Monday, June 18, 2012

Good Thing #6: What's Best in Life? Conan!

Most people who have never read Conan assume it's stupid. Many people have actually read Conan still think it's stupid because they haven't read it in the way it was actually written. It took almost 70 years from the time of Robert E. Howard's death for the stories to be published the way he'd written them. Before then, the stories that had been published in magazines in the 20s and 30s were edited, re-ordered to give the stories a linear sequence like novels, which was never the intent. Stories Howard had written about other characters had their names replaced with "Conan." So in some stories Conan is in inexplicably a different location with a different personality.

With the Del Rey editions published in the 2000s, they correct the problems, going back to Robert E. Howard's original versions and ordering them the way he wrote them. Originally they were non-sequential snapshots of the life of a barbarian who is living at at time when civilization was taking hold. Unlike the comfortable "noble savage" of, say, the Tarzan novels (with the familiar, "Who's the real savage, Tarzan or civilized man?" cliché) Conan is absolutely savage. The view of civilization is much more nihilistic. It's not necessarily better or worse than savagery, it just might not stand any chance at all.

At the same time, these are rousing adventures, written to get the blood racing. They can be extremely brutal, and some scenes stick in the mind long after they're read. When they're in the order that they were written, we see Howard growing as a writer, defining then transcending the Sword & Sorcery genre. The last few stories we see a writer who could go on to become recognized as one of America's best writers coming into his own. Sadly, he committed suicide. It's heartbreaking to think of the stories that might have been.

At least he left us with many great stories. I'm happy for that.

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