Conan Re-Read: “Beyond the Black River”

conquering sword conanBill Ward and I are reading through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Conquering Sword of Conan. This week we’re discussing “Beyond the Black River.” We hope you’ll join in!

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still starring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph.”

Bill: So concludes “Beyond the Black River,” a story that might almost be REH’s thesis on his philosophy of civilization. It is a story that introduces new elements to Conan’s world, demonstrating again how flexible and expandable REH’s Hyborian blueprint was even after sixteen complete short (and not so short) stories and a novel. But it also maintains a continuity with what has come before, giving us perilous adventure with supernatural antagonists and, of course, Conan being Conan.

black river 1Howard: I think it builds nicely on what we’ve seen before. As it happens, though, it’s not exactly a great introduction to Conan himself, or even the Hyborian Age. It was the first Conan story I was ever handed to read, and I bounced right off of it, delaying my engagement by the world of Conan and the writing of Robert E. Howard for at least three more years, and I have forever after shaken my head at the wisdom of the person who handed me this tale to start with. It’s very different from the preceding Conan stories, feeling very much like a tale of Indian warfare, and Conan himself, while busy doing incredible things, is almost a secondary character.

Bill: Agreed, this story is more of a culmination of the series, really almost the opposite of an introduction. I think you have to already know the Cimmerian, as well as REH’s ongoing theme, to appreciate the best the story has to offer. The background for “Beyond the Black River” is nicely described in the third part of Patrice Louinet’s ever-excellent Hyborian Genesis essay in the back of the Del Rey and Wandering Star editions of the complete Conan stories. REH’s interests had taken him away from the ancient and medieval world and toward a desire to celebrate and explore the stories of his own country — in particular those of the American frontier. But, in addition to this new element, REH also reaches back to one of his oldest obsessions and gives us the Picts, whom we have not yet encountered in Hyboria, fusing them into a kind of amalgam of the historical and fantastical Picts of his own previous tales of Kull and Bran Mak Morn, and the Native American tribal antagonists of the frontier. The result are the purest barbarians yet presented in a Conan tale, aside from the Cimmerian himself.

black river 3Howard: Right. And the story itself is perhaps the most barbaric of any in the entire Conan canon, with the most quoted phrase about barbarism that Robert E. Howard ever wrote.

Bill: Against this barbaric Pictish frontier the civilized men of Aquilonia encroach with forts and colonies. Our protagonist, Balthus, is one such man — a civilized man who is no effete urban decadent, but a man of the woods and fields. Immediately upon being introduced to Balthus he is saved from a Pictish ambush by Conan, an ambush he never sees or even suspects. It is the first contrast of many in the tale between the civilized man and the pure barbarian. A little later Conan leads a small group of his best fighters against the Picts and all save the Cimmerian are lost — those fighters, hard men of the frontier, are none-the-less of the blood of civilized races. Conan, and the Picts, are barbarians of a thousand generations, men with the unerring instincts of wild animals. The rough men of the frontier can only adapt so far to such an existence.

black river 3Balthus, as our primary point of view character, allows REH to use a tried and true technique — viewing the Cimmerian through the eyes of another. In past tales this was most often done via a damsel in distress. In “Beyond the Black River,” however, REH is not simply serving up Conan’s barbarism as characterization, but as part of the fundamental theme of the story. It is necessary to make the point that such a frontier existence, like that found in America for much of its history, exerts a change on civilized men — but that such a change only goes so far. Conan, and men like him, are not made, they are born. Slasher, a dog that has gone nearly feral after the death of his master, is a metaphor for this — and he dies alongside Balthus, heroically and out of loyalty (he after all chooses to follow the civilized man, and not the barbarian), whereas Conan survives. Conan always survives — the barbarian always triumphs.

Howard: On re-reading this, I was surprised by how late Slasher turns up in the story. I had recalled that he was Balthus’ companion and misremembered that he was there from the start.

black river 4Bill: Here, the triumph is hollow. It’s only Conan’s person that survives intact, and he himself does not care about the larger ramifications of the loss of the territory on the other side of Thunder River. Indeed, he is pessimistic, and sees all too clearly what will happen. He himself was once a barbarian laying waste to an outpost of civilization at Venarium. Conan fights out of his own sense of honor and out of personal loyalty and respect, and he certainly prefers the Aquilonian colonists to the debased and wholly-savage Picts, but he only feels the losses endured by the colonists on a personal level; the larger horror of civilization being razed in fire and blood does not touch his mind. It’s this oblivious and yet adamant survival instinct that so stuns the woodsmen in the final passage of the story quoted above. Conan suffers no psychic wounds from the reversal, instead he guzzles wine and honors the fallen with a “heathen” ablution and vows to take heads in their honor — just as the vile Zogar Sag collected heads for his own revenge. The borderer realizes Conan is more akin to the savage enemies he has just faced, than he ever could be to the men who have just fallen in defense of the frontier.

