Friday, 25 May 2012

80 Years of Conan: Introduction


I’ve been working on a new character, providing him with a new epoch – the Hyborian Age, which men have forgotten, but which remains in classical names, and distorted myths.
 - Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa April 1932

2012 marks the eightieth year of Conan the Cimmerian’s presence in the popular consciousness. Following the previous year’s multitude of anniversaries (the Cross Plains Centennial, the 75th of Howard’s death, the 50th of Glenn Lord’s Howard Collector, among others) there is one other notable landmark in the 30th anniversary of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. While the cultural significance of the film deigns it worthy of recognition on such a year, the much greater milestone of the character’s first appearance in any medium should not go unnoticed.

And so it shan’t. In the months leading to December, I will be embarking upon a retrospective of all the Conan stories, fragments, synopses and related material of Howard’s most famous son: arguably one of the most recognizable characters in all fantastic literature, almost certainly the most recognizable barbarian in popular media, and one of the pillars of the Sword and Sorcery genre.

No doubt other tributes dedicated to the greater Conan franchise which has exploded over the past eight decades will appear across the internet, and better left to those more adequately versed in the comics, pastiches, films and television series. I’m just going to talk about the stories that started it all.



Born Out of Shadowed Hills


The origins of Conan as a fictional character are almost as myth-shrouded and enigmatic as that of the character’s own past – not to mention almost as commonly misinterpreted. John Milius’ infamous account of Howard’s creation of Conan certainly can give the newcomer the impression that the Cimmerian was the invention of a fevered, delusional madman – but one cannot deny the mythic grandeur and drama inherent in the idea of a ghost-king visiting a 20th-Century Texan in the dead of night to tell his tales. It’d make a grand Weird Tale in itself, and given Howard’s penchant for tall-tale-telling and his habit of downplaying the exhaustive effort he put into his writing, it’s a fitting creation myth to accompany Lovecraft’s false history of the Necronomicon or Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch.

Putting aside wild yarn-spinning and Chinese whispers, the narrative genealogy of Conan has a multitude of threads. The most obvious ones are what Howard himself had to say:

While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present or even the future work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen or rather, off my typewriter almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storywriting. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.
 - Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, 14th December, 1933
Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.
- "A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard," Letter to Alvin Earl Perry, circa early 1935 
It may sound fantastic to link the term “realism” with Conan; but as a matter of fact - his supernatural adventures aside - he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that’s why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.
- Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, 23rd July, 1935 
In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.
- Letter to P. Schuyler Miller, 10th March, 1936

The earliest of these discussions was written almost a year after the publication of the first story - and since the story was sent to Weird Tales in at least April 1932, almost two years after it was first written. Howard didn't speak much of unwritten or incomplete stories in his correspondence, so we have to look elsewhere for more clues to Conan's conception.

Howard was a voracious reader of historical fiction, action, adventure and all manner of ripping yarns, especially the works of several acknowledged masters: from classic practitioners Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and Jack London, to near-contemporaries Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, A. Merritt, and others. A full list of the possible literary predecessors and influences would be exhaustive (and exhausting) - wild men, cavemen, noble savages, byronic heroes, folk heroes, mythical kings, and swashbucklers. Arguments could be made for every vaguely barbaric warrior in the annals of fiction & mythology from Enkidu, Samson and Beowulf to Ursus, Tarzan, and Arthur Conan Doyle's Bunyanesque version of Giant Maximin as Conan’s grandsires. What's more, Conan was far from Howard's first barbarian hero, so any of those sources could be just as applicable to Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Am-ra and the others that preceded the future King of Aquilonia.

Perhaps, then looking to Howard's own body of work will provide more concrete answers.

