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Book Review: Conan the Barbarian

Let me start of these musings by saying that I am one hundred percent not the target audience for Conan the Barbarian by which I mean to say, I am not a fifteen-year-old boy circa 1935. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me begin with a story.

I was twenty-five years old and sitting in my mother’s sunroom while she puttered around watering her plants. Out of nowhere, she asked me, “Do you do drugs?”

Up until this point, I had been playing a matching game on her GPS (don’t ask) and we hadn’t been talking about anything in particular. I looked up slowly. “Are you really asking me, at twenty-five, whether I do drugs now? Shouldn’t that have been a question you asked me years ago?” She shrugged and kept watering her plants. “No, mother, I don’t do drugs.”

“Well, have you at least tried them?” she asked. “Because you should at least just so you understand the jokes. Because you can’t really understand unless you try it.”

So when I saw Conan the Barbarian on the shelf at a Borders going out of business sale, I thought, “Well, I’ve read Tolkien and Zelazny and Eddings and Pratchett…I should buy this and round out my knowledge of all things fantasy. Just so I understand the jokes.” As it turns out, unlike marijuana, one does not need to actually read any of the Conan stories to understand all of the Conan jokes.

There is a lot of swearing by Crom. There is a lot of fighting. There is a lot of derring do. There is also a lot of Conan standing around “powerfully built, naked but for a girded loincloth” (Shadows in the Moonlight, page 40) or “powerfully built, supple as a panther” (Jewels of Gwahlur, page 276) or being a “powerfully built figure in a black scale-mail hauberk, burnished greaves and a blue-steel helmet from which jutted bull’s horns highly polished” (Queen of the Black Coast, page 77).

I am sensing a trend.

But I suppose I can’t rag on Howard’s word choice too much; after all, these were written as short stories to be published in a pulp magazine, not read continuously like I attempted to do. Also, despite the turgid turns of phrase, I was pleasantly surprised with his treatment of women throughout the stories. Of course they are all some variation on “tall, with a slender, supple form” with “thick, glossy locks” (Shadows in Zamboula, pages 396-397) and are wearing clothes that show off “the marvelous contours of [their] magnificent figure[s]” (The Devil in Iron, page 112), but they’re not always the damsel in distress one might imagine being the entirety of What Is Woman in Conan the Barbarian.

In the story “Red Nails,” the female protagonist has escaped from a band of pirates she had joined because one of them got too frisky, so she cut him up a little and he didn’t appreciate it. In the final battle scene, “Valeria fought beside him, her lips smiling and her eyes blazing. She was stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious. Her sword was like a living thing in her hand” (Red Nails, page 483).

Even the wimpiest women in the stories still rescue Conan when he’s captured and bound (Shadows in the Moonlight), bring reinforcements when Conan’s forces are going to be wiped out (The People of the Black Circle), and impersonate goddesses to mislead the bad guys (Jewels of Gwahlur)…even if in that last one she does end up causing Conan to lose the jewels he had come to steal.

Despite that slight redemption, I still can’t get behind Conan. I felt like I was wallowing through each story, not really caring if the characters lived or died, each fight scene droning on forever with Conan never really getting injured, or if he does, getting over a fatal stabbing in the next two paragraphs.

So the next time I pick up a book and think, “I should read this so I can get all the jokes,” I’ll put it down and slowly back away, content in the knowledge that I already understand.

Howard, Robert E. Conan the Barbarian: The Original, Unabridged Adventures of the World’s Greatest Fantasy Hero. London: Prion, 2010. Print. ISBN 978-1-85375-802-7

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  1. January 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm

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