Monday, April 26, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Queen of the Black Coast

While I won't go so far as to say that "Queen of the Black Coast," which first appeared in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (and received a Margaret Brundage cover to boot), is the most famous story of Conan ever written, it is certainly one of the most memorable. It's also probably one of the most influential in terms of its effect on later presentations of the character of Conan and the Hyborian Age he inhabits -- for good and for ill.

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?"

"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."
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.
"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."

"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!"
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 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?"

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."
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.
"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.

19 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this story when I first read it (and still like it). Belit never seemed Conan's "true love" to me. Rather, she seemed more enamored of him than he of her. She obviously wasn't not conventionally "sane." (The "wedding" of her and Conan on the decks of the ship was... less than discrete.) She was obviously a creature of great passion and recklessness. I think Conan held her in real affection, but it seemed that his lot in life with her suited him as much as his companion did. As his speech above seems to support. His life on board with her gave him what he wanted, so he was happy with her. If she had asked him to retire to the countryside with her, I doubt Conan would have been as pleased.

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  2. I haven't read this particular story since high school, but recall enjoying it. So, when I read Belit's "take me, you fool" passage quoted above, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. I wonder how many teenaged boys in the 1930s hoped their moms wouldn't find this? :)

    Conan:
    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 just read "The Shadow Kingdom" last night (great story!), and it's interesting to set the intellectually uninterested Conan against that story's much more thoughtful Kull. Whereas Kull wonders who and what is real around him, Conan simply says (paraphrased) "This is the situation I'm in, so I'll deal with what's in front of me."

    By the way, was Conan's descent from Kull (and later characters' descent from Conan) something Howard had in mind, or was that a later idea of his imitators?

    security word: "Rensib," the name of a diabolical Kuo-toan priest.

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  3. This is my favorite Conan yarn, and that section you quoted about Conan's beliefs is printed out and hanging on my cubicle at work.

    Whenever I'm trying to impress upon someone just how different literary Conan is from adaptation Conan, I point them to this story -- and that passage.

    Conan's no dumb barbarian.

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  4. Rather, she seemed more enamored of him than he of her. She obviously wasn't not conventionally "sane." (The "wedding" of her and Conan on the decks of the ship was... less than discrete.) She was obviously a creature of great passion and recklessness. I think Conan held her in real affection, but it seemed that his lot in life with her suited him as much as his companion did.

    There's much truth in this, at least as I read the tale.

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  5. "I just read "The Shadow Kingdom" last night (great story!), and it's interesting to set the intellectually uninterested Conan against that story's much more thoughtful Kull. Whereas Kull wonders who and what is real around him, Conan simply says (paraphrased) "This is the situation I'm in, so I'll deal with what's in front of me.""

    I've often felt that Kull's more contemplative nature reflects where Howard was at at that time in his life - a younger man trying to figure What It All Means. By the time Howard started writing Conan, I think he had developed more pressing concerns, like "How do I get the bills paid this month?"

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  6. By the way, was Conan's descent from Kull (and later characters' descent from Conan) something Howard had in mind, or was that a later idea of his imitators?

    I can't think of any stories by Howard that suggest this, except in the very oblique sense that the Cimmerians were descended from the Atlanteans. What made you think of this?

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  7. Conan's no dumb barbarian.

    I like pointing out that the very first time we're introduced to Conan, in "The Phoenix on the Sword," we see him not cleaving skulls but hunched over a writing desk with a stylus in his hand.

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  8. It's an old, old memory in the back of my mind. I've no idea what the source was, short story or article. It might even have been a passing reference in a comic book. I'll just write it off until I can (if ever) trace a source.

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  9. " 'She obviously wasn't not conventionally "sane."' "

    Forgive the double negative. :)

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  10. I like pointing out that the very first time we're introduced to Conan, in "The Phoenix on the Sword," we see him not cleaving skulls but hunched over a writing desk with a stylus in his hand.

    OH SNAP

    WORD VERIFICATION: "tafensio"

    That's a Zingaran name. Ain't it.

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  11. Belit's an odd duck, that's for sure. Here are some of my thoughts...

    Personally, I think that Belit's strange dialogue ticks are as much a part of her personality as anything else. Everything about her manner of speaking is theatrical, bombastic and emotional. She was the Queen, and she was playing the part of the Queen, with all the pomp and grandeur she felt expected. She is, effectively, a female Brian Blessed in her mannerisms. Note how she spreads her hands, gesticulates, poses: she's living life as if it was an epic saga of legend.

