I just finished reading The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard. I have been talking about barbarians on and off Twitter even blogging about them here earlier. Barbarians own a unique and very well known place in pop culture and I wanted to go back and take a look at part of their origins.
This volume contains the original thirteen Conan stories as written by Howard in the order he wrote them. I had never read any Conan stories before and was only familiar with the character through osmosis from living in a pop culture world.
As many note in the Goodreads reviews, I was surprised to learn that Conan as he was originally created was not the hulking brute, all brawn and no brains as I have come to know him. Conan is an intelligent, clever, resourceful and combatant.
Yes he is quick to anger and often there are depictions of his size and strength (and his steely bronzed thews) and requisite description detailing his smoldering blue eyes. But just as frequently Conan is depicted as “pantherish” or “tigerish” in his ferocity he is also described as being stealthy, silent when he moves. Not only is he strong but he is fast, able to move and react in the blink of an eye.
Conan is also a polyglot able to speak several languages at least passably, he has adventured all over the world and has several careers behind him including: thief, warrior, captain, sailor, king, pirate, rebel, chieftain and more.
Encapsulating all of these qualities themselves means our first pop culture barbarian has fallen far from where he started, but there is more. Conan is stubborn and fearful, jealous and covetous. Notwithstanding his willingness to kill at a moments notice. In “The Pool of the Black One” Conan kills a man to after joining a crew of pirates, just to “earn his place” and is clearly plotting to kill the captain and usurp him as soon as he is able (which he does).
Conan again is more than muscle and steel. He carries within him a duality that markedly resembles people in the real world. He is capable of kindness and generosity and callous murder all the while harboring realistic fears and anxieties.
Conan as originally written is a deep and complex character capable of good and evil, love and hate. He is well-traveled, intelligent, taciturn, loyal to his word and quick to take advantage of opportunity. He is a killer who knows the Arts will outlast him and that life is ephemeral.
Dungeons and Dragons
From a D&D perspective I can see where the basis for the barbarian was drawn.
Conan is described as raging, fighting through injuries that other men could not. He is able to exert himself for hours displaying unnatural endurance. He is preternaturally aware able to sense traps/danger and avoid them as well as displaying almost superhuman strength.
All of this can be seen in the current and original version of the Barbarian. They are not exactly the same but the roots are there.
Perhaps it is simply my experience in popular culture and at the table that barbarians are pigeon-holed as mindless rage-machines good only for killing and well, more killing. I am not so naive to believe this is the only way they are portrayed, there will of course be contrary examples but they are not the norm.
One such “against type” barbarian that I really enjoyed when I was encountered him was Logen NineFingers from The First Law books by Joe Abercrombie. I initially thought he was unique in his depth and his “complete” personality. Having gone back and read Conan I see that Joe Abercrombie’s character seems unique in this day but he is truly the successor to Howard’s Conan.
If you have not yet I recommend reading The First Law trilogy. See for yourself just what a complete, fully fleshed out barbarian character. In all honesty all of the characters are so finely crafted they will defy expectations. And in truth The Bloody Nine is the best version I have ever encountered of a raging barbarian. EVER.
Do yourself a favor and go read Howard’s Conan stories. They are fast-paced, easy to read and filled with action and adventure. Most of them are quite short as they were originally submissions to magazines for easy consumption.
Enjoy the ride!
Featured Image by Mark Schultz