Conan the Barbarian
"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
- – Robert E. Howard
Conan the Barbarian (also known as Conan the Cimmerian, from the name of his homeland, Cimmeria) is a fictional character in books, comics and movies. He is a hero, a well known and iconic figure in American fantasy, and the most famous barbarian in fiction.
Conan is often associated with the fantasy subgenre of sword-and-sorcery and heroic fantasy. He was created by Texan writer Robert E. Howard in 1932 via a series of Sword & Sorcery stories sold to Weird Tales magazine. The character has since appeared in licensed books, comics, films, television programs, video games, roleplaying games, and even a boardgame, all of which contribute to the hero's long-standing popularity. He has also become the template for the manly barbarian who cares about nothing and gets his way; this changes within the context of the stories however. As the years pass he becomes a leader of men and eventually the king of the most advanced nation of his time.
Frank Frazetta remains the only artist man enough to draw Conan.
Conan was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (because of course it'd be Arnie), during his bodybuilding glory days, allowing him eventually to become a Terminator & Governator of California. Jason Mamoa also took a turn prior to his more famous roles as Khal Drogo and the goddamn Aquaman.
The various stories of Conan the Barbarian are actually set on Earth, just in the Hyborian Age, a fictional time period that predates surviving historical records.
The stories are also set in the same universe as Howard's lesser known work Kull of Atlantis which is itself based on an even earlier "Thurian Age" set about 100000 years ago.
Personality and Character
Conan is a Cimmerian (a Scythian tribe from the north of the Black Sea), a barbarian of the far north. One of his grandfathers, however, came from a southern tribe. He was born on a battlefield and is the son of a village blacksmith. Conan matured quickly as a youth and, by age fifteen, he was already a respected warrior who had participated in the destruction of the Aquilonian outpost of Venarium. After its destruction, he was struck by wanderlust and began the adventures chronicled by Howard, encountering skulking monsters, evil wizards, tavern wenches, and beautiful princesses. He roamed throughout the Hyborian Age nations as a thief, outlaw, mercenary and pirate (that's right, the archetypal D&D barbarian was a thief multi). As he grew older, he began commanding larger units of men and escalating his ambitions. In his forties, he seized the crown of the tyrannical king of Aquilonia, the most powerful kingdom of the Hyborian Age, having strangled the previous ruler on the steps of the throne. Conan's adventures often result in him performing heroic feats, though his motivation for doing so is largely for his own survival or for personal gain, implying that the character displays the characteristics of an anti-hero and could be described as the archetypal "amoral swordsman" of the Sword and Sorcery genre. This observation could however be said to be in contrast to the assumption that Conan was merely another barbarian hero as envisioned by Howard for Weird Tales magazine.
On the other hand, Conan shows some character development through the stories, and to say he is amoral won't be exactly true, instead it's more like he has his own code of ethics, which over time evolves to answer to new and more complex scenarios. During the story "Rogues in the House" he stays true to his contractor despite having a chance to just slip away because he felt he was in debt with him. Similarly in "Queen of the Black Coast" he didn't betray a friend despite being threatened with punishment, because according to his own views "he was a friend of him" and hence he couldn't betray his trust. In "The Scarlet Citadel" it's said he took Aquilonia's crown mostly for his own gain, yet Conan decides to face death rather than to sell his kingdom to his enemies in exchange of money and freedom. A similar scenario happens in The Hour of the Dragon, where rather than just abandoning Aquilonia Conan embarks in a quest to save the day, and he makes the antagonist clear he will have all of his subjects sold as slaves returned without exception, on the grounds that Conan makes no difference between fellow warriors and rogues, commoners and nobility; they all are "tribe" to him and hence his own.
Conan is quite emotional but in no way weak, described by Howard as a man of "...great melancholies and great mirth". Said mirth can be seen in Conan's sense of humor, a trait largely absent in the comics and movies but very much a part of Howard's original vision of the character. This is particularly evident is found in "Xuthal of the Dusk," also known as "The Slithering Shadow"; quick example, instead of slaying his treacherous ex-girlfriend he dumped her... literally... into the ancient equivalent of a septic tank, and then laughed about this feat. He is a loyal friend to those true to him, with a barbaric code of conduct that often marks him as more honorable than the more sophisticated people he meets in his travels. Indeed, his straightforward nature and barbarism are constants in all the tales. Another aspect of him from the beginning that crops up to various degrees is Conan's dislike of magic, even fearing it at times; this comes from the fact that physical prowess and wit are of limited use against supernatural power, the amount of evil magic users he's fought and the fact that casting magic in the Conanverse usually involves horrible ingredients or immoral acts.
