“What Is Best in Life?” Conan at 90

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, which appeared for the first time in Weird Tales magazine. Howard was one of the fathers of the “sword and sorcery” genre of popular fiction. To both celebrate and reflect upon Howard’s work as well as its impact, the High Fantasy track brought together a distinguished panel of authors, editors, and scholars Friday afternoon in the Marriott. Brian D. Anderson, Steve Saffel, S.M. Stirling, and Mel Todd joined Van Allen Plexico (moderator) in a discussion as much about Howard as his most famous creation.

Robert Howard was a from a small Texas town who, according to Saffel, had a deep passion and interest in the outside world. To feed that interest, Howard read extensively, drawing upon both his father’s library at home and the collections of public libraries. That sparked a desire to write, which he began doing at an early age. Saffel described his writing style as pugilistic. He “pounded out” material. The typewriters of the day required a good bit of “pounding” upon the keys but for Howard, that ferocity and intensity reflected the stories he was trying to tell. Howard was quite a fan of boxing, then the most popular sport in America, and he actually wrote more boxing tales than anything else. Of his Conan stories, Stirling pointed out that Howard once declared that he was merely dictating the stories as Conan leaned over his shoulder dictating.

According to Todd, Americans idolized Conan far more than the people of any other country in the world. When trying to explain that, the panel coalesced around the notion of ‘primal masculinity,’ which in the context of America manifested itself as a kind of ultimate example of the self-made man. Anderson pointed out that in this respect Conan’s popularity shares a great deal in common with that of another super masculine character: James Bond.

Stirling felt it important to recognize and point out the depth of Howard’s world creation. He drew upon his readings in history as source material he could adapt and reshape to create the world of Conan. Howard used material from the ancient cultures of West and Central Asia, North Africa, the British Isles, and Europe to construct the world in which Conan struggled. Todd was quick to point out that while Howard drew on a deep knowledge of history, the world was not just a copy, but rather a creation uniquely his own.

Howard’s Conan stories constitute the “canon,” and he died at the very young age of 30. Still, his stories and epic character live on. Among the most famous adaptations of the tale of Conan was Conan the Barbarian, released in 1982 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Based on Howard’s character and written by John Milius and Oliver Stone, it is (even with its limitations and problems) a significant contribution to the corpus. The Conan comics have also contributed to the character’s vitality as have computer and video games. Allen in particular acknowledged the influence of the Dark Horse comics telling of Conan stories for their emphasis upon his cunning. Stirling’s new Conan novel arrives on book store shelves this November with even more content on the way. So, what then is best in life? As one of the first epic sword and sorcery heroes, it is that at 90 you live, and that is exactly what Conan is doing.

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