The Conquering Sword of Conan is the final volume in Del Rey’s three-volume collection of every Robert E. Howard Conan story. I wrote about the second volume, and how Robert E. Howard wrote like Hank Williams sang, last week. Gregory Manchess provides the illustrations for this volume, and they may be my favorite of the three. There is again a foreword by the illustration, as well as an introduction (by Patrice Louinet), notes, synopses, and drafts, a letter, and the final part of Louinet’s Genesis of the Hyborian Age essay. The letter, in particular, is interesting. It tells us essentially everything we know about Conan’s early and later years.
The Conquering Sword of Conan is probably the strongest volume of the three. At least two stories—Beyond the Black River and Red Nails—are frequently cited among Conan’s best, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. But Howard was growing tired of writing Conan stories, or at least disassociated with the character. He wanted to write stories in new settings and it shows. Beyond the Black River could have been set on the Texas frontier, The Black Stranger the coast of North Carolina during the Golden Age of Piracy, Red Nails Aztec Mexico at the discovery of the New World.
George R.R. Martin has been called the American Tolkien. He isn’t, but if he were, Robert E. Howard would be the Texan Tolkien. I don’t say that because of how good he was, or because of his influence, though, if you were to name a “Big Three” of fantasy, the list has to include Burroughs, Tolkien, and Howard. I say that because Tolkien’s work was quintessentially English and created an English mythology of sorts. He isn’t acting nearly as intentionally as Tolkien was, but Howard does something much the same for Texas.
Chris Brown identifies Conan as fitting into the American archetype of the backwoodsman (interestingly, that and not the strongman). Conan is as able a woodsman as anything else. The Conan stories are dripping with frontier spirit and individualism. Howard lays these themes out plainest in Beyond the Black River.
The Picts steal over and burn and murder – like that one did. They don’t always come singly. Some day they’ll try to sweep the settlers out of Conajohara. And they may succeed. Probably will succeed. The colonization business is mad, anyway. There’s plenty of good land east of the Bossonian marches. If the Aquilonians would cut up some of the big estates of the barons, and plant wheat where now only deer are hunted, they wouldn’t have to cross the border and take the land of the Picts away from them.
He could have been speaking about expansion into the Comancheria at a time when the government was unwilling or unable to properly protect settlers and poor white Americans were still blocked from some of the richest farmland in the world by slaveholders’ plantations.
Divine providence played a large role in Tolkien’s work. Crom gives a man strength and ability at birth. It is up to him to use it. Howard, like America, glorifies the self-made man. A Texan would find little cause for complaint in Conan’s Aquilonia:
Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.
That is pretty much perfect, in my book.
But perhaps nowhere is Howard more quintessentially Texan than in depicting Conan’s love interests. If Conan fills the American archetype of the backwoodsman, his love interests tend toward the pioneer woman. In Beyond the Black River it isn’t just the love interest.
Warning settlers of the impending Pict invasion, the first cabin just holds one woman. She answers the door in nothing but a shift, holding a candle in one hand and an axe in the other. She is terrified but wants to hold the cabin and fight. At the next cabin, an old woman puts a young woman on a horse before her. She explains that the woman is pregnant, and that she “can walk—and fight, too, if it comes to that.”
Conan’s love interests had a lot of what they called moxie in those days. Female characters in movie these days are often introduced with a scene intended to show they are strong…before settling into the role of damsel. Conan is frequently a jerk to the women in his stories at first, but they tend to go on to impress Conan, and us. Howard was writing against the background of west Texas as the frontier. He wrote to a generation that won WWI as part of a generation that survived the Great Depression and would go on to win WWII. It was the age of the Hawksian woman. If such women are out of style today, is it any surprise when men today are weaker than their fathers?
I will talk about the three Conan movies next time. In the meantime, you can see how people voted on my Twitter poll on who they should cast as Conan for the next movie.
Table of Stories
The Servants of Bit-Yakin, first published in Weird Tales, March 1935
Beyond the Black River, first published in Weird Tales, May and June 1935
The Black Stranger, original version first published in Echoes of Valor, Tor, 1987
The Man-Eaters of Zamboula, first published Weird Tales, November 1935
Red Nails, first published Weird Tales, July, August-September, and October 1936
You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.