I know that I should probably spend more of my time reading current year Hugo finalists, but instead I’m still reading my way through the entire Conan series. I read some of the bowdlerized Lancer/Ace Conan editions years ago, but I finally decided to replace them with the definitive Del Rey editions.
My teenaged self certainly enjoyed the Conan stories as great and glorious adventures. Plus, there was the thrill of reading “violent American trash” that sensible educated people weren’t supposed to read or enjoy. However, upon rereading these stories as an adult, I find that there is a lot of depth and subtext in the Conan series that my teenaged self missed.
I just finished rereading “The Black Stranger”, one of only three completed Conan stories that remained unpublished during Robert E. Howard’s lifetime. According to the notes in the back of the Del Rey edition, “The Black Stranger” was written sometime in late 1934/early 1935.
I don’t think I read this story during my earlier encounter with Conan. Or maybe I just forgot I read it, because this was one of the stories that suffered badly from L. Sprague de Camp’s and Lin Carter’s “editing” efforts, even though there really was no reason to mess with this one, because it is a complete story.
Warning: There will be some spoilers in the following!
“The Black Stranger” has a fairly complex plot and various important characters, all with their own agendas. There’s Count Valenso, a Zingaran noblemen (Zingara is Aquilonia’s vaguely Spanish southwesterly neighbour) who’s running from his demons (quite literally) and has washed up in a secluded cove on the shores of the Pictish territory. There are Zarano and Strom, two rival pirate captains, who are both after the same legendary pirate treasure that’s hidden somewhere near the secluded cove where Valenso has made his home in exile. There’s Belesa, Valenso’s niece, and her young ward Tina, who basically just want to survive without getting killed, raped, married off or sold into slavery. There’s Conan, who’s on the run from the Picts after the events of “Beyond the Black River” and is looking for a way back to civilisation (for no matter how much Conan complains about civilisation, he always goes back there) and some loot. There’s the titular Black Stranger, who wants revenge on Valenso. And there are the Picts who just want all of those interlopers gone from their territory.
As the story unfolds, the various characters are plotting, counterplotting and outwitting each other. They also reluctantly cooperate, because each has something the others want. Valenso has a fortified estate as well as manpower and supplies and a beautiful niece. Zarano has a ship (at least at first) and a crew and a vague idea where the treasure might be. Strom has a ship and a crew and a map that shows the location of the treasure (at least at first). Conan actually knows where the treasure is, because he stumbled upon it during his escape from the Picts, but he needs help to carry it off. Watching all of the characters trying to outwit and outmanoeuvre each other is a lot of fun as well as genuinely suspenseful, because how will Conan manage to keep the upper hand, when Valenso, Zarano and Strom all want to kill him?
The popular image of Conan is that of a brawny and not very bright barbarian, probably based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s. However, this image is wrong, because the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s original stories is actually very intelligent. He can read and write, speaks multiple languages, he knows how to navigate a ship and is a brilliant military tactician. And while Conan often wins the day due to his superior strength and endurance, he uses his brain as much as his brawn and just as often outwits rather than outfights his opponents. In “The Jewels of Gwahlur” a.k.a. “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”, a Conan story written shortly before “The Black Stranger”, we see Conan in full con artist mode, running a long con to steal a kingdom’s stash of sacred jewels. He almost succeeds, too.
“The Black Stranger” features not just Conan the pirate (even dressed up in full 17th/18th century pirate regalia at one point), but also Conan the con artist, who is fully intending to trick and kill his temporary allies Zarano and Strom. But that’s okay, because Zarano and Strom plan to kill him, too, and are generally awful people, as is Count Valenso. In the end, Conan’s plan fails due to the interference of the titular Black Stranger, who stirs up the Picts, and Valenso’s greedy seneschal, who springs Conan’s trap too early. As a matter of fact, Conan’s plans often fail, because if he did get the loot of priceless jewels, he might well decide to retire from adventuring, bringing the series to an abrupt end. And indeed, most sword and sorcery heroes tend to be financially unlucky (also see Fafhrd and Gray Mouser), because once they actually get to keep the priceless jewels that’s probably the end of their career.
