Conan the Barbarian (also known as Conan the Cimmerian, from the name of his homeland, Cimmeria) is a fictional character often associated with the fantasy subgenre sword-and-sorcery (also known as heroic fantasy). He has been credited with being the most famous fictional barbarian, and one of the most well known iconic figures in American fantasy.
Created by Texan writer Robert E. Howard in 1932 via a series of fantasy stories sold to Weird Tales magazine, the character has since appeared in licensed books, comics, films, television programs, and video games, contributing to his long-standing popularity.
In February 1932, Howard vacationed at a border town on the lower Rio Grande to enjoy the local flavor. During this trip, he further conceived the character of Conan and also wrote the poem Cimmeria, much of which echoes specific passages in Plutarch's Lives. According to some scholars, there is a strong likelihood that Howard's conception of Conan and the Hyborian Age originated in Thomas Bulfinch's The Outline of Mythology (1913) which enthused Howard to "coalesce into a coherent whole his literary aspirations and the strong physical, autobiographical elements underlying the creation of Conan."
Having digested these prior influences and returned from his trip, Howard rewrote the rejected Kull story "By This Axe I Rule!" (May 1929) with his new hero in mind, re-titling it "The Phoenix on the Sword". Howard also wrote "The Frost Giant's Daughter", inspired by the Greek myth of Daphne, and submitted both stories to Weird Tales magazine. Although "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was rejected, the magazine accepted "The Phoenix on the Sword" after requested polishing.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" appeared in Weird Tales in December 1932, thus marking Conan's first appearance in print. Weird Tales would become famous for its unique stable of notable authors, including H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Tennessee Williams, Robert Bloch, Seabury Quinn and others. The acceptance of "The Phoenix on the Sword" by editor Farnsworth Wright prompted Howard to write an 8,000 word essay for personal use detailing "the Hyborian Age," the fictional setting for Conan. Using this essay as his guideline, Howard began plotting "The Tower of the Elephant", a new Conan story that would be the first to truly integrate his new conception of the Hyborian world, and thus to introduce the setting to the reader.
The publication and success of "The Tower of the Elephant" would spur Howard to write many more Conan stories for Weird Tales. By the time of Howard's suicide in 1936, he had written twenty-one complete tales, seventeen of which had been published, as well as a number of unfinished fragments.
Following Howard's death, the copyright of the Conan stories passed through several hands. Eventually, under the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the stories were expurgated, revised and sometimes rewritten. For roughly forty years, the original versions of Howard's Conan stories remained out of print. Only with the Berkley editions in 1977 was an attempt made to return to the earliest published (Weird Tales) form of the texts, but these failed to displace the edited versions. In the 1980s and 1990s, the copyright holders of the Conan franchise permitted Howard's stories to go out of print entirely, while continuing to sell Conan works by other authors.
In 2000, the British publisher Gollancz Science Fiction issued a two-volume, complete edition of Howard's Conan stories as part of their Fantasy Masterworks imprint, including several stories which had never seen print in their original form. The Gollancz edition mostly used the versions of the stories as published in Weird Tales.
In 2003, a British publisher named Wandering Star made an effort both to restore Howard's original manuscripts and provide a more scholarly and historical view of the Conan stories. They published deluxe hardcover editions in England, which were republished in the United States by the Del Rey imprint of Ballantine Books. The first book, Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932–1933) (2003; published in the US as The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian) includes Howard's notes on his fictional setting, as well as letters and poems concerning the genesis of his ideas. This was followed by Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Two (1934) (2004) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935–1936) (2005); these were published in the US in 2005 as The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. Among them, the three books include all of the original unedited Conan stories.
The various stories of Conan the Barbarian occur in the fictional "Hyborian Age," set after the destruction of Atlantis and before the rise of the known ancient civilizations. This is a specific epoch in a fictional timeline created by Howard for many of the low fantasy tales of his artificial legendry.
