The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Scarlet Citadel”

comingofconanBill Ward and I are reading our way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The Scarlet Citadel.” We hope you’ll join in!

scarlet 3Bill: We remarked last week that, in some ways, “The Tower of the Elephant” was anticipated by “The God in the Bowl:” both show a youthful Conan running afoul of civilization while rubbing elbows with alien gods. While “The God in the Bowl” had some pacing and structural issues that detracted from the overall effect, “The Tower of the Elephant” was smooth as silk, taking all of the elements that were present in the earlier story and bringing them to new heights. I think a similar parallel can be drawn between “The Phoenix on the Sword” and this week’s story, “The Scarlet Citadel,” stories featuring Conan as King of Aquilonia and bane of wizards and politicians alike.

The tale begins in the midst of blood and thunder with the remnants of a battle. Conan and the pick of his knights have been led into an ambush and betrayed and the King, much as the youth had once before in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” finds himself the last survivor on the battlefield. It’s a tremendous opener, both from the vivid descriptive power and the defiant, indomitable spirit of Conan.

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard

Howard: There are so many great visual details in that opening. Writers should take note, again, of Howard’s flawless ability with establishing shots. Pinpoint details in amongst the sweeping prose give us an entire battle that would have taken millions of dollars and a team of animators to show on film.

Bill: Even after Conan is subdued by the poison of his wizardly antagonist and brought into his enemy’s Scarlet Citadel, he remains defiant in the face of certain death. When Tsotha-lanti offers the Cimmerian his freedom and some ready coin to sign away his claims to Aquilonia and depart, the former barbarian wanderer gives an answer only a true King could.

Howard: I’d forgotten how long Tsotha-Lanti permits Conan to speak, and was sort of surprised that he didn’t cut him off before he could finish talking — he goes on for several paragraphs. But then this isn’t quite the same sort of tale as “The Tower of the Elephant.” Last week J.C. Hocking, in the comment section, rightly called that one mythic. This one isn’t mythic, it’s purple with capital A adventure, with almost everything taken to 11. Even the speeches are grand and a little over the top. It’s a thrill ride from start to finish and delivers everything in spades. Think how boring that dungeon would have been in the hands of a lesser writer! Think how boring dungeons have been since in the hands of lesser writers…

scarlet 1Bill: Most definitely. REH stocks Tsotha-lanti’s dungeon with a cornucopia of weird in the form of several strange monsters, a brain-eating plant rooted in hell, an imprisoned wizard, the resurrection of one of Conan’s freshly slain captors, and a flying creature of ancient provenance. Here we have the King reduced to his own personal ingenuity, weaponless and bound and fed to monsters — something that only the barbarian at the heart of the man could hope to survive. Indeed, the spark of Conan’s escape is provided by his own barbarian infamy — when one of his jailers seeks revenge against “Amra” for the slaying of his brother, he blunders within killing range of the giant snake set to make a ready meal of Conan. (Incidentally we get another taste of foreshadowing here, as the very next story will feature Conan as a southern pirate).

conan nordHoward: Nice eyes, Bill. That this was a segue of a kind into the next tale hadn’t occurred to me, but it speaks again to how much better it is to read these stories in the order they were written rather than in a chronology imposed later. I think it’s worth pointing out that Conan here meets a “good” wizard, a rare incident in a Conan story. Except that Pelias might not be so much good as honorable, in a sense. Pelias feels indebted to Conan because Conan freed him, and then is disposed to help in any case because Pelias wants vengeance. Still, he actually seems like a decent fellow whose gratitude is sincere, which is why the moment with the giant snake is so marvelous. That thing is the terror of the entire dungeon, and yet it flees in fear when it beholds Pelias because it sees the wizard’s soul. I’d say that was my favorite bit with the wizard, except that there’s a wonderful disquieting moment when Pelias raises the dead man to open the gate, or that brilliant part at the end where Tsotha’s body races after the head borne by Pelias’ minion…

scarlet 2Really, this whole story is full of great moments, flowing one after the other. Like I said, a thrill ride, with energetic and visually gripping prose.

Bill: I love how this section gives us the “lone warrior vs. the weird” element before Conan is once again thrust back at the head of his Kingdom and ready for an epic confrontation with Tsotha-lanti and company’s forces. I’ve heard it said that all stories are either The Iliad or The Odyssey, or some combination of the two. Much as Vergil did in his own great celebration of the epic tradition, REH here is shooting for a balance between those elements. Conan is a wily and exiled adventurer in the mold of Odysseus while in Tsotha-lanti’s dungeon, living by his wits, encountering strange beasts, making powerful allies. When he returns to Aquilonia he is Achilles and Agamemnon, wrath and rule, a decider of the fates of kingdoms. These things are not easy to balance! REH is showing such a deft touch at mingling these approaches that we get something seamless and organic, not merely a plot that moves, but a tale that shifts gears while preserving its tone.

scarlet 4Howard: To quote a certain wall-crashing beverage pitcher, “oh yeah.” The tone throughout is dead-on, and if a work should be judged in part by whether or not it achieves what it sets out to do, this is a ten. It’s a juggernaut of momentum, layered with fantastic twists and scenes of dread and wild imagination.

