The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Hyborian Age”

comingofconanBill Ward and I are starting our read of the first of three Del Rey collections of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, The Coming of Conan. There have been many other collections containing the stories within, so even if you don’t have this particular volume we hope that you’ll join us. This week we’re looking at an essay Robert E. Howard wrote about the world Conan adventured in titled “The Hyborian Age.”

An Iconic Frank Frazetta painting of Conan.

An Iconic Frank Frazetta painting of Conan.

Bill: As you said last week, Howard, “The Hyborian Age” isn’t the place to start if you are new to Conan, in fact I’d say it’s really only interesting if you are already familiar with Conan’s world, as well as the enthusiasms of Conan’s creator. REH himself didn’t start with “The Hyborian Age,” either, he started with the character of Conan, only settling down to iron out his “world bible” once he had three Conan stories under his belt and realized he wanted to write many more (for this, and a lot of other background information on REH and Conan in particular, Patrice Louinet’s essay “Hyborian Genesis” at the back of The Coming of Conan is a great resource that I’m sure we’ll both be referring to again and again as we read through these early tales). As a standalone piece, which it was never intended to be although REH did eventually make it public, “The Hyborian Age” isn’t really that compelling or entertaining, it’s just there to get the background of Conan’s world down in a concrete way so REH would have a reference as he wrote.

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard

Howard: Right — and I have to confess, REH fan though I am, I’ve never made it all the way through until now. You can definitely see REH’s fascination with history on center stage through most of this.

Bill: “The Hyborian Age” is all about history. It’s the history of a lost age before the rise of the civilizations we are familiar with, but it’s also a way of getting around history. REH wrote fast and he wrote for publication and, though he loved history and writing historical fiction, he felt it took too much time to get the research just right. Enter the secondary world of his own slice of pre-history, a way of not only having a world he didn’t have to exhaustively research, but also a vehicle for bringing together the character and flavor of many different cultures and eras that would allow Conan to adventure in the equivalent of everything from the Ancient Near East to Medieval France. That may not be completely clear just from reading “The Hyborian Age,” but it is clear from the stories themselves, as well as by glancing at the two maps REH used when planning his world — his Hyborian Kingdoms superimposed over a map of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East is probably even more eloquent than his essay, which seems overly concerned with barbarian migration and the physical appearance of various peoples.


Brom’s equally iconic Conan and Belit.

Howard: Indeed it does — and it’s strange, given REH’s incredible gift for pacing, that he didn’t notice that. But then, as you said, this piece wasn’t originally intended for anyone but him. Even though it was planned as a historical overview of sorts, once Robert E. Howard slips briefly into narrative drive there’s no stopping him and the tale of the rise of the Picts catches fire — until REH switches back again to his sweeping overview of migrations, carrying us toward the present day.

Bill: Right, the one piece of narrative is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the essay. For the rest, I’d say it’s really at the intersection of REH’s world and actual history where we get a look at the particular genius of REH’s Hyboria. By keeping the world almost like ours, by using names that, whether an original coinage or lifted from myth and history, already seem familiar or reminiscent of actual places and cultures, REH creates a place that doesn’t need a lot of explaining. In a way, it’s almost an act of anti-world-building — unlike modern authors of fat fantasy that often concern themselves with creating copious amounts of original history, cultures, religions, and races, REH was trying to keep things at a minimum in the service of short stories that did not have the space to waste on large chunks of background. His world is just familiar enough that we instinctively get it, but also exotic and strange in ways that convey a sense of wonder and mystery.

conan nord

Nord’s version of Conan.

Howard: An excellent point, and one I get tired of having to raise when I defend Howard’s work. (I mean REH’s work. There’re a lot of Howards around here.) The cultural names reminiscent of historical ones were designed to evoke an atmosphere so that the reader would have to do less work to envision what was happening. And I suppose that all REH’s work describing movements of people and their different racial characteristics at least helped him figure out what the inhabitants of various nations looked like.

Bill: Exactly. The rational and pedantic Lovecraft criticized REH’s naming conventions, but the romantic — and in a hurry — REH knew just how much of a real-world link he needed to get the verisimilitude of these stories right. In reading “The Hyborian Age” it seems clear that the world itself is not the star or even the starting point for these stories, it’s more like the seasoning on the big, meaty steak of Conan’s adventures.