By the end of the story, everybody except for Conan, Belesa and Tina is dead, either at the hands of each other or the Picts or the Black Stranger, making it one of the gloomier stories in the Conan canon, though not quite as gloomy as “Beyond the Black River” (another “everybody dies, even the dog” story), because unlike in “Beyond the Black River”, none of the characters who die in “The Black Stranger” are even remotely likeable. Only Conan, Belesa and Tina survive and Conan takes control of the now captainless pirate ship. He also hands the loot he has managed to secure – a bag of rubies – to Belesa, so she can build an independent life for herself and Tina. When Belesa tells Conan she can’t possibly accept the rubies, Conan says something quite remarkable, which I’ll quote in its entirety below:
“Of course you’ll take them. I might as well leave you for the Picts to scalp as to take you back to Zingara to starve,” said he. “I know what it is to be penniless in a Hyborian land. Now in my country sometimes there are famines; but people are hungry only when there’s no food in the land at all. But in civilized countries I’ve seen people sick of gluttony while others were starving. Aye, I’ve seen men fall and die of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food. Sometimes I was hungry, too, but then I took what I wanted at sword’s-point. But you can’t do that. So you take these rubies. You can sell them and buy a castle, and slaves and fine clothes, and with them it won’t be hard to get a husband, because civilized men all desire wives with these possessions.”
So here we have Conan making a harsh indictment of capitalism, in contrast with his native Cimmeria, which is described as a quasi-Socialist society here. We also learn why Conan has no compunctions about robbing and stealing (and it’s notable that Conan always steals from those who can afford it, e.g. Kallian Publico from “The God in the Bowl” or Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant”) – because this is his way of surviving in a cutthroat world which he considers already immoral. Finally, Conan also has things to say about the economics of marriage to which Jane Austen would likely nod in agreement (though there is no record that Howard ever read Austen).
Of course, the Conan stories were written at the height of the Great Depression and people falling and dying of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food was something that actually did happen in the US at the time. Just as there were people whose response to the stark economic inequality of the Great Depression was very much like Conan’s, namely take what they want at the point of a gun. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had been killed in May 1934, less than a year before Howard wrote “The Black Stranger” and part of their crime spree took place in Howard’s home state of Texas. And considering how glorified Bonnie and Clyde as well as other gangsters and outlaws of the era like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd (both of whom also met their ends in 1934) and Ma Barker (killed in January 1935) were in popular culture, one can suspect that quite a few people sympathised with them.
Even though Conan lives in the Hyborian Age millennia before our time, he is still very much a child of the Great Depression. Though unlike the real life outlaws of the 1930s, Conan gets to walk away and goes on to bigger and better things, eventually becoming King of Aquilonia.
“The Black Stranger” is not the only story where Conan makes a political statement. We do get glimpses of Conan’s politics (and possibly those of his creator) throughout the series. I’ve already discussed Conan’s brushes with the law in my review of “The God in the Bowl”, which usually result from the fact that Conan is absolutely loyal and unwilling to betray friends and accomplices (he does double-cross his temporary allies in “The Black Stranger”, but a) this story features an older and more jaded Conan than “The God in the Bowl” or “Queen of the Black Coast” and b) those allies were planning to murder him and Conan knows it) and that he can’t understand that “I’m sorry, but I can’t possibly betray my friend” is not considered an acceptable answer, when questioned about a crime, and that stating “I didn’t do it”, doesn’t necessarily mean that a police officer or judge will believe him. “The God in the Bowl” also features a bonus indictment of police brutality and suspects being railroaded.
We learn more about Conan’s politics in the three stories (“The Phoenix on the Sword”, “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Hour of the Dragon”), which feature him as King of Aquilonia. And so we learn that Conan lowered taxes compared to his predecessor, that he stopped aristocrats from abusing commoners and that he’s not a fan of hereditary monarchy in general. In “Beyond the Black River”, Conan also speaks out in favour of land reform, when he criticises the fact that instead of seizing the hunting grounds of various aristocrats and giving them to farmers, the Aquilonians instead force people to settle in the dangerous border regions at constant risk of getting slaughtered by the Picts. In the same story, Conan also points out that Aquilonia will never hold its colonies in Pictish territory, just as it was not able to hold its colonies in Cimmeria, when the Cimmerians, a young Conan among them, kicked them out. And yes, it’s ironic that Conan began his adventuring career by kicking the Aquilonians out of Cimmeria, only to end up ruling those very same people some twenty-five years later. Conan also speaks out against colonialism and imperialism in “The Hour of the Dragon”, when he tells his friend and supporter Count Trocero that he does not want to build an empire nor does he want to conquer any of the neighbouring lands, he just wants his kingdom of Aquilonia back.
