Cimmerian Collection

Cover by Frank FrazettaConan the Usurper
Copyright 1967, by L. Sprague de Camp

The Treasure of Tranicos
Wolves Beyond the Border (Howard & De Camp)
The Phoenix on the Sword
The Scarlet Citadel

(out of 5)

This was volume #8 in the set of anthologies put out in the 1960s by Lancer Books, then reprinted in the 70s by Ace.  The books were usually edited by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, although this one was a solo effort by De Camp alone.  Cumulatively the books tried to include all the canonical Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard in chronological order, at the same time including fragments which Howard had left unfinished, which they had then completed with mixed results.  In this volume, only "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Scarlet Citadel" were original Howard stories.  "Wolves Beyond the Border" was an unfinished fragment, here completed by De Camp according to notes left by REH.  For the tangled history behind "The Treasure of Tranicos" see my review of that story.

"The Phoenix on the Sword" holds a special place in the official Conan canon as the very first Conan story to be published in Weird Tales (December 1932).  As all loyal REH fans know, Robert E. Howard actually submitted both "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Frost Giant's Daughter" to editor Farnsworth Wright of which Wright rejected "The Frost Giant's Daughter" but accepted "The Phoenix on the Sword".  Why he chose the one over the other will never be known, since they are both pretty good stories.  But my own theory has always been that "The Frost Giant's Daughter" just didn't have enough plot, while"The Phoenix on the Sword" did.

In "The Phoenix on the Sword" readers were introduced to a Conan in his twilight years, when he had wrested the crown of Aquilonia from the bloody head of her former ruler, King Numedides.  Things have not gone well after that.  Conan finds his temperament more suited to swinging a broadsword than to signing official documents with a quill, and he wears the crown uneasily at best.  At the same time, the people of Aquilonia, who originally welcomed him as a saviour, have gradually turned on him for his foreign blood  -- a view fostered by a rebellious minstrel named Rinaldo.  Desiring to give the crown to one who is of royal blood, a group of four rebels recruit the services of a villain named Ascalante.  But Ascalante is merely using the rebels to gain the crown for himself.  At the same time, Ascalante has a slave named Thoth-Amon, a formerly powerful Stygian wizard, now fallen on hard times ever since he lost a magic ring which was the source of his powers.  The story centers around their plot to assassinate King Conan but, when Thoth-Amon rather improbably recovers his lost magic ring, he sets out to make Ascalante-bits of his cruel master with the help of an apish creature called up out of the abyss...

"The Phoenix on the Sword" was actually Howard's rewrite of an unpublished King Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!".  Of the two I prefer the Conan version -- it is simply better written.  I think Howard had really improved in later years, and the contrast between these two tales is a good example.  In the Kull yarn, everything is told in a mannered, courtly style, very slow and dramatic.  Here the pace is fast and adventuresome, sweeping the reader from one plot point to another.  Then too, the plot was majorly reworked.  Kull was also about a group of four rebels (also a dwarf, a giant, a baron and a minstrel) recruiting an evil villain to assassinate the king.  But it was also a more introspective piece, with a subplot about a young man who wants to marry a slavegirl but can't because it is against Valusian custom.  The crux of the tale lies in Kull's sense of helplessness, since even he cannot change the laws of Valusia.  In the end, the two plots mesh when foiling the assassination attempt awakens the barbarian side of Kull and he decides that he will take command and change the laws...and woe onto anyone who objects.

In "The Phoenix on the Sword" Howard replaced the love story with the revenge subplot about Thoth-Amon, to the betterment of the tale.  The Kull story may have been more thoughtful, but the Conan yarn has more plot complications, as we wait breathlessly to see how its two plots will collide.  Then too, the Kull story had no supernatural elements, while the Conan story has oodles of them.

I think Howard's greatest contribution to fantasy writing lay in this: he was virtually alone in telling stories about a hero who is not either of royal blood or at least of courtly demeanour.  Whether we're talking about Burroughs or Moorcock or Tolkien, all told tales about upper class heros.  Only Howard was willing to seek heroism amongst the ranks of the great unwashed (obviously, later on there were plenty of Howard imitators like Brak the Barbarian).  For that reason, it is all the more interesting to see how Conan came about.  In this first story, he begins as a king, thereby fitting the usual heroic critierium, but he has gained his crown through violence, usurping his throne.  Thus he isn't a "real" king.  Nor is he at home in the role and pines for his real identity as an uncultured barbarian.  King Kull was a similar character, a member of the teeming masses masquerading as the usual fantasy hero-king.  It is almost as if Howard used King Conan to sneak his barbarian hero in under the fantasy radar.  And given that "The Frost Giant's Daughter" presented Conan in his full barbaric splendour, perhaps this is why Wright rejected that tale?

