Monday, January 16, 2017

Conan: Beyond the Black River: The Platypus Reads Part CCCVIII

This post will cover two of Robert E. Howard's Conan short stories: Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger. Prior posts on Conan and his world can be found by following the "Howard" tag at the bottom of this post.

Beyond the Black River:

The last phase of Howard's Conan stories find him transitioning from the world of oriental adventures to the American frontier. Beyond the Black River owes more to books like Buchanan's A Salute to Adventurers than to Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. Nonetheless, Howard still preserves the ancient world setting by calquing the American frontier onto the Roman frontier and cover the whole thing with a facade of Hyborian places and peoples. The author's commitment to side with barbarism over civilization comes to the fore here and the lesson seems to be that of the noble savage showing up the folly and weakness of society. One wonders, given Howard's deification of the "barbarian," how he thinks the United States was ever settled by Europeans and transformed into a modern nation state. With this final decision to side with barbarism also comes a firm decision to side with racism and misogyny as well a generally darker tone that sees the death of all the lead characters except for Conan. Which leads us to...

The Black Stranger:

The Black Stranger is a more "barbaric" retelling of Beyond the Black River. Howard eliminates as many civilized elements as possible by peopling his cast almost entirely with Picts, pirates, and outcasts. As with Beyond the Black River, there is a touch of the supernatural to make the story fit for Weird Tales (The Sci-Fi-Horror-Fantasy magazine Howard sold his Conan stories to). Unlike Beyond the Black River, Howard throws us into the heart of the siege and allows us to witness the sack and ruin of the Zingarian fort. This key choice ramps up the brutality of the tale and makes the action feel more immediate. The ruin of the fort also marks Howard's farewell to civilization as each of the remaining stories pictures Conan assaulting the corruptions of urban society and returning to a life of wandering.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there is one real gem in this episode: the cave of the cursed pirates. The great banquet table with its eternally slumbering feasters seems to be a direct parallel with the cursed feasters in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Given the dates of the two stories, it is entirely possible that the scene inspired C.S. Lewis or that both authors drew from the same source material (perhaps the table of dead kings in King Solomon's Mines?).

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