|Conan the Barbarian|
Weird Tales (1932)
Robert E. Howard
Conan is a Cimmerian. It is known that the Cimmerians were based on the Celts or Gaels. 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 demise, 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 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 to protect his own survival or for personal gain.
Conan has "sullen," "smoldering" and "volcanic" blue eyes with 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. Howard never gave a strict height or weight for Conan in a story, only describing him in loose terms like "giant" and "massive." In the tales, no human is ever described as being 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 (1.8 m) and weighing 180 pounds (82 kg) when he takes part in an attack on Venarium at 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 stories.
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 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 Kull of Atlantis originated — had to move east after a great cataclysm changed the face of the world and sank their island, settling where Ireland and Scotland would eventually be located. Thus, they are (in Howard's work) the ancestors of the Irish and Scottish (the Celtic Gaels) and not the Picts, the other ancestor of modern Scots who also appear in Howard's work. 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).
Despite his brutish appearance, 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, including advanced reading and writing abilities: in certain stories, he is able to recognize, or even decipher, certain ancient or secret signs and writings; for example, in "Jewels of Gwahlur" Howard states, "In his roaming about the world, the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's linguistic abilities..." He also has incredible stamina, enabling him to go without sleep for a few days. In "A Witch Shall be Born", Conan fights armed men until he is overwhelmed, captured, and crucified, and goes a night and a day without water but, still possesses the strength to pull the nails from his feet, then to hoist himself into a horse's saddle and ride ten miles.
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." His sense of humor can also be rather grimly ironic, as was demonstrated by how he meted out justice to the treacherous - and ill-fated - innkeeper Aram Baksh in "Shadows in Zamboula."
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, 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 drunkenly running into a wall).
Public Domain Appearances
- The Phoenix on the Sword (1932)
- The Pool of the Black One (1933)
- Black Colossus (1933)
- The Scarlet Citadel (1933)
- The Tower of the Elephant (1933)
- The Slithering Shadow (1933)
- Rogues in the House (1934)
- The Devil in Iron (1934)
- Gods of the North (1934) (not originally a Conan story but rewritten as one)
- Shadows in the Moonlight (1934)
- The People of the Black Circle (1934)
- A Witch Shall be Born (1934)
- The Hour of the Dragon (1935)
- Beyond the Black River (1935)
- Jewels of Gwahlur (1935)
- Shadows in Zamboula (1935)
- Red Nails (1936)
- The Hyborian Age (1938)
- Conan's debut in Phoenix on the Sword was actually a re-write of an initially unpublished Kull of Atlantis story, By This Axe, I Rule.