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February 22, 2004

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  Conan, de Camp and The Quill of Doom!

There was something that always bothered me about Robert E. Howard's Conan stories.  Everywhere Conan went, he was always running into people with "gem-encrusted" daggers, golden goblets and rich silk tapestries on the walls.  I mean, everywhere.  In The Slithering Shadow, the nutty-as-a-fruitcake villainess lashes the poor heroine within an inch of her life using a cat o'nine tails (well, actually a cat o'seven tails -- but who's counting).  Even the whip is "jewel handled"!  (What sort of a person keeps a jewel handled whip anyway?  For those special floggings?)  So, here's Conan, a penniless vagabond.  In half the stories, he's after some lost treasure, facing unimaginable perils to obtain it.  And yet, he sees all these rich, gem-covered daggers and goblets, and he doesn't even blink?  Wouldn't you think he'd be stuffing his loincloth with all those little knick-knacks and gew-gaws, sneaking a jewel studded poniard here, a gilded ash tray there -- kind of like taking the towels from a Holiday Inn.

Anyway...

Speaking of Conan, I finally bought my copy of the Del Rey The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Vol. 1.  In case you don't know why that's important, I'll enlighten you.  Sit back, my children, and I will tell you the story of...L. Sprague de Camp and The Quill of Doom!

Way back in the 1960s, L. Sprague de Camp (with the assistance of Lin Carter) worked with Lancer Books to publish all twenty-one of the Conan stories in a multivolume set.  The whole thing was lavishly done, with cover illustrations by Frank Frazetta, and they sold real swell.  In fact, they turned Conan into a world wide icon, beloved by millions of fans, his fame second only to that other loin-cloth clad muscleman, Tarzan.  Later, Conan got a boost from Marvel Comics as well as from Arnie's big screen portrayal, but it all started with those Lancer Books. 

Unfortunately, there was a big fat dipteran in the ointment.  De Camp felt Howard's stories would work better if they were presented in "chronological order", that is, the order they would have occurred in Conan's life.  The problem with this was that no one knew for sure what that order should be, nor even if Howard himself had known.  De Camp put them in the order he thought made the most sense, but a lot of fans didn't agree.  They felt the stories should have been presented either as they appeared in Weird Tales, or as they were written by Howard.

Even worse, de Camp and Carter decided to "fill in" the "gaps" between Howard's Conan stories with Conan pastiches written by themselves.  While the readers could figure out which was which, by reading the copyright info at the front of the book, a lot of readers were just too lazy to do that.  Since it was generally felt the pastiches were "second rate Conan", it was worried that the readers might think the pastiches were written by Howard himself and his reputation would suffer.

Finally, worst of all, de Camp took it upon himself to "edit" many of the original Howard Conan stories, changing punctuation, words, even whole paragraphs willy nilly.  Since the Lancer Books were the only versions available, there was no way for readers to figure out what de Camp had changed.  This was a major headache for many years.  Irate fans repeatedly pointed out that no one would think of messing with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  Why mess with Conan?  And, again, it was felt de Camp's meddling hurt the quality of the stories, and might, therefore, hurt Howard's reputation.

Now, I entered the picture in the middle.  You see, in the 1970s, Karl Edward Wagner, who was a big fan of Howard's Conan, decided he was going to undo the damage de Camp had done.  He set out to publish at least some of the Howard Conan stories in their original form, as they appeared in Weird Tales, in three Berkley Medallion books (beautifully presented with fold out posters by Ken Kelly).  Wagner  included introductions in which he basically publicly flogged de Camp (albeit not by name -- but we knew).  These books were my first introduction to Conan and, though I later bought the Ace versions of the Lancer books, I always treasured Wagner's unedited versions.

But, as I said, Wagner was only able to publish a few of the original Conan stories.  For the rest, I had no choice but to read de Camp's edited versions.  Ah, but now the story becomes interesting.

You see, since there was no way to compare de Camp's edited versions with Howard's original stories, there was no way for me to know how much de Camp had changed those stories.  Only recently did I find out...not very much.  Seventeen Conan stories appeared in Weird Tales during Howard's lifetime.  The other four stories were found among his papers after his death.  Apparently, de Camp hardly changed those seventeen stories at all.  It was the four unpublished stories which he messed around with.  At least, that's what I heard.  The reason this is important is that the stories which Wagner published, which he specifically claimed were unedited unlike de Camp's versions, were from the original seventeen!  You see where I'm going with this?  If the de Camp versions weren't changed, then Wagner tricked us all.  His stories were no different from the ones found in the Lancer books.

Now, I have to be careful here.  I haven't compared the stories.  I've read that The Hour of the Dragon did have some changes made by de Camp (for example, the title, which he called Conan the Conqueror), and it was one of the stories published in original form by Wagner.  But I tried comparing People of the Black Circle in both versions, and (having only gotten part way through), I couldn't find any difference.

But what about those other four stories -- the ones de Camp apparently did mess with?  Those stories were The Frost Giant's Daughter, The God in the Bowl, The Vale of Lost Women, and The Black Stranger.  For this editorial, I'm only going to talk about Frost Giant.  Maybe I'll write about the others later. 

Unlike the bulk of the stories, The Frost Giant's Daughter was published in its original form, sans de Camp's meddling, back in 1976 in Donald Grant's deluxe hardcover Conan collection Rogues in the House.  Then in 1989, the original was published, again by Wagner, in Echoes of Valor II.  Then, in 2000, the miraculous happened.  Orion, a British publishing house, finally put out The Conan Chronicles, Vol.I and Vol. II -- the entire twenty one Conan stories supposedly in their unedited forms!  I say "supposedly" because it turned out they only typeset two of the stories directly from the original Weird Tales.  The rest though were taken either from Wagner's (just as good as Weird Tales) or Donald Grant's collections.  No one seems to know how "unedited" Grant's versions are, so that still leaves a bit of a question mark hanging over The Conan Chronicles.

