Conan Re-Read: “A Witch Shall Be Born”
Howard: I had hoped to like this one more. I’ve only read it once before, and I hadn’t remembered it being quite so frustrating. Coming as it does on the heels of a sword-and-sorcery masterpiece it’s even more of a let down, and it seems hard to believe that the man who just gave us such a spellbinding story should trip this way.
Bill: It’s like the steep initial drop on a roller-coaster, minus the exhilaration.
Howard: Hah! In the first half of the story there’s one real standout scene, and if you’ve just read the tale you probably know the one I’m talking about — where Conan himself is crucified. More on that in a moment. First, though we have an opening where an evil twin materializes and then explains the whole of her backstory and her plan to the good Queen Taramis. It’s reminiscent of the second opening sequence in “Black Colossus” save that it goes on for far too long and ends with the intimation that the queen has probably been raped.
From that ugly start we shift to a long monologue, in the style of a play, where a young soldier named Valerius relays all that he has seen in the recent battle, including, at last, what’s happened to Conan. This, too, wanders on. This sort of tale of the battle from someone else worked so very well in The Hour of the Dragon, but here it’s just details of the inevitable from the viewpoint of someone we haven’t learned to care about.
Bill: Exactly what I was thinking, and this sums up the major problem with the story. The old “show, don’t tell” adage may be over-stated to the point of absurdity in writing circles these days, but it certainly applies here. Valerius’s account, the scholar’s letter, more exposition from an undercover Valerius, Salome being told the outcome of the battle outside the city via her spy’s report … REH has so much information relayed through secondhand means that there isn’t much actual narrative story left to enjoy. What worked brilliantly on multiple occasions in The Hour of the Dragon is used here in almost the worst possible way. The only scenes that really work are the two Conan scenes and, to a much lesser extent, the climax of Taramis’ rescue and the re-taking of the city. The pace is off, there’s no sense of adventure or momentum, and there is very little from the cast of minor characters to hold the reader’s interest. How Farnsworth Wright could tell REH that this was his best Conan story to date boggles my mind.
Howard: Exactly! All I can think of is that Wright really enjoyed “spicy” stories, because this one certainly has what the pulps called spice, meaning a whole lot of naked quivering woman flesh. We haven’t read so much about naked women in a Conan story since “The Vale of Lost Women.” I happen to be a big fan of lovely women, but there’s far too much textual description given over to their movements in this tale.
When we do finally get to Conan, it’s a standout moment of endurance, not to mention mythic parallel. So much has been written about this scene that I’m not sure I can do it justice. Suffice to say that it elevates the entire story; I wish the rest of “A Witch” deserves it. When I assemble my “best of” list at the end of our re-read this tale certainly won’t be in it, but this scene might be.
Bill: Fantastic, powerful writing in the crucifixion scene, for sure, it almost made me squirm. And it goes beyond the mere outlining of pain, we also see the indomitable spirit of Conan win through — a man that fights to the last breath, with his teeth if needed. Here is what a barbarian is all about, with his “life nailed to his spine” as he later tells Constantius, after turning the tables on him. Olgerd Vladislav’s torments as he rescues Conan only heighten the whole thing — Conan doesn’t just survive being crucified, he’s cut down like a tree, pulls out the nails himself once he gets his hands free, and then mounts and rides through ten miles of desert without a drink of water. Holy Crom!
Howard: My hopes were raised by the quality of that scene, and I wondered if perhaps the rest of the story would catch fire, but then the next segment is a long letter from someone we haven’t met detailing all the events taking place in the city over the span of the last seven months. Valerius, we learn, is missing and presumed dead, and Conan is now a rebel leader. As with the interlude before the crucifixion scene, all interesting details are happening off-stage. I almost get the sense that REH was bored with all the intervening moments.
Bill: Honestly, I think this should have been a draft. There are plenty of good ideas in this story, and I suspect it probably even works pretty well adapted as a comic.
Howard: I’ve got it in a Savage Sword of Conan collection. I’ll see how it plays out, because I think you’re right. It does read more like an outline.
Bill: It also doesn’t seem to have any real emotional anchor. REH is getting all those ideas out fast, but he’s not giving us the through-line of motivation beyond the most tenuous. We never spend enough time with Conan to really feel the simmering rage that led him to plot the take over of the Zuagir raiders. The idea of Conan being a minor character in one of his own stories isn’t necessarily an inherently bad one, but “A Witch Shall Be Born” never succeeds in making the non-Conan sections compelling. And the Conan scenes are so good, the rest only suffers even further in comparison.
Patrice Louinet suggests that this story was written in a few days, and I can understand how REH, in going from a long, layered, multi-draft project like The Hour of the Dragon, was eager to get another short story in the can for his number one market. None of his ideas here are bad, it’s just in the execution where it all falls apart. The fact that Wright lapped it up suggests that REH was doing exactly the smart thing with this approach — how could he even imagine a future where he’d be the object of adoration and scholarly analysis, the source of a multi-million dollar IP, and the inspiration for the Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Great Conan Re-Read? Sadly, posterity has to point out the misstep, and there is no way to wax poetic about REH’s genius without applying the same critical eye to his mistakes.
Howard: I know. Sometimes when I write badly about his work I’m afraid someone’s going to revoke my REH fan club card. Look, he’s one of my very favorite writers. That doesn’t mean I love everything he wrote any more than I love every Beatles song even though I’m a huge fan of the Fab Four. “A Witch Shall be Born” suffers from numerous problems, perhaps the most obvious one being Robert E. Howard’s palpable disinterest in the story apart from the scenes with Conan in them. Every other is just set up so that we know there’s a hideous monster, so that we know what the villains are planning and why, etc. The climactic conclusion had a little more oomph, but even its last moments were a bit of a let down. I think REH must have been tired of monster battles, because he just has the weird thing go down under a flight of arrows.
Bill: Yes, Thaug was no Thog, that’s for sure; if it wasn’t for the accompanying illustration in the Del Rey edition I’m not sure the scene would have had any impact on me at all.
Bill: I suspect I’ll dust it off again one day, maybe with a little skimming. Sometimes it’s both reassuring and edifying to see evidence that a great artist is not in fact superhuman. And, honestly, the proof that REH was only human just serves to underline how utterly impressive the vast body of his work really is. But I sure wouldn’t hand it to an REH newcomer.
Howard: Absolutely. And I’ll have an example of another Conan tale not to do that with in the next collection, because it delayed my exploration of Conan for another two or three years longer. And you’re right that it IS refreshing to see that even genius falters. Not that I take any pleasure from that. Like most Conan fans, I simply wish that there were more of these stories from Howard’s underwood, or if not more, then that these mis-steps and leftovers were at the same level as the finest. Ah well.
Next week Bill and I will be looking at “The Servants of Bit-Yakin,” also known as “Jewels of Gwahlur.” I remember it as being another minor Conan tale, but I also recall enjoying it a great deal more than I liked reading this one. I guess I’ll find out soon. Thus concludes our re-read of The Bloody Crown of Conan — on to The Conquering Sword of Conan! Hope to see you here next week.