Reading Robert E. Howard: Is Conan a Lion or a Tiger or What?

Taking the advice of my fellow blogger, Scott, I am finally reading my first Conan book, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Why did I wait so long?  As one of the lyricists for a heavy metal band, I should long ago have been ripping off lines of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) like this one:

…[he] drew back his mind from the nighted abysses where it had been questing… (p. 16)

If that language sounds a little excessive to you, then get a load of this.  In the short story “The Scarlet Citadel,” Howard so frequently assigns different characteristics to his protagonist that it becomes absurd:

“Who can take a man-eating tiger alive?” (p. 87)

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (p. 87)

The kings reined in and gazed in awe at the fallen lion. (p. 87)

In one of these chariots lay Conan…weighted with chains, the tang of defeat in his mouth, the blind fury of a trapped tiger in his soul. (p. 88)

…his laughter sounded like the muttering of a rousing lion. (p. 89)

Conan’s laugh was like the deep short bark of a timber wolf. (p. 91)

…and Conan gave back the glare of a trapped wolf. (p. 95)

…gave Conan the name — Amra, the Lion — by which the Cimmerian had been known to the Kushites in his piratical days. (p. 96)

“Do you not remember the sack of Abombi, when your sea-wolves swarmed in?” (p. 96)

With a terrible curse Conan struck as a cobra strikes. (p. 97)

Conan paced the chamber like a caged lion. (p. 106)

With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade… (p. 110)

As a thunderbolt strikes, Conan struck, hurtling through the ranks by sheer power and velocity… (p. 116)

Lion, tiger, lion, tiger, wolf, wolf, snake, lightning, etc.  Whoa, that’s a lot of similes and metaphors.  It’s like Muhammad Ali saying, “Float like a butterfly, / Sting like a bee” and then a dozen other things.

But then again, this variegation is what makes Howard’s stories and Conan himself so darn fun.  The barbarian is sometimes a pirate, sometimes a mercenary, and sometimes a king.  The tales are set in any of the various kingdoms Howard invented (though, significantly, none  take place in Cimmeria and no other Cimmerians are ever written about).  Finally, one can’t expect a barbarian to have only one love interest so there are a number of female companions from slave girls to princesses to pirate queens.

Through it all, the language is gloriously excessive, the horrors of either savagery or civilization are laid bare, and the supernatural elements are exaggerated and over-excited.  In fact, one could say the same things about Howard’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), another author that heavy metal lyricists like to imitate.

— Tim

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