The works that inspired Conan the Barbarian
I already did one of these for King Kong. Conan came out so long ago that the pop culture that influenced him is mostly forgotten and downright prehistoric.
Tros of Samothrace by Talbot Mundy (1929)
A swashbuckling sea captain from the Greek island of Samothrace who opposes the sinister, debauched, and cruel Julius Caesar and his Roman Empire, Tros of Samothrace is, like Conan, a black haired ball of muscle who’s primary occupation is naval freebooting, who’s defining character traits are pride and a desire for freedom and personal independence above all else, and his chief hobbies include refusing to bow to powerful people and laughing at backstabbing enemies from treacherous civilized empires.
Like Conan, Tros takes pride in being from a kingdom that was never conquered, even into Roman times. Also like Conan, he has allies in a persecuted and secretive religious minority like the ones that save King Conan’s life in “The Hour of the Dragon,” as Tros works with an eccentric religious order from his native island (the Mystery Cult of Samothrace). Because the Tros stories had the Romans as the “bad guys,” they were immensely controversial to the Adventure pulp readership, though this element must have delighted Robert E. Howard, an anti-imperialist who wanted Irish independence, who went on to have debauched, backstabbing Roman-style enemies in Conan, Kull, and Bran Mak Morn.
Khlit the Cossack By Harold Lamb (1917)
A Cossack hero from 16th Century Ukraine who starred in 21 stories and novels from 1917-1926 in the most famous pulp mag of all, Adventure, Khlit the Cossack, his Turkish curved scimitar in hand, found the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, rescued the son of the Emperor of China, battled the original Assassins in Syria, and killed a tyrannical impostor of the Czar in Russia. He had all kinds of adventures with Tartars, Afghans, and Indians.
A big part of Conan is the setting, which is steeped in orientalism and the exotic east, and Harold Lamb’s body of work was to the steppes of central Asia what Jimmy Buffett is to the tropics (his best known work is a biography of Genghis Khan). In fact, in one fascinating little bigraphical tidbit, Lamb was even an agent for US Intelligence during World War II in Iran.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan
To Howard fans, bringing up the many obvious similarities to Tarzan and the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs is kind of like one of those secrets everyone knows but nobody has the bad taste to discuss out loud, kind of like when you know someone at the office is an alcoholic. The reaction is usually like a little kid blurting out a family secret at Christmas dinner.
The most ERB-like of all the Conan stories is “Red Nails,” a story about that most ERB-esque of topics, a crumbling lost city of immense antiquity found in a jungle inhabited by prehistoric creatures, who’s natives immediately try to make Tarzan – uh, Conan, sorry – their first victim of ritual human sacrifice. Likewise, Howard considered ERB’s “Gods of Mars” his favorite book (and said so in many letters) and borrowed ERB’s cynical take on priests and gods in that book, where they were impenetrable, unremovable conspiracies ruling traditionalist ancient societies, and who were not true believers at all.