Genre Giants: Conan the Barbarian

 

In the Genre Giants series, we look at book settings and series old and new, from historic franchises to series with massive potential! Today we venture forth into the grim and wild world of Hyperborea, and meet its most famous and savage inhabitant….

King, Conqueror, Pirate, Warrior…Barbarian.

Conan is all these things, and a bad-ass character to boot. His world and setting are a rare sort these days, a bronze-age, sword-and-sandal affair. Though less common in the modern fantasy landscape, the Hyperborean world remains iconic and enduring in our pop culture. Games like Conan Exiles and movies like 2011’s Conan the Barbarian (as well as comics, tabletop games, etc) have kept the flame of this seasoned IP alive, even amongst shinier and newer peers like Warcraft and Sanderson’s Cosmere.

I’m a huge lover of all things genre pulp (especially H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos), and Conan is no exception. It has however, dropped off in popularity recently, as have other sword-and-sorcery fantasy IPs. So I’m here today to try and convince the discerning reader that yes, these shorts are awesome. And here’s why:

Who is Conan?

Conan is a bare-knuckled, bare-chested warrior from the land of Cimmeria, a simple man who shuns the decadence of surrounding kingdoms and forges his way into the world. He’s a classic pulp hero, with savage cunning and deadly strength, going toe-to-toe with wizards and monsters who by all means should be able to curbstomp him power-wise…and kicks their asses every time.

As far as protagonists go, ones like Conan are among my favorites. Guts from Berserk is another hero in a similar mold, possibly even inspired by Conan. But I’ll save that series for another post, as it surely deserves one. Right now though, it’s the Barbarian’s time to shine. And shine he does!

It’s also worth noting that unlike the lunkhead (and uncharacteristically pasty) portrayal in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Conan is a crafty, resourceful guy. Since he lives in a savage, bronze age setting of snake-worshipping zealots, giant gorilla monsters and very little, if no armor, he, like all characters in Hyperborea is fairly simple.  But when it comes to survival, ruling and battle, Conan is a bona fide master, using brains and brawn to get the job done. These stories are light reading, but they’re also a bit more complex than they’re often given credit for.

So What’s Hyperborea Like?

Think Biblical times, with lots of Babylonian-inspired cultures, savage monsters, glorious treasures, vikings and other less-than-modern things. It’s worth noting that while certain contemporary fantasy IPs like Elder Scrolls (Skyrim mostly) have taken some cues from Conan‘s barbarian themes, not much mainstream fantasy has delved into full-bore Bronze-age in the vein of Conan. Back in the 80’s, this was actually more common, with movies like Bakshi’s Fire and Ice (1983) and The Beastmaster (1982) liberally using the  Sword-and-Sandal setting.

Part of it I think, is that CGI and games have made bigger, more epic worlds like Lord of the Rings and Warcraft more appealing to the wider public. Fantasy readers too, have been weaned on much beefier books like the Wheel of Time and Harry Potter. Still, there’s an undeniable charm about this sort of world. It has an old-timey sense of discovery and wonder, not unlike a Jules Verne novel, or Indiana Jones. You can easily imagine a young midwestern kid in the 1930’s having his mind blown upon opening an issue of Weird Tales and reading this stuff.

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So Where do I Start?

You can buy them all in one shot, or buy the illustrated volumes (my personal recommendation). Really though, if it’s original Robert E. Howard Conan, there’s not very many ways you can go wrong by just picking up and reading. Heck, if you look hard enough, you can find some of his shorts online for free. Seriously, here you go. It’s as read as smooth as baby oil and it’s FREE (though please, buy the volumes).

If you’re looking for a doorstopper book bigger than your house and filled with an intricate, 600-page-long explanation of the various magic systems, this is not your book. If you want to read essentially the bronze-age, sword-and-sorcery version of John Wick unfold in front of you, you really can’t do better than Conan. And that’s not to say there’s no world-building either, because there most definitely is. It’s just far more easily digestible than even the Potter books, making them an exceptional intro to the genre for newbies.

It’s nowhere near as mind-blindingly long as most fantasy works (A Conan omnibus is dwarfed by Stephen King’s IT), but that’s honestly not a point of fault in my opinion. Conan is a simple series, but not stupid. If Tolkien’s fantasy works are a banquet, Conan is a damn good steak burger, served with thick-cut, seasoned fries and a legit five-dollar milkshake with bourbon. A meal well worth the money, in my opinion.

Now go forth and read, lest Crom drag you to the screaming abyss!

 

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