Monday, June 28, 2010

Conan: The Road of Kings

"As one of those who have written Howard pastiches, I feel that I have the right to say that pastiche-Conan is NOT the same as Robert E. Howard's indomitable barbarian. Read such, as it pleases you but don't delude yourself into thinking that this is anymore Robert E. Howard's Conan than a Conan story that you decided to write yourself."

_Karl Edward Wager, 1979

Back in the mid to late 1970s, Robert E. Howard's Conan was hard to come by. Harder than I knew, since I was unaware at the time that even the stories in the LANCER/ACE reprints that didn't have L. Sprague de Camp's name on them had actually been somewhat edited by de Camp. Basically if you didn't have the issues of Weird Tales that the Conan stories originally appeared in, you couldn't get pure Howard. Writer Karl Edward Wagner tried to correct this in 1977 by putting together three volumes of REH Conan taken directly from Weird Tales and copies of Howard's manuscripts. Wagner hoped to get all the unedited Conan into print but wrangling over publishing rights got in the way and things fell apart. Those three volumes are still well worth tracking down, even if you have the more recent Del Rey Conan collections, purely for Wagner's commentary.
However, what you could get, back in the day, were pastiches of Robert E. Howard's characters by writers such as L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Poul Anderson, Andrew J. Offutt, and the aforementioned Karl Edward Wagner.
Wagner wrote two REH pastiches, Legion From the Shadows, featuring Bran Mak Morn and The Road of Kings, featuring Howard's best known creation, Conan of Cimmeria. I re-read Road of Kings last night, partly because I was in the mood for a dark sword and sorcery tale, and partly because the first time I'd read it, I'd yet to read most of Wagner's other works.
The book is still very good, probably one of the best of the Conan pastiches. (Not that there are that many good ones.) Wagner wisely wrote the book very much in his own style, going for the spirit of Robert E. Howard's work without doing a slavish imitation. Probably the biggest problem faced by pastiche writers is how closely to follow the original. Too close and you end up with a bad imitation, or worse, a parody. Too far and you lose the very things that made the original what it was and thereby pretty much defeat the purpose of pastiche.
Wagner does a fine job of walking that line. He gets the tone right. There are enough mentions of the Hyborian Age world to orient the reader without it feeling like a travelogue. Wagner makes a few clever connections to some of Howard's stories. There's also a cute bit in chapter six where Wagner takes a shot at Red Sonja and her chain mail bikini. (Say it with me again. Robert E. Howard did not create Marvel Comics' Red Sonja.)
Coming back to the book having read almost everything Wagner ever published, I can see a lot of Wagner's trademark flourishes now. There is the brooding atmosphere that hangs over the stories of Wagner's own fantasy hero, Kane. There are sudden and shocking moments of horror. There is the attention paid to classes of society and political motivations that readers of the Kane tales have become accustomed to.
However, by no means is this a Kane story with Conan substituted for Kane. Place Kane in the exact same position in which Conan finds himself and Kane would have taken things in an entirely different direction. At this stage in his career Conan is willing to play his part in a rebellion as military leader. Kane would have taken over the rebellion. The book probably would have been much more bleak as well.
In fact this brings up the one thing I don't like about The Road of Kings. No matter how good a pastiche it is, and I think it a very good one, I'd rather have seen Wagner writing about his own characters. I'd take one more Kane novel by Wagner over a Conan pastiche any day. Still, we have what we have. If you want to spend a little time with a writer who knows he's not Robert E. Howard but tries to deliver a good, well written Conan tale, Road of Kings is worth a look. Just remember Wagner's quote at the top of this post as you read.


Taranaich said...

I think what killed "The Road of Kings" for me was Conan's stoic acceptance of his forthcoming execution early in the book: this seemed entirely unlike him. Conan isn't the sort of guy who'd "show civilized men what barbarians are made of in death", he would've done anything he could to escape. He sure wouldn't let anyone put a noose around his neck.

That said, the rest of the novel is fairly good after that rocky start, and definitely not vomit-inducing like some other pastiches I've read. I do wish Wagner hadn't gotten Conan quite so close to the throne - predicating the Aquilonian Throne a bit overmuch for my liking.

And, not being a fan of Big Red, I appreciated the little Sonja dig.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yeah, Al, I remember thinking much the same first time I read the hanging scene. REH's Conan would have been head-butting guards, biting people's ears off and probably would have thrown himself into the hangman, taking them both off the platform. He'd have had to be out cold for them to get a noose around his neck and in all probability they would have had to spear him. Then again, REH's Conan would have broken the chains or managed to get the key or something.