Barry Windsor-Smith's Conan

Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan

The essay itself echoes some of REH’s most abiding interests, the rise and fall of civilizations and the cycle of barbarism, the evolution, decline, and migration of races, and, of course, the Picts. The Picts, in fact, are more or less the central figures of “The Hyborian Age,” despite only ever appearing in a handful of Conan stories (or just one? I’m operating from memory). The Bran Mak Morn and King Kull stories were both of relatively recent vintage when REH wrote “The Hyborian Age,” and many of the elements of those tales, and specifically their depiction of the Picts, fits right in with the lost continents and devolved races of the essay. It seems to me that “The Hyborian Age” is more than REH sitting down to draft a bunch of useful names and background for his new world, it’s really a synthesis of a lot of the elements that had appeared in his previous fiction, a culmination of his passions and ideas in a way that informed, but also freed, the Conan stories that were about to burst from his typewriter.

complete conanHoward: Absolutely. I’m a little mystified about why these particular issues, particularly the Picts, interested him so much, but then maybe he would have scratched his head and wondered why I’ve tracked down every song Pete Ham ever wrote.

Bill: I’m sure he would have dug Badfinger, at the very least. I’ve read that REH’s Scottish heritage prompted him to do a lot of reading on the subject of Picts, and I suppose the mystery of the painted savages of the north just took hold of his imagination, especially at a time when less was known about their origins. I’ve often thought that REH and his contemporaries lived at a kind of crossroads of information, a time when a lot of knowledge was becoming readily available, but it was still possible to give credence to the notions of Atlantis and Lemuria, of lost races devolving into sub-humans in some forsaken wilderness, or pockets of advanced civilization from some long-forgotten age of pre-history existing just off the edges of the map. In an era when the map no longer has any edges, when Mars is a lifeless desert and the human genome itself has been mapped, I think it would be hard to be as passionate about much of the pseudo-science of that era in the way REH so evidently was.

conquering sword conanMuch of the criticism of “The Hyborian Age,” aside from its fairly unexciting presentation, could easily stem from REH’s notions of evolution and race — white arctic apes becoming human in a case of parallel evolution and other races actually becoming ape-like as they slump away from their ancient civilized origins is bad science in a context where no science at all would be preferable. In terms of race I’m not speaking at all about racism, but about REH’s preoccupation with what stock merged with what to produce who, and what they looked like, which dominates a lot of the essay. Much of that gives the Hyborian tales its cosmopolitan flavor — and shows again that the author’s initial preoccupation was with creating concrete details that he could draw on for his fiction — but it also renders the essay somewhat tedious in places and also, again, runs into some areas of pseudo-science or out-of-date notions that, at best, make the piece seem quaint or, at worst, a bit silly.

conan blooddy crownHoward: I’m afraid that I was a little too bored to focus on the silliness, apart from the aforementioned rise of the Pict empire, which I quite liked. Two or three of those vast sweeps of imaginary people going back and forth had the same effect on me as watching an out-of-town team play a sport I don’t care about while I’m sitting with a friend. I felt obligated to be there and tried to have a good time, but I just wasn’t very interested.

Bill: Agreed, which is why I’d really only recommend “The Hyborian Age” for someone who is interested in REH the writer and the man, and not just or specifically Conan. It isn’t necessarily very satisfying as an exploration of Conan’s world — the stories themselves do it better — but more so as an exploration of REH’s process.

Howard: I’m looking forward to the stories, and we’ll be reading the first one next week, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Hope to see you here.


23 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Hyborian Age”

  1. I, too, read this essay once I’d exhausted all of Howard’s Conan tales, and much of his other fantasy/historical fantasy stuff and came away much the same as you guys. I loved the Pictish stuff but found the rest a little tedious or outright boring. I’ll say this for the Picts and the time Howard spends on them in this essay – they are the one element that comes up again and again in his fantasy stuff. They’re in at least two Conan yarns and mentioned in several more, then there’s Kull, who has Brule with him in nearly all of the stories, Bran Mak Morn obviously, later Turlough O’Brian is dealing with an ancient relic of Pictish (actually Bran himself) lore, and of course multiple woerd horror/mythos bits that involved them. The Picts take up a wide swath not just in this fiction, but in his work as a whole.

    • So many typos. Dang. Gotta stop leaving comments using my phone!!

    • He did find them fascinating — and I recall him mentioning in his letters that he was fascinated with them and wasn’t entirely sure why. I believe he speculated. I’ll see if I can dig up the reference.

    • I have not, Charles. Walt Simonson is a favorite of mine. I wish I’d known he did that.