Exile of Atlantis, Son of a Blacksmith



There are at least three sources in Howard’s own work which could be considered immediate predecessors to the Conan tales: the Kull saga, "The People of the Dark," and "Cimmeria." Although Howard's last Kull story, "Kings of the Night" was published two years before the first appearance of Conan, the fact that the first Conan story was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull tale makes the Atlantean an obvious literary precedent. Besides, the two share a lot in common: both are tall powerfully-built warriors over six feet in height, light-eyed and black haired, with indomitable fighting spirit and more than a touch of melancholy, spent time as outlaws or mercenaries. However, those elements are common to a number of fellow Howard swordsmen. The most notable similarity betwixt Atlantean and Cimmerian that is not shared by other heroes is that their unique placement in Howard's almost universal theme of the barbarism/civilization conflict: both are barbarians who become kings of civilized realms by their own hands.

Yet their future and physical similarities should not give the impression that the two characters are identical, nor that Kull was some mere "proto-Conan." Kull's upbringing and road to kingship was completely different from what is known of Conan's, save that both were born to barbarian tribes and spent time as outlaw leaders; Kull was asexual and a virgin, while Conan's love of women is well-documented; Kull is often preoccupied and distracted with brooding over existential matters and philosophical musings, which are subjects Conan does not consider of enough immediate consequence in his daily life to trouble him. Comparing "By This Axe, I Rule!" to "The Phoenix on the Sword" is beyond the scope of this post, but Howard's changes are telling in the direction he was taking in what would become the Conan stories.

The most prominent are the inclusion of a supernatural element, and the greater expansion of the setting. The Thurian Age was marked by a distinct sense of mystery and myth: the personal names are of an unknown etymology almost alien to modern eyes; lands and continents are similarly alien, or otherwise derived from myth, legend and parahistorical theories; while sorcery and the supernatural did occasion a few Kull stories, there were a good number which had no such presence; non-human intelligent races still persisted in small communities, albeit hidden, sometimes just below the surface of the human world; Howard drew no map of the world at that time. In contrast, the Hyborian Age has even more of the air of a lost historical epoch: names can be more easily traced through historical etymologies of modern cultures; the lands are commonly inspired and named for historical counterparts, genuine or hypothesized; sorcerers, monsters or demons feature in every Conan adventure, as well as the James Allison stories and "Wolves Beyond the Border"; non-human intelligent races are practically extinct; Howard drew a number of maps of the age.

While one could attribute this disparity to the simple fact that Howard wrote three times the number of Conan stories and fragments compared to Kull, it's tempting for me to view this as a little more flavouring to the literary agent hypothesis - that the greater age of Kull meant that less evidence of his time survives, and the details of his age are more distorted, vague and mysterious than the more recent Hyborian Age. The opening of Howard's essay "The Hyborian Age" could lend credence to that – not to mention the amount of detail Howard imparted into events, histories and characters which would never be even alluded to in the stories. For make no mistake, as much as Conan is the unquestioned human star of the stories, the Hyborian Age itself deserves top billing for the saga's dramatis personae. The same was true of the Kull stories – indeed, according to Howard, Kull of Atlantis was something of a happy accident in the writing process:

King Kull differed from these others in that he was put on paper the moment he was created, whereas they existed in my mind years before I tried to put them in stories. In fact, he first appeared as only a minor character in a story which was never accepted. At least, he was intended to be a minor character, but I had not gone far before he was dominating the yarn.
- "A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard," Letter to Alvin Earl Perry, circa early 1935

While Kull was forced from his home, Conan sought to leave of his own free will. The great driving force of Conan’s life, the spark which inspired him to live, love, slay, and find content, was indeed the glamour, majesty and glory of the Hyborian Kingdoms:

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.
- Letter to P. Schuyler Miller, 10th March, 1936

