If there is a problem with the Sword & Sorcery genre, it is that it dwells in the shadow of its most famous hero, and it’s not possible to study the history and development of Sword & Sorcery as a whole without being struck by the fact that 90% of people’s interest in the genre lives and dies with Conan of Cimmeria.
This is not a new problem. Conan casts a loooong shadow, not just in a relatively small fantasy subgenre, but in the popular culture as a whole. Everyone knows Conan, and when I talk about Robert E. Howard with the uninitiated, I usually have to use Conan as a reference point to explain who he even is. The fact of the matter is that Conan, as both a character and a pop-culture icon, outgrew both his genre and his creator, and looms larger than both.
Howard created a lot of characters, and his most well-known are his continuing ones that went through multiple tales. It was a feature of the era in the pulp magazines – every writer wanted to create a hero that connected with the audience, that way readers would follow the hero and clamor for more of his adventures. It helped sell stories to editors and helped sell magazines, and so when a character hit it worked out for everyone. Howard made a lot of these two-fisted action heroes, from the real-world adventurers like Steve Costigan and Solomon Kane, to dwellers in worlds of pure fantasy.
A lot of the characters we think of as being fantasy heroes – like Cormac Mac Art or Bran Mak Morn – were actually men who lived in historical periods. Howard only really created two ongoing heroes who lived in purely fantastical worlds: Kull, and his kindred barbarian Conan.
Kull was very much the prototype for Conan. A barbarian who leaves his primitive homeland and ventures through an exotic world of strange civilizations, cutting his way with sword and iron will, eventually carving his way onto a throne. Kull inhabited a rather poorly-defined world of generic fantasy with a number of Lovecraftian flourishes. For Conan, Howard made the Hyborian Age, and it is rather surprising that he created such a well-realized fantasy world and then never used it for any other characters. I suppose he might have, had he lived.
Conan was a major hit, and so Howard kept writing stories about him, and they sold like crazy. In 1934 and 1935, when he was selling at his peak, Howard was making the equivalent of over $30,000 a year just from writing – a pretty extraordinary achievement for a freelance author in any time period. Conan was the most lucrative character he created, and the most enduring.
That hasn’t changed. Sword & Sorcery fiction in print, films, and comics, is dominated by Conan. There have been a lot of other S&S heroes of many kinds, but none of them has made the same impact, for whatever reason. Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn are just as interesting, if not moreso, but Conan is the one the fandom took to heart, and has never relinquished.
And in any genre there will be indelible works that continue to attract new fans. The advent of new fantasy does not tarnish the Lord of the Rings, the emergence of new bands does not reduce the appeal of classic music. But Conan’s overpowering ubiquity seems to drown out any other real development of the genre. No original Sword & Sorcery tale is going to get the attention the umpteenth Conan pastiche gets, and in fact the very genre of S&S is unfashionable among publishers today. Rather than a vital, expanding fantasy subgenre such as we get with Urban Fantasy or Steampunk, we get Conan, and only Conan, always and forever.
I feel like this is doing a terrible disservice to literature as a whole. The Sword & Sorcery genre is little-seen, and not taken very seriously, when it is viewed as just part of an aging IP being exploited by film studios or comic book publishers. The effect is similar to what would have happened if “rock and roll” was seen as just “Elvis music”, and rather than an entire genre of creativity and expression we just got Elvis repressings and cover songs forever, with no thought given to what else might be done with the form. I would much rather Conan was the beginning of the genre, rather than just being seen as the end.