism of that lonesome valley entered in some part into my vague-forming nature.
- Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. October 1930

Dark Woods and Sombre Hills 

Howard went into detail in the first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword":

"A gloomier land never was – all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys."
-- "The Phoenix on the Sword," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, pg 24
“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.”
-- "The Phoenix on the Sword," draft version, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, pg 332

It's curious Howard never mentions mountains in the stories, but there are some references that indicate there were at least some mountains in Cimmeria:

The ocean flowed around the mountains of western Cimmeria to form the North Sea; these mountains became the islands later known as England, Scotland and Ireland, and the waves rolled over what had been the Pictish wilderness and the Bossonian marches.
- "The Hyborian Age," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p365
"Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain."
- "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p405
"I saw again the battlefield whereon I was born," said Conan, resting his chin moodily on a massive fist. "I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts."
- "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p90
Howard's own map of the Hyborian Age gives an indicator of where those mountain ranges may be:

We can surmise that since Conan's tribe roamed over the north-west corner of Cimmeria, the closest mountains that could be home of the beasts Conan hunted would be the peaks which would become Scotland, or perhaps the Shetland or Orkney archipelagos. In addition, the Jotunheimen of southern Sweden are right in the centre of Cimmeria. Conan never does refer to any mountains, save the oblique reference to "mountain-beasts" and the possibly mythological mountain of Crom: if Conan did indeed spend time in the mountains, they would likely be in ventures a distance away from the hills and woods of his birth.

It's important to note that Cimmeria was not described as inherently mountainous: considering the narrator of "Cimmeria" could have mentioned mountains, it's telling that there is none. Outside the direct mention of Cimmerian mountains in "The Hyborian Age," the predominant geographical feature of the country is wooded hills. However, what's most fascinating about Howard's description of Cimmeria is how dark it is, with the hills, forests, mists and fog making the land threatening and forbidding, even by day. It certainly doesn't sound like the sort of place to go ice-fishing or blueberry-picking.

The land around the Cimmerian village, filmed in Valsain, is more in line with Howard's descriptions: grey-skied, sombre, densely wooded pine forest, a northern environment. That said, it simply doesn't look particularly threatening: cold, harsh, somber, perhaps, but not the nightmarish vision of "Cimmeria" or Conan's memories of the place. Nonetheless, it is closer than the massively mountainous peaks of the earlier scene. Most importantly, the mountains of the early scene are completely bald, with no trees easily visible.

In addition to hills, vales and forests, there are also forbidding crags and sheer cliffs in Cimmeria:

“He came from a race of hillmen, accustomed to scaling forbidding crags, and he was a man of unusual strength and agility.”
- "The Servants of Bit-Yakin," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p13
“…his thews had been steeled in boyhood on the sheer cliffs of his native hills."
 - "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p173

Conan had spent enough time among them that he became a natural climber, with the walls and towers of civilization no barrier to his climbing skills.

Flora & Fauna

The film sheds little light on Cimmerian wildlife, though it can be inferred that there are obviously sources of food, hide and other resources for Cimmerian amenities. Some hunters are seen carrying a deer carcass, and Conan goes for what I can only assume is ice-fishing. The only live animals seen in Cimmeria, aside from the horses and dogs of Thulsa Doom's men, are cows and sheep. Domesticated animals will be discussed in a post on the Cimmerians, but suffice to say, Howard never mentions any sheep in Cimmeria.

Howard describes a few possible examples of Cimmerian wildlife:

"I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts."
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p90
"The stones he hurled with a curse went wide or fell harmless, though in his youth he had felled hawks on the wing."
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan," p127
To another man it would have seemed merely the howl of a wolf. But this man knew it was no wolf. He was a Cimmerian and understood the voices of the wilderness as a city-bred man understands the voices of his friends.
 - "Beyond the Black River," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p96
"Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong."
 - "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p185
"I snatch naps like a panther watching beside the trail for a deer to come by."
 - "Red Nails," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p317

"Panther" is often used in reference to the black forms of jaguars and leopards, and an informal name for the cougar in the southern United States.  It's also the name of a legendary creature of Medieval bestiaries. Panthers, hawks and bulls are certainly present: deer and wolves, though unconfirmed, are likely too. Quite what the "mountain beasts" Conan refers to may be is a mystery, be they mundane modern animals, prehistoric relics, or something else entirely.

We also know what definitely wasn't in Cimmeria:

He had never seen an elephant, but he vaguely understood that it was a monstrous animal, with a tail in front as well as behind. This a wandering Shemite had told him, swearing that he had seen such beasts by the thousands in the country of the Hyrkanians; but all men knew what liars were the men of Shem.
 - "The Tower of the Elephant," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p70

A final note is the presence of blueberries in Stone & Milius' Cimmeria. Wild blueberries are native to the Americas, and were only mass cultivated in Europe in the 20th Century. While one could argue that the film's blueberries refer to the blueberry-like berries of Europe like blackberries, it seems more reasonable to assume Stone & Milius refer to the more common fruit.  Now, Howard did occasionally transpose flora & fauna across continents, but there's usually a possible explanation in the inhabitants or geography of a region.  For instance, Howard populated the Pictish Wilderness with toucans, an American bird.  How did an American bird come to the Eurasian continent?

Simple: the Picts established colonies on the continent in the pre-Cataclysmic Age, and it isn't outside the realm of possibility that they brought enough toucans from the Pictish Isles (now the Americas) to establish a community.  With the Ice Age, they died out, and since the Pictish Wilderness sank under the sea, there's no fossil evidence for these displaced toucans. Such a thing could be applied to the blueberries, though it would be more abstract: perhaps the Picts brought them over and started cultivating them in the old continent, eventually spreading to Cimmeria, before they too were wiped out by the cold.  That said, all this evades the central point: that Howard never said anything about blueberries in Cimmeria.


  1. Al: I want to translate this "Filmgoer's guide" into spanish and publish it in my own blog. Do I have your permission?

  2. the blog of Kike is very good, he writes about Alexander Nevsky or Skyline jejeje... he wrote several articles about peplum I should read them but sometimes it's difficult read all the blogs you want
    Cimmeria, it remember me of the Basque country indomitable northern people with one or two days with sun in a year, in a forum about politics and society a very funny guy called the basque people in the limit provinces in Spain the cimmerian invaders, all, I mean the young and more extremist nationalist people with mullets
    do you remember Falcon crest, the soap opera? one episode is called Cimmerian dawn and I think it refers to the greek legend of the land of endless night

  3. return in the spain location in 2014 on my blog (french) .