I believe that one cannot truly appreciate Conan without an understanding of his age, hence my extended exploration of its minutiae and work on an encyclopaedia of the period. It’s been asserted in the past that such scrutiny is at best superfluous and at worst imprudent; that Howard simply slapped together a mélange of historical and mythological names without thought for rhyme or reason, no deference to social mixture and cultural migration and all the things which forge and shape civilizations, no intentions for the world to serve as anything more multi-dimensioned than a cardboard backdrop for its steel-sinewed star. Why put such undue effort into something Howard apparently threw together absently, even contemptuously? Yet the setting persisted, and continues to persist, sometimes independently of its most famous son. Red Sonja is still going strong despite being contractually forbidden from directly referencing her black-maned brother-in-arms. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game where thousands of people play someone other than Conan. Several traditional RPGs have been successful enough to publish multiple volumes based upon the world, inviting players to make their mark out of the shadow of the Cimmerian. Evidently there’s more to the Hyborian Age than being Conan’s playground.

Conan, Crom and Black-Haired Devils



A second ancestor to Conan could be "The People of the Dark." This tale, completed in October of 1931 and published in Weird Tales rival Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, is part of Howard’s loose cycle of reincarnation stories, where a modern man reflects upon his past life as a warrior in pre-modern times – oftentimes far beyond the borders of history. However, this story is particularly notable for being the first appearance of two names which would later go on to be clasped together in the cultural consciousness:

I ran my hand dazedly through my square-cut black mane, and my eyes wandered over my massive naked limbs and powerful torso. I was clad, I noticed absently, in a sort of loincloth, from the girdle of which swung an empty scabbard, and leathern sandals were on my feet. Then I saw an object lying at my feet, and stooped and took it up. It was a heavy iron sword, whose broad blade was darkly stained. My fingers fitted instinctively about its hilt with the familiarity of long usage. Then suddenly I remembered and laughed to think that a fall on his head should render me, Conan of the reavers, so completely daft… … I reeled up, dazedly clutching my throbbing head, on which dried blood was clotted. I glared wildly about me. I had clambered the cliffs--no, by the thunder of Crom, I was still in the cavern!
- “People of the Dark,” Robert E. Howard

A powerfully-built, black-maned, sword-wielding reaver clad in only a loincloth and sandals by the name of Conan, who swears by Crom... The fact that this is a tale of Conan of the reavers, a Gaelic warrior in coastal Britain during an age “beyond the coming of the Saxons, aye, and incredibly beyond that distant age, beyond the coming of the Romans, to those unbelievably ancient days when the native Britons warred with black-haired Irish pirates,” should indicate that this is not actually the first tale of Conan the Cimmerian, but the presence of his name and the name of his most commonly-evoked deity/curse is interesting. Beyond the evidence of “The Hyborian Age” explicitly linking the Cimmerians to the Gaels, the fact that the Conan of this story is so similar to his Cimmerian ancestor-descendent should put to rest any thoughts that the Hyborian Conan was supposedly “Nordic,” “Germanic,” “Teutonic,” “Sumerian” or any other ethnoi. In fact, there are several story elements – the young couple in love who ally with the grim protagonist against a common foe, the degenerate remnants of an ancient and terrible race, and the sense of antiquity beyond antiquity – which would be revisited in later Conan adventures.

The Land of the Night, and the Home of the Barbarian


The third, most suggestive predecessor – one could even argue the case for its inclusion as part of the Conan saga – is the poem “Cimmeria.” In “Hyborian Genesis” (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian), Patrice Louinet recounts the writing of the poem, noting the very persuasive coincidence that it was written at precisely the same time and place – which may have served as mutual inspiration:

I spent a few weeks wandering about in the south park of the state, along the Border mainly, and didn’t get any work done during that time…
- Letter to Wilfred Blanch Talman, circa March 1932

Written in Mission, Texas, February 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain.
- Note to emil Petaja accompanying a copy of “Cimmeria,” 1934

Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.
- "A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard," Letter to Alvin Earl Perry, circa early 1935

