C is for Conan the Barbarian
Next in the April 2017 AtoZ Challenge, let’s look at dragons in the lore of Conan the Barbarian.
Creating this post, after a friend suggested it for my “C” topic this year, was my first real exposure to any of the Conan the Barbarian media. But the research was fascinating, and I’m excited to share what I learned — apologies that it got so much longer than I intended!
Conan was originally created by American author Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, and his stories were published in serial form in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales. Howard was a prolific author even before creating the Conan character, and because of lapsed copyrights, you can find much of his work at the Project Gutenberg site. As the Conan Wiki remarks:
[Howard’s] stories in the pulp magazines made him the most popular fiction writer in America from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s – he was probably the first author of serialized fiction to ever earn a living as a full-time writer. He was able, in a single month during the Great Depression, to earn as much as $500 – more than three times what the local bank president earned.
After Howard’s unfortunate suicide at age 30, many other writers took up the low-fantasy Conan character and setting to continue the story, and there have been many additional stories, books, comics, films, television shows, video games, roleplaying games, and more adding to the Conan mythos for more than eighty years.
While the dragon references in Howard’s original stories are sparse, there is one standout example.
This piece above is called Red Nails Painting Conan Original Art (undated), by the artist Sanjulian (Manuel Perez Clemente). This “excellent condition … unstretched oil on canvas painting measur[ing] approximately 36″ x 48″” sold for $3,000 back in 2008. The description according to Heritage Auctions reads:
“Red Nails” is often considered one of Robert E. Howard’s finest Conan tales. In the story, Conan is reunited with Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and both travel deep into a lost city. Along the way, they encounter a vicious dragon-beast that mauls their horses before turning its attention on them. In this brilliant portrayal, Sanjulian has captured the precise moment that Conan’s strike has landed its fatal blow on the monster, which soon shifts victory back in favor of the two heroic warriors, allowing them to continue on their journey.
You can read the full story of Red Nails at Project Gutenburg, or a detailed synopsis from the Conan Wiki, but either way, you will find that the “dragon” plays a very minor role in the plot beyond acting as the first obstacle to the heroes’ entrance to the city, and as the reason the lost city’s inhabitants have hidden themselves away. Conan is able to dispatch the dragon by stabbing it in the mouth with his sword, which he coats with poison, attaches to a branch, and uses as a spear (as shown in the painting), proving the dragon is no immortal beast.
Even though the main stories never really featured dragons, that hasn’t stopped modern creators from interjecting them into the Conan universe, otherwise known as the Hyborian Age. The map above, from the Conan Wiki, shows Conan’s homeland of Cimmeria in the upper left.
As the Conan Wiki explains, “the stories take place on Earth, but in the mythical Hyborian Age, between the time of the sinking of Atlantis and the rise of the known ancient civilizations.” The regular Wikipedia article about Conan quotes a book edited by Patrice Louinet from 2003 called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, detailing how the author created the Hyborian Age:
Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research work needed in maintaining historical accuracy – and moreover, the poorly-stocked libraries in the rural part of Texas where Howard lived just did not have the material needed for such historical research. By conceiving a timeless setting – “a vanished age” – and by carefully choosing names that resembled human history, Howard shrewdly avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.
I found that passage particularly interesting, wondering if Howard’s method of approaching the daunting task of keeping the details straight could be applied to my Finding Dragons novel, since I am striving to keep it as historically accurate as I can (and then adding dragons, of course).
I’m writing a similarly historical-fantasy-fiction story, and sometimes my exposition can get a little out of control — just check out the three-part “chapter” I have posted at my Finding Dragons link for an example. I realized some time last year that what I wrote almost two years ago cannot really be used as the first chapter of my book, but I’ll always keep that writing as a piece of my world’s background nonetheless, much like Howard did when he wrote an entire essay (in “non-fiction” format) about The Hyborian Age.
