In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads about one of Conan the Barbarian’s literary offspring
When I was a teenager devouring every fantasy book I could find, one of my favourite writers was Robert E. Howard. His Conan Chronicles – reprinted by Gollancz in a glorious two-volume edition as part of their Fantasy Masterworks series – sound rather crude and even unpromising when you try to explain to people what happens in a Conan story. Essentially, a barbarian with huge muscles goes about the world in search of treasure, finding abandoned cities and rescuing damsels and battling evil sorcerers and sorceresses, as well as encountering weird creatures including large spiders and giant snakes (Howard’s own bete noire). The stories sound like adolescent male wish-fulfilment – ‘fantasy’ in more ways than one – and on one level they are. But this is not all they are. And reading these fast-paced tales of ‘sword and sorcery’, as the genre became known, was an experience that always transcended whatever a summary of their plot might otherwise imply.
This was because of the electrifying energy of Howard’s writing. Although he created a vast panoply of heroic characters, from the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane to another fine fantasy character, King Kull of Atlantis, Howard remains best-known for his barbarian hero, Conan the Cimmerian. With his Conan stories, Howard pretty much invented the sword-and-sorcery genre by himself – and, in doing so, helped to forge much of modern fantasy, before Tolkien had even come up with the word ‘hobbit’.
This fine tradition in adventure storytelling – fast in pace, high on action, and usually low on detailed characterisation or psychological complexity, with the stakes generally far lower than your usual save-the-world-or-die-trying blueprint for epic fantasy which Tolkien pioneered – produced a vast number of proponents and imitators. Perhaps the finest to follow Howard’s lead in the true sense, though, was John Jakes, who created a character clearly directly inspired by Conan, Brak the Barbarian.
The Brak adventure I got hold of and read was The Sorceress, which was published in 1969 (although a shorter version of the novella had appeared in Fantastic Stories six years earlier). While heading for Khurdisan, our hero Brak crosses the desolate territory of the Manworm and encounters the beguiling sorceress who provides the novella with its title: Nordica Fire-Hair, who – in true Howardian, Conanesque fashion – practises human sacrifice as part of her ‘art’. I won’t offer spoilers, but of course Brak’s mighty sword is brought out and he is charged with saving the day and taking on the powerful sorceress.
Although he would never have existed if Howard had not created his mighty-thewed barbarian protagonist, Brak is not Conan – at least, not quite. He’s far stupider, for one thing: although the bulging biceps and sullen expression tend to lead people to assume Conan the Cimmerian isn’t especially bright, Howard’s original stories reveal a far more cunning and enterprising man. He has to be, in order to survive, outwit his foes, think on his feet, and track down the treasure (and so on). Brak is neither cunning nor enterprising, and he takes a colossally long time to come up to speed with the plot. He’s so slow that even Dr Watson would tut at his obtuseness.
The Brak novellas are every bit as pulpy as Howard’s original stories from the 1930s. Jakes’ writing lacks the innovative spark and the pure energy we find in Howard, but then that’s hardly a surprise. Might as well moan that John Webster doesn’t offer the same ingenious metaphors that Shakespeare does. But Jakes can spin a fine yarn and The Sorceress proved an enjoyable way to pass a few hours. And for the fantasy nerd, eager to discover a sword-and-sorcery author who had somehow passed him by until recently, the existence of the book was fascinating in itself.
Great literature, then? No, although Howard’s original stories, I would argue, are – at least in so far as they remain the superlative example of the genre they spawned. But Jakes’ novella offers plenty of action and adventure, and unlike a great deal of fantasy that’s been published since, doesn’t take itself too seriously. We need a bit of pure escapism from time to time, and one could do worse than Brak the Barbarian.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.