I’d never heard than about The Iliad or The Odyssey; I’ll have to give that some thought.

Bill: What really recalled to mind “The Phoenix on the Sword” to me was the section that covered the chaos in Aquilonia’s capital when the news of Conan’s death reached it. The details of the political intriguing, a venal nobleman stepping forth to vie for the crown, the downtrodden people revolting, the nobles slinking away to their country estates, has the sweep of historical epic, and all rang true. The culmination of the scene, Conan’s dramatic return and destruction of his usurper, shines out with all the poetic logic of a legend.

scarlet 5And then we get to the climax, another concise and economical section that nonetheless seems to pack in as much story as a longer work. REH again shows how to paint a vivid scene without padding the word count, first in the desperate siege of Shamar and then with Conan’s counterattack. The battle that sees Tsotha-lanti and his allies defeated shows us Conan as strategist in the vein of the Black Prince — breaking his opponent’s army with massed ranged firepower. The barbarian, angry and righteously revengeful, is still smart and controlled and in command.

Howard: Is anyone tired of me saying that REH was simply masterful at writing of massed combat and making it interesting? And somehow he shows us the important individuals within that combat at the same time he’s showing us the mighty armies. Whenever I sit down to write a huge battle scene I try always to revisit a little Howard beforehand just to study a master at work.

Bill: He’s superb. And the final scene, Conan leaping his horse from barge to barge as the enemy’s bridge of boats breaks up and a desperate Tsotha-lanti tries to escape, is another tremendous touch. The immortal wizard’s comeuppance, in the form of a decapitation that sees his head carried away by Pelias in hawk form, while the body runs after it, contains a sardonic element of grim humor neither out of place in a Texas tall tale or a classical myth.

In the end, REH delivers another classic Conan tale hot on the heels of the last and, in reading each of these stories in the order they were written, you can really see REH collecting the various strands of his character and world and working at them until they click. And man, do these stories click!

Howard: They certainly do. And next week one of them spreads its sails. We’ll be reading “Queen of the Black Coast.” We hope to see you here!


20 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Scarlet Citadel”

  1. I don’t really have anything to add that you two haven’t already said. This story was a lot of fun.

    I’ve never noticed that about the massive battle scenes. I’ve read a lot of epic fantasy with large battle scenes and no one seems to have the realistic grit that Howard does. It’s pretty amazing that yo get a good sense of the whole battle in just a few pages.

    • Only a handful of writers do as well, and I can’t think of any who do it with as much color.

      Harold Lamb writes fantastic massed battle scenes, likely one of many reasons REH admired his writing. He rarely approaches REH in terms of poetic description, but there’s beauty to his prose, too, in the way a high clarion call sounds. It’s clear and smooth, especially at the height of his powers when he’s been at it a few years.

      Maybe Bill and I should re-read one of the Lamb collections soon. There’s a lot to like. His plotting’s top notch.

      • Oh man oh man I would love to follow you two doing that! I actually ordered Warriors of the Steppes last week and am awaiting it’s arrival.

  2. I was a little worried that after Tower of the Elephant, which is such a pinnacle…that is might be downhill from there. Glad to know that there is still power in the prose of the other tales.

  3. I have some things to say (big surprise, right?) which I’ll post after I get home and have some time. But I wanted to say I would love to see you read through one of the Lamb collections.

  4. I love when Conan reappears and throws the prince off the top of the tower. As the crowd roils below he just stands there and laughs at their turmoil, the folly of nobility and himself. Such a great moment.

    • That’s great! Yeah, another fine moment in the story. Conan DOES have a sense of humor, and a sense of the smallness of man and himself in history.

    • There’s another great scene — one I’d actually meant to comment on when I wrote my part of the essay, but there was so much to say that I lost track of it!

  5. “How did you come to your crown, you and that pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger—except to poison a few brothers—I fought for….If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors?
    “I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you—one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.
    “What of you?….The people of both your kingdoms are crushed into the earth by tyrannous taxes and levies. And you would loot mine—ha! Free my hands and I’ll varnish this floor with your brains!” – CONAN FOR PRESIDENT IN 2016.

  6. Having a wizard on Conan’s side for once, who is creepy and awful but still an ally, is one of the reasons I love this story.

    Conan’s tirade against his fat-cat royal captors is splendid. So interesting and satisfying, and it’s obvious Howard felt passionately about certain issues. I’d like to point out another place that shows his beliefs and shows his courage as a writer, something we could use more of in a day and age where most writers seem to be most concerned with having a best-seller or a their book optioned as a movie.