However, I also realized that, unfortunately thanks to the internet, I don’t have the excuse of a “poorly-stocked library” to fall back on as Howard did. Not to mention that authors getting random details wrong in their historical fiction is one of my major pet peeves, and always has been. So I suppose I will just get on with my Conan commentary. 🙂
In 2008, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (“MMO”) called Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (and later renamed Age of Conan: Unchained) was released, giving gamers a chance to explore Howard’s Hyborian world for themselves. Then, on the game’s fifth-year anniversary, the creators introduced some “epic in-game events” for their players, including the chance to fight the black dragon Vistrix, above, and as described by the Age of Conan Wiki:
Vistrix appears to be a new threat to the region, rather than some ancient evil well-known for plaguing Cimmeria and the Border Kingdoms for centuries past. …
In form, the demon is a reptilian echo from a long-forgotten age when cold-blooded and scaled predator-kings claimed the world as their hunting ground. Does intelligence—a human intelligence—gleam in its giant eyes? The answer to that depends entirely on which tales a traveler believes…
As the blogger Cynara talks about in a post from December 2013 on their Age of Conan blog, the MMO gamemakers released another black dragon, below, into the world six months later that was nearly identical to the original dragon, but which had 20.1 million hit points — a record at that time, as the 5th Anniversary Vistrix “only” had 17.3 million hit points. Groups of players had to band together to fight the beast.
Cynara goes on the explain that defeating this boss enemy in the game would drop a loot cache for the players that could contain anything from armor to weapons to pets — and the most coveted new pet was the rare black dragon, as shown here next to Cynara’s avatar in an about to breathe fire pose (it’s much smaller than the beast above, of course):
Despite their scarcity, there is one more major piece of Conan lore that one has to mention when talking about dragons in this universe. As blogger Taranaich wrote in December 2011 on his site The Blog That Time Forgot, in a post titled Hyborian Musings: Yes, We Have No Dragons:
While dragons rarely make an on-stage appearance in the Conan stories – only “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Red Nails” have living, breathing ones drop by – thematic and symbolic dragons are all over the place, be they dragons in heraldry, or colourful metaphors for characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in the singular Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon.
(As a side note, the “dragon” in The Scarlet Citadel is really just a giant snake, but I’ve still shared one of the most iconic images of it below.)
The Hour of the Dragon is a story that has no actual dragons in it, but does include a trapped box containing the MacGuffin of the story — a gem called the Heart of Ahriman. When the box is opened, the trap is sprung, and the unfortunate victim is stabbed with a hidden, poisoned barb called the Fang of the Dragon. Again, the Conan Wiki has a wonderful synopsis if you don’t care to read the entire story, and blogger Taranaich details how the villains in the story are represented by dragons (opposing Conan’s lion representation), and that the “box symbolizes every villain in the entire story, and one of the main themes of the tale: don’t place your trust in dragons, for they’re likely to betray you.”
This is turning into one of my most detailed posts ever, but like I said, the research just kept drawing me in, and I had to share! But now it’s time for more artwork.
First up, here is a fanart piece called Conan – Hyborian Forest Dragon, Retrosaurus by Polish deviantartist KingOvRats, depicting the first “dragon” from Red Nails. The artist even included an excerpt from the original Howard story:
“Through the thicket was thrust a head of nightmare and lunacy. Grinning jaws bared rows of dripping yellow tusks; above the yawning mouth wrinkled a saurian-like snout. Huge eyes, like those of a python a thousand times magnified, stared unwinkingly at the petrified humans clinging to the rock above it. Blood smeared the scaly, flabby lips and dripped from the huge mouth. The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on a long scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and after it, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan, a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs. The whitish belly almost raked the ground, while the serrated backbone rose higher than Conan could have reached on tiptoe. A long spiked tail, like that of a gargantuan scorpion, trailed out behind.”
— Robert E. Howard, Red Nails
And finally, here is an iconic piece of art that was used as the cover to a book collection of four Conan adventures, published in 1967 as Conan the Usurper, that included The Scarlet Citadel. This is Conan Chained by professional artist Frank Frazetta, who passed away in 2010. Frazetta’s daughter and grandaughter now promote his work through their Frazetta Girls website.
My goodness — while I loved creating this post, I’ll admit it took me more than a week, and I’ve still got 23 letters left to go in the AtoZ Challenge! So I can’t promise that all of the rest will be this detailed, but I can promise you a wild ride through my own personally curated selection of Dragons in Our Fandoms. So thank you for reading, take care, stay creative, and tune in tomorrow for more!
Red Nails Painting Conan Original Art (undated) by Sanjulian (Manuel Perez Clemente)
Hyboria – Mongoose’s Map of the Hyborian Age World, originally from Conan.com, and found archived on Tim Bauer’s Pintrest page
Vistrix the black dragon from the Age of Conan MMO fifth-year anniversary announcement on the Age of Conan Wiki
Another black dragon from the Age of Conan MMO posted by Cynara on their Age of Conan blog
Pet black dragon from the Age of Conan MMO posted by Cynara on their Age of Conan blog
Conan – Hyborian Forest Dragon, Retrosaurus by KingOvRats
Conan Chained by Frank Frazetta