Ever since I was a child, I have thrilled to the adventures of Robert E. Howard’s greatest hero, the barbarian known simply as Conan of Cimmeria. I grew up watching the old feature films, moved onto the comics and then the various stories, both penned by Howard himself, and others written by fans like me who simply wanted more of the great warrior. Conan was created in 1932, making him one of America’s oldest pop culture heroes (predating both Superman and Batman) and also one of the first fantasy heroes (before Tolkien and his Middle-earth tales). And with a brand new feature film coming out August 19th, I would be remiss to review that movie before giving you all my overview on all the original completed Howard stories.
Now, by “completed Howard stories”, I mean only fully completed stories written by Robert E. Howard. So no incomplete fragments that were finished by others, or stories that were outlined but never actually written. And as Howard wrote the stories in a random order, and I know part of the fun of Conan is figuring out when in his life he’s going through this, I’m going to follow Dan Rippke’s chronology. And just for the facts, I’m going to give a summary for each story (trying not to spoil anything) and then give my assessment of them. Now, let’s go back the age after the oceans drank Atlantis, before the rise of the sons of Aryas… to the days of high adventure!
The Frost Giant’s Daughter
A teenaged Conan, battling alongside allies in the northern tribe of Aesir against their Vanir foes, finds himself the lone survivor of a bloody battle. A strange, beautiful and ethereal woman appears, drawing the Cimmerian with her mystic beauty awakening a primal lust in him. As Conan follows her into the frozen wastes, he has little realization that she’s leading him to a trap. And she has little realization that she picked the wrong target.
Little known fact, Conan’s stories all appeared in Weird Tales, which was essentially a horror fantasy magazine. So a lot of them had elements of horror in them. And Conan’s encounter up north has all the hallmarks of a good campfire ghost story. As for this, the first story of a young Conan that Howard wrote (the real first is set in his 40’s), we get a good sense of this young warrior, fresh out of Cimmeria and off on the journey that would sum up the adventure. And while he’s still a great warrior and survivor, it shows that he has a lot to learn, not just of the world, but of the supernatural threats waiting for him.
The God In the Bowl
In the country of Nemedia, in the city of Numalia, Kallian Publico, the owner of a Temple/antiques house/museum is found murdered. The only suspect is Conan, now surviving as a teenage thief in the supposed civilized lands, who was in the temple to steal a particular item. Conan, of course, didn’t do it, and both the investigating magistrate and prefect believe him. As Conan and the investigators try to figure out the murder, there’s also the mystery of a strange bowl-like sarcophagus from the country of Stygia, and its missing contents.
One of the earliest action thrillers in the canon of Conan, this one is beloved for both playing as a supernatural mystery, and also featuring the first encounter between Conan and the machinations of Stygian sorcery, including the man who a lot of fans consider Conan’s greatest foe, the sorcerer Thoth-Amon.
The Tower of the Elephant
On a whim while in the City of Thieves in Zamora, Conan decides to attempt to steal the Heart of the Elephant, a jewel belonging to the wizard Yara. The problem: no thief has ever entered Yara’s Tower of the Elephant and survived. Even then, Conan may survive the phantasmic traps and creatures, but even he isn’t prepared to see how sometimes a man can be more monstrous than the Eldritch creatures of the universe.
Hands-down, one of the greatest Conan stories ever written. Its influence is obvious as nearly every adaption has featured Conan breaking into a tower of demonic traps to steal a gem. And also, the depths of Conan’s honor and nobler aspects are shown within this tale’s climax.
Rogues in the House
Prince Murilo is being blackmailed by the sinister Nabonidus the Red Priest. Rather than get out of town like the priest wants, Murilo hires an imprisoned barbarian thief (guess who?) to assassinate Nabonidus. But as circumstances take a turn to the worse, Conan will have to work with both men to take on the creature wearing the Red Priest’s cloak.
While this is a great story with great visuals, I don’t like how Conan seems like he’s incidental to the plot. However, we do get one of his greatest battles against an unexpected foe in the climax, hence its fame.