    Howard’s courage: “The merchants, as is the habit of merchants when confronted by a power they can not control with money, fell on their fat bellies and licked their oppressor’s boots”

    Howard isn’t afraid of offending anyone.

    Another instance of Howard’s sense of humor:
    “…but the people caught him up and fled with him, deluging the pursuing retainers with stones and dead cats.”

    Another example of Conan’s belief in the basic equality of men: When Pelias asks Conan to pour him some wine, then repents and says, “I forgot. You are a King.” “The devil with that,” growled Conan…

    This is probably a perfect adventure tale, from the opener to the dungeon to the big battle and the wizardly rivalry, etc. Love the plant. And that is a great scene when Pelias animates the dead jailor. Creepy.

    Howard, this might be a more appropriate comment for your Conan pastiches post, but, talking about how tight and not padded most of Howard’s writing was: if he had been forced by a publisher to write novels out of all these stories, that might not be the case, I don’t think some of them would have held up as well. One reason that not many of the Conan stories from other writers hold up, apart from the fact that it’s not possible to write exactly like another writer and because Howard was so great, is that these writers are always writing Conan novels (or at least, that’s all that’s published). Even Howard himself only wrote one Conan novel. So, writing a story with the character Conan is hard enough; writing a novel, which Howard himself only did successfully once, is more than doubly hard!
    Howard only wrote one novel.

    • Hey Robert,

      You may be right about the difference between longer and short. Man, do I wish we’d gotten the chance to find out.

      I think that’s part of the problem with Star Trek movies — when you change the format, you change the feel. Some of the Star Trek movies are cool, sure, but they still don’t feel that much like the show I used to love, because I was watching stories set up with TV time limits and constraints. They didn’t all need a big bad guy and a threat to destroy the universe.

  7. A few things struck me as I reread this one.

    First, we see again how adept REH is at blending genres, in this case military adventure fantasy and horror. The whole dungeon sequence is full of great moments. I’ve never liked snakes. Having grown up in the same general part of Texas as REH, I can understand why he would kick off a horror sequence with a giant snake. But the other things in the dungeon is where REH really pulled out the stops. There’s some seriously bizarre stuff there, moreso than in previous tales. Very pulpy, almost over the top things. I was reminded of other weird stories I’ve read, and not in a bad way. The bloodsucking plant was especially nice. And the name of the plant, Yothga, has a nice Lovecraftian ring to it.

    Speaking of Lovecraft, when Conan is fleeing from the weeping obscenity, did anyone pick up on the line “The unmistakably human note in its mirth almost staggered his reason”? This sounds more like the response of a Lovecraft protagonist than a Conan response. The horror described certainly has it Lovecraftian aspects. Again, I can’t help but wonder if this is a subtle nod to HPL on the part of REH. (I realize you guys probably think I’m obsessed with HPL, but I’m not. Really. I promise.)

    One final thing that stood out was the description of “Conan’s girls” when they were taken to Arpello’s quarters. The women were described as “unused to brutality.” This implies that Conan is a kind and considerate, even gentle, lover. This is somewhat out of character with the Conan we see in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, enough so that I think it is indirect evidence that Conan was under a spell in that story. As both Bill and Howard have pointed out, reading these stories in order shows how REH was building his world. There have been enough cross references between the stories we’ve read so far that I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by saying this shows us that Conan isn’t simply a brute intent on despoiling women and was under a spell in “Daughter”. He’s not always a Galahad, but he’s also not the misogynist his detractors make him out to be.

    Just my two gold lunas.

  8. Forgot to delete that last repetitive sentence (I had typed it first as a reminder). See, I don’t pad my writing! And, no Howard, I still can’t edit comments I’ve posted. 🙂

  9. I’m with Robert Zoltan on the alliance with Pelias. It’s my favorite part in a host of great parts.

    Keith, your remark regarding padding for novels is perfect for “Scarlet Citadel” since Hour of the Dragon (Conan the Conqueror) essentially recreates it in novel length. A great opportunity for comparison when it comes.

    • Bill and I haven’t tackled a novel yet — if we did Hour of the Dragon I suppose we’d have to split it up. Sometimes it’s a challenge to get a single short story read every week.

      I think Pelias is a fantastic character. I kind of wish we’d seen him again.

  10. That bit where he finds that chasm and then realizes that the wind is blowing up out of it….Shivers. It’s my favorite of the original Howard stories.

    • You’re right — that’s a great scene. But this story is chock full of great scenes.

  11. A further favorite detail of mine, in the great ‘wine sharing’ scene Robert mentioned between Conan and Pelias is that, while Conan clearly is not the kind to stand on ceremony over who pours what for whom he also, by pouring the wine for Pelias, retains the jug and thus the lion’s share of the wine for himself.

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