A detail that sticks out is Conan's relationship with the minstrel Rinaldo.  Even though Rinaldo turns the people against their king, Conan refuses to raise a hand against him.  Conan seems positively awed by the poet, explaining that "His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me."  Even in the climax, Conan delays fighting back against the minstrel until it is almost too late.  Given that Howard was a poet himself, this might not seem so surprising.  But it is an oddly unexpected character trait in Conan, showing a softer side to the big guy.

"The Scarlet Citadel" was only the second Conan story to see print and it too involves an older Conan, when he was king of Aquilonia.  King Conan receives a call for help from Amalrus, the ruler of neighbouring Ophir, claiming Stradabonus, the king of Koth, is making threatening moves on his border.   But when Conan shows up with five thousand Aquilonian knights, it turns out to be a trap -- Amalrus and Stradabonus are working together with the assistance of a wizard named Tsotha-lanti.  His knights are cut to pieces and Conan is imprisoned in a dungeon in Korshemish.  This dungeon was used by the wizard Tsotha for evil experiments and the story is largely a dark and creepy tour of that dungeon -- and its inhabitants -- as Conan tries to escape...

"The Scarlet Citadel" is a pretty good Conan yarn but better in the first half than in the second.  The first half involves Conan's capture and his escape from the dungeon, which is suitably eerie and bizarre, with some nicely done character bits for Conan.  But the second half turns into the sort of massed battle, impersonal, detailed description that REH loved so dearly but which gets to be a little much after a while.  Impressive it certainly is, but it gets hard keeping track of all those smiting hosts.

It is hard to read "The Scarlet Citadel" after reading the much longer "The Hour of the Dragon", since the latter was heavily based on the former for its plot.  So close are they that it is a little jarring when they diverge.  For example, in "The Hour of the Dragon", Conan is freed from his chains by a love-smitten slavegirl.  Here we have a similar scene, but Conan is freed by a nasty piece of work who doesn't even intend to free the Cimmerian but to taunt him with freedom...a plan which goes horribly awry.

It isn't surprising that REH would expand "The Scarlet Citadel" into "The Hour of the Dragon" -- "The Scarlet Citadel" tries to encompass a tremendous amount into such a short story and Howard no doubt felt he couldn't do it justice with so few words.  Particularly, once Conan escapes from the dungeon, the canvas upon which Howard was working expands dramatically, and he is forced to use far too much exposition to cover everything in so short a narrative.  In a sense, then, I would say "The Scarlet Citadel" isn't one of the best Conan yarns but we owe it for giving us "The Hour of the Dragon"...and that's some debt.

"Wolves Beyond the Border" was an unfinished manuscript found amongst Robert E. Howard's papers by Glenn Lord in 1965.  It was later completed by L. Sprague de Camp according to a one page outline also found with the papers.  Helpfully, De Camp indicates in the introduction where Howard left off and De Camp begins.

Whether this should even be considered a Conan story is problematic, since Conan himself never puts in an appearance.  The tale is told from the point-of-view of a young forest-runner named "Gault Hagar's son" who lives at Fort Thandara in the Free Province of Thandara along the Thunder River.  It is tied into the Conan mythos because we are told that events are hotting up due to civil war in neighbouring Aquilonia instigated by "a fighting man", Conan.  All along the frontier, brother is pitted against brother, as some side with Conan and some side with King Numedides, ruler of Aquilonia.  At the same time, the savage Picts, who dwell in the forests beyond the frontier, hear opportunity knocking, opportunity encouraged by a hyborian traitor named Valerian, who is goading them to use this time to attack the settlements.  Gault Hagar's son accidentally discovers this plot and the story largely describes his race to stop it...

"Wolves Beyond the Border" was apparently meant as a companion to the published Conan story, "Beyond the Black River", also set on the Pictish frontier.  Unfortunately, I never really cared for "Beyond the Black River" and I care even less for this sequel.  As I have said elsewhere, both stories present a milieu inspired more by the American frontier of Daniel Boone than the usual Arabian Nights environ which we are used to in a Conan yarn.  The Picts, for example, are the Indians, complete with war-paint and moccasins.  Some people think it works just fine, but I'm not one of them.

But, apart from the milieu, the story itself is surprisingly confusing, tediously detailing the entire geography of the surrounding region, endlessly relating who is siding with whom, who is ruler of what, who is related to whom...and on, and on.  Nor can the blame be laid at De Camp's door, since the part written by Howard is equally guilty of this excessive use of exposition.  Not only did I find my attention drifting, but I found it difficult to follow...or care.

Finally, to cap it off, without Conan himself to enliven the proceedings, what's the point?  Maybe that was why Howard never finished it.  You think?

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