Monday, June 20, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The People of the Black Circle

"The People of the Black Circle" is both one of the longest and best regarded of Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Cimmerian. Published in three parts between September and November 1934, it takes place in and around the realm of Vendhya, where Conan has established himself as a chieftain among the Afghuli hillmen, hoping to forge them into a horde he might use to gain wealth and power. Meanwhile, a plot by the Black Seers of Yimsha has slain Bunda Chand, the king of Vendhya, throwing the region into chaos and precipitating a series of events that places Conan into the thick of things, as ever.

There's a lot to like in "The People of the Black Circle," from its complex, interwoven plots to its characters to its setting. They all, in my opinion, mark this story as Howard at his best. If you read other reviews or retrospectives on this story, you'll see that everyone seems to have their favorite element and I find it hard to disagree with most of them. Take, for example, the settings of Vendhya and Afghulistan. They've got a terrifically exotic flavor to them that helps to distinguish "The People of the Black Circle" from other Conan yarns and yet they aren't so exotic that they become the focus of what is, at base, a fun adventure tale that pits the Cimmerian against multiple memorable enemies.

For me, though, the central appeal of this story is the relationships between two couples: Conan and the Devi Yasmina, sister of the murdered king, and the apprentice wizard Khemsa and Yasmina's handmaiden Gitara. These two couples both drive the plot and provide much of the story's dialog, particularly (as one would expect) Conan and Yasmina. Early on, Yasmina vows revenge against the Black Seers for her brother's death, but soon finds herself kidnapped by Conan, who hopes to ransom her in exchange for seven of his own men held captive by Vendhyan authorities. Of course, the Vendhyans send soldiers to rescue Yasmina from Conan, who does not realize that two other groups are also seeking the Devi -- Kerim Shah, an agent of the rival kingdom of Turan and the young sorcerer Khemsa, goaded into this action by Gitara, who believes it the first step on their glorious future together.

Conan and Yasmina make an interesting pair. Often bickering and testing one another's resolve, they would seem to be a perfect example of a Hollywood-style "odd couple" destined to fall in love with one another despite -- or because of -- their differences. And while there clearly is a growing affection between the two characters, neither one allows their feelings to stand in the way of their own destinies: Conan to one day become a king by his own hand and Yasmina to avenge her brother's death and restore order to Vendhya. I consider their parting at the end of the story one of the best such scenes in all of Conan's appearances and good evidence that Howard's portrayal of both female characters and of Conan was far more nuanced and sophisticated than many give him credit for. Similarly, Khemsa comes across as a very different kind of wizard than those usually seen in Howard's fiction, being motivated by genuine love for Gitara, even to the point of foolhardiness. He's quite the change from fiends like Xaltotun or Thoth-Amon, who scarcely share any motivations with ordinary human beings.

In the end, what I like best about "The People of the Black Circle" is that it's long and complex and yet isn't an epic. That is, it's just another episode in the life of Conan as he attempts to make a place for himself in the Hyborian Age. In short, it's an adventure and a very good one at that. I find it the perfect antidote to the trends in post-Tolkien fantasy that try to invest every event with greater significance beyond the immediate.

11 comments:

  1. It is always weird how close your thoughts match mine James.

    I just read this exact tale over the weekend and it is fantastic.

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  2. The character of Khemsa made a big impression on me; he's one of the few non-villainous wizards in Howard's writing that I know of. I was also struck by how nonchalantly the character throws around some powerful magic -- at one point I believe he mentally shatters some locked doors without breaking a sweat. It's all much different from the way magic is generally perceived to work in the sword & sorcery genre... in fact, much more modern-D&D-esque, I'd venture to say.

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  3. One of my top four Conan stories, probably tied for second place with "Red Nails."

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  4. This is definitely within my top five of Howard's Conan tales.

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  5. Great story. Positively ooooozes pulp goodness...

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  6. My favorite aspect of Howard's writing is how plot proceeds organically from character and setting. There's a bunch of incidents, which drive character decisions, but it all just kinda flows in a plausible manner. As you point out, unlike Tolkien or Lewis, there is no a priori allegory. All meaning derived from REH comes a posteriori - take that as you will - but it comes out feeling solid.

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  7. Recently I have found myself thinking more about the similarities between Tolkien's Túrin and Howard's Conan than the differences, especially the time the former spends amongst outlaws and bandits.

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  8. This is the first Conan story I ever read and it made me a lifetime fan. My first Conan book was Conan the Adventurer (number five in the Ace series from the '70s). I believe my dad bought it for me from Walgreens after a trip to the dentist or doctor or something. The cover was just so unbelievably cool - it's still one of my all time favorite Frazetta pieces:
    http://www.comicmix.com/news/2010/05/10/frank-frazetta-dies-at-92/ (first image).

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  9. My favorite part is when the Master of the Black Circle telekinetically pulls Kerim Shah's heart from his (armored) chest.

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  10. I did like "Black Circle", but man, the love pulp prose got kinda thick in places (at least in audiobook form - some things that don't bother me written do bother me read, and vice versa). The style of the writing and all the long riding scenes made more sense to me after I had read King of the Khyber Rifles, though.

    Tolkien doesn't have "a priori allegory". Not only did he figure out the plot by writing, but he hated allegory like the Rat of Plague, the Tick of Uncleanliness, and the Byzantine Trade Ship of Exportation of Problems. He was one of the band of writers who discover their themes and motifs by writing them, which is why he went through so many drafts for stories he'd finished twenty years past.

    Lewis was a medievalist of a different period and place, and thus thought allegory was as spiffy as Philosophia visiting Boethius. (Though so did King Alfred, so you can't generalize.)

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  11. Coincidentally, I'm actually currently reading this right now, so I skipped over most of the blog and comments... may return later when I'm done...

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