Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conan the Champion

I've talked a bit before about the TOR Books Conan pastiches. There was a long stretch in the 1980s-1990s where the only Conan stories you could buy new, oddly enough, were ones that weren't written by Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard. (And generally Howard's name didn't appear on the covers, but that's a matter for another time.) A few of the TOR books were reprints of pastiches originally written for other publishers, such as Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings and Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel, but most of the run of books were written specifically for TOR by a group of authors which included Roland Green, Steve Perry, a pre-Wheel of Time Robert Jordan, and the writer of today's subject book, John Maddox Roberts.
I was already familiar with Roberts from his SPQR books, a historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, so I knew the guy could write and I figured he would have a better grasp on the Hyborian Age's pseudo-historical setting than a lot of the pastiche writers. Both things turned out to be true. In terms of quality of prose, the John Maddox Roberts Conan books are some of the best and the "historical" details add considerable verisimilitude. However, Roberts writing is nothing like Robert E. Howard's, so anyone seeking ersatz Howard is going to be disappointed. I think Roberts decided early on that he was just going to write exciting sword and sorcery adventures in his own style, so while he gets an A for overall writing, some folks may feel that he wasn't writing Conan pastiches so much as his own barbarian adventures. I've no problem with that.
What I do find amusing is Roberts' approach to plots and situations. The first JMR Conan pastiche I read was Conan and the Treasure of Python. In this one, Robert's basically swipes the plot from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and casts Conan in the Allan Quartermain role. There are changes, of course, to make things work in a Hyborian age setting, but Roberts' plot is very close to Haggard's.
The next one I read was Conan the Rogue which pulls elements from two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. Now, as I mentioned before, JMR is a mystery writer, so it's not surprising he might borrow Hammett's plots, but it's still kind of amusing to hear Conan saying slightly altered Sam Spade dialog. "You will take say, 100 dinars?" "I will take, say, 200 Dinars."
So when I started Conan the Champion this week, I was watching to see if Roberts would 'borrow' the plot of some other book I'd read, but if he based this one on any particular book, I'm not aware of it. However he did borrow a culture and a period of Earth history for Conan the Champion, because the book could have been called Conan and the Vikings. The tribes that Conan encounters after being washed up on the northern shore of the Vilayet sea are for all intents and purposes Vikings without ships. There are three warring factions vying for power in the area, and Conan ends up working for a queen named Alcuina. She's hot of course. There's always a hot chick in a TOR pastiche, usually more than one.
Not that this sort of borrowing of Viking culture is unusual in fantasy. Robert E. Howard's own creations, the Vanir and the Aesir are in many ways Norsemen. J.R.R. Tolkien's Riders of Rohan are very much Vikings with horses instead of long ships. Recently, Joe Abercrombie has done much the same thing in his First Law books. So Roberts is in good company.
Anyway, Conan spends a lot of time in great halls, feasting and drinking mead. He receives golden arm bands from his employer for jobs well done. He even makes a mid-book side trip into Norse myth, encountering some decidedly elf-like bad guys in another plane of reality. (There are dwarves and giants too.) Aside from this visit, there isn't a ton of magic in Conan the Champion. Some frozen zombies and some spells and counter spells from competing wizards. There's a demon in there too. But most of the book is spent in Viking-like pursuits. Those are the parts I liked the best, Viking fan that I am. I had a good time with Conan the Champion, but really, it's not all that Conan-ish. Just a fun sword & sorcery adventure which would have worked just as well for Brak or Thongor or any other barbarian hero.


Taranaich said...

Robert E. Howard's own creations, the Vanir, the Aesir, and the Cimmerians, are in many ways Norsemen.


Charles R. Rutledge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Taranaich said...

The Vanir and Aesir are definitely Nordic, yes, but not the Cimmerians. All shall be revealed in the next Filmgoer's Guide, where I discuss the Cimmerians.

Briefly: All the Cimmerian gods are Irish. All the Cimmerian names are Irish. The descriptions of the Cimmerians fit with Howard's descriptions of many of the Gaelic heroes, including personality and demeanour. Ergo, the Cimmerians are Irish.

Conan thinks all gods are real, but that doesn't mean he - or other Cimmerians - worship them, or that he considers them "his" gods. Note that in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," there is a strict division between the religions of the Nordheimr and Cimmerians ("What know you of the gods of ice and snow, you who have come up from the south to adventure among an alien people?" "By the dark gods of my own race!" et al).

Both of Conan's uses of Valhalla can be attributed to the fact that Conan is in Nordheimr country. Conan is taunting Heimdul, by threatening to send him to the Nordic afterlife: asking the Aesir if they have died and are in Valhalla is because of the supernatural events which have occurred.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Ha, yes, I was editing that my own post while you were commenting. Sorry. Some of that occurred to me after I posted. I was going to say:

I take it you don't agree, Al. Howard's descriptions of the Vanir and Aesir always struck me as rather Nordic, particularly in The Frost Giant's Daughter, swearing by Ymir and such. And Frost Giants themselves are a Norse concept. Conan even threatens to send one of the Vanir to Valhalla. (He doesn't believe in Valhalla any more than in Ymir who he also swears by but he apparently picked it up from his comrades.) So at least one of the early Conan stories if full of Norse references, though not specifically toward the Cimmerians, tis true.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Oh and the Irish thing is a good point. I hadn't really thought of that in terms of all Conan's gods and such. I shall amend the original post and people will wonder what we're going on about...

Tex said...

"A few of the TOR books were reprints of pastiches originally written for other publishers, such as Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings and Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel..."

Actually it was Ace who did that
(the TOR paperbacks were all originals.) Ace reprinted the six Bantam Conan books as Volumes 13-18 of the "Conan Saga," thereby confusing the hell out of the newbies.

(TOR did reprint four of the old Bantams in hardcover, but omitted the Wagner and Offutt books--the best ones, gorrammit!)

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Dunno about a paperback of Rebel (I own the Tor hardback) but I have Tor paperbacks of Offutt's Sword of Skelos, reprinted in 2002 and Wagner's The Road of Kings, reprinted in 2001.

Tex said...

Well, it makes sense that they'd do paperbacks of the Bantams, since they did the selected hardbacks. I happily stand corrected.

(but I'd still like Wagner's book in hardback)

Charles R. Rutledge said...

You and me both, pal.