Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Pict is Worth a Thousand Words

Or perhaps about 23,000 words, the approximate length of Robert E. Howard’s suspenseful Beyond the Black River (1935).  Readers may recall that the Picts were a loose confederation of late Iron Age tribal peoples who once flourished in northeast Scotland.  They were primarily farmers who raised sheep, pigs, cattle and horses, as well as a variety of grains and vegetables.  The Picts seem to have been fairly reasonable and industrious folk, though some may have engaged in piracy.  By the 11th Century, Pictish society and language were entirely assimilated into Gaelic culture.

In legend these indigenous peoples have been dePicted as “noble savages”, in a manner more or less equivalent to how Native Americans have often appeared in American literature.  The name Pict was once believed to have been derived from the Latin Picti—“painted folk”—but as Julius Caesar once noted

Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu.  ("In fact all Britanni stain themselves with vitrum, which produces a dark blue color, and by this means they are more terrifying to face in battle.")

In his Beyond the Black River, Howard makes use of this popular impression of the Picts to create a stand-in for the American Indian.  The novella is essentially a Western translated into his created world of Hyboria, the western reaches of which are divided by streams with names like Thunder River, Scalp Creek and the Black River of the title.  The latter is more than a geographical feature; it divides the tenuous frontier of Aquilonian civilization from the savage jungle of primitive darkness and evil—the domain of the Picts.  Aquilonians have begun to colonize the region of Conajohara, on the east side of the Black River.  Their only defense against the savages on the other side is an underfunded, poorly armed frontier fort—and Conan the Barbarian.

In an afterward by Karl Edward Wagner, (in the 1977 collection Conan, Red Nails, published by Berkley), the editor describes how Beyond the Black River was an effort by Howard to move away from the conventional sword-and-sorcery format, which often included the obligatory damsel in distress or scantily clad romantic interest.  Yet even here, Howard was ahead of his time, because his “damsels’ as well as his femme fatales are powerful, self-directed women, often as murderous and cunning as their male colleagues.  They are often a match even for Conan.  (See also Conan and a Proto-Princess Leia, Conan in Love, and especially A Fearful Symmetry).  Wagner quotes from a letter by Howard:

In the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely—abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesman…

But Wagner thinks that Beyond the Black River is more than just “a western yarn with swords taking the place of rifles, and a dash of sorcery stirred in…”  The renowned editor, writer and publisher was responsible for restoring Howard’s original Conan texts in a three volume set published in the 1970s.  (Beyond the Black River is in the third volume.)  According to Wagner, one reviewer believed that Balthus, the young Aquilonian frontiersman who accompanies Conan the Lone Ranger in his struggle against marauding Picts, is an avatar of Robert E. Howard himself, and that “Slasher”, the heroic rescue dog in the story, is modelled on Howard’s beloved dog Patch.  It may also be that Howard created Balthus as a younger, less superhuman figure that mostly male fans could identify with.    

But there is a lot more going on in Beyond the Black River than a bloody battle between cowboys and Picts.  Howard applies the geographical history worked out in his The Hyborian Age (1938) to conditions on the ground near the Black River.  (Aspiring fantasy writers may want to check out the March/April 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest which contains helpful material on world-building—see Tyler Moss’s “Map Your Fantasy World”.)  There is considerable philosophizing about the wisdom of spreading civilization to the undefended edges of a frontier, and a grim conclusion about the nature of humanity and its struggle against barbarism, summarized at the very end by a survivor of the Pictish onslaught.

Conan is much more multi-talented in this novella compared to other adventures.    He is knowledgeable of local history, geography, and zoology, can speak Pictish, has mastered all kinds of weaponry, and is an expert on local religious rituals.  He brags about being a mercenary captain, a pirate, a kozak, (i.e. Cossack), a general—“—hell, I’ve been everything…” he says.  He even muses about eventually becoming the king of Aquilonia, which he in fact accomplishes in The Phoenix on the Sword (1932).  (See also King Conan and Job Satisfaction.)

There is also an interesting theology put forth—that of the followers of Jhebbal Sag—which explains the power of the villainous Pictish sorcerer.  It also accounts for the supernatural activities of two monsters, several demons, and the ferocity of the Pictish warriors.  Conan explains to Balthus:

Once all living things worshipped him.  That was long ago, when beasts and men spoke one language.  Men have forgotten him; even the beasts forget.  Only a few remember.  The men who remember Jhebbal Sag and the beasts who remember are brothers and speak the same tongue.    

This is an imaginative retelling of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, in which the Lord comes down to confuse the language of the ambitious tower builders.

That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.  (Genesis 11:9)  

In Howard’s Hyborian universe, all of creation once spoke the same language, not just its human inhabitants.  He implies in this story that Conan—though lately a Crom worshipper—is much closer to the source of this underlying unity in nature than the relatively more civilized Balthus.  When describing Conan and Balthus’s jungle encounters with wild animals, and their later rescue of the dog Slasher, Howard shows an appealing affection for the animal world, now regrettably “fallen” along with that of its human masters.

If there is any fault in Howard’s Beyond the Black River, it is that there are too many lucky breaks for the two heroes.  A poorly defended canoe floats down the Black River just when Conan and Balthus most desperately need one to cross back to the other side.  Conan just happens to know the secret all powerful sign of Jhebbal Sag that wards off an attacking panther.  Enemy swords and hatchets are freed from the enemy’s hands just in time for a finishing blow.  There are numerous examples of these throughout the story, but readers may expect an abundance of helpful last minute co-incidents in an adventure of this kind.      

Beyond the Black River originally appeared in the May and June 1935 issues of Weird Tales.  It accompanied H.P. Lovecraft’s Arthur Jermyn, Donald Wandrei’s The Destroying Horde, Clark Ashton Smith’s The Flower Women, and two stories by Robert Bloch, The Secret in the Tomb, and The Suicide in the Study, among others.

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