Wednesday, July 26, 2017



Part 1

Joe Bonadonna

Conan, King Kull, Cormac, Bran Mak Morn — characters often imitated, never duplicated. Thesecreations of Robert E. Howard started the sword-and-sorcery boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Then there are the barbarian warriors inspired by Howard — “Clonans,” as one writer recently referred to these sword-slinging, muscle-bound characters.

A fair observation, but in some cases, not so true.

I prefer to think of these tales of wandering barbarian heroes as “Barbarian Solo” adventures because the majority of these characters are lone wolves, without sidekicks or even recurring companions. This is a big part of their appeal, in fact, and in their own way, they are reminiscent of many cinematic westerns. I’ve read many, if not most, of the early Conan pastiches, including the novels based on Howard’s other creations. Karl Edward Wagner’s, Poul Anderson’s, and Andy Offutt’s portrayals of the Cimmerian come within a sword’s stroke of Howard’s original vision. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, in commodifying the character, arranged the long, informal saga of Conan in chronological order and, by extenuating these adventures with dozens more, made of Howard’s creation a long-form series similar to the episodic success of a television show on a prolonged run of diminishing returns. For some readers, however, the advantage of this development is that it provided a sort of character arc as Conan grows from a youth to an older man.

That said, however, it is better to read the Conan tales in the order in which Howard wrote them. By doing this, we gain at least two things: the sense of an adventurer’s life being recounted in the same haphazard way that it was lived, and — perhaps more importantly — we witness Howard’s own developing arc as a writer — his growth, his maturity, his mastery of the art of storytelling. We also get to watch as Howard becomes more sharply attuned to his markets, as Conan the commercial property evolves from the regal lion of “The Phoenix on the Sword” and the dangerous young buck of “The Tower of the Elephant” to his later portrayals as a lusty roustabout and badass, soldiering and womanizing, carousing and drinking, fighting and fighting some more — and, more often than not, attaining that month’s Weird Tales cover with a Margaret Brundage beauty in bondage. But the endless parade of pastiches shares much of the blame for the death of the Barbarian Solo craze of the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

In addition, in a period of historic social change, many of these tales betrayed an attitude that was falling out of favor. The limitations apparent in this go-round of sword-and-sorcery fiction were not challenged, and most of the pastiches predictably moved along a preordained path with a one-dimensional, exaggeratedly masculine character going through rote episodes no more compelling than the umpteenth rerun of a grade-C, TV show. Furthermore, the audience for these stories grew older and turned to other distractions. The demise of the one-dimensional, muscle-bound hero at that historical moment was deserved.
In 1970, I wrote a letter to Lin Carter, who was then the editor of Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy Series. I asked how to go about submitting a Conan novel he had written. Lin Carter was nice enough to reply quickly, telling me that only he and L. Sprague deCamp were licensed to write Conan stories. He suggested, however, that I change the name of Conan to one of my own choosing and change any other names borrowed from Howard, then submit the novel to a publisher as my own original creation.

In other words, I was advised to write a “Clonan” novel.

In my humble opinion, this was disgraceful attitude that Conan was interchangeable with
other barbarian heroes that I didn’t care for. (A Conan-clone by any other name is still Conan?) Oddly enough, it was shortly after this response from Lin Carter that Bjorn Nyberg’s Conan pastiche appeared on the scene. Then, as we know, other writers were brought in as “hired guns” to continue the Conan saga — and, as so often happens in the wake of hired guns, there was trouble: we saw the slow death of the Barbarian Solo brand of sword and sorcery.

The first wave of the sword-and-sorcery boom was actually rather short-lived. It lasted from roughly the mid-1960s to around the early 1980s. But it gave us a roster of wonderful writers such as Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Ted (T. C.) Rypel, David Drake, the late David Madison and Dave Mason, Charles Saunders, Tanith Lee, and Diana L. Paxson — who all followed shortly afterwards and who helped mold the genre into something grand, more thoughtful and introspective, returning us to the roots of literary, as well as historical fantasy. After that, as the popularity and success of epic fantasy spawned numerous series of multi-volume sagas, the old-school brand of sword and sorcery all but disappeared. Many publishers shied away from the “barbarian thing.”

 As most of us who were alive in the 1950s and 1960s know, it was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that became the game-changer. LOTR became an astounding cult classic, and its success encouraged Ian Ballantine to launch the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the late 1960s, bringing back into print such authors as George MacDonald, William Morris, Evangeline Walton, ERR Eddison, and Mervyn Peake, among others. Of all the other sword and sorcery novels of barbarian warriors who followed on the heels of Conan’s success, only the Conan the Barbarian series from Lancer Books caught and hung on, however. Associated series, such as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, to name two, rode the crest, too. Barbarian fantasy still sold, and it was the conventional wisdom that it sold to teenage readers, not to the wider Tolkien audience. 

But Leiber and Moorcock were not writing about such muscle-bound characters, and it was Fritz Leiber, along with Raymond Chandler, who finally inspired me to write the type of fantasy I now write.

Stay tuned for next time, when I present Part 2.

Thanks for reading!

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