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard

Howard: It’s a powerful and rather subtle sentiment despite its violence, and it should be a moving tale — and yet I have to confess that it has always left me a little cold. Perhaps I shouldn’t ever say that in public, because I know many Conan fans name it as among the best. I recognize that it’s one of the most important, and the one where REH says most directly what he wants to say about barbarism, but, as I mentioned above, I bounced completely off of the story the first time I read it, being so disenchanted that I didn’t try any more Conan for years. Even after I’d embraced the writing of REH, when I read “Beyond the Black River” a second time I still wasn’t wowed, and here, upon the third read, while I may be capable of appreciating its technical aspects, I’m still not enthralled.

I’m struggling to give voice to why that is. Usually I can be more articulate about these things. I can guess that my reaction stems from several elements: I miss a stronger weird element, I would rather the story feature Conan… but in the end that doesn’t add up to enough to evoke my sour expression when I finish. I really ought to enjoy it more than I do. It’s well paced, it’s well plotted, it’s crammed with action. Conan gets to do some amazing things, and our protagonist rises to prove himself. And it’s got a cool dog character. Yet there were no places where the story held me spellbound with stunning prose or  astonishing world building. As with the first and second time reading it, I struggled to maintain interest until I got to the end. It felt more like I’d finally run past the finish line, flagging and tired, than that I’d reached the end of an exhilarating roller coaster ride.

black river 5 Bill: I think I can guess at a few reasons why that might be. For a start, the story is rather grim and pessimistic. That element can be found to a greater or lesser extent in many Conan tales, but here it is the focus and culmination of the story. This is not the heroic celebration of a strong free man’s victory against all odds, but rather a look the ugliness of a life and death struggle. Our primary protagonist dies — heroically, but not gloriously or victoriously. Conan, held at arm’s length for much of the story, is seen to be as much of an alien to the people he was protecting as the savage Picts that are their enemies. In short, it isn’t a fun story, and it ends with a real downer.

I think it’s a great story, though, and rank it perhaps just shy of the best tales in the series, but the strongest elements in “Black River” are the thematic ones; in terms of pace, language, setting, invention, and character you will find better yarns in earlier pieces. As you say, it doesn’t work well as an introduction. For established fans of Conan, and especially of REH as a writer, “Black River” does new things and says new things, or at least says them in a different way, and it works far better than REH’s earlier attempt to do something similar in “The Vale of Lost Women.”

black river 6“Black River’s” unvarnished look at savagery and human nature and its downbeat ending make it a lot less enjoyable than something like “Black Colossus” or “The Tower of the Elephant,” but I think it also indicates the sincerity and seriousness of REH and his approach to the life of Conan. Many creators of a series character may have moved into a decadent or near-parody direction after so many stories, and indeed REH himself had cracked a Conan “formula” late in his initial foray into the character with tales like “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” But REH kept innovating, kept caring about his creation and using Conan and Hyboria as a lens to tell different kinds of stories. It’s extraordinary when you consider the sheer variety represented within the Conan canon, as pure a testament as any to the restless genius of its creator.

Howard: I think that’s a really astute way to look at the tale, or yarn, as Howard himself might have said. He retreated into formula a few times in this series, but he never stayed for too long. Not for him the route of Jules de Grandin and other series creators popular in their day, churning out very similar story to the delight of their readers… very, very few of those writers are still revered today.

Bill: And maybe therein lies a lesson for all artists. If I wanted to just read a Conan story for enjoyment and a sense of adventure, or hook a new reader, “Beyond the Black River” is definitely not what I would choose. But as an enlargement and exploration of one of REH’s primary themes, I don’t think it can be beat. Thank Crom the Conan canon includes both types of stories.

Howard: Well said. Next week we look at “The Black Stranger.” I hope you’ll join us.

20 Comments on “Conan Re-Read: “Beyond the Black River”

  1. To me, this is a stepping stone in Conan’s view point changing. Not now, in Beyond the Black River, but rather later, when he is the king of the very same Aquilonia that is besieged. As king, whether he wants or not, he represents the civilizing force. It is a very interesting path.

    • That’s a good point, Storn. REH was really clever about keeping in mind where Conan was in his life and how one action or experience might lead into his future.

      • And it’s even ‘foreshadowed’ with a fun quote in “Black River” where Conan lists all the occupations he’s had and concludes he’s been just about everything but a King…and one day he might give that a shot, too.

        Also, just speculating on what I’ve learned of King Conan from “The Hour of the Dragon,” it wouldn’t surprise me if Conan pulls Aquilonian expansion back to its natural borders and gives up the civilizing experiment in the far West. He’s still the upholder of civilization Storn indicates him to be, but I think he had a totally practical idea of what was possible and what was simply a waste of blood and treasure. He pretty roundly denounces imperial adventures more than once.