It’s inconclusive whether the unnamed narrator of “Cimmeria” is Conan, or rather, one of his future reincarnations (“I remember...”); it could just as easily be a poem about the Cimmeria of Greek Myth. As Louinet notes, the poem contains several descriptions and phrases found in Plutarch and other historical sources which Howard mentioned in correspondence. Nonetheless, the fact that Howard attributes both “Cimmeria” and Conan as being inspired by the untamed hill-country of southern Texas makes the possibility most credible. Understanding the true nature of Cimmeria is critical in understanding Conan, and if “Cimmeria” is indeed not one and the same with the grim land of Conan’s birth, it could be its brotherland: all dark, thickly wooded, shrouded in mist and cloud, sunless, dreary, a nightmarish landscape. Along with the hills of Fredericksburg, Howard’s memories of Dark Valley could have inspired the formation of Cimmeria:

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, circa October 1930

It's interesting to note that Howard visited Dark Valley only a month before writing "The People of the Dark," further suggesting the possibility of the Conan connection. A picture can easily be painted, then, of Conan's "gigantic melancholies" being birthed from the womb of Cimmeria as surely as Howard claimed his own gloominess to originate in his exposure to Dark Valley. I can identify with that. In my part of the world, there is an occasional meteorological phenomenon known as the Gourock Shroud: a great mass of mist which envelops the hills across the river, giving the distinct impression of a ghostly cloak. It is a curiously unnerving sight. To the overly imaginative, it conjures thoughts that the world is being drowned by mist, or some eldritch cloud-thing is consuming the earth itself. Adding to the eeriness is the sudden quiet; no bird calls or animal cries. Just the distant rumbling of the wind, and the ever-encroaching nothingness. Some days that mist stays until the sun has set, the uncanny grey obscured by the lesser terror of the night sky - with nothing to show whether that shroud had lifted, or had come closer. There were times when I went to sleep wondering if I would awake to the world I remember, or a realm of everlasting mist, an afterdeath that was augured by the coming of the Gourock Shroud.
 
Silver Skulls and Black Fury

I lately sold a tale to Oriental Stories in which I created the most somber character I have yet attempted. The story is called Hawks of Outremer, and I got $120 for it. The character is Cormac FitzGeoffrey: “Clean shaven and the various scars that showed on his dark, grim face lent his already formidable features a truly sinister aspect. His low, broad forehead was topped by black, square cut hair that contrasted strongly with his cold blue eyes. Son of a woman of the O’Briens and a renegade Norman knight, Goeffrey the Bastard, in whose veins, it is said, coursed the blood of William the Conqueror, Cormac had seldom known an hour’s peace or ease in all his thirty years of violent life. Hated by the Irish and despised by the Normans he had payed back contempt and ill treatment with savage hate and ruthless vengeance.”
One of the main things I like about Farnsworth Wright’s magazines is you don’t have to make your heroes such utter saints.
- Letter to Harold Preece, circa October 1930

There is a fourth possible candidate that may have contributed to Conan's creation in the Hiberno-Norman crusader, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. On the surface, one would think that there surely can’t be that much present in Cormac that makes him more like Conan than the likes of Cormac Mac Art or other Irish heroes: however, there are several such aspects. One is extraordinary strength. As a rule, Howard’s swordsmen are physically powerful men, fighting fit specimens and effective swordsmen, capable of holding their own against a goodly number of men –feats of brute strength are not as common. Whenever Howard went beyond the exceptional in regards to feats of muscular supremacy, they were usually in the daft yarns of Sailor Steve Costigan or Breckinridge Elkins, men as tall as the tales in which they’re told, men who swat away buckshot like mosquitoes and hurl a dozen men out of a tavern. Cormac’s truly preternatural strength, on the other hand, is treated with the sort of astonishment and sobriety one would expect from a witness of such deeds: ripping iron bars from their hinges with his bare hands, caving a man’s skull in with a single punch from his mailed fist, hurling a lance like a javelin, swinging a sword while a full-grown man hangs bodily from his harm. That sort of might is pretty far in the upper limits of human ability, and outside of a few exceptions like the aforementioned comedy heroes, only the likes of Kull and Conan are really comparable.

