We continue reading Robert E Howard’s Conan yarns in publication order, and noting how they have improved with age. Often dismissed as a mere boyish adventure tales, adult eyes rereading these alleged boy’s stories will see depth to them.
Let us return to 1933, and recall the spirit of the time. The Great War, meant to end wars, ended not long ago, but war is in the air again, darkening Europe. Communists, Nazis, Fascists and other Leftwing socialists are already committing atrocities beyond any historical precedent. The democracies in the West groaning under a government-created Great Depression, faith in civilized man has fallen to a cynical low.
In popular entertainment, the Lone Ranger, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and other iconic figures destined to outlast their generation were on that new apparatus, the radio; KING KONG starring Fay Wray was due to open later that year, as was DUCK SOUP starring the Marx Brothers. Edgar Rice Burroughs, in the second decade of his career, had just published Lost on Venus, and Tarzan and the Lion Men, and was busily penning Swords of Mars. Tom Swift was in the third decade of his career. He had just invented a giant magnet and was about to invent his television detector.
Robert Howard published The Scarlet Citadel. It first appeared in WEIRD TALES, January of 1933. It is the second published story in the oeuvre, immediately following Phoenix on the Sword, published in the December issue of the previous year.
The story opens with striking images, audible then visual:
THE roar of battle had died away; the shout of victory mingled with the cries of the dying.
Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson.
Take a breath and admire. Howard makes such prose look effortless. It is not the curt sentences of modern thrillers, which omit all description, nor is it the heavier, ornate prose of his contemporaries Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
This tale picks up in the same period as the last, when Conan is no longer a barbarian in bearskins, but a king in a crown, but whose uneasy kingdom is threatened by foe without and treachery within. He is a warrior king, beleaguered by foes, the standing when all his men are fallen. We see him first as if at a distance, as a “grim iron-clad figure looming among the dead.”
Before the savage blue eyes blazing murderously from beneath the crested, dented helmet, the boldest shrank. Conan’s dark scarred face was darker yet with passion; his black armor was hacked to tatters and splashed with blood; his great sword red to the crosspiece. In this stress all the veneer of civilization had faded; it was a barbarian who faced his conquerors.
The tale, as such, is summarized simply: Conan is overcome, not by the might of his enemy kings but by the malice of an evil sorcerer Tsotha. In chains, he is offered gold by two kings in return for his abdication; an offer he spurns with memorable scorn:
“What you inherited without lifting a finger—except to poison a few brothers—I fought for. I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I!”
For this defiance, he is cast into the wizard’s dungeon of horrors, builded atop the ruins of a haunted temple where a buried gateway to the netherworld yet gapes. By the mischance of a gloating enemy, he escapes his cell, only to find himself in a buried labyrinth patrolled by a monster python to whom men are as rats.
Unnatural, unearthly and perhaps extradimensional horrors fester in the darkness there. He discovers an empty-eyed but human figure strangled and caressed by a blood-drinking vine, whose red blossoms all move and swell like the hoods of cobras at Conan’s panther-soft footfall. He frees the man, who is one perhaps better left bound: a rival wizard of Tsotha’s named Pelias.
With a wizard’s unholy aid, the two escape the menace of the pits, and, by peering into a magic stone, Conan sees his kingdom besieged, and knows the plans of his enemies. He is too far from the besieged city, even on the swiftest horse, to return in time. Pelias provides a mount.
“There are creatures,” said Pelias, “not alone of earth and sea, but of air and the far reaches of the skies as well, dwelling apart, unguessed of men. Yet to him who holds the Master-words and Signs and the Knowledge underlying all, they are not malignant nor inaccessible. Watch, and fear not.”
Conan is carried by a winged monstrosity through the air. The finale sees the confrontation between Conan and the two kings who previously overcame him in the midst of a besieged city. The people are heartened to see Conan not dead. There is battle and slaughter.
Tsotha alone flees into the dusk, with Conan in pursuit. A dark eagle from the sky slays Tsotha’s steed, and so the sorcerer turns, and raises in his hands, a globe of alchemical fire in either fist. Conan eludes the fire, decapitates the sorcerer, and hears in horror as the head continues to curse and gibber. The headless body steps forward, groping. But Pelias’ laugh is heard from on high; the dark eagle strikes again, and carries off the undead and screaming head by its hair. Conan stares as one turned to stone as the headless body runs clumsily after the bird, until both are lost in the distant gloom.
“Crom!” his mighty shoulders twitched. “A murrain on these wizardly feuds! Pelias has dealt well with me, but I care not if I see him no more. Give me a clean sword and a clean foe to flesh it in. Damnation! What would I not give for a flagon of wine!”
The tale, of itself, does not linger in the memory. The various horrors, bloated or nigrescent, oozing or animate or anthropophagous, lurking in the wizard’s vault or horrors, are difficult to distinguish from similar denizens of similar eldritch stories. The names of the evil kings fade: I cannot recall which was the fastidious, snakelike one, and which the dark and wrathful. The dispositions of the troops, their arms and equipment, which Howard depicts with the care and precision of an historian, I cannot recall.
