Monday, January 4, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Hour of the Dragon

Serialized in five parts in Weird Tales -- December 1935 through April 1936 -- "The Hour of the Dragon" is the last Conan yarn published before Robert E. Howard's death. It's also the only tale of the Cimmerian lengthy enough to be considered a novel. Howard wrote it over the course of several months at the behest of a British publisher, whose business went bankrupt before the proposed book could be published. Once all the legal wrangling was done, REH submitted it to Weird Tales, which accepted it and commissioned a Margaret Brundage cover depicting Conan in chains being aided by the slave girl Zenobia -- a surprisingly tame cover compared to many of the others associated with Howard's WT appearances.

In "The Hour of the Dragon," Conan is 45 years old and is king of Aquilonia, a title he seized by slaying the previous king, Numedides. The heir of Numedides, Valerius, joins forces with the new king of neighboring Nemedia in a plot to overthrow Conan and put him on the throne instead. The conspirators use an artifact called the Heart of Ahriman to resurrect an ancient Acheronian wizard named Xaltotun to aid them in their plot -- which succeeds, resulting in Conan's capture and imprisonment. The bulk of the novel consists of describing Conan's escape from captivity and efforts to return to Aquilonia to reclaim his rulership of the proudest kingdom of the Hyborian Age.

"The Hour of the Dragon" is a peculiar story, as it's quite reminiscent of an earlier tale, "The Scarlet Citadel," in which Conan is also captured and imprisoned through the assistance of a powerful wizard. However, "The Hour of the Dragon" is lengthier and less focused, by which I mean that it consists of many individual episodes that, while occurring within a larger narrative of Conan's escape, aren't always directly connected to that goal. The result is something that feels a bit disjointed and almost picaresque in nature. Of course, Howard keeps Conan -- and the action -- moving so that, regardless of the content of each individual episode, the reader doesn't lose sight of the purpose of it all.

Even so, I can't deny that "The Hour of the Dragon" isn't my favorite Conan story. It feels less polished than Howard's best creations. I can't shake the feeling that the greater length demanded of a novel worked against REH's genius for concision, producing an uneven tale. Still, there's a lot to like here, particularly the character of Zenobia, whom I've long regarded as an under-appreciated female of the Hyborian Age. True, she's no Valeria or Bêlit, but that may be why I find Zenobia so intriguing. She's not a warrior woman and yet she manages to save the Cimmerian's life and is rewarded like no other woman in Conan's saga.

I'll admit I have a soft spot for King Conan, an aspect of the character Howard obviously considered important too, given that his very first appearance also features him as king of Aquilonia. Seeing Conan fighting for the kingship of the most powerful and sophisticated realm of the Hyborian Age is a nice antidote to caricatures that paint him as an unthinking brute, unchanged by his many years of adventuring in civilized lands. I regret there are so few REH-penned tales of Conan's kingship, which is why, despite its flaws, I nevertheless enjoy "The Hour of the Dragon" and recommend it to anyone looking to better familiarize themselves with the stories of Conan.

7 comments:

  1. I do not think this tale feels disjointed of its own accord, rather I think that it does so because it borrows from a number of earlier Conan tales, particularly, as you note, the Scarlet Citadel. If read in publication order, this story seems a strange, even somewhat forced, "ending".

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  2. "I regret there are so few REH-penned tales of Conan's kingship"

    +1 indeed. I enjoyed Hour of the Dragon, but it is by no means my favorite Conan tale. That slot probably goes to "Jewels of Gwahlur" or "The Slithering Shadow."

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  3. I agree that the novel length is not ideal for Howard's writing, but in my opinion Hour of the Dragon contains some of his finest work. The chapter where Conan descends into the stygian temple of Set armed with nothing more than a long knife is pure dungeon-crawling genius.

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  4. I guess we'll have to disagree on this one, since I consider HotD one of the very finest Conan tales.

    I think the reasoning for a lot of your criticisms - the seeming disjointedness, the slightly unconnected vignettes, the greater length, the recycling of other story elements - are a result of Howard writing to introduce Conan to a new market. The heavy Arthurian "quest" overtones makes me think REH purposely tried to make a more "British" story, with an emphasis on royal duty and the heroism of the secondary players (Zenobia, Hadrathus, Zelata, Pallantides, Tiberius all contribute as much as Conan himself).

    As a narrative & plot, HotD might not be as tight or balanced as Beyond the Black River or Queen of the Black Coast, but I consider the individual chapters, taken on their own merits, to be some of the best stuff Howard wrote. Xaltotun is probably one of his best-realised, fascinating antagonists, certainly more than his ancestors Tsotha-Lanti or Thugra Khotan. Likewise, Tarascus is more nuanced than Strabonus or Ascalante.

    Some of the episodes make great short stories in themselves: "The Cliffs Reel", "The Haunter of the Pits", "It Is The King or His Ghost!", "The Fang of the Dragon", "The Return of the Corsair", "In The Hall of the Dead", "Drums of Peril" and "The Road To Acheron" are all fantastic, and stand proud among Howard's best Conan work.

    I'm with you on Zenobia, though. I particularly think that Zenobia is far braver and more resourceful than Valeria or Belit, precisely because she isn't a warrior or captain. She is a mere seraglio girl, who nonetheless managed to drug the guards, procure a poniard, and help Nemedia's Most Wanted escape from captivity. She saved Conan's skin - Conan, the guy that saves the girl in so many caricatures!

    Matthew: what did you find strange/forced about it?

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  5. Matthew: what did you find strange/forced about it?

    Upon my initial reading I found strange the similarities to previous Conan tales, which made it feel a little derivative. The ending with Conan marrying Zenobia seemed a little too "and they lived happily ever after, the end."

    Do not get me wrong, I really enjoyed Hour of the Dragon, those were pretty much the only things that rubbed me a little the wrong way, and as an independent rendering of King Conan it is an excellent adventure.

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  6. I think the "derivative" nature of HotD is indeed a stumbling block for many people. It never bothered me particularly, but I can see why it would be a problem.

    Of course, we don't actually know for sure that Conan did marry Zenobia, but Conan was a changed man by the end of the novel, and it's pretty likely that he made good on it.

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  7. Hour of the Dragon is the last point in the evolution of the character of Conan, Conan stories highlights the gradual evolution of an amoral, brash bandit and drifter character (he's not that bad he has that kind of honour Howard links to barbarians) to a just and intelligent king who shows good responsibility and initiative.

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