A couple of years ago decided I wanted to read the early Fantasy stories that created the modern genre. I started with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and George MacDonald. Talk about a contrast. If C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are the fathers of modern fantasy then George MacDonald might be thought of as the Grand Father of modern fantasy. The influence on C.S. Lewis in particular is obvious. I found it interesting to realize that the modern fantasy genre was largely an expression of the Christian religious experience of these founding fathers.
But this isn’t the whole tale, of course. There was also an atheist informed strain of fantasy that co-existed side-by-side with the fantasy stories given birth out of the religious experience. I wrote an article on H.P. Lovecraft a while back talking about how he channeled his atheist worldview into his stories and the result was cosmic horror: the awful realization that the “God” of this universe is uncaring and malevolent. Ironically, this means the darker fantasy genre is also an expression of religious experience.
More recently I decided to read Robert E. Howard, particularly his Solomon Kane and Conan stories.
I am not a fan of Conan, I’m afraid. At least for the first several stories that Howard wrote, I felt like they were all derivatives of each other. Every story followed the same plotline:
The Conan Standard Plot
- There is a woman
- She is always white, though she might be fair or tan
- She is always the daughter of a king or high noble man
- She has usually been captured by some evil civilized man that has taken her as his play thing. (Apparently peasant girls never get captured by designing men)
- Most of the time her hair is brunette (Update: I did this from memory and got this one backward. I rememered it was usually one color, but apparently got it wrong. My deep apologies to my rebutter who couldn’t get over my mistake here. 😉 I’m afraid Conan means a heck of a lot more to him than it does to me.)
- She never has a personality
- She is scantily clad
- Conan shows up for one of the following reasons:
- He’s trying to rob someone
- He’s trying to assassinate someone so that he can take what is theirs
- He just happens to be wandering along for no reason
- The woman meets Conan and can’t help but notice how massive and attractive he is. She then does one of the following:
- She’s already with him at the beginning of the story for no reason
- Falls for him
- Tries to use him to free herself but doesn’t really like him, though she admits to herself how handsome he is
- Tags along with Conan because she needs a big strong man to protect her
- Conan and the woman then decide to explore some horrible place full of danger. Inevitably, there is some Lovecraftian horror that will attack them. 
- The very little the woman is wearing comes off at some point as she is captured, tries to get away, is tortured, or something else.
- Conan then protects the woman from this horror and will manage to save her. During this fight, the following will take place with only minor variations:
- There will be large amounts of blood and gore.
- Heads will fly or be smooshed
- Conan will single handedly kill all human’s nearby except his woman. (This often involves killing some other attractive woman that he also wanted, but she was evil, so no go. “Evil” here always means “not letting Conan keep the other woman.”)
- He will receive no wounds.
- Then Conan will fight off some Lovecraftian horror and almost die. (Conan is apparently human-proof but not Lovecraftian proof.)
- Then one of the following will take place to end the story:
- If the woman was trying to use Conan, he’ll decide not to force her to keep their deal – you know what it is — because murderous thieving barbarians, unlike their civilized counter parts, stick to a code of ethics concerning women, if they want to.
- The woman likes Conan and will insist on sealing the deal just as the story fades out.
- The woman claims she doesn’t like Conan but he knows better and then it pretty much ends just like b but with her “pretending” to fight him off.
You have now read all of the first 13 Conan stories.
If Lovecraft’s horror was a channeling of his atheist beliefs to their logical conclusions, so are Howard’s Conan stories in their own way. If nothing in life matters and death is its only relief (Howard committed suicide) then Conan’s view of life is the correct one:
Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content. — “Queen of the Black Coast”, Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales, May 1934.
Live your life fully as you see fit. Don’t worry about morality beyond what it benefits you. Eat, drink, make love, and draw blood for tomorrow we die at the hand of some unbreakable cosmic horror. This is the moral tale of Conan the Barbarian.
 The Conan stories ostensibly take place within the Cthulhu Mythos and many early drafts actually mention the names of the Cthulhu “gods.” Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were pen pals and Howard wrote numerous Cthulhu mythos stories.
Update: Don’t miss this hilarious rebuttal to my post over at this blog! Apparently only half of the first 13 Conan stories follow the above formula. Oh my! I stand corrected. 😉