Under the Influence: Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian




Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.


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 sandalled feet.


Modern fantasy has divided into many different subgenres. Epic fantasy, of the sort that owes its origin to Tolkien and the sources from which Tolkien drew, is one of the major images to spring to mind immediately when the word "fantasy" is mentioned. Urban fantasy, while not being actually a recent invention (one can find such works going far back indeed), has only recently become a major force in the market, and even more so its close cousin paranormal romance.


But one of the other major divisions of fantasy owes its existence and popularity neither to the works of Tolkien nor to the intersection of the modern world with the mystical. Instead, these are tales of men and women of might and will, facing down horrific monsters and vile sorceries for the sake of gold, of justice, or of revenge. Their adventures may or may not affect the course of any other than themselves and a few near to them, but they are the heroes – or sometimes antiheroes, even sometimes noble demons, of their worlds. This is the genre of Sword and Sorcery, and it was defined and brought to its height by one man, Robert E. Howard, and one character: the brooding, iron-thewed, raven-haired warrior Conan of Cimmeria.


The concept of sword and sorcery tales goes back as far in history as we can tell, from the adventures of Heracles to the battle of Beowulf. But Robert E. Howard stepped forward and created the modern genre of sword-and-sorcery,painting  a vast and mystical past with broad and stunning strokes, a visualization of a heroic age filled with terror and majesty, with decadent empires and uncivilized barbarians and young, energetic nations just rising to the challenges of their era, with magicians of dark and mysterious powers and monsters cruel and cunning.


Howard populated his worlds with men and women who strode their worlds larger than life, with strength of arm and iron wills and unswerving purpose – King Kull of Atlantis, Red Sonya, Solomon Kane, and others. But of all of them, there was none whose influence and power came close to that of Conan the Cimmerian.


I read the Conan stories first in 1981, and they had a huge impact on me. Conan was a different type of hero than those I was used to. He had his own rough moral code, but he was more than willing to steal, lie, and strong-arm his way into riches or out of trouble. I was used to more shiny heroes, but there was an attraction to Conan, and his world of the Hyborian Age, which overcame my initial surprise.


In a simple sense, one might think that Conan's appeal was that he solved his problems directly, by hacking them down – and certainly there was a great deal of that. The general perception of Conan in the public eye – especially those who have never read any of the stories – tends to view him as a massively strong and skilled warrior, but not terribly smart.


This is, however, very much counter to the man seen in the stories. At the age of sixteen, Conan first leaves Cimmeria on his adventures (and rarely returns anywhere near his homeland from then on). By the time he has reached his prime, Conan has mastered multiple languages – reading as well as speaking – and learned ship navigation, multiple methods of combat with weapons of all types, some considerable degree of knowledge of astronomy, basic mathematics, mystical legends, customs and organization of dozens of countries, and many other skills and areas of knowledge.


Despite this, Conan is not invincible or without fault or weakness. He fears magic greatly, though he will very rarely allow that fear to rule him and he has extremely good reason for such fear; most magic of the Hyborian Age is dark in nature, corruptive, destructive, often drawn from demonic sources. Conan is not – quite – the strongest man on earth; on a few occasions he encounters someone who is physically his equal, though luck or skill eventually gives him a victory. Unlike many of his compatriots, Conan of Cimmeria does have a code of ethics and honor. This often leads him into trouble; he cannot leave a young woman in danger, nor can he go back on a promise freely made, and both of these often draw him into adventures that he'd probably rather have avoided.


Robert E. Howard's great triumph with Conan as a character is to give him a distinctive voice. Reading a Conan story, it is easy to detect the lines and commentary of the Cimmerian; he speaks more boldly, sharply, and bluntly than those around him, his personality defined as much by his language as by his actions. Conan's strength of action and will and his integrity are what turn him from what could be a mere thug into a Hero – a hero darker and grimmer than many, but still a force for light in a world that hides so very much darkness. I have not written a Conan-style hero yet – I may, I may not – but certainly such heroes exist on my world of Zarathan; sometimes there are dark deeds that need a grimmer hero to counter.


The Hyborian Age itself was a huge inspiration to me. Tolkien's world had, ultimately, more detail… but in some ways even Middle-Earth never achieved the power and grandeur of the great history of the Hyborian age, of mighty Aquilonia and shadowed Kush and distant, fabled Khitai and the shattered, haunted ruins of Atlantis. Howard was one of the fans and members of the inner circle of H. P. Lovecraft, and the Hyborian Age has not only wizards and monsters, but ancient, eldritch horrors of truly Lovecraftian nature – black, toadlike Tsathoggua and other tentacled or even indescribable things crawl and gibber in dark corners of the world, and mad or power-hungry wizards bargain with beings who come from beyond the veil of time and space.


Zarathan, my own fantasy world, was certainly inspired in part by Tolkien, but at least as strong was the influence of Conan's world. I wanted that sense of danger and adventure at the same time as I wanted the grandeur and sense of history found in Middle-Earth. I have spent countless hours working on designing and building my world, and the world of Hyboria was rarely far from my mind during those hours.


Ironically, I have undoubtedly spent vastly more time building Zarathan than Robert E. Howard spent in the design and construction of Hyboria. Conan's world was invented in 1932, and Robert Howard died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1936, at the age of 30; I've been working on Zarathan for 35 years. Howard had actually mostly stopped writing Conan stories considerably before then, so most of the work on the world had been completed within three years or so.


In less than four years, Robert E. Howard had created a world so rich, and a character so powerful, that it would influence the entirety of the genre of fantasy fiction for generations to come. Conan's own stories were continued by other writers from the 1930s through the modern era; writers of modern Conan novels include John Maddox Roberts, Harry Turtledove, and Robert Jordan. In addition, scores of imitators sprang up, some successful, some less so, but all of them helping to establish sword-and-sorcery as a true subgenre of its own. Perhaps some of the most well-known inheritors of Howard's mantle in the genre are Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) and Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melnibone). Howard's influence, and that of Conan, continue to this day, in comics, movies, video games, and more.


I thank Robert E. Howard for his vision, and regret he could not continue for even a little longer to show us the wonders of Hyboria, the craggy, chill land of Cimmeria, and the blazing blue-eyed black-maned child of that land, Conan the Barbarian. If any of my creations are remembered one-tenth as well, I will have achieved more than I have ever hoped. Sleep well, Mr. Howard.






  1. To too many people, Conan is Herr Schwarzenegger. If only the Howard Estate could have forced Hollywood to hew closer to the books. (If only the Heinlein estate could have forced Hollywood…)

    I only read one of the books. I can’t even remember if I enjoyed it. It didn’t inspire me to dig out the others. On the other hand, I read Tolkein’s trilogy and the Hobbit. I liked the Hobbit. As for the rest, I preferred the Harvard Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings”.

    Sometimes our tastes overlap-this isn’t those times.

    • Well, I should note that if you read “one of the books”, if it wasn’t a book filled with short stories but a novel, you almost certainly DIDN’T read the real Conan. Robert E. Howard wrote one, and ONLY one, Conan novel, and it was a quite short novel by today’s standards. Virtually all of his output was short stories. So unless you read “The Phoenix on the Sword”, you were only reading Conan *pastiche*, not actual Robert E. Howard Conan.

  2. That’s probably so. My best recollection is that it was the mid seventies, and I read it from the “ship’s library” of the USS Benjamin Franklin. When I ran out of SF&F, Westerns, and Mysteries/Detective stories from this limited selection, I actually read three romances. All Betty Neals.

Your comments or questions welcomed!