Albeit I daresay a wargamer could faithfully reproduce the battle on a tabletop with counters to represent the Aquilonian knights, Shemite archers, spahis from Koth, Poitanian infantry, Bossonian archers, and keen pikemen from Gunderland, Pellian soldiers, and so on, each with his proper gear properly described, burgonet, habergeon, or brigandine, casque, cuirass or scale-mail corselet. It does my history buff heart good to see the word ‘oliphant’ used correctly (it is a battle-trumpet, not a mastodon).
The events are not what lingers in the memory, nor meant to.
What lingers is an overwhelming sense of allure, half wonder, half nostalgia — if nostalgia is a word that covers not mere longing for times past, but for a visionary, semi-unfamiliar time haunting the gloom one step older than history.
Such tales might not appeal to one and all. I can imagine a reader repelled by the barbarism of this savage, manly milieu. I can also imagine a lukewarm glass of milk eaten with unbuttered toast. I can imagine a reader attracted by the same. I cannot imagine indifference. The story is magnetic, in part due to its unheroic hero with his brawny, primitive majesty, in part due to the landscape, the names, the gods, all taken from the earliest strata of history: Ophir and Stygia and Cimmeria; Set and Ymir and Crom.
This allure is not lessened by the conceit that all these lands are changed, some drowned under the sea, their mighty towers fallen, their dark secrets forgotten, their brave deeds of wonder and horror forever lost.
To cross swords with such staunch yet savage foes or outwit hidden, subterranean horrors is a dream buried in many a boyish heart. Men grow sick of peace, and of the soft life progress brings. They seek to know the secret of steel.
Gamers will understand me when I say this: I cannot read such a story without wanting to play a game set in that background. Some stories have an automatic, almost mesmeric fitness and rightness that make them perfect for a campaign.
Not only it this no surprise, it is inevitable. The Hyborian Age sounds like perfect gaming material because gaming sprang out of this influence. These stories were the main influence on Gary Gygax. Conan and the other tales in Howard’s world (overlapping the worlds of Lovecraft and others) are the most memorable of Sword and Sorcery tales, written three decades before Fritz Leiber thought to coin a term for them. These stories had the property of being good gaming material before games like D&D were even dreamed.
Fairy tales lack this property of ‘playability’, as do most Tolkeinesque high fantasies. In this first case, the tale tends to be too personal: there is no adventure to the be had in the world of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White outside the immediate circle of the endangered or enchanted princess. In the second case, the stakes tend to be too impersonal because they are so high.
While, in theory, a satisfying adventure should exist elsewhere in Middle Earth, such as dwarves fighting orcs in the Mines of Moria, or Rangers of Ithilien raiding Southron supply lines, in reality, if the Fellowship of the Ring fails in their quest, all is lost and for all time foreseen; and if they succeed, Sauron and all his foul empire collapses in a moment. The soldiers of Dain Ironfoot or Faramir son of Denethor are not heroes in an epic quest of world-shattering proportions. They might as well be in Ophir or Koth, in a sword and sorcery setting, instead.
The difference is that any one might want to be Conan, if only for a day, but who wants to be Sleeping Beauty? The matter of high fantasy is epic enough to allure one to wish to step into it if only one could, but epics are more tightly woven with theme and moral and character, so that there is little room for improvisation, or separate adventures outside the main quest.
I am tempted to use STAR WARS as an example of a background to tightly woven to be playable, but the expanded universe, and the very wide variety of spinofffs in all media, including games and online games, cautions me to resist the temptation. Instead let me say instead that sufficient additional material has been invented so that adventurers all over the galaxy, rogues and rebels, pirates and princesses and jedi not yet slain by clones, can face quests other than the destruction of the Death Star, or the death of Palpatine. This allows characters not of the Vader family to feel they are doing something important.
Nonetheless, the very nature of a franchise like STAR TREK or STARGATE offers what is an innately more open and inviting universe to play in, and neither needs any additional effort or additional material to make it so.
Playability involves a balance of several elements, including an exotic background, primitive enough for one man to make a difference in the history of the small and unstable kingdoms around; including a certain relaxation of moral strictures, as it is precisely the confines of civilization, and the high, strict standards of Christendom, which the imagination fleeing into heathen times seeks to escape; and including vivid but straightforward dangers both natural and supernatural.
The structure of such stories requires the victories to be episodic rather than final. These tales are not meant to end with hero wedding princess to live happily ever after. These are similar to certain Westerns, where a wandering stranger is meant to encounter a solve a terrible but strictly local evil. But in the the end the hero, without waiting to be thanked, rides off into the sunset. Further adventures await.
It is not the Fall of the Roman Empire or the apocalypse of the world a tale of this type describes, but, rather, a single battle or a siege; or a warlord’s death or a queen’s salvation; or the ghastly vengeance of a cursed witch; the downfall of a cursed city; or a heist, an abduction, or an assassination; or a clash or privateers and slavers on the high seas.
Dark Lords are strictly for the toffs. Sword and Sorcery is blue collar.
Perhaps I have not defined this strange quality of allure I here call playability. No matter. You will recognize it when you see it. If you read The Scarlet Citadel, you will see it.