February 22, 2004
Conan, de Camp and The Quill
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.
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
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,
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
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,
and Supreme Plasmate
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