Conan the Barbarian: The Classic Original Stories That Inspired the Film – Review

I just bought a copy of Conan the Barbarian: The Classic Original Stories That Inspired The Film,  a mass-market paperback aimed to be an introduction to Robert E. Howard’s work by myself. Now, I’m not sure if it’s the exact same edition as the one that’s been reported elsewhere, or if this is a UK-only edition. Nonetheless, here we go!

Here’s the product description, taken from its Amazon page:

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Gollancz (21 July 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0575113499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0575113497
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.8 cm

The American Amazon page seems to be slightly different, as it has only 304 pages – over a hundred pages less than the one in my hands – so we’ll have to wait for information on our Nearctic Zone cousins’ version of the book.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer…

Discover how it all began…

Conan the Barbarian spawned a hundred imitators. Find out why with these original tales from his early life. From The Tower of the Elephant to Beyond the Black River, follow Robert E. Howard’s greatest creation as he cuts a bloody swathe through the history of Hyborea.

Over 350 pages of epic action, personally selected by the makers of the new film and the greatest Robert E. Howard scholars.

‘A hero of mythic proportion, fashioned by a storyteller who helped define what a modern fantasy should be’ Raymond E. Feist


Warrior, Hero, Legend.

Pretty good! The only sore spot is the use of Hyboria – and even Hyboria is spelled wrong – but aside from that flub, it’s an excellent, tantalizing glimpse into the tales.

Inside, we find the contents:

“The Tower of the Elephant”
“Rogues in the House”
“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”
“Queen of the Black Coast”
“A Witch Shall Be Born”
“The People of the Black Circle”
“Red Nails”
“Beyond the Black River”
“The Hyborian Age”

Now that… that is a solid set. The stories used are the earliest available publications, so it’s mostly the Weird Tales texts which are used: not quite as good as the unexpurgiated texts, but given Farnsworth Wright’s incredibly light editorial touch, it’s the next best thing to pure Howard in most cases.

The way I see it, there are two perfect introductions to Conan for a first-time reader: “The Phoenix on the Sword,” being the first Conan story Howard wrote, is the default answer, since the best way to see the evolution of Conan as a character and Howard as a writer is chronologically. However, some people like reading the stories as if following the saga of Conan’s career, from young thief, to pirate, to mercenary, to king. In addition, some readers may be skeptical of reading Howard, being aware of his Conan tales’ undeserved reputation of being formulaic, misogynistic and anti-intellectual. The best story from the latter two points of view to start with is, in my opinion, “The Tower of the Elephant.”

I like to think of “The Tower of the Elephant” as the Conan story for people who don’t like Conan – or think they don’t like Conan. This is the tale I would give to people whose only knowledge of Conan is of the 1980s films, or the MMO, or don’t even know anything about Conan at all. This story features so many apparent subversions of the “Conan formula,” that it could almost be read as a deconstruction – if one weren’t already aware that it was one of the first Conan stories Howard wrote. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but suffice to say, if your opinion of Conan is that he always gets a girl, always defeats the monster or sorcerer, always seeks the easiest and most violent way to solve a problem, always wins his battles without so much as a scratch, and always ends the story with priceless treasure in one arm and a lusty babe in the other… well, you’ll see.

Better still, just about every story in this collection is a worthy inclusion. As with everything, Howard fans seem to disagree over what the best Conan stories are, but from my personal point of view, all the essential Conan tales are present. I consider “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” “The People of the Black Circle,” “Red Nails,” and “Beyond the Black River” to be not only among Howard’s finest Conan stories, but among his finest stories of all. Certainly the fine folks who put together the two Best of Robert E. Howard volumes agree with all save “Queen,” since those four are included in those books.

In addition, “Rogues in the House” is an excellent counterpoint to “The Tower of the Elephant”: whereas in “Tower” we see Conan’s nobility and curiosity, “Rogues” shows Conan at his most murderous and violent. Yet even here, we see there’s a certain something in Conan which raises him above the level of mere villainous protagonist, an innate barbaric honour which classes him as separate from the truly wicked scum of the earth. “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” despite its brevity, is a powerfully evocative tale, Conan at his most mythic. I’m concerned that the tale’s possible allusions to the myth of Apollo & Daphne, and the legend of Atalanta, may result in a simplistic assessment of the story’s frenzied climax, but the story is just so good that I feel it demands inclusion all the same. “The Hyborian Age,” while not truly a story, offers an insight into Howard’s creative process, and shows that he had more in mind for the Hyborian Age than a mere playground for his Cimmerian creation. Finally, the magnificent “Cimmeria,” a poem which pre-dates the stories and may not actually be part of the Conan canon, closes the circle in a fitting manner: ending at the beginning. The only inclusion I really disagree with is “A Witch Shall Be Born,” a story I have many problems with – but John Clute and, evidently, the filmmakers and scholars composing this volume disagreed. I would replace the latter with “Black Colossus,” but that’s likely just me.

At the back, we have a short biography of Robert E. Howard, as well as a link to the REHupa website:

Robert e. Howard was born and raised in rural Texas, where he lived all his life. The son of a pioneer physician, he began writing professionally at 15, and three years later sold his first story to Weird Tales. A prolific and proficient author, he published westerns, sports stories, horror tales, true confessions, historical adventures and detective thrillers, all the while developing a series of heroic characters with whom he would forever be identified with: Solomon Kane, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn and, of course, Conan the Cimmerian. Between 1932 and 1935 Howard wrote twenty-one sword and sorcery adventures of Conan, ranging in length from 3,500-word short stories to novel-length tales of 75,000 words. He committed suicide at the age of thirty, in June 1936. For more information about Robert E. Howard and Conan visit the REHupa website at

Conan the Barbarian: The Classic Original Stories That Inspired The Film is, in my opinion, one of the best possible introductions to Howard’s Conan stories available, short of the Del Reys. It’s a collection boasting some of the very best Conan stories in one easy-to-carry, relatively cheap (I got mine for £7:99 at Waterstone’s, though it might be cheaper elsewhere), with no potentially problematic extraneous content like illustrations, forewords, afterwords or essays. Just the stories. I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to introduce someone to Robert E. Howard without committing to the Del Reys or the classic Lancers. The book would make a lovely gift for friends, family, acquaintances – anyone you think might enjoy them.

I’m probably not going to keep this, though I fully intend to use it as an ambassador for the author whose work has changed my life so much. I have enough copies of the original stories already. They shouldn’t be hoarded away in a private collection: they should be shared. And share them, I shall. So should you.