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.
We prefer to think of these tales of wandering barbarian heroes as “Solo Sword and Sorcery” 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.
We’ve read many, if not most, of the 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 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 original vision 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 Big 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 Western movie.
Furthermore, the audience for these stories grew older and turned to other distractions — video games, primarily, because the technology had reached an advanced level of sophistication, as well as comic books and summer blockbuster movies, which were available for rewatching on VHS and, later on, DVD.
The demise of the one-dimensional big barbarian lunkhead at that historical moment was deserved.
Lin Carter was nice enough to reply quickly, telling Joe that only he and L. Sprague deCamp were licensed to write Conan stories.
He suggested, however, that Joe change the name of Conan to one of Joe’s own choosing and change any other names borrowed from Howard, then submit the novel to a publisher as his own original creation.
In other words, Joe was advised to write a Clonan novel.
It was this disgraceful attitude that Conan was interchangeable with other barbarian heroes that Joe 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, 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.
Thankfully, Howard’s Conan did not fall victim to these troubles and vanish from the scene. This is a tribute to Howard’s brilliance and strength as a writer as well as to his devoted audience, who know that there is much more to Howard, and to Conan, than beefsteak and sword point.
These fans and editors championed Howard’s work to keep him in print, ultimately in revised, corrected editions.
The first wave of the Barbarian Solo sword-and-sorcery boom was actually rather short-lived. It lasted from roughly the mid 1960s to around the early 1980s.
(Joe would add David C. Smith to this group, as well.)
After that, as the popularity and success of epic fantasy spawned numerous series of multivolume sagas, the old-school brand of sword and sorcery all but disappeared. Many publishers shied away from the “barbarian thing.”
There are several reasons for this, and not all of them due to the one-dimensionality of many of the characters promoted in sword-and-sorcery novels. David G. Hartwell explained it best in Age of Wonders (originally published in 1984, revised and reprinted in 1996).
In Age of Wonders, Hartwell discusses the business of publishing science and fantasy during this period. In Appendix V, “Dollars and Dragons: The Truth About Fantasy,” which originally appeared in The New York Times Review of Books, Hartwell discusses how unfashionable fantasy fiction became in the postwar years compared with the first half of the twentieth century, when it was commonplace (think of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, by James Thurber, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, by R. A. Dick [Josephine Aimee Leslie] and the Mr. Ed stories by Walter R. Brooks).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, fantasy was regarded as young adult fiction (consider A Wizard of Earthsea, for example). This attitude changed, Hartwell notes, “in terms of category publishing, with J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.”
As we know, LOTR became an astounding cult classic in the late 1960s into the 1970s. Its success encouraged Ian Ballantine to launch the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the late 1960s, bringing back into print George MacDonald, William Morris, Evangeline Walton, E. R. R. Eddison, and Mervyn Peake, among others.
Only the Conan the Barbarian series from Lancer Books caught on… Associated series, such as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, rode the crest, too. Barbarian fantasy sold, and it was the conventional wisdom that it sold to teenage readers, not to the wider Tolkien audience.
Ballantine found a way to reach the Tolkien readers when Lester del Rey, then a consulting editor for the publisher, read the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.
The strategy, Hartwell explains, was this:
They would take this slavish imitation of Tolkien by an unknown author and create a best-seller using mass-marketing techniques, and so satisfy the hunger in the marketplace for more Tolkien.
Following the success of The Sword of Shannara, del Rey founded his own fantasy imprint and moved forward with his line of written-to-order, mass-marketed, Tolkienesque/Shannaraesque fiction:
The books would be original novels set in invented worlds in which magic works. Each would have a male central character who triumphed over evil (usually associated with technical knowledge of some variety) by innate virtue, and with the help of a tutor or tutelary spirits. Mr. del Rey had codified a children’s literature that could be sold as adult. It was nostalgic, conservative, pastoral, and optimistic. One critic, Kathryn Cramer, seeking an explanation for why an American audience would adopt and support such a body of fiction, has remarked that it was essentially a revival of the form of the utopian novel of the old South, the plantation novel, in which life is rich and good, the lower classes are happy in their place and sing a lot, and evil resides in the technological North. The plot is the Civil War run backward. The South wins. That pattern seems to fit a majority of recent fantasy works well.
By the late seventies, the success of the del Rey formula was so confirmed that many other publishers began to publish in imitation. Dragons and unicorns began to appear all over the mass-market racks, and packaging codes with proper subliminal and overt signals developed. A whole new mass-market genre had been established. One can understand it best in comparison to the toy market’s discovery that you can sell dolls to boys if you call them action figures and make them hypermasculine.
In this way, “barbarian” sword-and-sorcery fiction, which has its roots in the masculine adventure of the early twentieth-century pulps, combined with the Gothic and horror elements that had become so popular in fiction magazines of the late 1920s into the Depression, was succeeded commercially — and very profitably — by juvenilia promoted as adult fiction.
At the same time, some of the old guard who had written Golden Age (1930s and 1940s) and Silver Age (1970s and 1980s) old-school sword and sorcery passed away, retired, or just moved on to new territory — John Jakes, for example, and even Michael Moorcock, who became involved with the British band, Hawkwind.
These writers, as well as Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, to name a few, in fact had written, not Big Barbarian Solo sword and sorcery, but literate adventure-fantasy fiction that helped develop and expand the genre.
One of the elements that often bothered us about sword and sorcery was its frequent lack of complex or developed characters, engaging dialogue that propelled the story and brought the characters to life, and the lack of real human drama and tragedy — the kind of plotting and drama we find in all good storytellers, from Shakespeare to Dickens and other great novelists.
Dramatis gravitas — that’s what the Big Barbarian Solo tales lacked. They were simple, straightforward action/adventure tales.
Thankfully, a new sword-and-sorcery boom has been underway for quite some years now. With a growing female audience, dedicated publishers, and an influx of daring young writers — including many gifted women who are bringing something new to the genre — the sword-and-sorcery genre is at last growing and flourishing.
Thanks to such venues as Black Gate magazine, Rogue Blades Entertainment, Pyr Books, and the whole gladiatorial arena of self-publishing houses… thanks to such writers as Howard A. Jones, Milton J. Davis, Cynthia Ward, Jon Sprunk, Kate Martin, Bruce Durham, Christopher Heath, and a legion of others… sword-and-sorcery is alive and well and growing up at last.
The Big Barbarian may be wearing new clothes and have a more cultured attitude, but he’s still out there — and she’s still out there — continuing to fight the good fight, slaying demons and wizards and monsters and plain old-fashioned nasty villains.
And if there are any other writers out there we have failed to mention, we apologize… in the name of Crom!