Conan speaks out against slavery at several points and even leads a slave revolt in “The Hour of the Dragon” (and it’s notably that the galley slaves he frees are black). Also in “The Hour of the Dragon”, we learn that Conan is in favour of religious freedom and believes people should be allowed to worship whatever gods they please (and notably Conan does not share the religion of the Aquilonians). It’s this tolerance that eventually helps him regain the throne and the cult of Asura, which was persecuted in Aquilonia, before Conan put a stop to that, saves his bacon more than once. Finally, Conan reveals himself to be a supporter of the artistic freedom and the arts in general in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, when he refuses to have the rabble-rousing poet Rinaldo arrested and executed. Rinaldo thanks him for this by participating in a plot to assassinate Conan. Of all the conspirators, he even comes closest to success.
So in short, if you were to find yourself living in the Hyborian Age, you could do worse than being a citizen of Conan’s Aquilonia. And it’s notable that the Aquilonians generally support Conan and want him as their king, for even though he is a foreign barbarian, he’s clearly better than the alternative. And indeed, in “Hour of the Dragon”, we see how bad the alternative – a fellow named Valerius, who’s a relative of the king Conan killed – can be.
That’s also why the oft quoted remarks of German SFF author and critic Hans Joachim Alpers (who hailed from Wesermünde, i.e. he was almost local to me) who claimed that Conan and his authors had “the mercenary mentality of a Kongo-Müller” annoy me so much, because it’s flat out wrong. Alpers’ original article, which appeared in a fanzine in the 1970s, does not appear to be available online anywhere, but German sword and sorcery critic Peter Schmitt quotes from it at his blog Skalpell und Katzenklaue. Here is a translation:
Conan has the mercenary mentality of a Kongo-Müller and naturally, so do his authors. If Conan helps others, then not for noble reasons, but out of pure calculation. What drives him is first of all money (which unites him with many heroes of the sado-western*), but also the joy of killing. Conan will do anything for money: he is the bought henchman of any ruler in the pursuit of any aim, who helps to oppress the people and puts down uprisings, if he does not work for himself and travels through the lands, murdering and plundering, while gouging himself on the blood and sweat of the working population.
Every single word of this is wrong. I have a lot of respect for Hans Joachim Alpers and what he did for German SFF, but honestly, has he ever read a single Howard Conan story? Because I have no idea how anybody can read the original Conan stories or even the pastiches and then write complete nonsense like that. Honestly, this is just as bad as the leftwing German critics who saw Conan as a fascist figure and example of a blonde and blue-eyed Aryan master race stereotype, clearly missing the fact that Conan has black hair (which is only mentioned in every single story) and is Celtic rather than Nordic. Now leftwing German critics of the 1970s will view everything as fascist, even Captain America (yes, really), but in the case of Conan, this is particularly unfair, because Howard is on record as being disgusted by Hitler and Mussolini and “The Hour of the Dragon”, written barely a year after Hitler came to power, feels like an eerily prescient parable for the rise of fascism.
So let’s unpack this. Yes, Conan works as a mercenary in several of the stories. He’s also a pirate, a thief, a warlord and a king at various points in his life. Now mercenaries have a horrible reputation in Germany. They’re frequently viewed as murderous and raping thugs who’ll do anything for money. Just as Alpers views Conan. The reason for this is some kind of intergenerational PTSD caused by the Thirty Years’ War, where mercenary armies plundered and devastated large swarthes of Central Europe. The bad reputation of mercenaries was later upheld by Prussian propaganda in order to promote their great invention of the conscript army by basically arguing that you won’t have problems with plundering unemployed mercenaries after the war is over, because the conscripts just want to go home and back to their lives. Yes, that was honestly an argument. So Alpers did grow up with the intensely negative connotation of the term “mercenary” as did I. But while I somehow managed to overcome those four-hundred-year old prejudices, partly due to reading speculative fiction and encountering positive portrayals of mercenaries, Alpers projected the prejudices he inherited onto a character who was created in a completely different cultural environment.
