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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Conan

No, not Conan O’Brien. We’re talking somebody a bit less civilized than that (although, I suppose that some of you might find this debatable). Today, my dear inklings, we’re talking Conan the Barbarian, who is brought to you by the letter J.

Why the letter J? Because if my friend and fellow writer Josh Unruh hadn’t decided to make it his personal crusade to introduce me to “low fantasy” (aka “sword & sorcery”), you wouldn’t be reading this blog post.

So. Onward! This morning, I finished reading Conan #1 by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter. The book is a collection of short stories by Howard, going back as far as 1934. From what I understand, de Camp and Carter edited the stories, completed some of them, and compiled them into this collection. (I’m sure Josh will correct me on this point if I’m wrong.)

I think it’s safe to say that this was my first foray into writings of this genre; however, much of Conan’s world reminded me of a movie I grew up watching (over and over and over, ad infinitum): the 1940 film The Thief of Baghdad.

1940s. 1930s. Approximately the same era. Sandals. Swords. Sorcery. Heroes who are something of societal dregs — not a smidgen of education, but a goodly amount of cunning (and, in Conan’s case, a massive dose of brute strength, always handy). Fair maidens in need of rescue. Treasure in need of stealing. Evil in need of vanquishing (usually not out of moral considerations but simply because it impedes the treasure-stealing process).

(As a side note, Howard’s writing style in Conan also reminds me of the so-called “Heinlein juveniles” of the ’40s and ’50s. There’s a whole series of blog posts in the effects culture and society have upon the collective style of an era’s writers.)

What we have here, my friends, is not-so-good guys getting the drop on bad guys, and it’s all set in a fantastical world where elves and hobbits and brownies would stick out like sore Thumbelinas. In one of the stories, I found a brief mention of werewolves. I could imagine vampires in this world, but only if they came in the form of demons conjured up from the netherworld. Orcs wouldn’t be out-of-place…but if we think of orcs as all brawn without a lot of brain, Conan’s got that pretty much covered already.

Howard goes a long way, especially over the course of the first few (chronologically arranged) stories, to present Conan as a hulking jock who never thinks anything through. This big brute of a main character’s drives are testosterone, greed, and boredom (in that he doesn’t like it and seeks adventure to alleviate it). As a woman of the 21st century, Yours Writerly read the first few stories while raising an eyebrow and smirking. There might even have been some eye-rolling.


Through the course of the stories, Conan develops a reputation in the mythical lands through which he travels. This reputation doesn’t exactly precede him, but it does spread quickly after he arrives and settles (briefly) in a given area. Yes, this reputation includes the brute strength, vengeful rage, and lack of civilized manner. But it also includes his skills in thievery.

What does it take to be not only a successful thief but also an admired thief? Surely, I submit, it takes more than just ridiculous strength and sword-prowess. Here’s where we return to that cunning I mentioned earlier.

Conan plots. He analyzes. He waits, curbing his own wild impulses with the patience of a consummate hunter. He concocts schemes for breaking-and-entering that leave authorities confounded. In no sense a scholar, he still learns foreign languages and customs as he goes, reasoning that they will serve him in his thrill-seeking, treasure-purloining, and law-evading. He’s even smart enough to get the girl and then give her back to her betrothed with that poor schmuck’s being none the wiser.

I have no idea if Howard was the one who infused a seemingly shallow character with deep, unexpected undercurrents, or if de Camp and Lin did it in rewrites. Either way, the depth is there. I didn’t expect it, and it made me smile to discover it. Well-written characters in plot-driven stories always make me smile.

Conan is more fun than any “jock” character has a right to be — and that’s what makes him fascinating. He’s a great reminder of the lasting impact a unique, convention-shattering character can have on a reader. (He shatters my conventions, anyway.)

Howard created a “low” fantasy character who is now iconic in my mind. That’s something very few “high” fantasy authors have been able to do. And that’s WILAWriTWe!

3 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Conan”

  1. […] a weekly guest column at Unstressed Syllables, my friend Aaron’s blog. Please click through here to find out what I got out of reading Conan the Barbarian. (I bet it’s more than you […]

  2. Joshua Unruh says:

    You’ve hit upon something that I think actually stems from Howard’s own philosophy. He was fairly disillusioned with civilization and saw it as a constant cycle of rise and fall to decadence. In Conan, you get the uncivilized man who isn’t a brute or an idiot. No, he’s simple.

    Lie to Conan? He kills you. Challenge him? He tries to meet the challenge. Treat him well? He is a staunch ally? All of this is going on right at the surface, look no deeper.

    Is he violent? Sure. Can he be brutish? Absolutely. But he’s also intelligent, cunning, and (as he gets older) wise while never succumbing to the decadent complexities of civilization.

    It’s a bit overly romantic (that is, simplistic) but it’s easy to get swept up in Howard’s philosophy.

    • I don’t think it’s overly romantic. Maybe not even simplistic. It’s just straightforward, and that makes it refreshing — and I say that both as a reader of books and as a member of Western society, which is often disingenuous enough to make the head spin. ; )