Robert E. Howard (REH)’s best known character is a sword welding barbarian and yet he isn’t. Conan has a code he lives by. His barbarian instincts give him an edge when he deals with the bad guys. Yet he acknowledges that he can not survive on instinct alone.
Conan learns languages, reading, and writing. REH shows us Conan doing this stuff for himself even though he has people to do it for him. In some stories when he wears the crown of Aqualonia, he has people doing stuff for him. Even before he becomes Kings, he learns the customs and languages of whichever group of people he happens to be adventuring with. Most adventure authors focus on the blood, battle, and babes, and less culture.
(Possible Spoiler Alert!)
Hour of the Dragon shows Conan off in both the ruler and the lone individual fighting to take back his country and save his people… If you haven’t read it perhaps go read it and then come back to this post? Or if you have no clue then maybe I can tempt you into giving REH a try. We first see Conan in the middle of a battlefield talking strategies, tactics, and the logistics of caring for an army in the middle of a war. Advisors, servants, military leaders, etc are flowing around him in the tent, he is the focus of their universe. A man in control of his world and his fate.
Later we see Conan (Are you sure you want to read spoilers if you haven’t read the story?) being spirited away by the bad guys. A victim to forces beyond his control, REH gave Conan a strong aversion to magic and the supernatural. He fights to regain control of his person and his fate. Often REH describes him as a lean lone wolf or a lion prowling amongst men. As he is escaping his captors he runs and fights like the cornered wolf. He is willing to accept help from anyone that can aid him, and yet he is willing to protect those same people if a threat is offered.
At one point while Conan is on the run, he questions whether he even wants to go back to being king. And instead go back to an adventuring lifestyle, only the demands of having his kingdom taken from him urge him to fight it out with his enemies.
I believe REH and Conan still have much to teach us in this modern age. And I realize the time period in which these stories are written paint a less stellar view of both women and minorities. Take it with a grain of salt. When we look back at our current literature there will be some cultural differences from now and the norms of then.
P.S. Go read Hour of the Dragon.