As for “Conan never helps people for noble reasons, but only out of pure calculation”, so why does Conan give Belesa the rubies? He has nothing to gain here, he doesn’t even have any sexual interest in Belesa, most likely because she’s a little young for him. For that matter, why does Conan help Yag-Kasha, the abused alien elephant creature in “The Tower of the Elephant”, to find release in death and turn the tables on his abuser, when he could have just made off with the jewel? Why does he lets a chest of priceless jewels he plotted months to acquire fall into a river in order to save Muriela in “The Jewels of Gwahlur”? Why does he risk his own life to give the settlers the chance to escape in “Beyond the Black River”? Why does he sneak into a dungeon to save the Countess Albiona (in whom he has no sexual interest either) from execution in “The Hour of the Dragon” rather than make a run for it? Why does he rescue the witch Zelota (who’s an old woman in whom Conan has no sexual interest as well) and free the black galley slaves in the same story? Why is he so eager to save the seven captured hill chiefs in “People of the Black Circle”? Why is he willing to risk imprisonment and death rather than to betray a friend or accomplice in several stories? We often see Conan being selfless and caring for others throughout the stories.
Nor is Conan’s only motive for doing what he does money. Yes, he needs money, because like everybody he needs to eat. And, as he explains to Belesa in “The Black Stranger”, in the cutthroat capitalist world of the Hyborian lands, taking what you need by force strikes him as perfectly acceptable. We also do have Conan the thief and Conan the con artist. However, we frequently see Conan giving up riches – in “The Tower of the Elephant”, “The Black Stranger” or “The Jewels of Gwahlur” – in order to help someone else. As for the joy of killing, yes, Conan kills people. Most of them deserve it, but sometimes – e.g. in “The Tower of the Elephant” or “Pool of the Black One” – Conan kills people with little provocation, though again they’re usually awful. Conan is capable of nobility, but he’s not a noble savage. Nor is he a murdering psychopath, as Alpers believes.
As for Alpers’ claims that Conan helps to oppress the downtrodden populace and puts down uprisings in the service of various rulers, there simply is no evidence for this at all. In his chronicled career as a mercenary, Conan nevers puts down a single uprising and he actually participates in one, when he seizes the throne of Aquilonia. As for oppressing the downtrodden, that’s what Conan’s temporary successor Valerius does in “Hour of the Dragon”. Meanwhile in the same story, Conan is utterly furious because Valerius and the Nemedian soldiers are abusing and oppressing the people of Aquilonia, people he feels responsible for. Nor does Conan gouge himself on the blood and sweat of the working population – indeed, Conan lowers taxes and restricts the privileges of the aristocracy. Again, the one who exploits the working population is Valerius, not Conan.
As for travelling through the land, murdering and plundering, Alpers does have a bit of a point there, because Conan does plunder villages and ships during his pirate days as well as during his time with the Kozakhi or the Afghuli hill tribes. And while we don’t see Conan engaging in random slaughter – the closest we come to that is the jailer in “The Scarlet Citadel”, who wants to kill Conan, because Conan killed his bother in a raid during his pirate days – it very likely happened.
The core theme of the Conan stories is barbarism versus civilisation, whereby civilisation is usually portrayed as corrupt. And while Conan’s quasi-Socialist homeland of Cimmeria may be a rather naive utopia (but then we never actually see Cimmeria in any of the stories – the closest we come to actually seeing Conan’s homeland is the poem “Cimmeria”, which is mainly about the gloomy hills of the country), but Conan himself is not a noble savage nor is he the murderous mercenary psychopath that Alpers described.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan is a nuanced character, capable of great good and also of random acts of violence. And that’s also why the Conan stories are so rewarding, because there is so much more to them than just the adventures of a wandering barbarian with lots of muscles and a big sword.
*I presume that Alpers refers to Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s here.