The tale begins with Conan, fleeing a judge in Argos who threatened him with imprisonment if he did not betray the whereabouts of a friend. To escape, the Cimmerian forces the captain of a sea vessel bound for the coasts of Cush to take him on as a marine -- "I pay my way with steel!" Conan roars. The captain, Tito, "was a good judge of men" and recognized the value of the barbarian warrior, particularly since the Cushite coast was rife with pirates, whose handiwork they soon recognize as they come across smoking, ruined villages whose inhabitants have been put to the sword. It is then that Tito first speaks to Conan of Belît.
"Who is Belît?"As one expects, Belît and her pirate ship, the Tigress, soon make an appearance and Conan, true to his word, does his best to defend Tito and his crew, who, despite his efforts, "were cut down to a man." As the sole survivor, Belît takes a keen interest in the barbarian.
"The wildest she-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs a-wrong, it was her butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day see her dangling from the yard-arm! She is called the queen of the black coast. She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom."
"You are no soft Hyborian!" she exclaimed, "You are fierce and hard as a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were never softened by life amid city walls."How one reacts to this stretch of prose will, I think, presage much about how one takes the entirety of the story. For some, it will no doubt reek of much of what they find objectionable in both Howard's writing generally and the Conan stories specifically.
"I am Conan, a Cimmerian," he answered.
To the people of the exotic climes, the north was a mazy half-mythical realm, peopled with ferocious blue-eyed giants who occasionally descended from their icy fastnesses with torch and sword. Their raids had never taken them as far south as Shem, and this daughter of Shem made no distinction between Æsir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the unerring instinct of the elemental feminine, she knew she had found her lover, and his race meany naught, save as it invested him with the glamor of far lands.
"And I am Belît," she cried, as one might say, "I am queen!"
"Look at me, Conan!" She threw wide her arms. "I am Belît, queen of the black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love! Go with me to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am queen by fire and steel and slaughter -- be thou my king!"
I can certainly understand this perspective, though I don't completely share it, in part because it's important to note that each of the story's five sections begins with an excerpt from a fictitious poem called "The Song of Belît." The poem would seem to be the work of someone writing well after the fact and turning the story of Conan and Belît into the stuff of a legendary romance. Indeed, as I read it, the entire story should be viewed similarly, which is to say, as an epic retelling of a story well-known in the generations after Conan's time. That seems to me to be a good way to explain the strangely formal, occasionally stilted dialog and exposition of this tale, which stands in contrast to the way many other Conan yarns are presented. I'll admit that I may be rationalizing here, but I've read enough of Howard's writing that I think a good case can be made for my interpretation.
Regardless, "Queen of the Black Coast" is a powerful story. That power derives from the depiction of the relationship between Conan and Belît, which lasts for three years. It's a strangely compelling portrait, showing more than a mere partnership of individuals united in a common goal but yet hardly a conventional union of hearts. The interplay between the two characters is fascinating and it's in this that we get an elucidation of Conan's inner life, something often overlooked or caricatured in later media.
"... What do you believe, Conan?"Would that more portrayals of the Cimmerian took this passage to heart and ran with it, rather than putting nonsense like "What is best in life?" into his mouth. Unfortunately, it's not this aspect of "Queen of the Black Coast" that is remembered. Rather, it is the epic quality of the tale that lingers in many minds. I have little doubt that the later reworking of Howard's texts to create a linear "saga" was in part aided and abetted by a superficial reading of this story. Meanwhile, Belît's own response to Conan is just as memorable, but, unlike it, I suspect that later interpreters make far more of it than they ought.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he trusts them too deeply. I seek not death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let the teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
"There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria" -- she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish embrace -- "my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you -- aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!"I don't mean to deny the emotional punch Belît's oath packs, as it's every bit as affecting as Conan's own statement of what he believes. But I think it does a disservice to both the story and to Howard to interpret this passage in a way that reduces Belît to "Conan's one true love." I'm not sure that, even light of the aforementioned oath, that interpretation holds much water, but, even if it did, there's more to Belît than her feelings for Conan. For one, she's a thinker rather than a fighter -- hardly the warrior woman Marvel comics made her out to be. For another, she had a life before she met Conan and the brief hints given of it in the story are suggestive. Like the story named after her, Belît is rarely forgotten by readers but is just as rarely viewed in her full complexity.