Sunday, October 28, 2007
The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E Howard
To read this anthology is almost like a history tour of the fantasy genre. Howard wrote in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings came along later than this. For whatever reason, it is Tolkien's 'high fantasy' that is the most readily identifiable for of fantasy writing today, as opposed to Howard's 'swords and sorcery' style. The Dungeons and Dragons type role-playing game draw heavily from the Howard tradition, but fantasy writers over the last twenty-five years have pretty much taken their cues from Tolkien.
Which explains why the fantasy genre is just so tired today.
With writers falling over themselves to imitate a 1940s English professor, there's not a lot of room for progress in the genre. There are a few good works in the genre, but these come from writers who so pointedly avoid Tolkien-imitation and go for something different. Writers like George RR Martin, or Terry Pratchett who make the genre turn tricks like a dog. Or Naomi Novik, who works wonders by placing a fantasy icon (dragons) into a different setting (Napoleonic).
Back to Howard.
This anthology is collected in the order in which the stories were published, with some fragments and unpublished (ie rejected) tales at the end. The tales vary wildly in Conan's life. In some, he is ensconced as king of Aquilonia, next, he's a thief trying his luck. There is a remarkable consistency of these tales, of character and place as well as of theme. Conan at any age spills from the page fully formed. The other characters who appear in his tales manage to make their own space, and are not simply canvas figures through which Conan moves. The tales are all ultimately about Conan, but this is not a one-note record.