        Who knows, though? I love to guess at what Conan’s future would look like, but I’d hate for anyone to actually try to tell those stories. In many ways it’s appropriate that the character ‘ends’ with his greatest victory at the pinnacle of his power. A very interesting path indeed.

  2. The first REH I read was Conan the Warrior containg this, Red Nails, and the forgettable Jewels of Gwalhur. With Red Nails it remains my favorite REH work. The powerful, ultimately disastrous arc of the story took hold of me and shook the bejabbers out of me. And the monsters and drums in the distance only made it better.

    While i find the whole “barbarism is the natural state” idea sort of silly, this is REH’s best presentation of it. The world under the eaves of the Pictish Wilderness is so dark and dangerous it’s a struggle for even the Cimmerian.

    This story, putting Conan in the secondary role, could serve as the template for most of KEW’s Kane stories that do the exact thing. I appreciate how this could be off putting for a first time reader, but I like the air of mystery it lends Conan.

      • I really don’t know. KEW seems to have read everything under the sun and was master scholar of REH, so it makes sense, but I just don’t know. I’ll have to look and see if he ever wrote anything about that.

  3. I understand Howard’s points, but agree this is a superb story, all the more for the fact that it is so unlike all the other Conan tales. I think I enjoyed it more on later readings when I was older than upon first reading it in highschool.

    One point I would make, however, is that this story contains a fantastic weird element, and one of the creepiest confrontations Conan has ever had with the supernatural. I’m speaking of his meeting with the demon…

    “Why have the gods of darkness doomed me to death?” growled Conan.

    Something–a hand, foot or talon, he could not tell which, thrust out
    from the fire and marked swiftly on the mold. A symbol blazed there,
    marked with fire, and faded, but not before he recognized it.

    “You dared make the sign which only a priest of Jhebbal Sag dare make.
    Thunder rumbled through the black Mountain of the Dead and the altar-
    hut of Gullah was thrown down by a wind from the Gulf of Ghosts. The
    loon which is messenger to the Four Brothers of the Night flew swiftly
    and whispered your name in my ear. Your race is run. You are a dead
    man already. Your head will hang in the altar-hut of my brother. Your
    body will be eaten by the black-winged, sharp-beaked Children of
    Jhil.”

    • Yes, that passage about the Four Brothers of the Night is one of my absolute favorite scenes of any REH story. It really makes clear the difference between REH’s brand of horror-tinged fantasy and the more common kind. And I love how it hints at an entire mythology in just a few sentences.

      • Robert, Christopher, you’re right. Those are good scenes. REH was always brilliant about suggesting a greater world than what we saw with just a few spinkled phrases.

  4. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Beyond the Black River”

  5. there is always something mesmerizing about failed expeditions and disastrous encounters with the wild. when i was just a kid i always loved to read plutarch’s accoun of crassus doomed parthian camapign. there was always a sense of him going too far and that is one of the prime elements of horror. it is quite similar with this howard’s story that i have read for the first time as a graphic novel adaptation.

    • Plutarch’s Lives is great stuff. And a fine point about “going too far” being an element of horror. Sign post up ahead — you’ve passed the border into the strange and unexpected.

    • Thanks, Jim. That’s great in-depth look of the story and its influences in your post.

      It’s interesting what reaches us the most, but I suppose as a boy growing up in a medium-sized midwest town, the frontier was very strange to me. It was The Tower of the Elephant that blew the doors off and converted me to being a Conan fan, although I’d read numerous REH historicals by that point. I came to Howard via a circuitous root after bouncing off “Black River.” I finally tried his writing again because I’d heard his historicals had been heavily influenced by Harold Lamb, whose writing I had read and loved.

      I loved Howard’s historicals so much I returned to try his fantasies, and he’s remained one of my favorite writers ever since.

        • Thanks, Jim. Bill and I are talking about doing a re-read on some Khlit the Cossack stories at some point this year, although we’re going to take a little break after Conan, and we might read a little more Leigh Brackett first, this being her centennial birth year.

  6. I find myself in a strange position on this one. I can recognize the strengths of the piece, and yet it just doesn’t click for me. That doesn’t mean that I think any of you are wrong. I suppose when it comes to matters of taste there are no wrongs or rights, although with some stories I would argue vehemently with you — for instance if you thought the rebooted Star Trek movies are good, I could go point by point through them and illustrate all the terrible choices the writers made.

    Here I can’t do that. It’s more like we have a different preference on how we want our meal fixed. I didn’t mind the flavor of this one, but I didn’t like it enough to get in line for seconds, much less tell my friends to visit the restaurant.

    • I am with you on this, though. Structurally it is all very sound with plenty of great ideas. But it’s lacking the spark that the really great Conan stories have.

      From what I remember there wasn’t much of the “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth”. It’s more somber and that doesn’t really fit for me into a Conan tale.

    • I’ll never fault a critic for “this didn’t work for me.” I only get annoyed when a critic acts as though “it didn’t work for me” is the same thing as “it sucks.” You two are way above that.

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