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Conan the Barbarian: role model?


I was asked recently to write a preface to the new Finnish-language Conan compilation, Conan Palkkasoturi (Conan the Mercenary). It was a pleasure to write, and the published book is nothing short of beautiful. The editor, Janne Suominen, translated my thoughts into Finnish, and with his permission I am sharing the original English version here:

When I was a child I faced a serious choice regarding my future. I was either going to grow up to be a ninja, or Conan. While neither quite panned out, I do find myself swinging swords every day at work, so it could have been a lot worse. My career choices stemmed from two sources: the ninja movies of the early 80s, and the great, the glorious, Conan books and movies. Incarcerated in boarding school, I was forced to play hockey. Field hockey. This had one major advantage over all other sports: they gave me a weapon. I used to try to play defence so I wouldn’t have to run around much after that stupid ball, and instead could get back to the serious business of training up to becoming CONAN!!

When the first movie came out in 1982 was only 8, so I didn’t get to see it right away. It took about 3 years and a pirate VHS copy before I saw it on the screen. But the novelisation of the film Conan the Barbarian was in the school library and I devoured it. There were other Conan books to be had, the one I remember best being Conan the Buccaneer, also by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. These were heaven on the page: swords, sorcery and sex. Fantastically educational for an 8 year old. Graphic novels like the wonderful example you are holding had not yet become mainstream enough to be widely available, and were banned at my school unless obviously made for children. How the legendary Frank Frazetta book covers slipped through the net I don’t know. But I think my swordsmanship students should be glad they did.

I am often asked who draws the best swordfights, and it is a tricky question to answer. We have some great swordfighting graphic artists here in Finland: my favourite is Hannu Lukkarinen, not least as he came to me for training just to improve his artwork. The Art of Swordsmanship is to strike first. To do this your actions should be as small and quick as possible while still getting the job done. The sword is a labour-saving device, as it is so much easier to kill someone with one than without. But Swordfighting Art is a whole other story. It has to look good on the page, to an uninformed audience. It has to look like it would do the damage, and it doesn’t matter if the actions are way too big. On one of my consultancy jobs for a swordfighting computer game they had me put on a motion-capture suit and do various sword drills. A year later when I was back helping these game designers work out the underlying logic of what action counters what, I saw the game footage and said “that isn’t me! It’s all over the place!” and they told me that the actions I had made for them looked like nothing on the screen. Nobody would believe that they would work, as they seemed to take no effort. “That’s the fucking point” I said. But next time I’ll ham it up for them.

The great thing about fantasy series like Conan, of course, is that it is not trying to be historically accurate. The writers and artists can take whatever liberties they like, and must only be true to the characters, the story, and the fictional world of the Hyborian Age. Conan the Babysitter would not go down well. Nor Conan the medieval knight. But Conan the Cimmerian is one of the great characters of 20th century fiction, an archetype of the independent warrior spirit that can encompass being a thief and a pirate, a mercenary and a king, remaining true to himself alone.

Conan is a perfect hero, if you think about it. He is really, really good at killing people, but never takes advantage of a naked slave wench, never kills people who don’t deserve it, and is always there for his friends. Today in my School’s training hall there is a shelf of role models, gifts from friends and students: Yoda, Zorro, the Black Knight, and of course, inevitably, Conan. Thanks to some of the artwork, and a certain Austrian’s screen portrayal, the modern Conan is a muscle-bound archetype of brawn over brains, which is quite unsuited to swordsmanship. But this is not at all how Howard portrays him. Howard’s Conan is cat-like and clever, strong yes, but lithe, fast and cunning, with a very clear moral code. In every way, the ideal swordsman.

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