Wings in the Night
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 4
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore.
In July and November of 1932 respectively, Weird Tales published what would be the last outings in his lifetime for two of Robert E. Howard’s most famous characters: Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn.
However, beginning with December, 1932 and January, 1933 WT began to chronicle the madly exuberant life and times of the adventurer who would dominate Howard’s remaining three years and which would ultimately lead to his literary endurance: Conan of Cimmeria.
Those two tales – The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel — read almost as companion pieces. And since it is next to impossible for the modern Conan reader to look at them as they were published, I’ll point out that both of these took place later in the Cimmerian’s life, when he was probably in his mid-to-late forties and was reigning as king of Aquilonia. Indeed, it undoubtedly seemed to Weird Tales readers of the day that they were witnessing the start of a new series of stories featuring a character called King Conan, just as The Shadow Kingdom in 1929 kicked off the somewhat truncated saga of King Kull.
Although it’s not included in this volume (for the simple reason that it wasn’t to appear until in The Fantasy Fan for 1936) I would suggest that before beginning these tales you check out Howard’s magnificent essay, The Hyborian Age. He had written it in order to keep his fantasy background consistent. And it may be one of the reasons that, despite the supernatural elements and the pseudo history against which he moves, Conan is a very real and believable character. And the essay itself reads like an exceptionally exciting piece of ‘docu-fiction’.
However, this is just a suggestion and is certainly not necessary. If you want to experience Conan as those thirties readers did, then just dive into The Phoenix on the Sword. It opens with the now-famous ‘quote’ from ‘The Nemedian Chronicles’, which is an outstanding piece of prose that deftly paints Conan’s world in only a few lines:
Brilliant. And it should quickly become clear that Conan exists in the same fictional universe in which Kull of Atlantis did – and by extension most of his other heroes as well.
A King Comes Riding…
It is a deceptively slight tale: there is a plot to assassinate the barbarian king of Aquilonia. And in one of the finest battle scenes you will ever read, Conan overcomes his assailants. He is very unwittingly helped in this by Thoth-Amon, an outcast Stygian wizard who has recently regained his Serpent Ring of Power. And I must hasten to add, not for the first time, that it is astonishingly cinematic.
Despite how sparse this makes the plot sound, there is a richness and a texture that must have taken readers by storm when they first opened their copy of ‘the Unique Magazine’. In only a couple of dozen pages we come away with the feeling of having entered a very real world and with a vivid impression of the massive, battle-scarred figure who dominates it.
Howard prefaces each short chapter with a verse from an old song, an epigraph or a few lines from a ballad called The Road of Kings. When he also uses this technique (and the same minstrel’s song) in The Scarlet Citadel it gives both stories a marvelous coherence and feeling of solidity. We know without a doubt that we are in the safe hands of a master story teller.
Whilst the first tale is almost intimate in scale, taking place over one 24-hour period and with a relatively small cast of characters, the sequel is a mini-epic, with the clashing armies of tens of thousands and a story that takes in several Hyborian countries.
Again, it feature an evil wizard – Tsotha-lanti –and a plot to oust Conan from his throne; and here we get to see what a fine and decent ruler he is:
By Hades, I feel like sending this speech to Ireland’s own puppet-despot, Dame Edna Kenny!
Whereas The Phoenix on the Sword is…ah, relatively restrained, The Scarlet Citadel is gleefully over-the-top. If Spinal Tap did Sword-and-Sorcery, this is how it would come out – everything is ramped up to eleven out of a possible ten. Perhaps my favourite example is when Conan lets loose a blistering oath that would have actually ruptured the eardrums of an ordinary man!
Blimey. Even his vocal chords have bloody great big muscles on them. Heroes don’t come much tougher than that.
I had forgotten how much both stories played with Howard’s fascination with serpent-imagery — something that of course goes right back to the early days of his work. In the first story in particular though, quite a lot could be written about it, even pertaining to modern-day Christian Eden imagery. However, suffice to say that if this is your introduction to Conan then you are in for a hell of a treat.
Incidentally, The Frost Giant’s Daughter was supposed to have appeared between these two yarns. As a tale of the unpleasant younger Cimmerian (possibly around the age of sixteen), I believe that editor Farnsworth Wright was correct in rejecting it. That’s for discussion later, though.
And one more thing: Robert Howard claimed that the character of the mighty Cimmerian warrior grew up in his mind practically fully-formed; but that is quite frankly a little disingenuous. The Phoenix on the Sword was in reality a rewrite of a rejected King Kull story called By this Axe I Rule! I doubt that he was intentionally lying, though: it’s just that he was a natural storyteller and this simply sounded better. He may even have believed it.
Anyway, there’s no question but that he already had a rough outline of Conan’s career all mapped out. From The Scarlet Citadel:
Much of the remainder of Howard’s writing life would be devoted to filling in the blanks.
The One-eyed God
First though, and in the same month of January, he gave us a contemporary fantasy in the magazine Strange Tales that contains one of his by-now familiar reincarnation flashbacks – this time to the real-life Irish battle at Clontarf in 1014.
Howard’s Celtomania is in full blistering, butt-them-in-the-face, kick-them-in-the-nuts flight here. Not for him the nuances of the real, historical battle – this is an idealistic take on it that makes you wish it had really occurred this way. And of course it gives the Texan master a chance to really let fly with some terrific, overheated writing:
In the cairn that is discovered by the Irish-American James O’Brien and his blackmailer, a slimy Howardian Italian type, is nothing less than the spirit of Odin the All-Father of Asgard himself.
It is all rather wonderful, sweep-you-along, full-blooded stuff. And I have to say this again: imagine a kid having Robert Howard as his history teacher!
Heart of the Elephant
The third published Conan story appeared in Weird Tales of March, 1933; and readers who were expecting another episode in the turbulent life of the Aquilonian king must have been surprised to discover that without warning they were seeing a far younger, more naïve Cimmerian adventurer.
As I’ve intimated, this time around I’m simply reading them as they appeared and won’t go into the shape or outline of his career. That might be necessary later but at the moment it’s just pleasant to imagine the reaction of those lucky readers of long ago when it dawned on them that they were being treated to something rather special.
After the full-blooded, rip-roaring adventure of his second outing, The Tower of the Elephant is a much quieter piece. It also showcases just how descriptive Howard’s writing had become in a few short years. Look at this very vivid introduction to a world that is word-painted beautifully in the very first paragraph:
Conan is a young thief, apparently having drifted into the eastern country of Zamora; and in the fledgling pursuit of his calling has attempted to steal the fabled Heart of the Elephant from the very stronghold of the wizard, Yara. In doing so, he comes in contact with the strange and tragic transcosmic being called Yag-kosha of Yag.
As well as being one of Howard’s most memorable creations, through this desperately tormented creature Howard takes the opportunity to fill in some Hyborian history and to tie the Conan series explicitly with that of the era of King Kull, although without actually naming that character.
The Tower of the Elephant is one of the writer’s finest pieces.
Next: Volume 5: Valley of the Worm.