Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Robert E. Howard - King Conan: ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, ‘The Scarlet Citadel’, The Hour of the Dragon (1932-1935)

NOTE: What I’m calling King Conan in this review isn’t actually what falls under the Wiki entry, which is about a collection of stories under the novel heading King Conan. Those stories actually cover the time long before Conan becomes king, and they finish before the king stories end—something which I find to be very silly in a collection entitled King Conan. 

“I’ve roamed far; farther than any other man of my race ever wandered. I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians. I’ve roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell, I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.”
The fancy pleased him, and he grinned hardly. Then he shrugged his shoulders and stretched his mighty figure on the rocks.

The Weird Tales original
and controversial
 artwork by Margaret
Frank Frazetta's just as
controversial novel covers
in the mid-60s.

Robert E. Howard was a genius and the Conan tales are pretty much perfect.

OK so these statements alone probably don’t sell you on the fact, but the fact is that the Conan stories are the absolute height of pure pulpy fiction! Now if you're not a fan of pulp or fiction, then you may be looking at the wrong review.

As far as his pulpy style goes, Howard uses a decadent amount of adjectives, his descriptions of Conan are more remarkable when they aren't likening him to a jungle cat; the lissome and stunning qualities of Howard's ladies are listed every time, and the serpentine sorcerers never fail to affect a dastardly mien. Strangely, what is 'purple prose' in any other novel merely heightens the action and the, well, sword-and-sorceryness of the story! The writing, the pacing and the characters are balanced on a level that is incredibly hard to achieve. You can drop into Conan at any point, even toward the end of a story, and it will make perfect pulpy sense, carrying you all the way to the end.

You can’t get fantasy books like that these days, they don’t exist. 

The three stories reviewed here, ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, ‘The Scarlet Citadel’ and The Hour of the Dragon, (to be found most recently in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series The Conan Chronicles, volume two, and originally published in 1932, 1932 and 1935 respectively), are Howard’s first two stories, and a follow up novella that he wrote three years later.

And so we meet Conan, the son of a harsh and barbarian culture, a man destined for fame and fortune as he traipses across the world finding monstrosities to slay, jewels and riches to spend and feisty pirate chicks to love.

Whilst most people think of Conan as a youthful barbarian mercenary and rogue filled with wanderlust, Howard’s first ever Conan tale, ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, in fact begins as Conan has 'given up' his footloose and fancy-free ways. As the story begins, Conan has murdered a despotic king and settled down to become ruler of a Romanesque civilisation called Aquilonia. 

The next two stories follow Conan’s fall from kingship and his desire to regain possession of his crown, saving the people of Aquilonia from the designs of petty lordlings and their darker masters. With diverse and powerful allies and an even more powerful array of enemies, Conan struggles to regain his throne and thwart the avalanching evils taking over the land.

The King Conan stories illustrate the running theme of Howard’s later Conan tales: the juxtaposition of the primitive world against the sophisticated veneer of the city-states. Conan’s transition into ruler of a civilised society becomes a struggle that in many ways he is ill-equipped to undertake. 
He is an honourable king, but a barbarian nonetheless and he is beset by the battles of a civilised world: politics. Conan’s liege lords plot his assassination, they turn the people of Aquilonia against him and procure dark and dreadful sorceries to bring him to his doom. Conan struggles to keep alive the blunt honesty, awareness and instinct of his primitive world. The struggle between the two alien moralities however, political subtlety and strength of arms, settle him into a complex equilibrium, an inner balance that his enemies lack.

The most interesting thing about these three tales (there’s always something), for me, is that Howard began his stories not with the youth Conan setting out on his own as a Mowgli figure into the world, but as an older man, a practiced pirate and mercenary turned king. The ‘purity’ of Conan’s way of life is at its most poignant in these King Conan stories as the barbarian, with a newfound sense of responsibility, struggles against a world he cannot fully understand, a world where his heroics fail to earn him respect and where words can overpower and malign even his greatest deeds.

Howard’s use of these juxtapositions in his seminal work highlight the cruelties and chaos inherent in what we perceive to be civilised society. The later Conan tales revisit, again and again, the brutal honesty of barbarism versus the sly workings of civilisation that have replaced it, but, perhaps because they dwell on his prideful 'youth', they lack the disconcerting depth of these early stories. 

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