Part 1 of 4
Moving on from my recent review of Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House,” I would like to have a look at the only full-length Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (sometimes known as Conan the Conqueror).
This piece again illustrates the subliminal racialism of the Howard mythos as well as providing a template for his mordant, pessimistic, and ultra-conservative views about civilization. Both tendencies are strongly in evidence in The Hour of the Dragon.
In this novel Conan has been reigning for a while as the king of Aquilonia, but trouble is brewing in the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia. The plot revolves around the reincarnation of a 3,000 year old magician, Xaltotun of Python in Acheron, in order for him to safeguard the stolen Heart of Ahriman and bring to power a circle of conspirators in both Nemedia and Aquilonia.
The elderly Nemedian king—friendly to Conan—dies in an infernal plague, brought into being by the magician, and one of the plotters known as Tarascus replaces him on the Nemedian throne. All peace treaties are then abrogated with neighboring Aquilonia, and both powers prepare for war. The Nemedians burn a village, cross the border under Taracus, and then encamp awaiting the Aquilonian host.
Conan has disturbed dreams the night before the battle. As a result of the black sorcery of Xaltotun, he is visited by a waif of the night, a child of the outermost gulf. The icy hand of this skeletal figure pins him to a fur dais in his regal tent, and he has to sit out the battle, another wearing his harness in front of the Aquilonian host.
At a key point in the battle, hypnotic suggestion is used to tempt the lesser man in Conan’s harness over the river with the cream of his Kingdom’s knights. They are trapped in a defile behind the Nemedian lines, which crashes down to earth via magical intervention, killing Conan’s look-alike and leaving the army leaderless. It then breaks, as defenseless as spume before the storm. The Devil’s own sorcery rides and fights for Nemedia. Conan, bereft in his kingly tent, staggers out to do battle with Tarascus, but his life is spared by Xaltotun.
This section leads to the part of the plot which really concerns us. Xaltotun arrives in his chariot, drawn by the black stallions who never seem to tire, and he throws a magic bauble at Conan. He knocks it aside contemptuously. This sets off an explosion which fells him to the ground. He is then put in Xaltotun’s chariot and carried back to the Nemedian palace in the capital, Belverus. Xaltotun spares Conan to use as a pawn in future power-plays with his allies—such as Tarascus and Valerius—and has his body loaded with chains and placed in his private chamber.
Conan soon revives and realizes that the reincarnated Black magician is the real power behind the conspirators against whom he is arrayed. Finally, after an inconclusive interview in which he refuses to become a vassal, Conan is carried down into the Pits beneath the castle. The guardians of the pits are four enormous black men—whether servants of Xaltotun or Tarascus is never made clear. One of them racially abuses Conan as he lies in chains in his cell—but he soon learns the error of his ways, since Conan breaks his head open by pulling his slack chains taut using them as a devastating weapon. His companions carry the brained African away on silent feet, leaving Conan alone to the tender mercies of the Pits.
Riding hard, Tarascus reaches Belverus after the battle with a small retinue, determined to act against the black magician who holds them all in thrall. First, he steals the Heart of Ahriman—a flaming magical jewel which restored the magician to life—and second, he goes down into the Pits, secretly approaches Conan’s door from the other side, and unlocks it. This means that he is vulnerable to some nemesis from without who can only make his way to him from further inside the Pits.
After a while a love interest supervenes, and the slave-girl Zenobia, who has long been in love with Conan from a distance, releases him from his chains in the darkness. She has stolen the keys from the black guards who sleep from some drugged wine she has given them. Conan is immediately suspicious of her advances, but appreciates the fact that he is now free and able to smite his enemies with a fifteen inch poniard (a dagger) which the girl provides him.
Zenobia offers to meet him at the entrance to the Pits ahead of a flight of stairs spiraling upwards—but, first of all, he will have to brave the Pits and anything which Taracus may have unleashed to finish off the barbarian king once and for all. After having traversed half of their extent, Conan’s acute senses realize that he is being followed by a silent man-eater. Reminiscent of Thak in “Rogues in the House,” this is an ape from Vilayet which stalks human prey, remains silent throughout, and breaks open the bones for the marrow they contain.
Conan rolls himself into a ball, and poniard first, leaps between the ape’s outstretched hands and marker-claws. He does this in order to reach the creature’s great pulsating chest, where the heart is underneath two pronounced shields. He successfully finds what he is looking for, stabs through it with the poniard, and leaps clear, while trusting his innate strength to save him from being dismembered by the convulsive grappling of the grey Ape.
In these and other passages, Howard skilfully compiles a series of vignettes into a novel-length narrative. One also detects the Beowulf-like heroics in such a story. Moreover, unlike most post-sixties cultural fare of a similar sort, there is an ever-present racial element to this heroic idealism. It cannot really be brooked or denied; it exists, rather in the manner of Elizabethan tragedy, as a skull beneath the skin.
To be continued . . .