Monday, November 29, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Black River

"Beyond the Black River" is consistently cited as among the best of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and it's easy to see why. Published as a two-part serial whose first installment appeared in the May 1935 issue of Weird Tales, "Beyond the Black River" simultaneously defies the facile caricatures of REH's Conan yarns while affirming the thematic core of those same writings. It is from this story, after all, that the oft-quoted line, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind," comes, although its speaker and context are rarely presented correctly, since doing so would put the lie to the notion that Howard was merely an avatar of adolescent machismo.

"Beyond the Black River" takes place beyond the northern borders of Aquilonia, among settlers who dare to build homes for themselves in Pictish lands, a move Conan deems both unwise and, ultimately, untenable.
"... you Hyborians have expanded as far as you'll be allowed to expand. You've crossed the marches, burned a few villages, exterminated a few clans and pushed back the frontier to Black River; but I doubt if you'll even be able to hold what you've conquered, and you'll never push the frontier any further westward. Your idiotic king doesn't understand conditions here. He won't send you enough reinforcements, and there are not enough settlers to withstand the shock of a concerted attack from across the river."
Balthus, a borderer and Conan's interlocutor in this dialog, cannot bring himself to believe this claim -- until he's reminded of the way the Cimmerians destroyed Venarium, a "red disaster" in which Conan himself participated as a youth: "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." (Strangely, he makes no mention of his family being slain by Thulsa Doom or having become a slave lashed the Wheel of Pain -- an oversight on Howard's part, no doubt)

Conan accompanies Balthus back to Fort Tuscelan, where the Aquilonians have established themselves.
There, at the fort, civilization ended. This was no empty phrase. Fort Tuscelan was the last outpost of a civilized world; it represented the westernmost thrust of the dominant Hyborian races. Beyond the river the primitive still reigned in shadowy forests, brush-thatched huts where hung the grinning skulls of men, and mud-walled enclosures where fires flickered and drums rumbled, and spears were whetted in the hands of dark, silent men with tangled black hair and the eyes of serpents.
Worse still, those "dark, silent men" have turned to a man named Zogar Sag to lead them. A wild sorcerer who spent time as a prisoner of the Aquilonians, Conan explains that "there'll be no peace on the border so long as Zogar lives and remembers the cell he sweated in." The governor of the fort thus begs Conan to slay Zogar before his designs against the Aquilonian settlements can come to fruition, a mission the Cimmerian accepts, taking with him a dozen men of his own choosing, none of them soldiers but all of them skilled foresters.

The remainder of the story describes Conan's efforts in the wilderness to find Zogar Sag before it is too late to save the Aquilonians. For the benefit of those who've never read the story before, I won't so any more about how events unfold, except that I find it hard to imagine how anyone, after reading this tale, could continue to suggest that Howard lacked either subtlety or insight. "Beyond the Black River" can't, I think, be read as an unapologetic paean to barbarism, as it is often portrayed. Like a lot of Westerns, which clearly served as its inspiration, the story regretfully suggests that civilized men are never a match for barbarians, which is why, being a barbarian himself, Conan knows how this latest clash between civilization and barbarism will end. It's one of my favorite Howard stories and well the time spent reading it.

14 comments:

  1. Well said! Howard's Conan is consistently smarter and deeper than his critics will ever give him credit for. The same must be said for Howard himself.

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  2. 'Strangely, he makes no mention of his family being slain by Thulsa Doom or having become a slave lashed the Wheel of Pain -- an oversight on Howard's part, no doubt'

    Maybe Crom dislikes the self-pitying

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  3. This story and "Red Nails" are my two favorite Conan tales. In one barbarism destroys civilization, in the other civilization destroys itself.

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  4. Geoffrey beat me to it, but I have to agree that this and "Red Nails" are among Howard's best, to which I'd add "The Tower of the Elephant" as a personal favorite.

    Security word: "flouse," a parasite that bedevils the flumph.

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  5. The cult of Jhebbal Sag makes a wicked antagonist in a D&D game, too. Cannibal, evil druids with hungry prehistoric animal companions = players scared to go in the forest after dark. And if Howard's story isn't enough, watch "The Thirteenth Warrior".

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  6. Strangely, he makes no mention of his family being slain by Thulsa Doom or having become a slave lashed the Wheel of Pain -- an oversight on Howard's part, no doubt

    Ho ho, imagine that...

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  7. I must confess that, although, I like this one, my favorites are People of the Black Circle and The Scarlet Citadel. I'm also a huge fan of many of the rarely talked about 'lesser' stores e.g. The Servants of Bit-Yakin and The Pool of the Black One.

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  8. Conan is so much more interesting than ersatz-Conan.

    Philosophically, there are a lot of complex and competing subtexts at work in Beyond the Black River, as there are in much of Howard's writing. The story is troubling (in a good way), making the conscious reader ruminate not only on fundamental questions about civilization and its discontents but also on the disadvantages of barbarism as its alternative.

    To most people life is only about surfaces, so it's no surprise that adaptations of Howard strip out all the philosophy; it is invisible to them and so does not exist. When you accuse them of being fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, they literally cannot conceive of what you're on about.

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  9. I wonder if that passage about the fort was an influence on the Keep on the Borderlands?

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  10. It had to be, given Gygax's reading habits.

    You can also smell Aquilonia versus the barbarians and monsters in Men & Monsters's law versus chaos alignment chart.

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  11. In my E-mail signature and most of older forum signatures, I list:

    "We are wise in our civilized knowledge, but our knowledge extends just so far — to the western bank of that ancient river! Who knows what shapes earthly and unearthly may lurk beyond the dim circle of light our knowledge has cast?"
    - Beyond the Black River, by Robert E. Howard

    That Howard has a way with words - even his poetry gives it reader chest hair!

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  12. Just as a counter-point, I hate Beyond the Black River. It reads as a western with the thinnest of Hyborean coats of paint. I don't even personally think of it as Conan canon, it has so little feel of the character or place so beautifully portrayed in Howard's other stories.

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  13. Hell of a counter-point, Nagora. I guess you probably don't dig "The Black Stranger" or "Wolves Beyond the Border" either.

    I think it has enough western elements to see the influences, but also Hyborian enough to feel like it's part of the same world as "The People of the Black Circle" and "The Tower of the Elephant." Merging multiple time periods into one is what the age is all about. After all, Howard merged Ancient Egypt and Assyria with the High Renaissance in "Black Colossus."

    At the very least, could you consider it a good story on its own merits, even if you don't think it complements the other Conan stories?

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  14. The western influence is quite overt, but that is why I like his works, as he is not dishing-out the same style and plot over and over again. He is not afraid to mix in some political theater, buccaneer adventures, western, mystery, archaeological trips, lost world exploration, and supernatural horror.

    Such diversity is a good change of pace from most of the fantasy writers out there, who are ether like one-trick-ponies with what they write, or just slaves to a style - not willing to step away from their dogmatic paradigm for the sake experimentation. More writers should learn from him!

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