The Bloody Crown of Conan
Reviewed by Harley J. Sims
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:4-5 (#357-358) in April-May 2012.]
The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second of three collections of Conan stories, edited by Patrice Louinet, in the acclaimed Fully Illustrated Robert E. Howard Library—currently numbering eleven volumes—edited by Rusty Burke. It collects three of Howard’s longest Conan tales, comprising “The People of the Black Circle,” the 75,000-word Conan ‘novel’ The Hour of the Dragon, and “A Witch Shall Be Born.” All were published serially in Weird Tales between late-1934 and mid-1936, and stand among the last handful of Howard’s original Conan stories. After late 1934, only four others were published in the remaining year-and-a-half of Howard’s lifetime, which ended on June 11, 1936. These titles (some renamed) are included in Volume Three of this series, The Conquering Sword of Conan, whose review is forthcoming. As with the other volumes of the Library, The Bloody Crown of Conan gives its Foreword to its illustrator(s)—here Gary Gianni, who also illustrated the Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn volumes—followed by a very thoughtful Introduction by series editor Rusty Burke. Supporting the three texts are just under forty pages of drafts, notes, and synopses exemplifying Howard’s creative process, as well as a continuation of editor Patrice Louinet’s chronological essay “Hyborean Genesis,” begun in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (reviewed in Mythprint #353). Technical notes on the typescripts and original texts complete the volume.
Thoroughly entertaining and an excellent specimen of Howard’s most celebrated character and literary style, this particular volume can be assessed in a number of ways. One is as a sort of fulcrum for the titular protagonist. In his biography of Howard, Blood & Thunder (2006), Mark Finn argues that Conan had perhaps become wearisome to his creator by 1934, a suggestion corroborated by Howard’s publishing history. If this is so, however, these stories don’t show it. If anything, they consummate the character— in the case of “A Witch Shall be Born,” they seem to amount to an apotheosis. As compared to the preceding and following volumes in the series, with their thirteen and five stories respectively, The Bloody Crown of Conan presents a relatively consistent experience of its eponymous figure. Though Conan is found in a number of shady roles in The Coming of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan, he is throughout this volume an official leader—though nonetheless an outsider—appearing as an Afghuli tribal chief in “The People of the Black Circle,” King of Aquilonia in The Hour of the Dragon, and captain of the Khaurani guard in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Within these authoritative roles, Conan’s primal nature and the profound advantage it grants over civilized peoples remain, but it is a temper more often reawakened at need than lived by—apparently suppressed by the sociopolitical acumen required to retain office, so to speak. The title of the collection is therefore well chosen.
“The People of the Black Circle” takes place in Vendhya and Afghulistan, the Hyborian Age equivalents of India and Afghanistan. They are especially far-eastern lands in Howard’s world, and show the extent of Conan’s travels and cultural experience. He is a remarkably cosmopolitan barbarian. The story nevertheless portrays Conan in what has become his most attributed scenario—rescuing a highborn woman from a serpentine magician (elements of which have been involved in all three box-office Conan films). The title of the story refers to the Black Seers of Yimsha, a mysterious order of necromancers who attempt and fail to trap the soul of the Vendhyan king. The princess Yasmeena, who becomes Queen of Vendhya after the death of her father, is rather fortunately abducted by Conan, who then becomes embroiled in the magicians’ dispute with the Vendhyan royal. The story is distinctive among Conan stories for its heavy involvement of magic, in particular the description of some its laws, its perception by outsiders, and some of the grisliest effects Howard ever contrives (at one point, the Master of the Black Seers extracts a man’s heart from a distance). Even for an evil lair, the tower of the Black Seers is a disturbing, otherworldly place, wherein Conan alone among his band survives due only to a magical girdle given him by a dying apostate of the order. “The People of the Black Circle” is also one of only a few Conan stories to present, in Queen Yasmeena, a strong-willed leading lady. In the end, each helps the other to regain a seat of power, even as they promise, however good natured, to battle each other should they meet again.
The Hour of the Dragon, as recounted in Louinet’s “Hyborian Genesis, Part II,” was originally written in mid-1934 for a British publishing house whose editor all but promised to purchase it before Howard had even begun. Intended to be Howard’s entry into the British market, the story was written at breakneck pace (75,000 words in less than two months), and to the exclusion of all other projects, only to be returned when the publishing house went into receivership. It was therefore serialized among five issues of Weird Tales, between December of 1935 and April of 1936, the last appearing a month or so before Howard’s death. The novel, in part a pastiche of many previous Conan stories, sees King Conan lose the throne of Aquilonia to a group of conspirators, who resurrect the Acheronian necromancer Xaltotun to aid them. The Hour of the Dragon, which refers to the banner of Nemedia, contains no actual dragon (though it does have the trademark Conan opponent—a giant snake). Most of the narrative follows Conan’s hunt for the Heart of Ahriman, a magical phylactery-like jewel capable of weakening the near-invincible wizard who caused his overthrow. Throughout, we become deeply acquainted with Conan the statesman, a ruler tolerant and generous, and whose methods have won admirers and allies wherever he goes. As he proclaims when it is suggested he forget Aquilonia and conquer a new kingdom,
[l]et others dream imperial dreams. I but wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire held together by blood and fire. It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear. (168)
And yet there is a resignation to contentment in this statement, one which makes The Hour of the Dragon—though not the last of Howard’s Conan stories—a sort of pre-empted epilogue to his whole, boisterous saga. Conan is mature now, settled down, and he clearly sees the lifestyle and persona for which we best know him as something of the past. He is heading out on his final quest,
[a]nd more looking the part, he felt the part; the awakening of old memories, the resurge of the wild, mad, glorious days of old before his feet were set on the imperial path when he was a wandering mercenary, roistering, brawling, guzzling, adventuring, with no thought for the morrow, and no desire save sparkling ale, red lips, and a keen sword to swing on all the battlefields of the world. (171)
Conan’s commitment to Aquilonia defies both his reason and his instincts, but “[h]e did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was” (172). Despite this psychological about-face, The Hour of the Dragon is one of the most rewarding Conan stories one can read, and bursting with the energy of what we can assume was Howard’s push to see his barbarian invade English soil.
As Patrice Louinet recalls, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright called “A Witch Shall Be Born” the best of the Conan stories. In terms of narrative structure, it is certainly the most unorthodox, ranging among several characters, chronological perspectives, and formats, including a portion of one chapter that is epistolary (a letter from the travelling savant Astreas to the Nemedian philosopher Alcemides ). The story sees the virtuous and beloved Queen Taramis of Khauran secretly replaced by her evil, long-lost twin. Only Conan and a handful of others suspect this duplicity, and must work to overthrow the usurpers before they destroy the kingdom. Though frequently mentioned, and no doubt pivotal to the plot, Conan himself appears but rarely; this promotion-by-association suggests how iconic the character has become. Fittingly, “A Witch Shall Be Born” also boasts a crucifixion scene which unavoidably suggests Conan’s deification; the episode is, of course, greatly elaborated in the original Conan the Barbarian film (1981). As its illustrations make clear, “A Witch Shall Be Born” also has the distinction of being one of the sauciest original Conan stories, which are usually much tamer than later fiction and illustrations suggest.
The Bloody Crown of Conan continues its series as an excellent tribute to both Howard and Conan, its apparatus rounded out with insightful commentary, several drafts and outlines, and the many dozens of Gianni’s superb black-and-white illustrations. It is above all heartening to see the original, cunning and panther-like Conan resurface among the decades of savage and steroid-drenched stereotypes, and readers who wish to be acquainted or reacquainted with the character are encouraged to take advantage of this coherent trio of stories.