An Audio-Book Review: Thud and Blunder in the Hyborian Age.


Conan the Warrior

By Robert E. Howard (Edited by L. Sprague de Camp)

Read by Jeff Halberstadt

Conan the Usurper

By Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp

Read by John Polk

Conan the Conqueror

By Robert E. Howard (Edited by L. Sprague de Camp)

Read by Jeff Halberstadt

All three published by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, USA.

 

The Stories:

I have been forcibly reminded why I don’t read “Sword and Sorcery” stories any more. They bore me. Oh one or two here and there can be a nice literary palate-cleanser, I suppose, but after a while they all seem alike to me. See below for my take on the genre.

In fairness, Robert E. Howard, may not have invented the genre of Fantasy-adventure, but he certainly set the standards for those authors who came to the field after him. As de Camp himself said in one of his forewords, Howard was a natural story-teller. His stories may not be works of literary genius, but they are well-crafted and well-told for what they are. Also  he did cover a wide variety of situations with his heroes, such as Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull and Bran MacMorn. In fact, he covered such a wide scope within the confines of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre of Fantasy Adventure, that most other authors always seem, to me, to be just retelling each others’ stories.

If you are a fan of these stories, I have no doubt you will disagree and will be happy to point out the multitude of difference and nuances that exist between such stories and authors. Fine. You are certainly entitled to your opinions, this is just the way I see it. No doubt there are those who would say that all Fantasy stories look alike to them.

Anyway, here is what I have learned from Sword and Sorcery.;

1)      All wizards are evil scheming bastards intent on taking over the world. “Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Pinky?” “Uh, I think so, Brain, but Conan the Rotarian? Who would watch that?” Seriously? Is that the only reason to learn sorcery? Seems to me that somewhere in the Hyborian kingdoms there ought to be a few men or women who are just minding their own business and using their lore to search for the secrets of the universe, but apparently not. Where are all the Hyborian nerds, quietly studying away in their libraries and laboratories?

2)      No matter how powerful a sorcerer might be, he is no match for a hulking brute with a sword. Admittedly this attitude comes from the fact that these tales are almost inevitably told from the point of view of the sword-slinging hero. If they were written with the magic-user as the protagonists, the outcome would be very different.

3)      Sorcerers have very little control, whether it be self-control or control over the inevitable demons they summon to their aid. I think that goes hand-in-hand with my first point. Actually I frequently find myself feeling sorry for the poor demons. If I were to try my hand of Sword and Sorcery, I might try telling a tale from the point of view of a demon. “It was just another Saturday night in Beelzebopolis. I had been trying to make a date with that cute succubus, Galael for months and she finally agreed to go out with me, so I figured dinner and a play, right? Well, I was just about to take my first bite of pizza when I heard a high reedy voice commanding me to appear on pain of eternal damnation. Really? I’m a demon! I’m already eternally damned, technically at least. And it was my day off!
“I made a mental note to file a grievance at the union office. I’m a dues-paying member of Demons Local #59. I’m supposed to have certain times during which I am not to be summoned, but I am also a loyal union-demon and it wouldn’t help to make the rest of my brothers and sisters look bad by not appearing. No doubt this jerk was new to the game and just didn’t know enough. I’ve been around a long time; he probably got my name out of some dusty old grimoire. Those darned things ought to burst into flame and be incinerated on the deaths of their owners, but… well, you know how foolish and vain mortals can be. The owner of that one probably thought only he knew all the secrets and was desperate to prove it to every other two-bit wand-waver in Stygia.

 

“I shrugged and as I began to fade out, I tossed an apologetic and embarrassed grin at Galael and only just barely remembered to leave a few coins to pay for the meal before I had disappeared completely. There was the usual fog all around me and then as it cleared I found myself standing in the middle of an ineptly draw pentagram. I looked around for a gap in the design – nothing would have pleased me more than to be able to grab the yokel and drag him back to use as a topping on the pizza I had to forego, but for all his lack of artistic skill, or even a straightedge, the pentagram was closed.

 

“I should mention that there is no physical reason a few lines of chalk should stop me, of course, but the union has rules and it does not look favorably at brothers who break those rules. The only thing I could do that would get me in even worse trouble would be to… well, no, that would only get me a few thousand years scrubbing the urinals at the Union Hall in Dis… Anyway, it just was not done. If the yokel has something vaguely resembling a pentagram we agree to do our parts.

 

“I paused to look around and noticed we were in a round chamber with a tall window through which there was an incredibly cold draft coming. This is what I really hate about Earth. It’s cold up here and wet. Really wet! Water fall out of the sky and you know what fish do in water, right? Disgusting! If the pay weren’t so high… but it is and I should be able to retire comfortably in another millennium or so.

 

“Just then I noticed the guy with the high reedy voice was screaming at me. What? He wants me to destroy yet another barbarian? Oh very well. I look around and see a sight that caused the ichor to freeze in my veins. It’s Conan… again!

 

“Okay, I know he can’t kill me and, apparently, I can’t kill him either. He’s that good, so as we circle cautiously around one another I whisper, ‘Yo, dude! This is getting ridiculous, don’t you think? Tell you what. Let’s just dance around for a bit then I’ll let you hit me with that butter-spreader of yours. I’ll shriek a bit and vanish.’

 

“He nodded a bit too quickly so I added, ‘But the drinks are on you at the poker game next week!.’ …and so on.

 

I could go on, but will spare you all. Oh, by the way, actually not all magicians in Howard’s Hyborean age are evil and bent on taking over the world (or at least their corner of it), but it seems the good ones are few and far between.

The stories in these three collections involve Conan from about the time he is forty years of age to the time he takes the throne of Aquilonia and cover most of the features one might expect from any of Howard’s Conan stories; pirates, strange cultures vaguely similar to those of the time of the Roman Empire mixed with kingdom straight out of the Middle Ages, immensely powerful wizards and sorcerers who, inexplicably, have no defense against an attack by Conan… The usual, although to be completely honest Conan is not always the direct cause of a sorcerer’s death. Sometimes he’s just there to see it happen. They aren’t a bad collection of stories and, as I said above, they are good examples of storytelling. I will say that Howard’s work seems moderately better when it is his alone and not finished by another author. I have read other Conan stories and no one quite duplicates Howard’s style and expertise.

The Audiobooks

Both Jeff Halberstadt and John Polk read these stories fairly well. In fact except for the fact that Polk’s voice is slightly higher than that of Halberstadt, there’s not a lot of difference in their reading styles. Neither resorts to what I call “funny voices” and outlandish accents and they are easy to listen to. Neither is a spectacular reader, but  sometimes all you want is to hear a story and both of them provide the listener with that.

Summing it all up, If you like the sort of fantasy adventure referred to as Sword and Sorcery and if by some chance you have not yet read Robert E. Howard’s original stories, you really should. If you are entirely unversed in the subgenre, then I say that would be a good place to start.

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