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!