So, Like, Does "Thief, Reaver, Slayer"
"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,
civilization is unnatural, it is a whim of circumstance,
and barbarism must always ultimately triumph."
Mean the Same Thing as "Conan the Shitheel"?
So, Like, Does "Thief, Reaver, Slayer"
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I read Rick McCollum's commentary on "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" in The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard. I'd never much given a thought to Conan's behavior as being contyroversial, though I recognized it as being quite amoral. The thing is that REH planned it that way.
Conan is, dispite his success, not the typical Howard hero. Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Turlogh O'Brien and Solomon Kane are all asexual with high moral standards. Conan, and this was quite on purpose, is completely the opposite of all this. Howard designed Conan to be commercially successful, and he designed him well. And, considering the popularity of Conan, I'd say that REH did a good job of it. — There is not much point in being upset about Conan's commercialism (which his amoral behavior is a part of), because that is exactly what he was designed to be.
In the "Know, O Prince,..." vignette which originally prefaced "The Phoenix on the Sword" Conan is described as "A Thief, A Reaver, A Slayer". Now words like rogue and scoundrel have picked up romantic connotations to the point where they have no real meaning, the same is true of reaver, which means one who steals and plunders. Believe me, anyone who is "A Thief, A Reaver, A Slayer" is quite enough to give a Law & Order Nut apoplexy; and these just weren't designed to be flowery, poetic words.
In one letter, probably written to C.A. Smith, Howard wrote that some of the models for Conan were tough guys and oil field bullies. In another letter he says that Conan was "lawless" when he arrived in the civilized Hyborian world. Think about the meaning of these words for a minute: tough guy, oil field bully, lawless. Howard does everything but come out and call him a criminal; No!, he shows us that!
The anti-hero protagonist of most early 20th Century Literature was a milque-toast weakling with no moral strength who didn't have the guts to do The Right Thing. Howard did this trend one better in the creation of Conan, who is a different kind of anti-hero, but is one never-the-less.
To some extent, Howard is exploiting the myth of the Bad Boy. People like Conan attract followers and lovers at an unbelievable rate. There is an attraction and a mystique about such men that is hard to describe, but is never-the-less there. It seems to virtually be magnetic.
So, I guess I'm agreeing that Conan is a criminal. Many of the killings he commits cannot be shrugged off as self-defense. I mean, he kills a judge, on the bench, in open court, just prior to the beginning of "Queen of the Black Coast".
If Conan were in 20th Century America and the same age as Rick and me (I was born in 1954 too) he would have been stealing Eight-Track Tape Players out of people's cars at age 17, a Mafia hit man at 30, and a retired drug lord at the age of 43 (which is about the age he became king of Aquilonia).
So don't bother getting all upset, not only was this all on purpose, but it predicted the breakdown of modern American civilization, which no number of Religious Nuts can ever put right again. — And don't say that Conan would have ended up in prison in 20th Century America. For every five crimes that are committed, only one arrest occurs. And this is a statistic that all the heavy-handed legislation meant to appease the Law & Order Nuts can do nothing about it; I've been a victim of crime at least seven times, and there's never been an arrest, much less a conviction, in these matters.
Conan was probably a very good drinking buddy, though.
Some Comments On Chronologies
In Regards To The Conan Series
In the accepted and official canon, Conan wonders all over the Hyborian world in a scattered and illogical pattern, and at a break-neck pace. This is quite impossible to believe:
He rides a horse, probably often spending some time on foot, and when he first hits each region, he has to spend time learning the language and getting the lay of the land, so to speak, before he can get into so much trouble that he has to leave.
I propose that, while he did travel extensively, he did not do all the back-and-forthing that the official chronology atributes to him:
The Coming of Conan"Cimmeria" is a great poem, and deserves a larger audience, but the only correct publication of this poem (to the best of my knowledge) has been in The Howard Collector #7 and The "New" Howard Reader #1.
The Hyborian Age, Part One
The Frost-Giant's Daughter
The Tower Of The Elephant
The Hall Of The Dead [synopsis]
Rogues In The House
The God In The Bowl
The Hand Of Nergal [fragment]
Queen Of The Black Coast
The Snout In The Dark [frag. & syn.]
Iron Shadows in the Moon
We have Howard's letter to Miller & Clark (see Gnome Press' The Coming Of Conan and Lancer/Prestige/Ace's Conan) to place the early stories in order: Conan wandered north when he left Cimmeria and adventured among the Nordheimers, after that he drifted down into Zamora and gradually worked his way West, getting into trouble as he went.
There is no mention in the thief stories of him having been among the Hyrkanians, but in "Queen Of The Black Coast" it is said that he learned archery there. How Conan got from Nemedia (at the end of "The God In The Bowl") to Hyrkania to learn archery is anyone's guess. Perhaps he swung north and visited his homeland, and, upon returning South, found Zamora too hot for him, and had to swing to the east; or perhaps, having thieved his way to the sea, he returned east via the more southernly Hyborian kingdoms (I prefer the former possibility).