Appearance (Original Portrayals)
Conan has "sullen blue eyes" and a black "square-cut mane". Howard once describes him as having a hairy chest and, while comic book interpretations often portray Conan as wearing a loincloth or other minimalist clothing, Howard describes the character as wearing whatever garb is typical for the land and culture in which Conan finds himself. Though Howard never gave a strict height or weight for Conan in a story, only describing him in loose terms like "giant" and "massive", he did once state that Conan and another of Howard's characters, the crusader Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, were "physical doubles" at 6'2" and 210 lb (188 cm and 95 kg, a description of Howard's own height and weight). In the tales no human is ever described as stronger than Conan, although several are mentioned as taller (such as the strangler Baal-pteor) or of larger bulk. In a letter to P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark in 1936 only three months before Howard's death, Conan is described as standing 6 feet and weighing 180 pounds when he takes part in an attack on Venarium only 15 years old, though being far from fully grown. Although Conan is muscular, Howard frequently compares his agility and way of moving to that of a panther (see for instance "Jewels of Gwahlur," "Beyond the Black River" or "Rogues in the House"). His skin is frequently characterized as bronzed from constant exposure to the sun. In his younger years, he is often depicted wearing a light chain shirt and a horned helmet, though appearances vary with different artists.
During his reign as king of Aquilonia, Conan was "... a tall man, mightily shouldered and deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs. He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on his square-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed more natural to him than the regal accoutrements. His brow was low and broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of his limbs."
Howard imagined the Cimmerians as a proto-Celtic people with mostly black hair, tanned skin, and blue or grey eyes. Ethnically, the Cimmerians to which Conan belongs are descendants of the Atlanteans, though they do not remember their ancestry. In his fictional historical essay The Hyborian Age, Howard describes how the people of Atlantis — the land where his character King Kull originated — had to move east after a great cataclysm changed the face of the world and sank their island, settling where northern Ireland and Scotland would eventually be located. In the same work, Howard also described how the Cimmerians eventually moved south and east after the age of Conan (presumably in the vicinity of the Black Sea, where the historical Cimmerians dwelt).
Later readers had it in their heads that Conan was some sort of Teuton; hence the Ahnuld casting. Recent genetic research has found that the Europeans just prior to the Neolithic invasions had... black hair, dark skin, and blue eyes. Howard, that mad lad, may have been a prophet.
Despite his brutish appearance and the character archetype he codified, Conan uses his brains as well as his brawn. The Cimmerian is a talented fighter, but his travels have given him vast experience in other trades, especially as a thief; he is also a talented commander, tactician and strategist, as well as a born leader. In addition, Conan speaks many languages and has advanced reading and writing abilities: in certain stories, he is able to recognize, or even decipher, certain ancient or secret signs and writings. His very first appearance in fiction has him drawing a better map of the northern lands for his court, and explaining to an aide what he knows of the people up north, because he sees the courts maps are wrong and he wants to contribute something. He also has incredible stamina, enabling him to go without sleep for a few days, or surviving crucifixion (which as any historian or Biblical scholar will tell you is not a phrase you get to say very often).
Conan is a formidable armed and unarmed combatant. With his back to the wall Conan is capable of engaging and killing opponents by the score. This is seen in several stories, such as "Queen of the Black Coast", "The Scarlet Citadel" and "A Witch Shall be Born". Conan is not superhuman, though; he did need the providential help of Zelata's wolf to defeat four Nemedian soldiers in the story The Hour of the Dragon. Some of his hardest victories have come from fighting single opponents of inhuman strength: one such as Thak, the ape man from "Rogues in the House," or the strangler Baal-Pteor in "Shadows in Zamboula." Conan is far from untouchable and has been captured and defeated several times (on one occasion knocking himself out by drunkenly running into a doorhinge).
Howard frequently corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft, and the two would sometimes insert references or elements of each others' settings in their works. Later editors reworked many of the original Conan stories by Howard, thus diluting this connection. Nevertheless, many of Howard's unedited Conan stories are arguably part of the Cthulhu Mythos. Additionally, many of the Conan stories by Howard, de Camp and Carter used geographical place names from Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean Cycle.
The Conan stories are informed by the popular interest of the time in ideas on evolution and Social Darwinism. Are some peoples destined to rule over others? Are our physical and mental characteristics the result of our experiences or are they the result of our inheritance from our ancestors? Is human civilization a natural or an unnatural development? As Conan remarks in one story: "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." — "The Tower of the Elephant", Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales, March 1933." (translation: barbarians avoid acting like dicks to each other the way civilized folk do, since barbarians all carry giant axes around.) (cfr "An armed society is a polite society")
Additionally, fans such as comic book artist Mark Schultz have concluded that Conan was an idealized alter ego for Howard. Unlike the modern, stereotypical view of a brainless barbarian, Howard originally created Conan as a thoughtful figure, although primarily a man of action rather than a man of deep thought or brooding. A closer alter ego for Howard, often depicted as a melancholic man who often battled with depression, much like Howard himself (Howard eventually committed suicide) is King Kull, Conan's original forebear (cf "By This Axe, I Rule" and " The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune ". "Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content. — "Queen of the Black Coast", Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales, May 1934." After he died, Lovecraft even explicitly drew the connection in an obituary he wrote for his friend.