The reasons behind the invention of the Hyborian Age were perhaps commercial: Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research work needed in maintaining historical accuracy. By conceiving a timeless setting — "a vanished age" — and by carefully choosing names that resembled human history, Howard shrewdly avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.
According to "The Phoenix on the Sword", the adventures of Conan take place "...Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas..."
Conan is a Cimmerian (based somewhat loosely on the historical Celts), a barbarian of the far north. He was born on a battlefield and is the son of a 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. 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 Aquilona, 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.
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.
Though several later authors have referred to Conan as "Germanic-looking", Howard imagined the Cimmerians as a proto-Celtic people with mostly black hair 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).
Another noticeable trait is his sense of humor, largely absent in the comics and movies but very much a part of Howard's original vision of the character, particularly apparent in "Xuthal of the Dusk," also known as "The Slithering Shadow." 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.
Conan is a formidable armed and unarmed combatant. With his back to the wall so that he cannot be surrounded, 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 several times (knocking himself out drunkenly running into a wall after being betrayed, although he still slays the people initially sent to arrest him; after a fall from a wounded horse; by magical means) but never as a result of martial failings.
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 our inheritance from our ancestors? Is human civilization a natural or 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.
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 but melancholic figure who often battled with depression, much like Howard himself (the writer eventually committed suicide). However, Howard's Conan, that sets him apart from Kull, is unaffected by such feelings:
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.
The character of Conan has proven durably popular, resulting in Conan stories by later writers such as Poul Anderson, Leonard Carpenter, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Roland J. Green, John C. Hocking, Robert Jordan, Sean A. Moore, Björn Nyberg, Andrew J. Offutt, Steve Perry, John Maddox Roberts, Harry Turtledove, and Karl Edward Wagner. Some of these writers have finished incomplete Conan manuscripts by Howard. Others were created by rewriting Howard stories which originally featured entirely different characters from entirely different milieus. Most, however, are completely original works. In total, more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories featuring the Conan character have been written by authors other than Howard.
The Gnome Press edition (1950–1957) was the first hardcover collection of Howard's Conan stories, including all the original Howard material known to exist at the time, some left unpublished in his lifetime. The later volumes contain some stories rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp (like "The Treasure of Tranicos"), including several non-Conan Howard stories, mostly historical exotica situated in the Levant at the time of the crusades, which he turned into Conan yarns. The Gnome edition also issued the first Conan story written by an author other than Howard — the final volume published, which is by Björn Nyberg and revised by de Camp.
The Lancer/Ace editions (1966–1977), under the direction of de Camp and Lin Carter, were the first comprehensive paperbacks, compiling the material from the Gnome Press series together in chronological order with all the remaining original Howard material, including that left unpublished in his lifetime and fragments and outlines. These were completed by de Camp and Carter, and new stories written entirely by the two were added as well. Lancer Books went out of business before bringing out the entire series, the publication of which was completed by Ace Books. Its covers featured dynamic images by Frank Frazetta that, for many fans, presented the "definitive" impression of Conan and his world. For decades to come, most other portrayals of the Cimmerian and his imitators were heavily influenced by the cover paintings of this series.
Editions after the Lancer/Ace series have been of either the original Howard stories or Conan material by others, but not both. Notable later editions of the Howard stories include the Donald M. Grant editions (1974–1989); Berkley editions (1977); Gollancz editions (2000–2006), and Wandering Star/Del Rey editions (2003–2005). Later series of new Conan material include the Bantam editions (1978–1982), Ace Maroto editions (1978–1981), and Tor editions (1982–2004).
In an attempt to provide a coherent timeline which fit the numerous adventures of Conan penned by Robert E. Howard and later writers, various "Conan chronologies" have been prepared by many people from the 1930s onward. Note that no consistent timeline has yet to accommodate every single Conan story. The following are the principal theories that have been advanced over the years, together with their strengths and weaknesses.
