Wednesday, 26 January 2011

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

... a BOY of about nine... The boy's dark eyes gleam like pools of oil... His eyes are piercing blue, the eyes of a barbarian child, already toughened by the harsh climate and the ways of the forest...
 - Description of nine-year-old Conan, Conan the Barbarian (1980 revision)

Conan is seen at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian, where he is nine years old. He has a close relationship with his father, who took him to pick wild blueberries since he was four or five. When Conan is nine, his father teaches him of his gods, and the enigma of Steel. On one fateful day, a horde of raiders come to Conan's village, decimating the populace and torching the buildings. No mercy is shown, not even to the women, and the few men brave enough to fight back are slaughtered - including Conan's father, who is slain before his son's eyes.

The slaughter is over almost as soon as it began: only the children, clinging to their mother's corpses or mewling pitably, remain - save one adult. Conan's mother, sword in hand, is defending Conan against the armoured warriors. Then a great, mysterious warrior - Thulsa Doom - dismounts, and seemingly entrances Conan's mother. She drops her sword to her side, and Doom beheads her. Conan can do nothing but watch, staring dumbly as his world is destroyed, and offers no resistance when he is locked in a chain gang with the other Cimmerian children. He is marched across hills, mountains, valleys and plains, until he arrives at the Wheel of Pain. There he is chained to a spoke, and forced to push this monstrous contraption. His childhood ends in chains.

Is this an accurate extrapolation of the clues Robert E. Howard left us regarding Conan's younger days?
Born on a Battlefield

Conan's early life can be discerned from an analysis of the clues Howard left us in a letter to P. Shuyler Miller:
He was born on a battlefield, 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. 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. 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. He stood six feet and weighed 180 pounds, though he lacked much of having his full growth.
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. Schuyler Miller, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p343-344

In addition, there are many clues spread throughout the stories:

"... there is something hidden, some undercurrent of which we are not aware. I sense it as in my youth I sensed the tiger hidden in the tall grass."
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p23
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," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p23
“I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him.”
 - "Rogues in the House," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p281
"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
But the instincts of the wild were there, that had caused him in his childhood to lie hidden and silent while wild beasts prowled about his covert.
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p109
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
... 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, p173-174
Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man - like this!"
 - "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," The Conquering Sword of Conan, p185

Young Conan and his mother walk down to a small lake. Conan crouches by the ice-cracked edge and throws in a fish line. The plop of the sinker carries clearly...
He leans and tries to follow his line down into the deep blue water.
 - Description of nine-year-old Conan, Conan the Barbarian (1980 revision)

Not much room for ice-fishing.

A Barbaric Childhood

Conan trudges along, with the other children, heavily weighted with his chains. Horsemen gallop past. Conan looks around, hearing the voice of the leader. He sees him silhouetted against the morning sun... His face is sad and small, the face of the tearful child that he is, but a strange resolution is in his wet eyes.
 - Description of nine-year-old Conan, Conan the Barbarian (1980 revision)

One must also consider the personality of young Conan: the film's Conan runs and hides from the raiders. All the other children of the village are enslaved. This is very different from the barbarian children Howard wrote of. Young Æsir warriors of "The Valley of the Worm" became warriors as soon as they were strong enough to wield a weapon:

If I told you his full strength, you would brand me a liar. But there is no man on earth today strong enough to bend the bow Niord handled with ease. The longest arrow-flight on record is that of a Turkish archer who sent a shaft 482 yards. There was not a stripling in my tribe who could not have bettered that flight.
 - "The Valley of the Worm," Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1

Conan's spiritual ancestor Kull was orphaned from an early age, and survived the wild jungles of Atlantis by running with the wolves and tigers:

"I was a hairless ape roaming in the woods," admitted Kull frankly and without shame. "I could not speak the language of men, and my only friends were the tigers and the wolves. I know not whom my people were, or what blood am I-"
 - "Exile of Atlantis," Kull: Exile of Atlantis

The most notable analogue is Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, who relates his early life in the unfinished "The Slave Princess":

"Wars and massed battles I have seen in plenty," said he, lifting his great goblet.  "Aye - I fought in the battle of Dublin when I was but eight years old, by the hoofs of the Devil!
..."So Wulfgar and I came into the battle and the first wounded man I saw was an English man-at-arms who had once crushed my ear lobe to a pulp so that the blood flowed over his mailed fingers, to see if he could make me cry out - I did not cry out but spat in his face, so he struck me senseless.  Now this man knew me and called me by name, gasping for water.  'Water is it"' said I.  'It's in the icy rivers of hell you'll quench your thirst!' And I jerked back his head to cut his throat...
..."Wulfgar was gone from me now and I advanced into the thick of the battle, loosing my arrows with all the might of my childish muscles, blindly and at random, so I do not know if I did scathe or not, or to whom, for the noise and shouting confused me and the smell of blood was in my nostrils, and the blindness and fury of my first massed battle upon me.
...A man-at-arms caught me up and held me high for Miles to view, while I cursed him in Gaelic and broke my milk teeth on his mail-clad wrist."
 - Cormac recalls the Battle of Dublin, "The Slave-Princess," Lord of Samarcand and other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient

Considering the similarities between the Cimmerians and the Irish, as well as Cormac and Conan, it seems reasonable to suppose that were Howard to write of Conan's early years, they would be similar to those of the Aesir, Kull and Cormac -- that young Conan would be fierce, dangerous and resourceful, not the frightened, gentle boy of Conan the Barbarian. A more detailed account of Conan's childhood, which includes elements from other stories, can be found here. It is clearly completely incompatible with Conan the Barbarian's account of events.