The rights for the character are currently held by a litigant more vexatious than Games Workshop. You'd think that's an exaggeration, but Conan O'Brien had to pay them off to use his real name that he was given at birth in a show title without fear of a trademark suit. Another result was that Detective Conan, named for Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, had to be released as Cased Closed in the west to avoid their wrath.
Conan the Barbarian -- Modernity
The above notwithstanding, in recent years, Conan has been invariably portrayed as a giant brute. A heroic and fair-minded brute, but a brute nevertheless. Over 7 feet tall, and more than 270lbs of pure muscle, his strength was legendary. He was revered for his might in much the same way that Hercules or Thor would be. His sword was gigantic and hopelessly phallic, and despite its size and weight, he wielded it with a true warrior's mastery. While he was usually clad in only scraps of clothing or even just a loincloth (in Howard's books he actually used armour whenever he could, saving his life in many instances), this just made for a better showing of his incredible physique.
Depending on the story or setting he was being reflected, he originated from disparate places such as Gaul or Scandinavia, but most commonly, in environs reminiscent of
the ancient Middle East or Babylon the pre-Romanic British Isles.
Red Sonja was basically written as an attempt to create a female counterpart to Conan (and was herself inspired by another of Robert's characters). Elric of Melnibone was created by Moorcock as a kind of deliberate foil to him.
In recent years, the most famous portrayals of Conan were in the Conan the Barbarian films of the 1980s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (one his earliest films), and the surprisingly impressive animated television series, Conan the Adventurer. The films at least attempted to capture a little more of the "surprisingly intelligent" aspect of the character (the first stresses his education in poetry, tactics, and philosophy and included a deleted scene of him melancholically reflecting on the harshness and sacrifices of his way of life), but was inevitably brought up short by the fact that the leading man was cast more for his charisma and physique than his ability to act or, you know, actually speak English.
Most interestingly, however, is that many fans believe that Conan
was is one of earliest personas of the God-Emperor of Mankind, of Warhammer 40k notoriety. Despite the fact that both characters are fictional imaginings which were created fifty years apart, there are some intriguing similarities.
They were both giant, mighty men from the times of early human civilization. They both came from early civilizations in the Middle East (though by some accounts Conan was from northern Europe) ACKCHYUALLY, the Cimmerians in Howard's setting were supposed to be a proto-Gaelic culture (modern day Scottish and Irish which Howard's own ancestry was traced from). They wandered the lands in search of adventure and causes to fight for. And of course, they boasted flowing, raven hair and wielded incredibly large broadswords.
Of minor note: Marvel comics (not the media side, the pure comics side) has been engaging in a Conan push for a while now, as of 2020; why is an open question, but it's suspected to have something to do with a possible push for a new Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the character, or the fact that Marvel's 1970s-80s Conan run was widely beloved, and why not bring it back?
It goes without saying that Conan the Barbarian will remain an awe-inspiring character for many years to come.
Games, Games, Games
In 1984 TSR put out two Dungeons & Dragons modules where you got to roleplay as Cimmeria's finest. Then they did a "Conan Role Playing Game" with three more. The barbarian class was originally a reference to the stories, which is why they got extra XP for smashing and destroying magic items and why no one wanted them aroung. Steve Jackson Games in 1988 got permission to do still more, and even a full GURPS rulebook. Then Mongoose Publishing had the licence, putting out "
SpaceballsConan: The RPG" in 2004.
Sometime between 2010 and 2016, Modiphius caught this potato so: "Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of." It uses a "roll under, target number is skill+trait" d20 system, with d6s used for dice. Players and DMs can use Momentum and Doom, respectively, to add extra d20s or extra effects or statuses to a scene. Hilariously, the system was later used without much alteration to make their Star Trek licensed game. They did John Carter of Mars after that, also with the same system, which makes sense from a "Star Trek plus Conan" mindset.
And in 2009, Fantasy Flight Games did a board game.
- Conan, What is best in life?
- And now in metal!
- A truly great combination of righteous ass-kicking, snappy opening music, and cel-shaded animation!
- Primeval Thule, a 3PP setting for D&D 5E and 13th Age that seek to emulate this setting.