Saturday, October 3, 2015

Conan and a Proto-Princess Leia

Robert E. Howard’s famous character of Conan the Barbarian appeared in about 17 stories the author published before his untimely death in 1936.  Fragments of his unfinished work were later incorporated into numerous posthumous collaborations by L. Sprague De Camp, Lin Carter and others.  Conan’s first appearance is in the short story People of the Dark (1932), although here he is merely “Conan of the reavers”.  (See also A Subterranean Déjà vu.)  Both the character and his Hyborian setting would be developed in greater detail in subsequent work.  Following is a list of Conan stories that were published during Howard’s lifetime, (with the exception of Red Nails, which appeared in the months immediately following the author’s death.)

The Phoenix on the Sword (1932)
Xuthal of the Dusk (1933)
The Scarlet Citadel (1933)
The Pool of the Black One (1933)
The Tower of the Elephant (1933)
Black Colossus (1933)
A Witch Shall be Born (1934)
The People of the Black Circle (1934)
Iron Shadows on the Moon (1934)
The Frost Giant’s Daughter (1934)*
Rogues in the House (1934)
Queen of the Black Coast (1934)
The Hour of the Dragon (1935)
Jewels of Gwalhur (1935)
Beyond the Black River (1935)
Shadows in Zamboula (1935)
Red Nails (1936)

The People of the Black Circle (1934) features Conan in mid-career, entangling himself in geopolitics circa the Hyborian age, millennia before our own.  The novel appeared in three parts from the September through the November 1934 issues of Weird Tales.   Parts of the tale appeared alongside Clark Ashton Smith’s The Seven Geases and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann.  The version I have is in a representative collection published in 2011 called simply Conan the Barbarian.

The novel is set in the region of “Afghulistan” where powerful kingdoms attempt to extend their influence by building shaky alliances with various barbarian tribes.  When this fails, the less scrupulous seek the aid of the malevolent Black Seers of Yimsha, who operate from their frightful citadel high in the Himelian Mountains.  The People of the Black Circle opens with the assassination of the Vendhyan king.  His sister, the imperious Devi Yasmina, suspects that the murder is the work of “sorcery—black, ghastly magic”, and vows revenge.

Meanwhile, Conan is negotiating with a provincial governor for the release of some of his men, recently captured by the Vendhyans.  Rather than accept gold as a ransom for his men, the governor, speaking for the Devi Yasmina, wants Conan to vanquish the Black Seers instead.  However, Yasmina makes an untimely and unwise appearance in the governor’s office.  Conan, quick witted, sees an opportunity.  He kidnaps the Devi and rides off with her, in effect developing an even better counter offer for the release of his men. 

The rest of the story is a series of misadventures, culminating in an assault on the evil sorcerers’ stronghold.  Along the way there are altercations with an overly ambitious wizard, a treacherous femme fatale, vengeful tribesman, and a conquering army.  In Conan’s time, black magic makes just as powerful a weapon as sword, knife and battle axe—“special effects” appear in rapid succession near the climax of the tale.

The relationship between Conan and Yasmina prefigures that of Han Solo and Princess Leia, especially in the original Star Wars (1977).  The dynamic relationship between an uncultured but noble brute and a refined woman of means is an archetype that appears in many adventure stories.  Compared to the other powerful male characters in the story, Conan is a perfect gentleman—except for the kidnapping.  (He is a barbarian, after all.)  Initially repulsed by Conan’s rough ways, Yasmina soon becomes impressed with the strength, prowess and courage of her captor. 

However, it is interesting given the timeframe in which the novel was produced that Yasmina and Conan never consummate their relationship, though they come close.  Both have career plans that will interfere with any long term commitments. Near the end of the story Yasmina has donned her royal apparel again and is leading an army of fighters herself.  The two are depicted as equals, whose paths have crossed in a violent, magic ridden world.

The People of the Black Circle is simply an entertaining adventure story, and does not aspire to be much more.  However, it contains a number of elements that are interesting in the context of horror entertainment, both in Howard’s time and ours.  The attack on the sorcerers’ mountain stronghold, and the gruesome weird magic used to defend it, may remind some readers of various survival horror video games, for example Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness.  One can imagine a number of scenes in this story being readily converted to this format.

Howard’s preoccupation with snakes and serpentine imagery—his recurring symbol of devolution and primordial evil—is conspicuous near the end of the story.  There are also a number of peculiar occult ideas.  Near the beginning of The People of the Black Circle, Howard expounds on the mechanism by which the doomed king was assassinated:  when the stars are properly aligned, sorcerers can remove the soul of an individual using a “point of contact”, which can be any material remnant of the person’s physical body. 

Rather than using the essential Saltes to conjure an already departed soul, as Borellus recommends, this necromancy—biomancy?—separates the soul from a still living body.  One implication is that Yasmina’s royal family must continuously incinerate “all nail-trimmings, hair and waste products” for security purposes.  In her brother’s case, a sorcerer uses a lock of hair the king had unwisely given to an ex-lover as a memento.  It would be interesting to know Howard’s source for this notion, if he did not invent it himself.

The People of the Black Circle has been a favorite of Conan fans for many years.  Jeffrey Blair Latta, over at the webzine Pulp and Dagger Fiction ( praised the tale for its multiple plot threads and complex villains—he especially liked Khemsa, the reckless and presumptuous novice sorcerer—as well as the “beautiful and gutsy damsel”.   

P.J. Thorndyke also sees the Devi Yasmina as an interesting, more nuanced character, falling somewhere between the stereotypical “bratty spoilt princess” and “tough-as-nails warrior woman”.  Thorndyke writes fantasy and adventure fiction inspired by authors like Robert E. Howard. (


*I am grateful to Steve Dilks for this clarification: “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was not actually published as a Conan story during Howard’s lifetime.  Following its rejection by Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, the author changed the title to “Gods of the North” and renamed his protagonist “Amra of Akbitana”.  The story was published in The Fantasy Fan in 1934, though it was written sometime around 1932.

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