John J. Miller of National Review has put together a nice overview of Robert E. Howard’s "Conan the Barbarian" tales, for the Wall Street Journal. Miller notes that Conan has been a highly popular character in the original pulp tales and subsequent comic books, movies, and simply as a widely known fictional character. Miller’s article is well worth reading as an introduction to this important literary phenomenon.
Conan was the muscular, aggressive hero of 21 narratives the lonely, unhappy, Texas-born and -based Howard wrote in the pulp era. Miller does a good job of describing the character and his influence:
With Conan, Howard created a protagonist whose name is almost as familiar as Tarzan’s. In his influential essay on Howard, Don Herron credits the Texan with begetting the "hard-boiled" epic hero, and doing for fantasy what Dashiell Hammett did for detective fiction. Suddenly, the world–even a make-believe one such as Conan’s Hyboria–was rendered seamier and more violent, and Howard described it in spare rather than lush prose.
Conan has a knack for locating damsels in distress, but he is no knight in shining armor who piously obeys a code of chivalry. Instead, he is a black-haired berserker from a wild and wintry land called Cimmeria. He has little patience for social conventions he doesn’t understand. "The warm intimacies of small, kindly things, the sentiments and delicious trivialities that make up so much of civilized men’s lives were meaningless to him," wrote Howard in "Beyond the Black River." Conan occasionally thinks his way out of a problem, but more often he reaches for a weapon and slashes his way out. "There’s nothing in the universe cold steel won’t cut," he boasts.
To this I would add the following brief observation:
The bleak, existential approach that Miller correctly attributes to the stories and which Herron traces to Hammett is a byproduct of the post-World War I culture in which writers looked at traditional values of honor and concluded that they were no longer viable in the cruel world that had been revealed by that horrendous war.
They were wrong, of course, in that the new world needed those values more than ever before, but that was the thinking, and the Conan tales reflected the violence of the trench wars superbly. They ironically brought the modern world to a mass audience through a series of adventures set in an ancient world. That is the kind of achievement pulp fiction can accomplish.