Conan Re-Read: “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

conquering sword conanBill Ward and I are starting our read through of the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Conquering Sword of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The Servants of Bit-Yakin,” occasionally known as “Jewels of Gwahlur.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: I expected to like this one less. I try to walk into reading these stories with a pretty open mind, but in the case of Bit-Yakin I recently caught a few articulate REH fans writing about how it was their least favorite, and of course Patrice Louinet mentions, in the concluding essay to the book, that it was probably written quickly to help build up the stock of Conan stories in the Weird Tales inventory. With that in mind I thought I’d be reading more filler. Yet I ended up enjoying it a lot more than “A Witch Shall be Born” — apart from that one great scene we discussed last week — and there’s nothing in this story that touches that.

servants 3Bill: I like it as well, and put it roughly on par with stories like “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” I recently read a good Dark Horse adaptation of it (as “The Jewels of Gwahlur,” its Weird Tales name) so it was fresher in my mind than many of our recent rereads.

Howard: Yes, I re-read the adaption in the Savage Sword of Conan, which worked quite well. Even acknowledging it’s one of the lesser Conan stories it’s still enjoyable. It feels a lot less like a re-tred of pre-existing scenes the way some of the other minor yarns featuring the famous Cimmerian. It’s not without some issues, but it has some some excellent moments as well. The opening climb is a great attention getter, and provides us numerous moments that are revealing of Conan’s character. I especially like how Conan’s completely unfazed by the repulsive mummy. To him it’s just another dead thing, and Conan’s lack of fear or even revulsion when he encounters it is completely counter to what a civilized man would feel.

Bill: Yes, he just snatches the mummy’s scroll and keeps on climbing. Interestingly enough, he can also later read the obscure language on the scroll, which shows the other side of his character.

servants 1Howard: Right — by this point in his life he’s picked these things up. Conan’s hardly a monosyllabic brute, or unchanging. There’s another character revealing moment near the tale’s end, after Conan’s lost the jewels. Muriela thinks that he’s going to be furious. A civilized man would be full of recriminations and anger and regret, but Conan just shrugs. He knows the moment is over and there’s no need to waste energy worrying about might have beens.

There are numerous splendid scenes describing the eerie dead city, and some evocative phrases. Robert E. Howard knew very well that there was no point in taking your characters some place that wasn’t interesting to look at, and the entire lost hidden city with its concealed entrance and underground river (where hideous ape men dine on corpses they’ve fished from dark waters) is first rate.

Bill: Indeed, the narration remains in the lost world of the “vast natural amphitheater” of the Oracle of Alkmeenon for the whole story, the rest of the expository details of Keshan and the build-up to the conflict between Conan and Zargheba and Gwarunga is given as backstory. This is unusual to the point of being, possibly, unique in a Conan story. Even stories set in predominantly one location usually begin with Conan moving out of one predicament or set up and onto the primary stage of the story.

servants 2Howard: The plot itself is a little flimsy and sends Conan racing back and forth enough times it’s a little like watching a tennis match. It’s a bit hard to believe that Conan has worked so hard to get to his place and its jewels without knowing very much about them, and all the back and forth with the perfectly preserved oracle as well as the reason the servants are there doesn’t hold up to that much scrutiny. Yet there is great momentum, and some nice chills (the discovery of the severed head, for instance) and other revealing character moments. Muriela’s not one of Conan’s more interesting lady loves, although I rather like the way she acts like the oracle (and I thought it clever that Conan catches on because of her Corinthian accent).

Bill: I will admit to being a little disoriented with the “tennis match” in places, particularly after the first encounter with Gwarunga. I think it’s fair to say the story could be a little leaner and more tightly plotted, but, as that never really feels like a problem in the way that “Witch’s” flaws do, I think that goes to show the power of direct narrative when you are trying to move a story forward. “Witch” relied on a lot of exposition and second hand information when presenting plot points, “Bit-Yakin” confines exposition to backstory, and gives us an undiluted narrative foreground for all the action in the tale. Even if it gets slightly confusing, it doesn’t matter, because we are along for the ride in a way that a story like “Witch” makes impossible.

Howard: I think that’s all fair. It might have needed another pass, but it didn’t require as much brushwork as “Witch,” a tale that seemed like it was an outline in several places. You’re probably right that it’s easier to forgive this one its flaws because it’s direct narrative and that it’s Conan we’re watching.

Bill: I like the backstory for this one as well. The “Teeth of Gwahlur” may not really be explained, but the manipulation of these servant 4isolated civilizations on the edge of the known world by foreign adventurers — and by Bit-Yakin himself in ages past — is a compelling idea and a great way to kick off a conflict. There are shades of Haggard here, and another Conan, Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Lost World gave us a remote, inaccessible plateau, and some horrible ape-men to go with it.

Thutmekri, the mastermind behind the rival attempt to grab the jewels, is probably my favorite minor character in this piece, and he’s only mentioned a few times and never encountered. To me he sounds like a Stygian version of Conan — and when was the last time we ever heard of an adventurer from the black lands of Stygia? — and his plan to nab the jewels is good enough that Conan plans to adopt the same scheme for himself and Muriela at the story’s end. Thutmekri just begged to be a reoccurring foil for the Cimmerian, I’m surprised he never took off in comics or pastiches the way Toth-Amon did.

Howard: Roy Thomas, the mastermind behind The Savage Sword of Conan and the regular Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics, used Thutmekri multiple times, having him appear in several prequel stories before this. That just goes to show how carefully Thomas dealt with the series, and how well-thought out his approach to writing pastiche was. It may seem obvious to a real Conan fan that you’d carefully comb through the stories to find possibilities like this and expand upon them, but then all you have to do is look out upon the vast swathe of ham-handed Conan pastiche that occurred before and after Thomas and realize it must not be obvious at all.  The man loved the Conan stories and dealt with them reverently. Thomas was hampered a little both by comic conventions and having to deliver the tales in a monthly format, yet even with occasional clunker issues his run was remarkable, and he really should be celebrated as one of the best of the pastiche writers.

Bill: That’s good to hear, my bit of googling didn’t turn much up on Thutmekri, I’ll have to check out those Thomas tales some time. Overall, I’d rate “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” as on par more-or-less with the solid run of lesser Conan stories, and a nice return to form after last week’s tale. Exotic locale, frantic pace, beautiful sidekick, lost ruins, supernatural peril — a lot from the Conan checklist is here, but the story itself also strays into some original territory which helps keep it fresh.

Howard: I agree. It’s no “Tower of the Elephant” but it’s a fun ride.

Here’s usually where I thank you for coming and invite you to enjoy us next week. But next week, rather than bringing you a very special Cimmerian Christmas special, we’ll just be taking the day off. The week after, though, we’ll be discussing one of the most famous Conan stories, “Beyond the Black River.” We DID want to point you toward another Conan re-read series over at Black Gate. John Fultz is re-reading the Savage Sword of Conan. He’s up to volume 3. It’s definitely worth a look! John goes into great detail about both the stories and the art quality.