Conan of Cimmeria, the world’s most famous sword-and-sorcery hero, has an impressive history across media: dozens of novels, comics from multiple publishers, movies, role-playing games, and television.
But let’s say you want to get started with Conan at the source, which is Texan author Robert E. Howard’s original stories written for the pulp magazines in the 1930s. Howard’s stories cover different parts of Conan’s life, from his young days as a thief to his mature years as the king of the nation of Aquilonia. Howard didn’t write Conan’s adventures in any chronological order. His first, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” is set during Conan’s kingship, and the next, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” has the hero as a young warrior fighting in the northern wastes. Each story is independent: you don’t need to know anything from the other Conan adventures to enjoy the one in your hands.
So where should you start reading? Not a bad dilemma to have, but before you begin looking through the chronologies that fans and scholars have devised to arrange the stories to follow the Cimmerian’s life, I recommend you go directly to Howard’s only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (first published serially in 1935–36). Although it occurs late in the hero’s career when he’s seated on the throne of Aquilonia, The Hour of the Dragon does an excellent job of introducing the world around Conan—the Hyborian Age. The breadth of the adventure gives new readers a sense of what other wonders the rest of the saga has sealed in its shadowy vaults. It’s also a fantastic read on its own, exploding with new marvels, horrors, and thrills in each chapter over a tight seventy-three thousand words.
When Howard realized his new character had the potential for a range of fantasy stories cast in semi-historical settings, he wrote an essay to provide himself with a “Conan series Bible.” The essay, “The Hyborian Age,” has been published many times in connection with the Conan stories (currently available in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian), but first-time readers shouldn’t begin with it. Especially when The Hour of the Dragon functions as a user-friendly novel-length version.
The Hyborian Age is similar to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth in conception, if not in style or details: it’s our own world during a mythical time period. “An age undreamed of” as the epigram to “The Phoenix on the Sword” states. The nations and cities are a mixture of fantastical versions of different cultures and time periods, which gave Howard room to play in almost any subgenre of adventure story. Medieval romances, swords-in-the-desert Arabian fantasies, high-seas Golden Age of Piracy yarns—The Hyborian Age could swallow it all. Howard even worked out how to do frontier tales in the mold of James Fenimore Cooper.
Howard had reasons to make The Hour of the Dragon a newcomer-friendly look at Conan’s world. He originally wrote the novel with the intention of selling it to a UK publisher for hardback. British readers didn’t have access to Weird Tales magazine, where most of the Conan stories had appeared, so Howard made certain the book provided a guided tour of his secondary world.
The Hour of the Dragon eases readers into the immense scope of its author’s creation. Although there are plenty of political conspiracies and power jockeying among its delightful roster of bad guys, the basic thrust of the novel is a straightforward magical object quest. A plot among the nobles of Conan’s kingdom of Aquilonia and its enemy kingdom of Nemedia manages to overthrow the king. The secret weapon in their scheme is Xaltotun, a resurrected sorcerer from the extinct evil nation of Acheron. Conan escapes from Xaltotun’s prison and sets out to retrieve the Heart of Ahriman, a jewel capable of destroying the sorcerer, so he can take back his kingdom from the tyranny of the dragon banners of the Nemedian conquerors.
Conan’s hunt for the jewel draws him across swaths of the inhabited lands of the Hyborian Age. Aquilonia and Nemedia, the most powerful of the Hyborian kingdoms; seafaring Argos; mountainous Zingara; and deep south into Stygia, best described as a Gothic version of Ancient Egypt—a place where sacred giant snakes are allowed to roam the streets at night and devour people. Other places in the Hyborian Age make appearances through characters, such as four mysterious black-robed men from far eastern Khitai who relentlessly pursue Conan.
The quest framework gave Howard opportunities to weave in the backdrop he created with “The Hyborian Age.” He executes this seamlessly, with no lectures, prologues, or exposition blasts. Mid-story, Conan experiences a near-crisis about whether he should continue the quest to regain his kingdom or slip back to one of the older professions from his storied career. In one paragraph, readers experience the depth of what Conan has been through in his life: thief, pirate, mercenary. Howard then pulls readers back to the present, where Conan chooses to follow through on his obligation as a just king and defend his people. This is an excellent piece of character drama and romantic prose that disguises world-building and a lure to read further. “Here’s what else you can expect from Conan. Now, back to our story! We have giant snakes and a vampire woman coming up …”
If you can resist the rest of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales after The Hour of the Dragon, you must have fortitude mightier than the legendary Cimmerian himself.