Second is Cormac’s upbringing. Howard’s depiction of the Medieval Irish was, like much of his historical peoples, flavoured with much romantic embellishment: in Howard’s history, the Irish still bore many elements of their barbaric past. Their shock-headed youths wore wolfskins, their warriors shunned armour, and they even occasionally invoked their pagan Gaelic gods despite their Christianisation. However, Howard never strayed far from the historical record, as his Irishmen, for all their vitality and strength, were still devastated by the Nordic invasions, first from Scandinavia and then Normandy: though united they could repel any invader, as was proven the case throughout history, tribal hatred and blood feuds can cost a people everything when facing conquest. Reading Cormac’s account of his early life in “The Slave Princess” is almost like reading that of Conan’s – though, naturally, Cormac’s parentage, the presence of the Danes and the ultimate conclusion of the battle would be very different.

This fascination with strength (not to mention size) could have a tie to Howard’s ancestry. Howard once wrote some interesting tales of his grandparents:

Whether Americans of British descent tend to grow shorter, I am not prepared to say, though it seems to me that modern Texans are, as a whole, shorter and stockier than their earlier ancestors, though I may be wrong. For myself, at least, that is true; I am of squat build compared to my grandfathers, both of whom were six feet two inches tall, my great-grandfather Ervin who was six feet four inches, my great-grandfather Henry who was about the same height, and my great-grandfather Howard who was six feet eight inches. Some of my great-uncles were nearly seven feet in height. None was abnormal; they were simply big men, well proportioned and powerfully built. My grandfather George Ervin was accounted the strongest man in his regiment and one of the strongest men in Forrest’s command. He could cleave a man from shoulder to waist with a single stroke of his saber. He owed his life to his great strength on at least one occasion, when he was captured by a band of guerrillas – thieves who preyed on both armies. They bound him on a mule and were taking him into the thickness of the forest to do away with him, when, as they were passing through a dark thicket, he suddenly snapped the cords with which he was bound, and seizing a revolver, leaped into the thicket and invited his foes to come in and take him. But they declined and made a hasty retreat, like the dirty yellow cowards they were. These ancestors of mine were taller and rangier than I, generally; some were as heavily built as I am, but all were taller. If I ever have a son, I have a feeling he’ll be shorter and stockier than I am.
- Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa October 1931.

Howard mentioned in “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age” that the Aquilonians averaged 5’10” and three quarters, while the Cimmerians averaged a clean 6’. Evidently Howard’s supposition that men, at least men of Northern European descent, were taller in past ages was informed by personal recollection of his own ancestors – and Conan’s implied awe of his adventuring grandfather could well have an analogue in Howard’s fond recollection of George Ervin.

The Road to Cimmeria

It’s often said that Conan was an idealized projection of Robert E. Howard himself: sometimes in an admiring light, where one can see the appeal in being a mighty warrior unfettered by civilized problems and restraints, and sometimes in a less admiring light, usually of the Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment variety. Yet looking at the stories, poems and letters Howard wrote prior to “The Phoenix on the Sword,” it seems that there’s far more than that going on. Conan may share Howard’s love for good food, appreciation for fine women, and fascination with history, fighting and culture, but he also shares some of Howard’s deepest and most personal aspects - at least, those which he shared in his correspondences.

The rare times we see Conan in the grip of his gigantic melancholies, we can almost perceive the suffocating clutch of Howard’s black moods; Conan at his most ferocious and furious is palpable because you can feel Howard may have imbued it with his own angers and frustrations; those exceptional moments where we see Conan experience sadness echo Howard’s remarks on personal tragedies. Howard’s great love of writing is evident in the vigour and passion of his prose, the sincerity of his testimony, and the sheer volume of his oeuvre: he put so much into his work that he couldn’t help but break a piece of his very soul into the pages. That's the way of great artists. The shards of Howard’s soul found in the greatest Conan stories reflect brightness most blazing, and darkness most black: not only do we see the fears, dreams, hopes, dreads, joys and sorrows of the Cimmerian, but mayhap those of his 20th Century chronicler too. We see more of Howard’s soul, perhaps, than even he could.