The very first Conan cinematic project was planned by Edward Summer. Summer envisioned a series of Conan movies, much like the James Bond franchise. He outlined six stories for this film series, but none were ever made. An original screenplay by Summer and Roy Thomas was written, but their lore-authentic screen story was never filmed. Instead the resulting film, Conan the Barbarian (1982), was written by the unlikely pairing of Oliver Stone and John Milius. Their script had very little in common with Howard's original Conan tales, and was a bold re-imagining of Conan's life.
The plot of Conan the Barbarian (1982) begins with Conan being enslaved by the Vanir raiders of Thulsa Doom, a malevolent warlord who is responsible for the slaying of Conan's parents and the genocide of his people. Later, Thulsa Doom becomes a cult leader of a shamanist religion that worships Set, a Snake God. The vengeful Conan, the archer Subotai and the thief Valeria set out on a quest to rescue a princess held captive by Thulsa Doom. The film was directed by John Milius and produced by Dino De Laurentiis. The character of Conan was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and was his break-through role as an actor.
This film was followed by a less popular sequel, Conan the Destroyer in 1984. This sequel was a more typical fantasy-genre film and was even less faithful to Howard's Conan stories. There were rumours in the late 1990s of a third Conan sequel, King Conan: Crown of Iron, but Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California ended this project.
The film rights to Conan were acquired by Millennium Films in August 2007. Millennium plan to begin production on a new Conan movie in 2008, with the movie intended to be more faithful to Howard's original works than the earlier movies.
Conan the Barbarian has appeared in comics nearly non-stop since 1970. The comics are arguably, apart from the books, the vehicle that had the greatest influence on the longevity and popularity of the character. Aside from an earlier and unofficial Conan comic published in Mexico, the two main publishers of Conan comics have been Marvel and Dark Horse. Marvel Comics launched Conan the Barbarian (1970–1993) and the now-classic Savage Sword of Conan (1974–1995). Dark Horse Comics launched their Conan series in 2003. Dark Horse Comics is currently publishing compilations of the 1970s Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian series and Savage Sword of Conan series in graphic-novel format.
Marvel Comics introduced a relatively lore-faithful version of Conan the Barbarian in 1970 with Conan the Barbarian, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith. Smith was succeeded by penciller John Buscema, while Thomas continued to write for many years. Later writers included J.M. DeMatteis, Bruce Jones, Michael Fleisher, Doug Moench, Jim Owsley, Alan Zelenetz, Chuck Dixon, and Don Kraar. The highly successful Conan the Barbarian series spawned the more adult, black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan in 1974. Written by Roy Thomas and most art by John Buscema or Alfredo Alcala, the Savage Sword of Conan soon became one of the most popular comic series in the 1970s and is now-considered a cult classic.
The Marvel Conan stories were also adapted as a newspaper comic strip which appeared daily and Sunday from 4 September 1978 to 12 April 1981. Originally written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema, the strip was continued by several different Marvel artists and writers.
Dark Horse Comics began their comic adaptation of the Conan saga in 2003. Entitled simply Conan, the series was first written by Kurt Busiek and pencilled by Cary Nord. Tim Truman replaced Busiek when Busiek signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics; however, Busiek issues were sometimes used for filler. This series is an interpretation of the original Conan material by Robert E. Howard with no connection whatsoever to the earlier Marvel comics or any Conan story not written or envisioned by Howard supplemented by wholly original material.
The following characters have prominent roles in the Conan mythos.
However, since Robert E. Howard published his Conan stories at a time when the date of publication was the marker (1923 through 1963), any new owners failed to renew them to maintain the copyrights. The exact status of all of Howard's Conan works are in question.
The Australian site of Project Gutenberg has many Robert E. Howard stories, including several Conan stories. This indicates that, in their opinion, the stories are free from copyright and may be used by anyone, at least under Australian law, which was 50 years from author's death until 2005. Subsequent stories written by other authors are subject to the copyright laws of the relevant time.
In the United Kingdom, 70 years after the death of an author his works fall into the public domain and as such the works of Robert E. Howard have now fallen into the public domain there.