    Also, one should not be under any illusions regarding the circumstances of her taking Conan aboard. Her talk of Conan "crushing her" with love and "being her king" is her pitch to Conan. She had just slaughtered everyone on board his ship - for all she knew, those were his friends, family. If she didn't act, she would have no choice but to kill him along with the rest.

    But Belit saw something in Conan, something perhaps akin to herself. She didn't want to have to kill Conan, but after sacking the Argos, how could she convince him to join her? She had no idea of Conan's reaction. The only tools she had at her disposal that might've worked was her raw sexual magnetism. Sweeten the deal with promise of adenture and riches, appealing to his barbarian heritage, and she might not have to kill him.

    Make no mistake about it: Conan's the junior partner throughout their career together. Belit's in charge: at a word, the Corsairs would gut Conan, though he might take a dozen or two down with him. He follows her orders, and has no problems doing so.

    Belit is very different from even other Howardian heroines in her unashamedly wrought prose (only Akivasha comes close, and when you've been living in a tomb for ten thousand years it's hard not to sound a tad archaic), and I'll wager this rubbed off on Conan & the Corsairs quite a bit: Conan swore by Mitra & Set in later stories, so it follows he picked up Belit's style of speaking too.

    As for Conan not being as "into" Belit as others: I think this is because Conan is very guarded emotionally, even in this story. He's careful how he talks to Belit in his speaking about the gods, he doesn't tend to whisper sweet nothings into her ear, he doesn't make any gentle gestures as he does with Natala or Zenobia. However, I think Conan actually did feel very strongly for Belit.

    Note that we don't actually see Conan's reaction to seeing Belit's death: this is (I think) because it was the cliffhanger in the serialisation, which would be concluded in another issue. Quite why Howard did not show Conan's grief, or even the lack of grief, is something of a mystery. We don't even see or know how he feels as he watches the Tigress go out to sea for the last time.

    Now, as for Belit being Conan's "one true love" - well, I don't think Conan has any one "true love" apart from possibly Zenobia. I do think she's clearly one of Conan's greatest.

    All said, I do think there's something to be said for your interpretation: that it's a story told in the style of an epic romance. I just think that the players know that they're in one, and act accordingly.

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  12. Oh, forgot to add:

    I like pointing out that the very first time we're introduced to Conan, in "The Phoenix on the Sword," we see him not cleaving skulls but hunched over a writing desk with a stylus in his hand.

    One of these days, I'm going to get around to illustrating the "thoughtful Conan" moments. Conan listening enthralled to Pelishti Wise Men; perching on the walls of Zamorian temples to listen to their philosopers; listening to Rinaldo as his songs "nearly tear his heart from him," and of course the famous conversation with Prospero.

    There are enough pics of Conan posing with a chick and in battle scenes, let's see something different.

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  13. "Queen of the Black Coast" remains one of my favorite Conan stories. To me, the jungle has always been Vietnam as depicted in Apocalypse Now, which I saw around the same time, and if the similarities between Kurtz and Conan are superficial, I certainly saw them at the time.

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  14. Just to be juveline for a moment, it really looks like Conan is giving that harpy the finger on the cover.

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  15. She is, effectively, a female Brian Blessed in her mannerisms.

    This has forever changed my mental image of her and not in a good way.

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  16. To me, the jungle has always been Vietnam as depicted in Apocalypse Now, which I saw around the same time, and if the similarities between Kurtz and Conan are superficial, I certainly saw them at the time.

    One could see comparisons between the jungle and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

    This has forever changed my mental image of her and not in a good way.

    Oh? Brian Blessed is a fantastic actor when he wants to be: see I, Claudius, Henry V, Hamlet etc.

    Having said that, perhaps Blessed isn't the best comparison. She's more imperious and serious than Blessed is, for one thing.

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  17. 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.

    You mock the wisdom of Temujin?

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  18. Re: Belit's verbal style

    Being a bit of an impromptu poet is a leadership skill, among certain peoples. Shemites/Semitic peoples are one of them.

    Re: Conan's reticence

    As has been pointed out before, a lot of Conan stuff draws from the Icelandic sagas. Often, you don't hear anything about how somebody grieved after his wife was killed; you hear how that somebody burned down the guy's house with him in it, or ambushed him, or dueled him to the death, or turned his face to the wall and died. Sometimes you do hear about their feelings; sometimes the saga writer quotes somebody's poem about the situation, instead.

    You can assume that Conan wasn't happy about Belit's death; exactly how he felt is for him to know and for you to empathize with, not for the teller to attempt unsatisfactorily.

    Also, it's a trope of Howard's day to have the woman talk of love and feel it quickly, but the man to feel it more deeply, without expression except in action....

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