But Conan was not a static creation: as Howard continued as a writer, so too did Conan evolve and change as a being. The state of Conan before his first adventures were published was by no means the final word on his development, and this started as early as the first story, “The Phoenix on the Sword.”

TO BE CONTINUED...

Further Reading:

Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis,”The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 

Paul Herman, The Neverending Hunt

Diabolus Vult: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey

A Howard Genealogy

32 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, James: the next one will get into the stories themselves. Since there are 21 stories, that means at least 21 posts (not counting splitting them into chapters, as well as the fragments and synopses), and I'll endeavour to make them fresh and interesting. After all, much ink has been spilled over the Conan stories for fourscore years, so it's tough to make things fresh.

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  2. Looking forwards to your posts. I have been a huge Howard fan since stumbling across an ancient 70s paperback in my youth.

    I'm also a purist. Conan works best as an avenue for Howard's writing. I feel that no comic or film has ever got to essence of the character.

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    1. Thanks, orlygg. I'm a Burke purist myself, and I have to agree that although Thomas and, on occassion, Busiek has done a grand job on the whole, there's just something in Howard that hasn't been tapped. Perhaps, indeed, that's something that can't be translated.

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  3. This seems to be a gigantic project for you! I am looking forward the next post!!

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    1. I think I'm only now starting to realise just how enormous it is: my first post on "Phoenix" is in five parts, one for each chapter, and they're pretty substantial. I don't know how I'm going to manage "Hour of the Dragon" at this rate!

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  4. This will be worth my time. Thanks for taking it on.

    Rip Off

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  5. Impressive scholarship on the Conan character, looking forward to future posts.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Jim, though frankly, an awful lot of this is old, old stuff in Howard studies: I'm just hoping to bring my own interpretation and spin to things.

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    1. Bwahaha, I have you now, Georgian!

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  7. This is great, Al. Considering the format, and the amount of work you're going to put into such a massive project, perhaps you'd consider releasing the series as an e-book under Creative Commons License once you've finished up?

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    1. You know, I never thought of that, but I'll look into it. As long as I keep up a decent level of detail, eloquence and readability, it's a possibility.

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  8. It looks like you've got the opening salvo pretty much on target.
    My belief has always been that the character of Conan was conceived in People of the Dark, and that Howard knew it was too good a character to throw away (the character in Frost-Giant's Daughter is the same exact guy). So he moved Conan to a non-historical setting. And the rest is history.
    I've always thought the Conan part of PotD would have fantastic if it had taken place during the sack of Venarium. The framing sequence would have needed to be excised, though, and it would have killed the story's twist. Which could be why Howard never tried to adapt it into the proper Conan series.

    Can't wait to see what you come up with next...

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    1. Thanks, Dale. PotD is a story that means a great deal to me on a very personal level (I may discuss the reasons for that in a future post), and I can definitely see that Conan being part of the inspiration for his Hyborian antecedent.

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  9. Hero of the Federation25 May 2012 at 20:26

    Join the Mobile Infantry and save the Galaxy.

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  10. Very nice job Al, I'm looking forward to future installments.

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    1. Considering your "Blogging the Simarillion" series was an inspiration, I'm pleased you approve, Brian. Hope I live up to that standard.

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  11. Great stuff, Al! Looking forward to seeing my favorite Scotsman back in Texas here in a few weeks. - Ben

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  12. excellent the kind of articles I like to read on REH oriented blogs...

    by the way I've got a question for you and the other people who comments, what REH would think about the more or less canonical depiction of the barbarian by Frank Frazetta? could him had in mind something remotely similar to that image when he created the cimmerian?