  2. I’m with you guys that the back and forth invasions all started to sound alike pretty quickly. I would have loved to see a series of stories about that Pictish king that builds an empire. (I’m at work and don’t recall the name off the top of my head; my home computer is dead, so I’m having to comment at work until I can get a replacement.)

    One thing Howard seemed to do was tie in some of his series characters. Bran Mak Morn is descended from Brule in the Kull stories. (I think that’s mentioned in “Kings of the Night”?) And Kull’s world is the one that is destroyed in the Cataclysm that Howard opens this essay with. Then there’s Jason reference to Turlough O’Brian above (which I haven’t read yet). You don’t have to be aware of these little connections to enjoy the stories, but they do add to the experience in a positive way.

    • Yeah, I always liked that. And “Kings of the Night” with Bran Mak Morn and Kull, hurtled out of the remote past, is one of my favorite of the non Conan fantasy stories. Or, rather, stories with elements of the fantastic, because it’s historical fantasy.

  3. I’m at GenCon right now and time’s scarce — I’ll try to steal a few minutes later today to reply!

  4. This made me want to read more about the legends of the great chief Bori, “which the tribes remember only in distorted folklore.”

    Excited about Phoenix on the Sword!

    • I know — that character was pretty interesting. REH can really cast a narrative spell when he wants to do so!

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  6. This was actually possibly the first Conan thing I actually read (comics excepted), just because it was at the very beginning of the first of the Ace Conan books; but de Camp & Carter cleverly split it in two — the first half (ending at Conan’s time) was published in Conan, and the second half (post-Conan to known ancient history) was in Conan the Avenger (Ace #10) — which made it easier to digest. I did like the “sweep of history” effect — almost like a highly-concentrated version of Harold Lamb’s March of the Barbarians (although that couldn’t have been an influence because it didn’t come out until 1940).

    • March of the Barbarians happens to be my very favorite Harold Lamb history book (and, as it happened, was also his son’s favorite of his father’s books). Really a great read.

      I have the old Ace paperbacks, but its been so long, I’d forgotten how they handled the essay. Breaking it in half like that wasn’t a bad idea, especially for a short paperback set when there’s not much room in each book. This does not mean I endorse any of the other editorial meddling…

  7. Is this an every friday thing? or are you guys more sporadic with it?

    • Hi Mormegil,

      We’ve been doing Friday re-reads for more than a year, and I think we’ve only missed two. The essay on “The Phoenix on the Sword” should appear on schedule this Friday.

      In the past we’ve read two Lord Dunsany collections (and a few extra, connected stories) and two Fritz Leiber volumes.

      We hope you can join in.

      • I plan on joining in. I read the Phoenix on the Sword last night because i wasn’t sure when the post was going up.

        I always meant to keep up with the fafhrd and the grey mouser stuff because i just bought all the books last year.

        I know its technically a re-read but it would be nice if there weren’t huge spoilers for the next stories. I’ve read a good chunk of the conan stuff but not all of them.

        • Bill and I generally try to avoid plot spoilers for upcoming works, although we’ll sometimes make general comments as teasers. And I think, in the case of Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit,” we both made it clear we were dreading that one a little. Turns out that we should have dreaded it more…

  8. Howard and Bill, thanks so much posting this. “The Hyborian Age” isn’t exactly reader-friendly, as you noted, but it’s invaluable for trying understand how Howard’s…er… REH’s world-building functions. He had been developing his fictional version of prehistory for several years before this — at least since “Men of the Shadows” written in early 1926. That story contains a segment that is essentially a protoytpe version of “The Hyborian Age” — a pseudohistory of several “races” of mankind: the Picts, the Lemurians, the Atlanteans, and the Celts/Nordics. He was creating a fictional version of the (now-discredited) racialist anthropology of the 19th and early 20th century and most of his weird fiction from “Men of the Shadows” through the Kull and Bran stories and up through Conan are set in this shared universe and tell the stories of these “races” at different points in time, as they rise and fall, evolve and devolve, and interact with each other. “The Hyborian Age” is the culmination of that anthropological world-building — his subcreation magnum opus to some extent — and it’s a far more complex and innovative effort than he is generally given credit for.

    So thanks again for posting and I look forward your tackling of the stories!

    • Jeff, thanks very much for contributing this. When you’re discussing a work it helps immeasurably to understand where the author is coming from, and having only heard of these “anthropological” texts and never having read them I didn’t realize how much Robert E. Howard was emulating their form.

      Now the style of the piece makes a lot more sense. Hope to see you around here!

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