Saturday, February 07, 2015

Stuff I've Been Reading: The Return of Conan

When I started to read the Chronicles of Conan many years ago the first story (in published order) was a story of Conan as king. It was good. In "Phoenix on the Sword" King Conan foils a group of noblemen's coup. In the next story "The Scarlet Citadel" King Conan is taken prisoner by a wizard who takes over his kingdom. With the aid of a magic maguffin he returns and retakes his throne. Lastly in Howard's only full length novel "The Hour of the Dragon", later retitled "Conan the Conqueror" King Conan is taken prisoner by a wizard as part of a group of noblemen's coup. With the aid of a magic maguffin he returns and retakes his throne.

Never let it be said that Robert E. Howard didn't like to reuse an idea. "Phoenix on the Sword" was originally the Kull the Conqueror story, "By This Axe I Rule!", sacrificing Axe's plotline about slavery in favour of a demonic Lovecrafian baboon and all the better for it.

That said calling Howard repetitive is an unfair assessment. While all three King Conan stories have some elements in common they are quite unique, written in a viseral, exciting prose. Howard was a pulp writer and "Hour of the Dragon" was intended for a different market than the other two stories. It is also fairly episodic, occasionally veering into subplots as Conan rescues random Countesses or faces the monster of the chapter.

"Hour of the Dragon" was Howard's only Conan novel, and for a time was the last Conan adventure until the coming of L. Sprague de Camp, who decided to expand the Conan franchise with third party stories largely written or overseen by him. These works, referred to as the pastiches, often have quite a disconnect from the original tales - Howard's literature was not subject to the level of academic scrutiny that it is now, and the underlying themes of his work seemed lost on de Camp and his cohorts. In their works there is less of a Lovecraftian feel to the magic and supernatural elements and Conan now has a code of "chivalry" and often is a "champion of light" figure rather than the canny  mercenary who acts out of (often enlightened) self-interest.

The first such effort was the novel "The Return of Conan", retitled "Conan the Avenger" - a 'fan-fiction' effort by Bjorn Nyberg and edited by Sprague (who claims a co-author title). Much like "Hour of the Dragon" it is relatively episodic, but unlike Dragon the main plotline does not really hold together. Conan's wife, Zenobia (from "Hour of the Dragon"), is kidnapped by a flying gargoyle and he sets out to find her alone, inexplicably abandoning the crown and its resources. Each chapter is again fairly stand-alone, with little references to the main plot. He fights dragons, yeti, becomes both a hill-chief and a pirate again and even cheats on his wife twice during the jouney.

While Sprague and Bjorn are no Howard in terms of prose my main problem with this book is the ending. Conan traverses the earth alone for over 2 months, traveling to Khitai (basically China) and raiding the evil wizard's castle just in time to prevent him sacrificing his wife. There is no discernable reason why the wizard has waited 2 months to sacrifice Zenobia beyond good sportsmanship. His reason for the kidnapping is really just to get Conan killed on the long trek to her rescue. I also get a bit annoyed by Conan's whole renouncing his crown and going off to quest maguffin - a pretty common one in King Conan pastiches, though it occurs for the first time in "The Return of Conan". Howard avoided this silliness - his Conan is no idiot. I like to see King Conan stories where he uses the resources of a king, such as his armies or the intrigues of his court. However in the pas becomes a bit of a trope that whenever a quest comes along he leaves his crown and goes off to deal with it. Given there seem to be countless plotters waiting in the wings to usurp him this seems unwise.

Overall its a relatively solid and entertaining book, and paved the way for a lot of pastiches. Sprague altered a lot of Howard's work and rewrote a lot of his unpublished non-Conan stories as Conan stories. He even wrote another set of short stories featuring King Conan's son and a final hurrah for Conan where he renounces his crown (again) to go exploring the New World. In the 70s and 80s it was impossible to get Howard's stories without de Sprague's canon included. It is only really in the last 10 years or so the pure Howard texts were published. Now ironically the pastiches are difficult to get a hold of without buying 2nd hand books. While Howard's work is seminal this book is brainless cliched fun.

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