While the "The Hand Of Nergal" fragment does not expressly happen during this time, neither is there any internal evidence to place it anyplace else. Since it loosely implies that he is in the Turanian army at this point, perhaps this is the best location of this fragment. I believe that from Turan, Conan followed a Southernly route that led to the adventure known as "Black Colossus" (for the placement of this story here, I am indebted to Steve Tompkins).
I'll say it now and make it clear: in responding to Miller & Clark, REH said that they had gotten their chronology mostly right (please note that he did not say 100% right, but merely that they had come pretty close).
Conan is affecting his red cloak in "Black Colossus", "Queen of the Black Coast" and "The Snout in the Dark". "Black colossus" features his first command of an entire army. Has anyone noticed the similarity of the geography of the battle sites in "Kings Of The Night" and "Black Colossus"?
What, in my opinion, happens after "Black Colossus" is that the Queen's brother, the King of Khoraja, is finally released, or ransomed, and upon his return Conan loses considerable clout and power. He may have even attempted an unsuccessful coup, and been forced to flee through the Hyborian kingdoms, getting into trouble along the way, until he has his day in court just prior to the beginning of "Queen Of The Black Coast".
Now, the last we see of the red cloak in "Queen", Conan has it draped over Belit's corpse; but he could have regained it before lighting the pyre in the last chapter, for he is wearing a red cloak at the beginning of "The Snout In The Dark"; or maybe he picked up another one somewhere.
Conspicuous by its absence in this part of the list is "The Vale Of Lost Women" which I feel offers a more cynical and worldly Conan than we see at this point in his career. There was a period in his life in which he affected a red cloak: "Queen Of The Black Coast", "The Snout In The Dark" and "Black Colossus".
After "Snout" Conan wanders eastward, finally joining the army of a rebel prince of (in my opinion, Eastern) Koth, when that prince makes peace with his liege, the mercenaries are left without employment, and become a group of bandits known as "The Free Companions", though the Turanians call them kozaki (which means wastrel). Turan crushes the bandits, leaving Conan on the shores of the great inland sea. This is where the next story starts.
"Iron Shadows In The Moon" ends with Conan as the head of a band of pirates on the great inland sea. They, of course, become such a nuisance that either Turan, or another Hyrkanian nation, feels obligated to smash them.
Conan The BarbarianAfter the pirates' defeat, Conan drifts westward into Khauran, where he joins their military service, eventually ending up as captain of the Queen's guard in time for "A Witch Shall be Born" to begin.
A Witch Shall Be Born
The Man-Eaters Of Zamboula
Xuthal Of The Dusk
The Devil in Iron
The People of the Black Circle
"Witch" ends with Conan as the leader of a band of desert raiders, the Zaugirs. It is these same raiders that Conan is on friendly terms with at the beginning of "The Man-Eaters Of Zamboula", although there is no mention of him having been their leader. This is most likely the same tribe.
Years ago, while reading "The Devil In Iron", I noticed that while wandering through the deserted city in that story, Conan reflects that its spaced-out, seemingly drugged-up inhabitants remind him of Xuthal (The Devil In Iron, Don Grant, p. 119) — well, pardon me, but according to the official chronology, he hadn't yet been to Xuthal to encounter the slithering shadow. So, quite obviously "Xuthal Of The Dusk" precedes "The Devil In Iron". "The Man-Eaters Of Zamboula" did end with Conan riding West to ransom a precious ring to the Queen of Ophir. After whatever that escapade brought, it would have been very easy for him to have drifted south into western Koth, and become involved with Prince Almuric's plot to overthrow the King of Koth, which happens just prior to "Xuthal Of The Dusk".
Following the events in "Xuthal Of The Dusk", Conan and his babe-of-the-month travel two days' march South to get out of the desert and into some grasslands. They could have followed the grasslands East, trying to avoid crossing the desert, which had so abused them, for as long as they could. Conan would have chosen to go East, instead of West, because he was so recently there, and felt comfortable there, he may have considerably liked the East since so many of his adventures happen there. He soon teams back up with the kozaki of the steppes, for he is a hetman of them both before and after "The Devil In Iron" takes place. Also, in this story and the next, Turan's military and political clout has grown considerably; so perhaps there is a space between the first eastern stories and "The Devil In Iron".
Conan seems oblivious of the fact that minor outlaw bands are generally ignored by the Turanian central government, which apparently allows various local agencies to deal with such treats, but when he tries to wield them into sizable armies, as he always inevitably does, then the empire's government feels obligated to smash them — as the Turanian government no doubt did to his latest band of kozaki. Conan flees whatever happened, and ends up trying to organize the mountain tribes, just northeast of Vendhya, into an army at the beginning of "The People Of The Black Circle". This is beginning to sound familiar.
