Book Cover
Title The Conan Saaga
Series ---
Author Robert E. Howard
Cover Art ---
Publisher Project Gutenberg Australia - 2015
First Printing See below
Category Heroic Fantasy
Warnings Some racism, sexism

Main Characters

Conan the Cimmerian

Main Elements Barbarians, wizards, and really big snakes

  • Cimmeria A Poem
  • The Hyborian Age Conan's World (1936)
  • The Frost Giant's Daughter (Gods of the North) (1953)
  • The God in the Bowl (1952)
  • The Tower of the Elephant (1933)
  • Rogues in the House (1934)
  • Shadows in the Moonlight (Iron Shadows in the Moon) (1934)
  • Black Colossus (1933)
  • Queen of the Black Coast (1934)
  • The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk) (1933)
  • A Witch Shall Be Born (1934)
  • The Devil in Iron (1934)
  • The People of the Black Circle (1934)
  • Shadows in Zamboula (Man-Eaters of Zamboula) (1935)
  • The Pool of the Black One (1933)
  • Beyond the Black River (1935)
  • The Black Stranger (1953)
  • Red Nails (1936)
  • Jewels of Gwahlur (The Teeth of Gwahlur) (1935)
  • The Phoenix on the Sword (1932)
  • The Scarlet Citadel (1933)
  • The Hour of the Dragon (Conan the Conqueror) (1935)

It was an epic task to read the entire Conan Saga written by Howard himself (many other authors have also contributed to Conan's ongoing adventures for better or for worse), minus the Vale of the Women which for some reason Project Gutenberg Australia couldn't include since it was still under copyright. I'm waiting for someone to return the book to the library (he's late!) so I can truly claim I've read all the stories. But the lack of one story won't affect my overall review.

Now I of course had heard of Conan, saw pictures of him, but I've never read anything nor watched any of the movies. Normally this isn't my kind of literatures, but it's a core foundation of the fantasy genre and one of my goals is to fill in those major gaps in my reading coverage.

This collection has a shocking start with "Conan the Rapist", it didn't give a particularly good first impression. Now, don't get me wrong, these were written in the 30's, and they were intended for men, so one must always give context to the way characters are portrayed, and the female in this case is actually the daughter of a god and was intentionally baiting Conan to chase her so she could lead him into a trap, but as my first glimpse at Conan I was a little worried about the rest of the stories. But it turned out ok, he mostly grew out of it.

Another thing that pops up regularly is racism. I didn't find it quite as bad as for other authors of the time but yes, the blacks had a tendency to be the bad guys. Though the term "black" whether its a pool or a citadel or whatever usually denoted evil, a kind of black hat / white hat thing from westerns, remember these stories weren't meant to make you contemplate shades of grey, they're just adventure stories of a guy with mighty thews running around hacking at things with his sword, so clearcut good/evil kind of prevails. The word "thews" is also quite prevalent...

This collection has the stories in the chronological order so we see Conan from his youth as a thief (where he lived up to my expectation of being capable of only monosyllabic speech) to him being a King (where he impressed me in his ability to occasionally use his brain and be rather eloquent at times).

Ah, another thing to remember, the stories weren't meant to be read as if they were collected together into one giant novel. They would pop up from time to time in pulp magazines so expect that there would be months or even years between stories. At which point the stories wouldn't blend in together as much as they did for me. I'm not going to review stories individually since I can't remember what exactly happened in each one. But in general you have a recipe like:

  1. Conan's current occupation - pirate, thief, king, mercenary, etc
  2. A villain - usually a wizard but maybe some noble
  3. A monster or two - snakes and ape-men were popular with a spider to mix things up
  4. A damsel in distress - though to mix things up sometimes throw in a swordswoman or pirate queen to kick some male butt
  5. Lots of panther moves and massive sword strikes, disembowlements and beheadings abound, occassional wound to the hero
  6. An ancient lost city with some evil treasure can be added to spice things up
  7. Make sure you use the word "thews" at least 10 times each story
  8. Take above ingredients, shake well, and one has a story

There are also distinct Lovecraftian touches, as the two were not just contemporaries but friends. Some of the monsters talk of coming from alien worlds, others are the things that lurk in the ancient dark depths of our world. Having read Lovecraft it was obvious enough for me to notice this and check that indeed it was intentional. But for the most part these stories are not horror. Also, if anyone finds it weird that certain things of our world are referenced you need to read the rather long, boring and convoluted introduction "The Hyborian Age Conan's World" because it shows that it *is* our world. So yes, the Stygian are basically Egyptians and thus they worship Seth. Even the geography maps to the area around the Mediteranean.

Howard wanted to illustrated how prefect humans are in their barbarian state, while believing that civilization has corrupted the human race. Frankly I felt he failed, I mean how can we aspire to be thieves, pirates, and on occasion, attempted rapists? But clearly his Conan was a perfectly moulded specimen with lightning reflexes and great strength while city folk were fat and slow and lazy, and above all, corrupted and without honour.

Anyway, I decided the best way to read these stories is to turn off your brain, just enjoy the adventure, see if Conan can save the girl and escape the current connundrum he's gotten himself into. Maybe don't read them all at once, spread them out across a year or so to get the original effect.

I haven't been sold on pulp SF & F by having read this, I certainly won't have fond memories of reading Conan, nor understand the great fandom surrounding him, but felt it was worth the experience of reading one of the foundations of the fantasy barbarian, who later joins most epic fantasy quest groups (Caramon in Dragonlance, Boromir more or less in Lord of the Rings, etc) since while it's great an all to have a bunch of smart guys in your team, sometimes you just need someone to bash some heads in with a really, really big sword and rippling mighy thews!

Posted: September 2017


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