For the past few weeks, I've been rereading the old Conan anthologies among other things; I still have a long way to go and am pressing ahead, but I've already learned a great deal. This is the first time that I've approached them with that attitude, not to be entertained but to be educated, with the goal of improving my own writing for the sword and sorcery series I have pending. (This is not the Mercian Saga; that one is increasingly heading in a different direction, and while it is definitely going to happen, it isn't going to happen yet.) So here I go with a little analysis; brace yourself.
The core of any story is conflict. With Howard – certainly with the Conan stories – what we have as the core 'conflict' is civilization versus barbarian. A conflict which – in Howard's mind, we know that much from his writings and letters – the barbarians were always going to win. There is considerable historical evidence to support this theory, but the truth of the maxim is not the point here; simply that at the heart of his stories was civilization meeting the barbarians and being found wanting. Conan ultimately falls victim to the same trap; by becoming King of Aquilonia he becomes more civilized, and we know that despite all of his efforts, ultimately that kingdom is crushed by the barbarian hordes. It outlives his time, but that is all.
There is the heart of Conan, and the 'riddle of steel', if you like. That civilizations can last for thousands of years, but ultimately will fall; and Conan – and his chronicler – are on the side of the barbarians. He isn't Belisarius, he is Theodoric. (Howard must have been familiar with the fall of the Roman Empire. There are too many Conan-esque characters in that time period for him not to be; any number of Goths and Vandals gathered armies, conquered kingdoms and reigned...) King Kull can be taken as an even starker depiction of this battle. By This Axe I Rule is laden with such symbolism; there the barbarian has conquered, and the ancient kingdom will never be the same again. Forever will the laws be changed, whether for better or for worse.
On a purely subjective basis, my favourite Conan tales are those set in exotic lands, and there we have the clash of cultures as well – but more in the orientalist style. He's using these settings for the flavour; he isn't writing about the clash of West against East, or anything like that. This is barbarian against civilization, and he doesn't care where the barbarians come from. They can be Picts from the frozen wastes or Afghulis from the desert steppes; they remain Conan's allies against the strange ways of ancient lands. (On that aside, expect me to do something a bit different for a few days...reviewing old issues of Oriental Stories. I managed to snag some reprints...)
So – we see the tale of the Barbarian. The question therefore is...what of the Civilized Man? The thought that immediately occurs to me is that the story is just as interesting the other way around, that of civilization attempting to keep back the darkness for one more day, one more week, one more battle, knowing that ultimately they will lose. I am well aware that this is not a new thing – I'm looking at you, Admiral Flandry – but in the sword and sorcery genre it strikes me as an interesting angle for me to explore.
For – I want to wrote sword and sorcery, but I don't want to write a Clonan. If the opportunity ever arose to write a Conan, or a Kull saga, that I would happily do, I'll say that here and now. (Someone listening to this? Kindle Worlds, please?) But I don't want to write a thinly-veiled clone, I want to strike interesting ground that has been less travelled, and this strikes me as a good avenue to attack!
Another lesson, well learned, is the exotic setting, and that's somewhere else I intend to explore. Ancient Egypt, Sumeria, the Black Sea, the desert tribes as far as the Tibetan Empire and Greco-Bactria, all of these have potential as interesting settings for stories, once I get a handle – a final and complete handle – on the character. In one way I want to follow Howard, a character that roams, that wanders the limits of his world. Conan had a story, an arc, but he was not tied down. Today I fear there would be the temptation to make his character the lead in a trilogy, maybe the 'Conquest of Aquilonia', or something of that sort, when that does not really suit the character. More than that, from a simply logistical point of view, as a writer it makes sense to have a world that can support multiple stories, a character that can persist for dozens of stories rather than simply a three-book series. To make that work, of course, the character has to be a strong and deep one, and Conan certainly was. He must have been – eighty years on, and we still talk about him.