After "People", he either tries unsuccessfully to organize such an army, or he gives up and heads west, skirting the ever-growing threat of Turan. He may, or may not, have visited his homeland again — but what he does do is traverse the Hyborian kingdoms to end up in Argos, where he joins a band of mercenaries, and goes by ship to the southwestern coast of Stygia. It is shortly after this that the "Drums Of Tombalku" fragment seems to fit.
The Sword of ConanSince Howard never did finish "Drums Of Tombalku", we don't know what plans he had for Conan at this point. I feel that the redoubtable Cimmerian, who was already pretty far south, drifted westward to have the adventure known as "The Vale Of Lost Women". Now, it is a given that the Conan of "Queen Of The Black Coast" is more worldly, experienced and cynical that he was in the thief stories, but the Conan of "Vale", to me, has very similar appearance, attitude, and outlook to the one in the following story, "The Pool Of The Black One" — in fact, the plots are somewhat similar: Conan kills a leader to possess an attractive woman, with a supernatural element thrown in at the end. Please also note that the red cloak of "Queen", "Snout" and "Colossus" is missing.
Drums Of Tombalku [frag. & syn.]
The Vale Of Lost Women
The Pool Of The Black One
Teeth of Gwahlur
After "Vale", Conan drifts northwestward. Whatever events lead to him becoming a Barachan pirate, I don't know — but he nevertheless had just been one prior to the beginning of "The Pool Of The Black One"; just as he is a Zingaran freebooter by the end of the story.
After his latest foray into piracy ends, Conan drifts eastward where he meets up with Valeria. They are both former pirates turned mercenaries, for they are helping to guard the southern frontier of Stygia. Valeria kills an over-amorous officer and flees south right into our next story.
"Red Nails" ends with Conan and Valeria heading west to return to piracy — who knows? What I do feel happens is that the two adventure together for some time (it must be the romantic in me). Eventually they part, and Conan, who has been hanging around the Southern frontier of Stygia and the northernmost black kingdoms anyway, heads East pursuing a tale of legendary lost treasure.
In "Teeth Of Gwahlur" it states that Conan is late of the Baracha Isles, of the Black Coast, and other places. The story ends with Conan and his babe-of-the-month heading off towards Punt to put one over on the locals there. From there, the canon has it, that he wonders across the Hyborian kingdoms, perhaps visiting his homeland, and ends up as a mercenary guarding Aquilonian interests on the Pictish frontier.
King ConanIn "Beyond The Black River" Conan states that he has been to the uninhabited mountains beyond the Vilayet Sea, and to a nameless river in, or south of, Kush. He goes on to Say:
Beyond the Black River
The Black Stranger
Wolves Beyond The Border [frag. & syn.]
The Phoenix On The Sword
The Scarlet Citadel
"I've seen all the great cities of the Hyborians, the Shemites, the Stygians and the Hyrkanians. I've roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I've been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general ..."The story ends with Conan still in the king's service.
It is while in the king's service that the story, "The Black Stranger" occurs; or, rather, Conan leaves the king's employ as he flees westward just prior to the beginning of this story. Chronological data is offered: "'I thought you were dead,' said Zarono slowly. "Three years ago the shattered hull of your ship was sighted off a reefy coast, and you were heard of on the Main no more.'" That statement carries the implication that the stories "The Pool Of The Black One", "Red Nails", "Teeth Of Gwahlur", "Beyond The Black River" and the present story all occur in a span of three years or less. Whew!, that's a lot. That doesn't leave much time for carousing or just hanging about in an inn.
An even stranger revelation occurs in the Howard fragment, "Wolves Beyond The Border", which, as you may recall, occurs as Conan is striking for the throne of Aquilonia. The original draft of this partial MS., and not the doctored re-write that appears in Conan The Usurper, has been circulating among the Howard Purist Underground. In it, the young forester, who is the hero of that story, ruminates that he was eight years old during the events that have come down to us in the story, "Beyond The Black River". Well, this guy is at least 17 now, maybe older, and this leads me to suggest that a more violent re-ordering of the Conan stories is perhaps in order. This only reason that such a reordering doesn't occur in this essay is that I do want my (minor) suggested changes to be considered separately and independently of any such drastic re-ordering: that "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" comes first, that the four thief stories occur in a direct east to west sequence, that "Xuthal Of The Dusk" has to occur before "The Devil In Iron", that "The Vale Of Lost Women" occurs later in the series than previously assumed, and of course Steve Tompkins' well-thought-out assumption that "Black Colossus" happens before "Queen of the Black Coast".
"The Phoenix on the Sword" does take place before "The Scarlet Citadel", for, in "Citadel", Conan reflects on the works and death of the mad minstral, Rinaldo; who, of course, was killed in "Phoenix".
It's odd, but Rinaldo sounds a bit like like a Hyborian Age Justin Geoffrey in that passage. Oh well, it was just a thought.
Conan The ConquerorThe Hour of the Dragon has no indication that its placement should be anywhere other then where it's always been.
The Hour Of The Dragon
The Hyborian Age, Part Two
Notes On Various Peoples Of The Hyborian Age