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    1. Cheers, francisco! And, of course, these are the kind of articles I like to write on REH oriented blogs.

      Of course, we can never truly know what REH would've thought for sure, but while I'd hesitate to say he'd think it was perfect or even ideal, I do think he'd appreciate the primal ferocity of Fritz' depiction. It's certainly very different from the Napoli, Rankin and Brundage pictures he was familiar with.

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  13. Great, and this is a grand anniversary.

    I second the suggestion of compiling this series in e-book form in the future.

    How is the Rncyclopaedia Hyboriana doing?

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    1. "Haphazardly" is the best description, though this series will be informed, and help inform, the Encyclopaedia. Hopefully.

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  14. Great essay! As always, you provide tons of fascinating info.

    There's one thing about the "creation story" of Conan though that I wonder if anyone has addressed. Writers tend to fall into "plotters" who write lots of detailed notes & outlines before writing, and "pantsers" who just sit down and bang out a story by the seat of their pants. I think REH was more of a pantser. When you rely on inspiration, when the inspiration comes it feels inspired. The subconscious mix of ideas & images from all you wrote & read & dreamed can just coalesce into something that seems to have a life of its own.

    Of course at some point you have to edit it, but that comes with the territory.

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    1. Thanks very much, Dave!

      I'm of the opinion that Howard was a mixture of both, in that he wrote like a pantser, but prepared like a plotter. Howard "prepared" for his stories simply by devouring everything he could about history, mythology and good old yarns: thus, he has not only the immediacy of writing as inspired, but drew from years of learning.

      It's interesting you point this out, because this very series is very pantserish for me. Normally I spend ages setting out outlines and structure for my essays, but because I distinctly felt that time was of the essence here (well, six months or so seems like a long time, but I don't want to overerestimate my abilities), I just sat at my keyboard and typed until I couldn't think of anything else to say.

      The problem is when I later think of something, I think "aw, DAMMIT, that would've been great to put in!" I guess I could just address those moments in their own posts.

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    2. Well, there's a difference between research and plotting. REH loved research, but never let the facts get in the way of a good story (you'd be surprised how many aspiring writers want "permission" to change some detail in a historical yarn). Pansting isn't knowing nothing, it's not setting out the plot points in detail, on paper prior to writing.

      REH DID write synopses, but I think they came later in his career. Pantsing allows greater spontaneity, but with a lot of wasted effort. Plotting can help you grind through a story, but for some folks the act of plotting "kills" the story: they've done it and therefore they no longer can tap the impulsive creativity they need.

      I wrote essays before I tried fiction. I think they demand outlining b/c they are about logical argument. Fiction is about juxtaposing images, creating drama. Depending on what you're writing you may need tightly plotted, logic. Notice REH hated detective stories? He was a master of image & drama. You can develop that talent, you can't "plan" it into existence.

      I still get the "I shoulda said..." thing too. Frustrating!

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    3. I see what you're saying now, and I agree. There appear to be some exceptions (Howard writing the outline of where the main players were in "The Hour of the Dragon," for instance), but they're naturally found in the much longer stories where you need to keep track of what's going on. Mostly REH just started writing. Indeed, I think his synopses are effectively just another stage in his draft writing process, where he'd build upon the foundations into the full yarns.

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    4. This is something that could bloom into a real analysis. Study all known synopses and compare w/ finished stories & compare w. stories w. no known synopses or outlines. That could tell us something about technique.

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  15. Great article as usual. I loved the insight and had many of the same myself.

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    1. I'm glad to hear others shared my insights. I'm often concerned whether I'm reading into something that isn't there when it comes to my favourite authors (and I'm particularly concerned with how people take what I think about "Queen of the Black Coast"), but I guess at some point I thought the only thing I could take to the table that hasn't been said by earlier, more established and greater Howard scholars is my own personal insights. Hence how I brought up the Gourock shroud: there'll be a few things like that in upcoming posts, though not at the expense of facts and established ideas.

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