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Art of the Genre: The 5 Moods of Conan

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 | Posted by Scott Taylor

A Whimsical Conan... certainly one of his moods!

A Whimsical Conan... certainly one of his moods!

In October I had a chance to head down to San Diego for World Fantasy Con. It was a good time, if not even in the same ballpark as great, and when I travelled back to L.A. I was filled with many a great topic to take on in 2012 for Art of the Genre.

I penned a list, jotting down ideas, but perhaps my favorite hadn’t come from my mind but that of Michael Stackpole as we lunched one afternoon with fellow author Nathan Long. Our lengthy discussion went to Conan, as any good fantasy discussion should at some point, as Mike had very recently penned the novel adaptation of the newest Conan reboot. [Note: My only regret here was that John R. Fultz wasn't a part of this conversation]

I couldn’t help but ask a question that I know the bulk of Howard fans did, ‘What the hell happened?” Now, because of various journalistic integrity issues I can’t get into specifics, but will attest it was a fun and informative conversation.

The most intriguing thing inside the movie debate was Mike telling us that it [the movie] was originally intended to be a trilogy featuring Belit and the Black Coast. Mike, wonderful licensed adaptive writer that he is, had been charged with writing Belit’s back story for the books that had her and Conan freebooting and pirating the shipping lanes of Stygia.

Now Stackpole is a Howard purist, and when the studio asked him to write Belit’s history he fumed, then raged, and finally told them to go take a short walk off a long pier because the very essence and point of Belit was that the reader could assume much but never ‘know’, and that is what made her so special. He told them it was blasphemy to think such a thing, that it couldn’t be done, and that they were all fools.

Lethal... certainly one we can all get on board with...

Lethal... certainly one we can all get on board with...

Still angry, he went to sleep the night after the request, tossed and turned, finally got out of bed at 11 PM and went to his study. There, he drew out the Queen of the Black Coast and read every word several times over.

Finally, somewhere in the pre-dawn light, he got on the phone and called Hollywood to say that a Belit back story could be written, they were all still fools, but if they were determined he was the only one who could do it.

This newest Conan, the lame-lion edition featuring Jason Momoa, was actually the second volume inside Stackpole’s thought process, although none of his work was ever even read by the studio, instead some of his scattered thoughts were used as they jettisoned the trilogy concept and ‘went in another direction’.

Nonetheless, Belit’s back story was written and resides only with Mike, a sure intriguing and inspired piece which is never to see the light of day… much like any other Hollywood treatment of Conan after this latest debacle.

Now, that being said, there were various other funny tales to be had concerning this epic Swords & Sorcery hero. The primary of which was a thoughtful discussion of what Mike referred to as ‘The 5 Moods of Conan’.

As the concept spilled out among a table full of pizza, brushcetta, and various drinks, it became clear to me that Black Gate needed a retelling of this along with a visual record of exactly what we were talking about.

Honor... among thieves or kings, Conan always has more than a glimmer.

Honor... among thieves or kings, Conan always has more than a glimmer.


So, as I sat in the office this week, I was delving deep into my presentation and happily finding images that put the finishing touches on the argument.

Below, you will find what Mike, Nathan, and I all agreed were the ‘5 Moods of Conan’, as per the Robert E. Howard version at least. Interestingly enough, all of these moods can be found in a single story, Rogues in the House, Weird Tales 1934, and I’ve taken the liberty of quoting the text to characterize the point.

Contemptuous: [showing or feeling contempt; disdainful]

“When I cannot stand alone, it will be time to die,” he mumbled, through mashed lips. “But I’d like a flagon of wine.”

Lethal: [capable of causing death]

“…and in that instant Conan, gasping and streaming blood, plunged forward and sank his poniard to the hilt in the ape-man’s heart. With a convulsive shudder, the beast-man started from the floor, then sank limply back. His fierce eyes set and glazed, his thick limbs quivered and became rigid.”

Don't make him angry... you wouldn't like him when he's angry...

Don't make him angry... you wouldn't like him when he's angry...

Whimsical: [spontaneously fanciful or playful]

“His captive whimpered and twisted, renewing her importunities. Conan glanced down into the muck and slime of the alleys below; he listened briefly to the clamor inside and the pleas of the wench; then he dropped her with great accuracy into a cesspool. He enjoyed her kickings and flounderings and the concentrated venom her profanity for a few seconds, and even allowed himself a low rumble of laughter.”

Angry: [feeling or showing anger; incensed or enraged]

“A vague bulk crouched in the darkness before him, a pair of eyes blazed like the eyes of a hunting beast. A beastlike snarl was the last thing he heard in life, as the monster lurched against him and a keen blade ripped through his belly. He gave one gasping cry and slumped down limply on the stairway. The barbarian loomed above him for an instant, ghoul-like, his eyes burning in the gloom.”

Honorable: [deserving or winning honor and respect]

“Conan decided that he was indebted to Murilo and, since he was a man who discharged his obligations eventually, he determined to carry out his promise to the young aristocrat. But first he had some business of his own to attend to.”

For Conan, the above very much define his character to the point that there is little which remains of him in a short story version that isn’t included.

Contemptuous seems fitting when you have a body like this...

Contemptuous seems fitting when you have a body like this...


Let us compare it to the famed opening words of Conan’s legend, and perhaps my favorite literary quote of all time, to see how it stacks up.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Even in this fantastic final line we see many of the above moods given voice or alluded to if we chose to make a connection. Here, the essence of the greatest literary barbarian off all time is played out, and even if you do not love him, you must at the very least respect what he represents.

Conan, for all intents and purpose, is the fundamental principle of the male genome, the proud killer that lurks in us all wanting to be tempered by mirth and honor that will somehow lead us to a course of respect and validity in this life.

Still, that more weighty subject is for another post, so I will close this one and let all the other Conan experts here at Black Gate debate the fortune or failure of the WFC Trio who came up with this list. Have fun!

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