Compatibility Issues

Children's feet, trudging across a sharp ice flow, up a glacier, across valleys - huge mountains looming white behind. Feet and chains - pushing on - one in front of the other, dragging through the wind and blinding snow of a blizzard...
The children's faces are devoid of emotion. Their eyes have frozen into glass. Conan trudges along, no different than the others...
He pushes at his log, beaten, dejected, awaiting death. His head slumps, a tear wells up in his eye and spills down his cheek, but to no avail.
 - Conan and the other Cimmerian children on their final trek, Conan the Barbarian (1980 revision)

Conan cannot be enslaved and put to a wheel until adulthood, and also be present for the siege of Venarium at the age of fifteen, nor could he spend his youth fighting among the Aesir. It also stretches credulity that Conan could possibly have broken the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull, slain chiefs, become a warrior of such renown that his name is repeated around the council fires, or done any of the things Howard alludes to Conan doing in his youth, unless he achieved those feats before the age of nine.

Even excluding the direct evidence, there's circumstantial evidence and hypothesis to consider. Conan was stated by Howard to have made periodic returns to Cimmeria:

I am of the opinion that the city was one of the small city-states lying just west of Zamora, and into which Conan had wandered after leaving Zamora. Shortly after this he returned for a brief period to Cimmeria, and there were other returns to his native land from time to time.
 - Letter to P. Schuyler Miller, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p344

What possible reason could Conan have to go back to his native land if his family and tribe were wiped out? Indeed, how could he even find it, considering the destruction was so absolute that "no one would ever know that (Conan's) people had lived at all"? Most damning of all, Conan the Barbarian cannot happen at the same time as actual Robert E. Howard stories.

According to the director's cut, Conan recalled picking wild blueberries with his father as a boy of four or five "more than twenty years ago." The film script has young Conan's age at the time of his enslavement as nine. Conan then refers to "almost twenty years of pitiless cumber... no rest, no sleep like other men." Assuming Conan was, in fact, nine at the age he was enslaved, then that means Conan must have been in his late twenties when he takes his revenge on Thulsa Doom -- and that he spent almost twenty years in slavery. Yet according to Howard himself, Conan was seventeen years old during "The Tower of the Elephant." "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "The God in the Bowl" are very strongly implied to take place prior to that story in Conan's chronology. How can Conan be present for those stories if, according to Conan the Barbarian, Conan was still pushing the Wheel of Pain?

When one includes the stories where Howard is described as a "youth" the number of stories contradicted by Conan the Barbarian mount. A youth is a very loosely-applied term, but is most generally used to describe someone who hasn't achieved full manhood.
Arus saw a tall powerfully built youth, naked but for a loin-cloth, and sandals strapped high about his ankles.
 - "The God in the Bowl," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p46
A touch on his tunic sleeve made him turn his head, scowling at the interruption. He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him.
 - "The Tower of the Elephant," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p68
Young in years, he was hardened in warfare and wandering, and his sojourns in many lands were evident in his apparel.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p124
If I know thieves – and I should, for I was a thief in Zamora in my early youth...
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p157

Then one has to consider one of the most potent passages from one of, if not the, most highly regarded and famous Conan story of them all:

"But some day a man will rise and unite thirty or forty clans, just as was done among the Cimmerians, when the Gundermen tried to push the border northward, years ago. They tried to colonize the southern marches of Cimmeria: destroyed a few small clans, built a fort-town, Venarium, - you've heard the tale."
"So I have indeed," replied Balthus, wincing. The memory of that red disaster was a black blot in the chronicles of a proud and warlike people. "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
"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," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p51

Conan the Barbarian renders the above passage, essentially, "non-canon," in addition to the entirety of "The Tower of the Elephant," "The God in the Bowl," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast." If one takes Conan the Barbarian to be an accurate rendition of Conan's early life, then those Conan stories cannot happen the way Howard describes them. The only way they could is if they are retroactively made to happen later in Conan's life, and after the events of Conan the Barbarian - in which case Conan appears even more naive, ignorant and downright foolish. A seventeen-year-old Conan acting as he does in "The God in the Bowl" and "The Tower of the Elephant" is understandable: but for a Conan in his late twenties, especially after his experiences in Conan the Barbarian?


  1. I've always had a problem with Conan being tethered to a wheel from age 9-adulthood. The Conan I know wouldn't have put up with wearing chains for a few hours let alone years. And since he participated in the sack of Venarium when he was 15 we know he wasn't some poor dumb oaf pushing a wheel.

  2. do you know the anecdote of Jorge Sanz mother, Arnold Swcharzenegger and a donkey (mule)?

  3. Hey , what about the elements of this movie that were drawn from sprague decamps conan. i barely remember any of his stuff but i do remember the thing in the crypt which was one of his that i did enjoy and was used by milius ( except when the corspe comes to life) I would even argue that(as much as enjoy this flick, I know what it aint and thats reh's conan) that part of the film was better adapted that the bits taken from REH... my question being, is there anything else from decamp in there and is it better adapted than reh? I think decamp did the novelization correct and I'd imagine he was a big influence on this film too.Mario

  4. I've always had a problem with Conan being tethered to a wheel from age 9-adulthood. The Conan I know wouldn't have put up with wearing chains for a few hours let alone years. And since he participated in the sack of Venarium when he was 15 we know he wasn't some poor dumb oaf pushing a wheel.

    Got it in a nutshell. The original script tried to make it better by having Conan vow "men shall die for this!" as he's chained to a wheel, but it doesn't really help.

    do you know the anecdote of Jorge Sanz mother, Arnold Swcharzenegger and a donkey (mule)?

    I, erm, afraid I don't, Francisco. Do I want to know?

    Hey , what about the elements of this movie that were drawn from sprague decamps conan.

    They will be mentioned for completeness' sake, definitely.