Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Conan in Love

Robert E. Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast (1934) is an entertaining Conan adventure, featuring a doomed love affair between the young barbarian adventurer and a pirate queen named Bêlit.  The novella is divided into five sections, each opening with a poetic epigraph, a verse from the “Song of Bêlit”.  Who does the author want readers to believe wrote this fictional lyric?  Since Conan is the sole survivor of the adventure, was it him?  And yet the gender and point of view alternate verse to verse between Conan and Bêlit—a clever effect in the context of the whole work.

The setting of the story may remind some readers of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness (1902), in that the principle characters journey into a dark African wilderness by way of a treacherous river, encountering a horribly devolved civilization, or at least the remnant of one.  It may seem ludicrous to compare the two works, the latter being literature with a capital ‘L’, but a second reading of both will reveal some similarities.  Certainly the tone is similar: darkness, decadence, dismay.  “Plains turned into swamps that stank with reptilian life.”

Howard’s work is also reminiscent of the classic poetry we were once required to read as part of our acculturation.  Insofar as classic literature provides the key or code to unlock the meanings of subsequent cultural products, some fear we are losing the ability to open these doors—but I digress.  The language of Howard’s work, somewhat overwrought at times, is like that of an epic poem—Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s The Aeneid come to mind:

I sing of warfare and a man at war.  From the sea coast of Troy in early days he came to Italy by destiny, to our Lavinian western shore, a fugitive, this captain, buffeted cruelly on land as on sea… 

However, in Queen of the Black Coast Conan is more an accessory to piracy, and considerably less ennobled by adversity.

“I am Conan, a Cimmerian,” he answered.  “I came into Argos seeking employment, but with no wars forward, there was nothing to which I might turn my hand…By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized people, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.”

Somewhat at loose ends, Conan eventually joins a pirate crew led by the passionate Bêlit, their ruthless and willful queen.  She is more than his match, and like the imperious Devi Yasmina in The People of the Black Circle (1934), she is another example of an independent, willful and self-assured young woman—unusual for the genre fiction of the time.  (See also Conan and a Proto-Princess Leia)  In search of a legendary city filled with treasure, the pirates travel up the river Zarkheba.  Judging by the pronunciation alone the name probably translates as “very bad”.  The pirates discover fabulous riches but also relentless and violent death among the ruins.

To provide some backstory, Howard uses the device of having Conan succumb to the narcotic blooms of a black lotus.  Unconscious, he has a vision of the tragic history of the city’s founders.  They were winged nonhumans “of heroic proportions”, vastly superior to mankind in intellectual and cultural achievement.  Unable or unwilling to leave their grand metropolis, they fell victim to a series of geologic cataclysms and declined.  Over time the survivors suffered genetic deterioration as a result of a toxic water supply.  While Conan is asleep, the sole remnant of this devolved species wreaks havoc on the pirate crew and on Conan’s beloved Bêlit.

There are a number of Lovecraftian themes in Queen of the Black Coast, including the reference to an elder race, the devolution of a once proud civilization, concerns with cultural and racial purity, bizarre vegetation and haunted ruins.  The winged creature Conan eventually fights is similar in some respect to the monsters in Lovecraft’s earlier ghoul stories, that is, in being devolved.  There is also an echo of the entity in The Hound—which may in turn have been inspired by M.R. James’ Casting the Runes (1911).  All of these stories involve a winged menace animated by trespass, theft, and the presence of a curse.  

Conan struggles heroically with the horror, and earlier he parries with and embraces a female character, two elements that clearly distinguish Howard from Lovecraft.  However, in Queen of the Black Coast there is a surprising degree of passivity on the part of the barbarian, an echo of which can be found from time to time in Howard’s character of Solomon Kane.  Conan is asleep during the most violent events of the story, and is remarkably accommodating to Bêlit—practically a kept man. 

Early in the story there is an interesting, though improbable theological discussion between Conan and Bêlit.  She interrogates him about his views of the gods and the afterlife.  He seems less committed to Crom, his grim god of war, and his travels to different parts of the world have exposed him to a variety of theisms.  At this point in his life he has opted for “spiritual but not religious”.  Regarding gods, Conan says “He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply.”  But Bêlit is a fervent polytheist and a strong believer in life after death—which comes in handy as a plot device a little later in the story.    

James Lafond and V.J. Waks offer an interesting analysis of this story in “His Take, Her Take: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard”.  The reviewers understand the settings of Howard’s Conan stories to be a metaphor for the Great Depression, in which the author expresses his distrust of the wealthy and powerful as well as various institutions.  Conan serves as “the original politically incorrect antisocial commentator”.  LaFond and Waks see a parallel between Bêlit and Conan and Bonnie and Clyde, two contemporary folk heroes and co-ed criminals shot by police not far from Howard’s home.  This occurred the same year the story was published.  The article contains additional interesting commentary about Howard’s treatment of gender, race, ethnicity and history in Queen of the Black Coast. 

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