Barbarians occupy a special place in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In fact you could say that S&S is largely responsible for the way we view barbarians being very different from the way people used to. “Barbarian”, was originally, after all, an insult. It was used to denote someone uncouth, primitive, lacking in education, intelligence, and manners.
But in the early 20th century, a kind of different view of barbarians came into vogue. Yes, they were uncultured, crude, and prone to solving problems with violence, but they began to also be depicted as strong, tough, independent and forceful. Often, in stories, they were presented as being in many ways superior to more civilized, advanced people, and a lot of this came from the American borderlands, which are just where genre creator Robert E. Howard grew up.
Americans spent a long time with a certain degree of inferiority complex with regards to culture, especially when judged by European standards. There was a sort of mini-genre of books written in the 19th century by European travelers essentially making fun of how primitive American culture was. Even the East Coast elites were too often sneered at by Englishmen or Parisians, and the nation as a whole started to get a bit of an attitude about it.
Because the extended frontier phase of the nation’s formative years tended to celebrate traits that are often associated with barbarism: fearlessness, self-reliance, decisiveness, and a willingness to resort to violence to get things done. A life on the middle border, or on the Texas plains, did not leave much room for civilization. People did their best, but life was hard and often unforgiving, and the people who lived that way started to frown on the studied mannerisms of so-called polite society.
Howard was a product of this time and this place, and so his characters also shared a distrust of civilized ways and a desire to keep things simple, direct, and plain-spoken. Barbarians are a distinctly American style of hero, because they follow their own code of honor, never ask for help or mercy, rely primarily on themselves, and often believe the best thing to do is call the play and fight.
Howard’s ancestors were Scots-Irish, the last of the European barbarians, who had proved intractable in their homeland and clung to clannish loyalties and blood feuds. They brought their independent, hardscrabble, tough way of life with them into the Appalachians, and then onward into the West. Howard clearly romanticized his Irish ancestors, as Conan himself was meant to be a kind of proto-Irishman. But sometimes even that was not primally barbaric enough for him, and he wrote about the Picts – a half-imagined race who were so obstinately primitive they looked on the Cimmerians as too civilized.
Thus was born the idea of the Fantasy Barbarian, an image and trope that is with us to this day. Far from being seen as stupid or gullible, fantasy barbarians are tough and resourceful. They may be filled with contempt for civilization, but they are not bewildered by it. They are fearless, dangerous, courageous, and loyal – which is quite a distance from the original idea of barbarians as uncouth rubes who never wash and wipe their asses with leaves. In a Sword & Sorcery world if you want something done, get a barbarian. Barbarians get shit done.