Posts Tagged ‘Conan’


We take a break from civilized life and get our barbarian groove on with a discussion of Robert E. Howard’s character Conan, focusing on the 1936 serialized novel The Hour of the Dragon. Topics include the wide-ranging influence of these stories, reprehensible anthropological themes within them, the enduring appeal of the character, approaches to world-building, and Hobbes’ Leviathan.

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Source of our theme song

Incidental tunes:

“Oppressive Gloom”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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Continent-shifting cataclysms have been a mainstay in fantasy literature since the 1920s, epic fantasy in particular. It’s a curious thread. After all, human history is such a miniscule portion of geological time that while we’ve seen coastlines shifts or islands rise and sink, we haven’t seen significant alterations of any one landmass since the Stone Age. Continental drift will, by necessity, rarely affect a story or the characters except in the broadest sense. Yet massive geological shifts stay simmering in the foundational works of the modern fantasy genre. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, while ostensibly set in our prehistory, has a significantly different-looking map of what would become Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


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L. Sprague de Camp’s attempts to usurp Conan’s legacy are fairly well known among fans of Robert E. Howard. I’m not sure if you could find a poorer fit for Conan than de Camp: Howard was a serious writer who often wrote about the inevitable downfall of civilization; when de Camp turned his pen to sword & sorcery, he often wrote jokey tales of western triumphalism. The two men had diametrically opposite worldviews, and took very different approaches to writing. De Camp’s attempts to “correct” the Conan stories by adding in a healthy dose of ancillary material with the help of his co-conspirator Lin Carter smacks of hubris and, more importantly, doesn’t work all that well.

The first story you encounter when reading the de Camp-edited Lancer paperbacks is not “The Tower of the Elephant” but a pastiche story by de Camp and Lin Carter, because, well, obviously your first exposure to Conan shouldn’t be via the inferior Robert E. Howard. As an introduction to Howard’s Conan, “The Thing in the Crypt” is highly unsuitable. This Conan acts little like Howard’s, something born out in every pastiche tale by the duo. De Camp & Carter’s Conan solves his problems by rational thought (and even knowledge of biology or physics!) instead of intuition and action. There are few deeper themes, and the writing is incredibly bland.

Looking over these stories again, I can’t help but notice how much they play out like adventure games. There are token one-use items, a hero who must triumph by brains rather than brawn, and most of all…there are puzzles. “The Thing in the Crypt” is the most adventure game-like of them all: there are no characters beyond a virtually personality-less young Conan, there’s an underground setting, items to combine and use, an obstacle to overcome through use of the aforesaid items in order to gain another item. It reads like a detour in Zork or King’s Quest. I can’t help but feel that de Camp might have done better to get a job at Infocom.

To better demonstrate my point, I’ve whipped up a quick transcript of The Thing in the Crypt: The Interactive Adventure Game. Observe:


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Conan the Professor

Conan Teaches Philosophy 101.

Makes sense to me.

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