The Conan Series Critical Essays

Robert E. Howard


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Howard’s Conan stories constitute a new subgenre of heroic fantasy. Fritz Leiber coined the term “sword and sorcery” to describe this hybrid, which merged the naturalistic epic—of which the tales of Tarzan are perhaps the best example—with elements of the fairy tale and the horror story. Sword and sorcery assumes that the intimate connection of pretechnological peoples with their own mythic consciousness makes them susceptible to dark supernatural influences, yet also attunes them to their own heroic potential. Monsters are the genre’s embodiment of the darkness within the human soul, but they are also symbols of what lies outside the narrow confines of modern rationality. The world is presented in terms of a struggle between great forces, not of Judeo-Christian good and evil but of natural law and unnatural chaos, and the hero’s victories imply a larger order from which overcivilized (decadent) people have become estranged.

Another way to view this is that people’s lives lose the potential for mythical significance through the sterile logic of technological advancement. This romantic affirmation of the natural primitive, however, is qualified by a darker undertone: Naturalistic fantasies treat aggression as more basic than communal behavior, more fundamental even than maternal bonding. Socialized behavior is superimposed on an instinctive survival/reproductive urge that is both competitive and selfish. This is why Howard believed in the...

(The entire section is 554 words.)