And then came the British publishing house, Wandering Star.  Conan fans worldwide are now rejoicing because Wandering Star published all the Conan stories in three uber-expensive collections, which the American house, Del Rey, has republished in a much cheaper version on this side of the Atlantic.  (Del Rey has so far only published the first volume of three.)  Del Rey's version is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian Vol. I, and the stories were nearly all typeset using copies of Weird Tales.  The exceptions used Howard's original manuscripts.  You couldn't really ask for more than that!

Before I continue, a little history about The Frost Giant's Daughter.  There is some disagreement.  Howard wrote two versions of the story, one featuring Conan, another featuring Amra of Akbitana.  The Amra version was published during Howard's lifetime in a non-paying fanzine, The Fantasy Fan, under the title Gods of the North.  But which version came first?  Patrice Louinet, in Del Rey's Coming of Conan, claimed it was originally a Conan story which Howard rewrote as an Amra story after it was rejected by Weird Tales.  Wagner, on the other hand, in Conan: Red Nails, claimed: "A reading of the Amra version clearly reveals it to be an earlier draft of the Conan version, although the reverse is usually erroneously claimed."  Flip a coin.

The Conan version first appeared in slightly edited form in 1953, then in de Camp's edited version in the Lancer Conan of Cimmeria, then finally the unedited version in Donald Grant's collection.

Now that I have the unedited version in Del Rey's Coming of Conan, I decided to see for myself how much de Camp had changed The Frost Giant's Daughter.  I'll admit, I was amazed.  De Camp didn't change the story itself, but he did make extensive changes all the way through, often for no reason other than because it presumably sounded better to his ear.

Every few sentences, he fiddled with the phrasing.  For example, where Howard wrote: "Both were tall men, built like tigers."; de Camp changed that to: "Both were tall men, built as powerfully as tigers."  Or Howard's "Across the red drifts" becomes de Camp's "Across the reddened drifts".  Even the very first line which Howard wrote as "The clangor of the swords had died away" becomes "The clangor of sword and ax had died away".  Why?  What possible difference do these changes make?  De Camp seemed to be fiddling just for the sake of being able to say he had fiddled. 

One change I can more understand was when Howard forgot Conan was holding a sword, having just hacked an enemy to death.  De Camp figured he needed to tell us what happened to the sword, since Conan obviously can't still be holding it when he leaps up and grabs Atali.  So, where Howard wrote: "He spoke no word as he drove at her"; de Camp wrote: "He spoke no word as he sheathed his bloody sword and drove at her".  It's a tough call.  I don't think I would have changed that, since it's just possible Conan is still holding his sword when he grabs her.  Not comfortably, but it could be done, right?

Another change made for technical reasons was Howard's use of the word "borealis" for the northern lights.  Each time the word crops up, de Camp replaces it with "aurora".   Now "aurora" means "lights" and "borealis" means "northern".  Thus, de Camp presumably felt, if shortened, they should be called "the aurora", not "the borealis".  I don't know whether he was correct or not, but a search on the Internet reveals that the northern lights are often called "the borealis".  The lesson here, for all you would-be editors -- don't make changes unless you are certain of your facts.

Again, de Camp felt he needed to add information when Howard wrote: "Conan was dashed into the snow, his left shoulder numb from the blow of the survivor".  Instead, de Camp wrote: "Conan was dashed into the snow, his left shoulder numb from a glancing blow of the survivor's ax".  I really don't see that that change was necessary.  And, my philosophy is, if it ain't necessary, don't change it.

I could go on and on, but there is one change which I really, really object to.  The purpose of an editor is to help the author realize his vision.  The editor is essentially working for the author.  Most editors don't see it that way, but I do, and I'm an editor, so there.  In The Frost Giant's Daughter, Howard set out to create a weird and beautiful dreamlike atmosphere.  After Conan gets hit on the head, everything changes because we are seeing things through his dazzled eyes.  The setting isn't literal, any more than Oz was literal.  Is Conan dreaming or not?  We will never know, but Howard obviously wanted to create a dreamlike effect.  Thus, the sky is filled with weird lights, what Howard calls "the borealis".  But, as far as I'm concerned, Howard was still picturing it as daytime.  Time as well is like a dream.  We aren't supposed to know how much time has passed as he chases Atali across the snows.

De Camp obviously didn't see it that way.  Having a more literal mind, he sought to anchor the story in time.  Since the northern lights were in the sky, he concluded it must be night.  Thus, he added in this description: "As the hours passed and the sun slid down its long slant to the horizon, the land changed".  Now that he had turned day into night, he went further peopling the skies with stars.  Howard's "heaved up their shining axes" becomes "They heaved up their axes, shining in the starlight".  To be fair, Howard himself later wrote: "and the sky itself became a titanic wheel which rained stars as it spun."  But it is obvious that Howard didn't mean the sky literally "rained stars" any more than he meant "the borealis" was the real northern lights.  It's all part of a weird hallucinatory lightshow.  Like the birds and stars circling Daffy Duck's head after he's hit by an anvil.

I don't really think de Camp's editing ruined The Frost Giant's Daughter.  De Camp was a good enough writer that, in most cases, his changes made little difference.  And Howard's prose is so electric, it would take some pretty major tinkering to really ruin it.  Most of the changes were simply unnecessary.

To change the author's intent, though, as de Camp did by turning day into night, that was inexcusable.



Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com



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