Reading the Classics: Review of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian"

In 1932, pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard had a short story published in Weird Tales magazine featuring a raven-haired, blue-eyed giant barbarian named Conan the Cimmerian. At this point, Howard had been writing for many years and had been trying to break out of the then popular world of pulp magazines and into the world of genre fiction. Though he tried to achieve success with other tales, such as Kull and the Frost-Giant's Daughter, his professional triumph came by way of The Phoenix and the Sword, a story that was originally rejected by Weird Tales but was accepted once Howard rewrote it and placed Conan as the protagonist. It was after this acceptance that Howard wrote The Hyborian Age, the essay which would be the basis for Conan's entire universe, outlining in detail its geography, its histories, its peoples and their customs. From here, Howard went on to write twenty-one short stories and various lyrics and poems, all of them glorifying Conan's live-and-die-by-the-sword world and recanting the exploits of the legendary Hyborian hero. It is a shame that Howard never lived to see the full reach of his efforts: only in his last few years of life did he begin to make money from his writing (in one of his early years, he earned only 37$), and through his work had quite by accident created the genre today known as Sword and Sorcery. He inspired many well-known fantasy authors and even corresponded with Lovecraft about world-building, but in 1936, Howard unfortunately took his own life and left others to continue his hero's tales.

There are many iterations of Conan and his adventures: films, television series, comics, video games, but none so estimable and so beautifully crafted as Howard's original works. Howard's writing is a blend of hard-boiled, raw pulp with classical and eloquent language. His battles are violent and detailed, his women are sumptuous and lamenting, his men are giant and well-muscled, his villains are wicked and terrific. The world of Conan is absolutely fascinating, with everything in immense proportions and everyone either a warrior, a king, or a groveling underling. Every story has its pleasures: there is always a woman to be saved and then claimed, always a brother to defend, always a sorcerer to vanquish, always a people to be saved, but Conan always triumphs and always enjoys his rewards: he is the undefeated hero, championing for his native Cimmeria, succeeding in spite of himself, using every shred of physical prowess and superior understanding he can to defeat ancient Gods, unconquerable hordes, and save the women he passionately loves. Though he is a barbarian, he is not one in the sense that some might consider him to be: he has a dark sense of humour, superior understanding, and tactical ascendancy despite his brutish appearance and curt phrases. He is a king, a thief, a warrior, and a lover. Everything he does is done with all his heart, whether laughing, eating, drinking, conquering, training, or delighting in the pleasures of his conquered women. He finds civilization much less civil  than those considered to be good society might find it; he has difficulty understanding why people would be made to betray their friends in a court of law, why it is it wrong to kill those who deserve death, why slavery is ever allowable. His ideas are very simple, but he is not simple-minded: he protects his friends, leads with fairness, understands and speaks many languages, and is the model of might and endurance. While Conan's adventures are not contiguous, they are all linked by similar themes, keeping each story fresh without binding the hero to only one plot for more than a few chapters. Every war is exciting, each romance is fierce, and each story is exquisitely crafted. 

It is very difficult not to draw an immediate comparison between Conan and his creator. Howard and his barbarian counterpart shared certain physical attributes and character traits, and while Howard was suffering under the throes of family illness, romantic agony, and unconquerable depression, he created a hero who would always save his brothers in arms, who would always claim his women, and who would never surrender to fear or sadness. Some of Howard's tales mirrored tragedies in his life: "Red Nails", Howard's last Conan novella, and what many believe to be his best piece, struggles with the themes of decay and death. At the time Howard wrote the novella, his lover had left him and his mother was fatally ill, forcing him to spend every payment he received from Weird Tales in an effort to save her life. Payments became almost entirely absent toward the end, forcing him to devote all of his time to his ailing mother and making it impossible for Howard to write. He wrote in one of his last letters to H.P. Lovecraft:

"As for my own fantasy writing, whether or not I do any future work in that field depends a good deal on the editors themselves. I would hate to abandon weird writing entirely, but my financial needs are urgent, immediate and imperious. Slowness of payment in the fantastic field forces me into other lines against my will." 

One of my favourite Frazetta pieces.
It is terrible to think that due to his financial situation and family turmoil that Howard felt there was nothing more to live for: without support from his parents and without anyone to deem his work worthy of print and payment, Howard allowed himself to be swallowed by grief. He found escape enough in his barbarian counterpart, but when the idea of giving up Conan prevailed him and then Howard's mother died, he took his own life, feeling himself unable to live without either of his greatest consolations.

If you have not read Conan the Barbarian or any of Howard's fantasy stories, I highly recommend them. Everyone has heard of the legendary Hyborian hero and his adventures, and even though there are tolerable attempts at continuing Howard's work, the original pieces are absolutely unparalleled.


  1. I was having a flash back when you mentioned pulp magazines. I'm late to appreciating fantasy writing, but I adored my pulp fiction Westerns and Hard-boiled detective stories- so raw and gritty.

    I was unaware of Conan's origins and I enjoyed your expose of his creator. Thanks for sharing your review!


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