The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “Iron Shadows in the Moon”

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 “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” We hope you’ll join in!

Bill: “Iron Shadows in the Moon” (retitled “Shadows in the Moonlight” for its Weird Tales and some subsequent appearances) contains everything most readers associate with a classic Conan tale: a beautiful female sidekick, the mysterious ruins of a forgotten race, supernatural peril, the clash of civilization and barbarism, subhuman monsters, and, above all, Conan being Conan. REH is firing on all cylinders at this point in his work on Conan and, if a few subsequent stories sometimes seem a bit like formulaic echoes of this story, it’s for good reason, as these elements all come together to tell a really terrific adventure.

Mark Shulz

Mark Shultz

Howard: Given how often you and I have agreed on the stories we read it’s sort of strange to come to this one with a different opinion. While I agree that REH’s writing is smooth as silk on this one, I’m not sure I’d call it terrific. Patrice Louinet calls this — and the two that follow — one of the routine Conan stories. It’s not one of my favorites. It’s got some moments I like, but it’s not one I return to, unlike “Black Colossus” or even the one that follows, “Xuthal of the Dusk.” I thought at first it might be because I didn’t like seeing Conan from a different perspective, but I think it’s more that he feels less like the star and more like the love interest in Olivia’s story.

shadows 3Bill: I wouldn’t rate it as a favorite, either, but I really enjoy all the elements at work in this piece, and the ending really resonates with me and sticks in my memory. There is actually quite a lot going on in “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” but the pace never flags and the various disparate threads are woven together with great skill. Conan is once again introduced through the eyes of a civilized person — as in “Black Colossus,” we have another princess, though Olivia’s circumstances are much different than Yasmela’s — who initially sees Conan in less-than-respectable form. Last time he was drunk and carousing, but here he is feral, covered in swamp filth and burning with hatred. Olivia, having escaped from the harem of the vile Shah Amurath, is very lucky indeed to meet the worst enemy Amurath ever made in the form of Conan, but she certainly doesn’t realize that when he comes stalking out of the swamp like an ogre.

Howard: And it’s the first part of this story I like best. The brutal combat with Shah Amurath is a real blast, and we get the great “seeing Conan through someone else’s eyes” moment that you already mentioned. And then, when they head out on the rowboat, we get that gift of a moment that’s equal to some of the passages in Howard’s finest writing, where “Her silent companion was etched vaguely against the softer darkness. There was no break or falter in the rhythm of his oars; he might have been a phantasmal oarsmen, rowing her across the dark lake of death…”

shadows 2And even before that there’s another wonderful juxtaposition of Conan’s simple moral code and that of civilization, because his people would never have sold a child into slavery.

Bill: That’s a great moment in the ongoing conversation REH is having about civilization and barbarism. Despite her fear of the barbaric Cimmerian who, naked and reeking and armed only with a sword, handily defeats (and mutilates) an armored and skilled swordsmen before her eyes, Olivia joins Conan on his adventure, rightly recognizing that to stay behind is to invite death from Amruth’s men. Conan, having settled the score for the death of his Free Companions — a Cossack-like group of freebooters — is eager to get out of Turan. The two find themselves on an island in the Vilayet Sea, where they are stalked by a vicious man-ape, run afoul of pirates, and uncover an ancient evil.

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Mark Shultz

Olivia, like Yasmela before her and many subsequent beautiful companions, is more than just a bid for the Weird Tales cover story. She serves as a foil, letting us see Conan through civilized eyes, giving us a contrasting view of the character. This can be simply practical, as in the case of Olivia observing Conan’s duel with the pirates and subsequent capture, but far more its about giving the reader characterization we would not otherwise have. Conan is fairly scary when we first meet him, but we wouldn’t really see it unless there was another character to react to his bestial state. As Olivia comes to trust, rely on, and eventually love Conan, we see those qualities at the core of his character that go beyond the superficial. Scantily clad chicks are wonderful eye-candy, but if that’s all they ever were in these stories REH would not be the writer we know him to be.

And, when it comes to it, Olivia is really quite brave and useful — after all she rescues Conan when he is captured by pirates. How terrifying would such an action be, sneaking through a room full of sleeping pirates and soon-to-be-awakened iron demons? Much as Conan is humanized by his contact with Olivia, so to is Olivia emboldened by the man who can row all night without sleep, speed her from the path of a deadly projectile, and defeat a pirate captain in single combat. When she witness the climactic fight between Conan and the psychotic man-ape that has been stalking them, Olivia feels she is watching a battle between two wild animals — but Conan, wild and dangerous as he is, no longer repels her, he is in fact the only reliable and safe thing in her life.

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Mark Shultz

Howard: That’s a really excellent point — Olivia is quite brave. On the other hand, I was a little surprised Conan ended up getting captured  as he did. It felt more like a plot point than something evolving from an action Conan would take, or that it was convenient for Olivia to show her bravery. Normally Conan wouldn’t have needed any help in this situation at all.

Bill: Well, I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I saw it as an example of Conan being both desperate and, strangely, trusting. He obviously knows the pirate code, and I think he’s giving them more credit as honorable men than they deserve — perhaps thinking them something more akin to the Free Companions he has recently been serving with. It’s also a sling bullet that fells him, ranged weaponry always seeming to Conan a bit dishonorable. Sure, it’s a plot point, but I think its not unreasonable given what we know of Conan’s character.

shadows1“Iron Shadows in the Moon” ends on a triumphant note with a very memorable scene. From a swamp-rat-eating fugitive, Conan makes himself captain of a pirate vessel and crew, and he even has his very own “Queen of the Blue Sea” to adventure by his side. I couldn’t help but think of “Queen of the Black Coast” when reading that, of the very different, but parallel, situation Conan found himself in in that story. Which only reinforces one of the central themes of Conan’s life, the ups and downs of his tumultuous adventuring, with Conan, above and through it all, content to live life as it comes — but always on his own terms.

Howard: Yeah, I dug that he can shift and adapt to whatever situation he’s faced with. He’s still completely admirable. On the other hand, I was never completely absorbed or fascinated by the mystery on the island. I was wanting… something more. Sure, me and everyone else reading this could probably tell that the iron statues were going to come to life… but we didn’t really get to see much of that. I craved something more inventive. He did get a really great fight scene with the giant ape thing, though. And come part IV I thought he did a nice job maneuvering the pirates.

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Mark Shultz

Bill: I liked that the statues came to life off-stage, to me that heightened their impact. I felt they were, in a way, a fun bit of misdirection: its the ape and pirates Conan has to deal with, but the statues loom like a ticking time bomb — or like an ‘iron shadow’ — over everything. I thought their history, told in a dream to Olivia, was also very cool — and evil race cursed by a god whose child they sacrificed. In the end, I wouldn’t rate this as top tier Conan but I think it’s got enough going for it in terms of craft and story and character elements to elevate it above the formulaic. The ending alone is worth the price of admission.

Howard: It DOES end on a hopeful note. I wonder if REH had planned to write more tales with Olivia on the Blue Sea with Conan, or if he knew from the start this was going to be the one and only?

Oh, hey, I almost forgot the parrot. You notice that he says something about ‘xuthalla?’ Crafty, prescient parrot that, especially since that’s almost  the name of the city in our next outing, and part of the original title as well. I credit the mispronunciation to his parrotish accent. Tune in next week for “Xuthal of the Dusk!”