Robert E. Howard’s essay on the world of Conan, “The Hyborian Age,” is perhaps more interesting for what it reveals about Howard’s passions and creative processes than what it actually details about this setting. Written for his personal use, Howard created the essay to solidify the new world that was already replacing the old setting of Conan’s predecessor, King Kull, and it was never intended for publication. This is understandable, since it reads more like a work of anthropological history or ethnography than a story, squarely focusing on the broad cycles of migration, settlement, and warfare occupying millennia of conflict. But an unexpected thing happens at the pivotal moment of the essay – Howard, the perennial storyteller, gives us a story.
From the midst the vast, impersonal sweep of mass migration and the slow re-discovery of civilization, we suddenly get a more intimate story, named characters, poetic language, and narrative momentum. It is the tale of a civilized priest and a barbarian warchief: Arus, ambassador of the Hyborian peoples, man of peace and learning, and Gorm, cunning and savage Pictish conqueror, avatar of the destruction of the Hyborian Kingdoms.
It is fitting that the overthrow of the Hyborian world should come at the hands of the Picts, for Howard long held a fascination with these ancient and mysterious people and included them in many stories, both historical and overtly fantastic. Conan may be the quintessential barbarian, and he is usually portrayed in contrast with the various civilizations or civilized people he meets on his adventures, but when he does encounter the Picts, they are depicted as more savage even than he. Perpetually warlike and bloody-minded, primitive and artless, conductors of human sacrifice and worshippers of vile gods, the Picts are perhaps the least-tamed people of the Hyborian Age.
But one man sought to elevate these savages of the cold, dark western forests. Arus, Nemedian Priest of Mitra, through bravery, foolishness, or divine providence, managed to find a place among the Pictish tribes. It was the acceptance of the young chief Gorm, the mirror of Arus in his unconventional nature but in little else, that made the priest’s stay among the Picts a possibility. Arus busied himself trying to convert and gentle the Picts, impressing them with tales of the miracles of civilization, and the wonders that were possible for the settled and devout of Mitra. He also taught them how to mine and work iron, as well as establishing the first diplomatic exchanges between the wild men of the woods and the powerful western kingdoms that were their neighbors.
This, of course, proves to be a disaster. The Picts happily accept the fruits of civilization while rejecting its values. United now under Gorm, they arm themselves, learn what they can as mercenaries in Aquilonian employ, and bide their time. When the western Hyborian kingdoms again plunge into internecine conflict, the entire Pictish nation surges forth as an unstoppable wave of conquest that crushes them, obliterating nearly everything familiar about Conan’s world, at least in the west. Arus himself is killed by a drunken Pict while preaching restraint, the skull of his slayer placed atop the priest’s cairn as a final gesture of respect from Gorm. With the Hyborian Kingdoms overrun, the essay now pulls back from the narrative and again resumes the expository march and countermarch of the survivors of this manmade cataclysm, until the world is once again destroyed by geologic upheaval.
There are four named characters in the entire “The Hyborian Age” essay, of whom only Arus and Gorm appear as something more than simply a name. Bori, mythic king that became the god and namesake of the Hyborians is mentioned. The fourth named individual is Hialmar, the man who killed Gorm, but he is there really as a kind of footnote, appearing only as a name and important only in so far as his relation to Gorm. Conan himself is never mentioned, whether because Howard was leaving his life as open as possible for future development, or, indeed, if the omission suggests the Cimmerian’s own insignificance in the face of the tidal forces of history, is interesting to contemplate.
For, with Arus and Gorm, Howard is saying something about history. The tale isn’t strictly necessary to include in “The Hyborian Age,” the entire story could have been conveyed (and condensed) in a manner consistent with the rest of the piece, with impersonal distance. But history is made by people, something easy to overlook when focusing on the rise and fall of entire civilizations and populations, and Arus and Gorm are there to demonstrate that reality. The paradox is that Arus and Gorm are also clear symbols of the interplay of civilization and savagery, almost personifications of Howard’s thesis of the inevitable triumph of the barbarian. By distilling all the elements of his historical cycle down into this short tale, and making it the central pivot of the entire essay – the entire age! – Howard is using every trick and instinct of the storyteller to bring the massively impersonal forces of history to visceral life on the page.