Book reviews / Fantasy

Book review: Conan the Barbarian

Oh my god.


The grandfather of fantasy, Conan the Barbarian, sets the stage for all the ridiculous sexism that shows up in later fantasy novels. I wish I could say it was kind of a guilty pleasure like Starship Troopers but it’s not. It’s just…upsetting.

There are a lot of stories, so there’s no overall plot, but most of them are: mysterious or dangerous thing, maybe a woman, and Conan fights all the things. That’s basically it.

So, instead of talking about how rubbish the plots are (and they are hilariously rubbish), let’s look at just how problematic the depictions of women are in this book. And sure, it’s from the 1930s, so it’s not going to be brilliant in the first place, but holy shit.

So the first problem is that women are either pure princesses or evil sluts. There is only one exception to this trope but the way she’s treated feels even worse, but we’ll get to that.

Blit is one of the first woman characters who is actually a character and not just some wench in a story. She’s described as: “Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerians pulse, even in the panting fury of battle.”

We get the first of the really ridiculous lines between women and Conan with Blit as well: “Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love!”

And that’s about the tone of all interactions between Conan and women in the book. My favourite bit though was Blit outpouring her love for Conan and then something happens and we get the line “Thrusting Blit aside” because who cares about your lady when there’s killin’ to be done.

Later on, with one of the various princesses, we get the delightful lines like: “He spanked her resoundingly, and she, recognizing this as merely another expression of admiration, did not feel outraged.”

Yes ladies! You should feel complimented by unwanted bottom-smacking. Especially by a dude who has just FUCKING KIDNAPPED YOU.

Not to be outdone by Blit, this is the Devi’s response to ultimately giving into Conan’s massive muscle-bound arms: “His wild blood had been stirred to its uttermost by all that had passed. He caught her to him in a grasp that would have made her wince at another time, and crushed her lips with his. She made no resistance; the Devi was drowned in the elemental woman. She closed her eyes and drank in his fierce, hot, lawless kiss with all the abandon of passionate thirst.”

BUT. She’s a princess and sensibly thinks “I need to go save my kingdom and rule and be responsible.” Trying to talk sense into Conan, we get this conversation:

“But you can’t keep me!” She cried. “You can’t!”
“Wait and See!” He advised grimly.
“But I will pay you a vast ransom. “Devil take your ransom!” He answered rougly, his arms hardening about her supple figure. “The kingdom of Vendhya could give me nothing I desire half so much as I desire you.”

The back and forth continues, to the ultimate conclusion of:

I can’t! I can’t!” She repeated helplessly
You haven’t any choice,” he assured her.

Conan the Barbarian, kidnapping prick.

But none of this compares to the utter diminishing of character that happens with Valeria. She is a swashbuckling pirate, amazing with a sword and uncaring of convention. However, she’s also described like so: She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without destracting from the femininity of her appearance.” Because none of the women could NOT be feminine. Everyone wore silk (even the swashbuckling ones, because that’s good for fighting in…) and was the most beautiful and big breasted.

And what does Conan think? Well, Conan is her stalker.

“He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breechers and boot-tops.”

And why was Valeria in this rubbish forest. Because some other ass-hat wanted to make her his mistress (by force of course).

Valeria says at one point: “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?”

Conan’s reply is to ogle her boobs again. WHAT THE FUCK CONAN, YOU PERVERT. She just told you she ran away from some fuck wit who wants to rape her and you’re just like “well, that was good you ran away from him, but you can’t run away from me.”


The other really problematic thing is that where a woman isn’t evil, she invariably gets put into a precarious position and someone either wants to rape her or does rape her. It happens 4 times, to 4 different women in four different stories. I was going a bit crazy by the end. It was like all the horrible fantasy tropes happening again and again and again and again.

And it’s not like Conan is a character that you like anyway. He says over and over again that all her cares about is drinking, wenching and killing. He has no greater purpose than to find a fight and fuck people up. You basically want him to get stabbed up by the end of this book.

Sprinkled throughout the overt masculine stereotypes, the degrading treatment and description of women, you get thinly veiled racism and some homophobia to boot. Delightful.

OH MY GOD. NEVER READ THIS BOOK. I think it actively made me recoil when reading it. I don’t care if it was written a long time ago and is all swash-buckling. It’s horrible. It’s just really, really, vile.

Also, by the end, I hated the word supple. It is used 17 fucking times to describe the women characters. THERE AREN’T EVEN 17 WOMEN IN THE BOOK. Shudder.

-5/5 stars. It’s the granddaddy of ALL THE HORRIBLE BOOKS I’VE HAD TO READ FROM THE LIST.


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