Today's post will review Robert E. Howard's short story The Scarlet Citadel. Those who have not yet read Howard's Conan stories and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
The Scarlet Citadel returns us to the time line that introduced Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword. King Conan, after defeating an internal plot to steal his throne, faces an external threat in the form of the treacherous kings of Koth, Ophir, and an evil wizard. Lured onto Shamu plain by his supposed ally, the king's troops are massacred and Conan himself put into captivity. The rest of the story narrates Conan's escape from the dark dungeons beneath the Scarlet Citadel and his return to power with the help of an imprisoned sorcerer.
The first aspect of this story that struck me was the abrupt shift in level of civilization depicted in The Scarlet Citadel. Conan's world has hitherto been a reflection of classical antiquity. In this story, however, Conan's world comes across, particularly in the warfare, as medieval. The effect is a bit jarring and I do wonder what Howard was up to. However, some aspects of medieval culture can be calqued onto the Hellenistic Era, as artist Mark Schultz seems to have done with his illustrations for The Scarlet Citadel, so the overall effect doesn't train-wreck the story. Howard is careful to find other ways to connect this particular story into his evolving corpus such as making sure to mention the poet Rinaldo and give hints as to what really prompted him to conspire against the king, or to hint that his evil wizard is yet another acolyte of Set.
Conan as a character retains all the barbarian ferocity of his younger years, but has a highly developed sense of sympathy, compassion, and duty to others absent from his middle period. There's more in common with the Conan of The Scarlet Citadel and The Tower of the Elephant than with the Conan of Queen of the Black Coast or The Black Colossus. Conan, as he appears in many of the stories, might actually sell out a kingdom for a chance to get away, or die merely to spite his captors, but only in his youth or middle age would he refuse to sell out an entire people out of a sense of duty and compassion. Indeed, Conan taunts his captors with the fact that he is more just and mild king as a barbarian usurper than they are as civilized and legitimate monarchs. Noble Conan didn't necessarily sell stories, though, nor did he win cover art without the aid of a few pin-up girls. This may explain why Howard turned to developing Conan's middle period immediately after The Scarlet Citadel and left the noble king behind (see the essay Hyborian Genesis in the Del Rey collected edition for more thoughts on this trend).
In other negative news, we also get some strong hints of Howard's racism in The Scarlet Citadel. This will pop up from time to time throughout the stories along with growing sexism. Together, these vices form the chief objections to Howard's writings. In his best pieces, however, these elements are either absent or submerged. It's interesting that the racist element shows up in a tale with strong lovecraftian influences given that Howard's friend H.P. Lovecraft was a notable racist himself (so much so that even Howard was repulsed by some of Lovecraft's views and took pains to challenge them).
On a final assessment, then, The Scarlet Citadel constitutes some of Howard's better work though it is marred by his sudden carelessness about world-continuity and a scene tainted by racism. The daring escape and climactic battle are suitably epic with the typical "weird" twist providing a satisfying ending to the whole.
That's it for today. We'll be returning to Conan's middle period with one of the landmark tales Queen of the Black Coast.