The following post contains some minor spoilers for the series of Conan stories, not the movie.  If you’ve never read them, and you want to go in fresh, don’t go under the fold.

“Why?” he demanded angrily.  “To chafe your rump on gold thrones, and listen to the plaudits of smirking, velvet-skirted fools?  Where is the gain?  Listen: I was born in the Cimmerian hills where the people are all barbarians.  I have been a mercenary soldier, a corsair, a kozak, and a hundred other things.

What king has roamed the countries, fought the battles, loved the women, and won the plunder that I have?

I came to Ghulistan to raise a horde and plunder the kingdoms to the south – your own among them.  Being chief of the Afghulis was only a start.  If I can conciliate them, I’ll have a dozen tribes following me within a year.  But if I can’t I’ll ride back to the steppes and loot the Turanian borders with the kozaki.  And you’ll go with me.  To the devil with your kingdom; they fended for themselves before you were born.”

She lay in his arms looking at him, and felt a tug at her spirit, a lawless reckless urge that matched his own and was by it called into being.  But a thousand generations of sovereign-ship rode heavy upon her.

“I can’t!  I can’t!” she repeated helplessly.

She doesn’t.  In fact, she winds up going back to her kingdom while more or less promising to kick Conan’s ass should he ever come to make good on this plan to sack her kingdom.  Which of course he admires.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read any of the Conan stories – in fact, I never got all the way through them all.  I read them at the same point in late adolescence when I was reading The Prisoner of the Horned Helmet and the Horseclans novels.  Barbarism has a tendency to fill the mind of the youth; there’s a reason I remember the Conan movies fondly even though they aren’t precisely stellar examples of cinemacraft.

“The dialogue is bad” is a criticism leveled at the current Conan movies, a criticism at which I scoffed.  Jaybird mentioned this, in response:

When it comes to the Conan movie, my main concern would be whether the little speeches in the movie successfully encapsulate major cultural assumptions (for example: the exchange between Arnold and the thief in the first movie about Crom vs. The Four Winds).

The books were chock full of eloquent speeches… I worry that the movie will merely be a dude hitting things and saying the barbarian equivalent of “boom! headshot!” rather than a minor point about the difference between Bronze Age thinking and Iron Age thinking.

This got me to thinking that perhaps either I was lacking clarity of recall (I was), or I was doing a lot of transference (yes, that too), and either way I ought to get off my duff and re-read me some Conan (and boy am I glad that I am).

It wasn’t that I remembered the dialogue in the stories as being bad, mind you.  It was that I didn’t recall the nuance JB pointed out in just that comment.

While grabbing a new copy of Conan (my own having been lost over the years), I read up a bit on the history of the stories themselves, which is interesting.  The first Conan story written by Howard that was published is The Phoenix on the Sword, which is apparently basically a re-write of an earlier Kull story.  This story takes place after Conan has already become king of Aquilonia, when he’s into middle-age and a good portion of the stories in the Hyborian saga take place.

With the enhanced vision of age, I found myself immediately struck by this note.  All of the popular media reflections of Conan in post-Arnold movie popular culture focus on what Jaybird amusingly referred to as the “boom, headshot!” aspects of the character and hardly at all on the joke that everyone who started reading these stories in 1932 was in on from the beginning: that this wild man was going to wind up shackling himself to duty and leadership, that rump-chafing gold throne at which he sneers so in his youth.

The history of the Conan stories is more muddled by the copyright history (you can read more about that on the wikipedia page, if you like). I can’t help but think that this may have contributed to Howard’s vision of the barbarian who becomes king morphing quite a bit in the public perception.  It’s entirely possible that the Conan stories I remember reading were never in fact the original Howard stories, that would explain a bit (like why I don’t recall reading The Phoenix on the Sword).  But I digress.

In any event, the dialogue is in fact much better than I remembered.  And while I’m nowhere near as far along as I’d like to be to flesh out this post as much as the topic deserves, I must retract this comment.

That said, I’m still going to go see the movie.  And I’ll probably enjoy it quite a bit, because as you may have guessed, I’m not above enjoying a little “boom, headshot!” entertainment myself.  I can enjoy the one, and the other.

But at the same time, I do feel for the Conan of Howard, who is likely sorely mistreated by this latest transference to visual entertainment.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. The best stories can be enjoyed entirely on the surface when you’re a kid, then when you come back to them as a young adult, you can re-read them and see how they’re not about what you thought they were about. They’re about responsibility and civilization and, yes, that throne.

    Then, when you’re an adult, you can read them again and see that, yeah, they’re about the kid stuff and the young adult stuff at the same time. The *POINT* is that they’re about the same stuff.

    • This story, about Cohen the barbarian, is one of my favorites in all the world. It’s about lots of thing, because Pratchett always is. In fact, nowadays it’s also about a man who’s facing the horror of Alzheimer’s with bravery and grace.

      Give it a read. You won’r regret it.

      • It’s a good story.

        It reminds me, of all things, of Westerns.

        It’s a mixture of “the culture was different when I was a kid” and “none of those buildings used to be there” with a little bit of “I helped create this world I do not recognize anymore.”

        I think that’s why the Westerns that stick in our craws have Confederate soldiers at their core… Josey Wales, True Grit, Princess of Mars…, heck, even Firefly. Not because what came before was good, but because the former soldiers are standing in a world alien to them.

        As we all get older and the world becomes strange again, this resonates. I think.

          • (I’ll fix it when I get home. Fire an email off to E.D. and he’ll explain the affiliate thing.)

          • Okay, be warned. I changed the link in your comment and I also changed the link in the story to a 99 cent e-book version available from Amazon.

          • The library was my first stop. had nothing cheaper, but I didn’t think to check E-books.

        • a little bit of “I helped create this world I do not recognize anymore.”

          That’s the part that gets me. Because we all do that.

  2. Yeah my problem with the Conan of the movie was that he was really too nice and too flat. The movie Conan was a man who freed slaves just for the hell of it because “all men deserve to be free”. I cannot imagine the scathing cynical vitrol the real Conan would have poured out on such idealism.
    Also saddling the movie Conan with Daddy issues was a huge error in my view. Conan of the books was absolutely nothing like Inigo Montoya and he certainly didn’t lug around daddy issues.

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