Shadows in the Moonlight aka Iron Shadows in the Moon
Olivia, a princess from Ophir sold into slavery for refusing an arranged marriage, escapes from her lustful abusive master Shah Amurath. As she flees, a twenty-ish Conan, the only survivor of the Kozaks (whom Amurath butchered for his master King Yildez of Turan) rescues her, and the two escape to an island on the inland sea of Vilayet. There, they must contend with a lurking threat in the trees and a group of pirates setting up camp on the beach. Neither of which are as dangerous as the mysterious statues in a temple, that Olivia fears as the moonlight rises.
Honestly, this one is just okay. Olivia is kind of annoying, and while Conan does get a good battle against a monster in, the hyped-up nature of the statues lead to a let-down of action fans. Although if you like lingering horror, that may appeal to you.
In the desert kingdom of Khoraja, the Princess Yasmela is ruling in the absence of her brother. A demonic force called Natohk the Veiled one is gathering an army of desert nomads, threatening to spread and conquer all. And Natohk has made it clear his lustful intentions for Yasmela. The princess goes the temple of the god of light and good, Mitra, praying for a solution. A voice in the temple tells her: “Go forth upon the streets alone, and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there.” Yasmela does as instructed, and meets a mercenary in her demoralized army. And thankfully, that soldier is Conan of Cimmeria.
This is one of the greatest stories that Howard ever wrote, and another of my favorites. As Conan takes his first steps into a true leadership role, we see shades of both the man and hero that would eventually save thousands.
Queen of the Black Coast
While fleeing guards for refusing to sell out a friend (and also for killing the judge questioning him), Conan finds himself on a ship as it’s attacked by the pirate ship Tigress. It’s crew consists almost totally of Kushites (the Hyborian equivalent of Africans) and captained by the beautiful Shemite (middle eastern) woman Belit. Conan and Belit fall passionately in love, and the Cimmerian serves on her crew for 3 years. But as they journey up the Zarkheba River to plunder an ancient temple, Conan will face both tragedy, and also have one of his greatest battles in his life.
“Mandatory” is the word I’d use to describe this story. Not only does it feature Belit, who is often considered the first true love of Conan’s life, if not THE true love, but we also get a glimpse into the Cimmerian’s thoughts on life, death and faith. And the final battle is so awesome that fans consider it one of the best committed to paper in literature.
The Slithering Shadow aka Xuthal of the Dusk
After Conan and the slave girl Natala wander through the desert, they find a strange city called Xuthal. Its degenerate people have fallen into decadence, and the only one who will speak to them is a Stygian beauty named Thalis. But even with the threat of Thalis (who has fallen for Conan), there’s also the threat of the living darkness called Thog. And so the Cimmerian finds himself in a battle for his life that he may not survive.
While still good, not a lot of people like this one. I don’t get that. It has a strange location, a damsel in distress, an evil villainess, and Conan taking on what’s essentially an Eldritch monster out of the Cthulhu mythos. This is awesome, and I can’t recommend it higher.
A Witch Shall Be Born
In the kingdom of Khauran, Queen Taramis has secretly been kidnapped by her identical twin, the witch Salome, who has taken her place. Salome has teamed up with the evil mercenary Constantius, and the two are dragging the kingdom from a peaceful land to a depraved kingdom of perversion and dark magic. And the only one who truly knows that Taramis has been replaced has been crucified outside the kingdom in the desert. That person: Conan. And he is burning for vengeance.
I agree with everyone that this is a well-written story. What I don’t like is that Conan is more of a side-character in this story. Still, Conan survives crucifixion. And when your hero survives that, it shows his awesomeness.
The Devil in Iron
A series of events brings about the reawakening of the ancient demon Khosatral Khel, who has begun to rebuild his island fortress. A Turanian lord named Jehungir Agha suffers from an attack on the border from a force led by a certain Cimmerian, and plans a trap on the same island using his slave girl Octavia in order to appease King Yezdigerd. And so, Conan must deal with the machinations of his Turanian foes, save another beautiful woman, and face off with an iron-skinned demon from the abyss.
Another story I like more than other fans, this reminds me of a survivor horror game, with Conan having to solve the mysteries, navigate the traps, and run from an invincible foe while trying to discover how to kill it.
We’re only halfway through, and when we return, we’ll continue on Conan’s rise from traveling adventurer to king.