Monday, February 7, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Scarlet Citadel

I've never made any secret of my ambivalence toward the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie of John Milius, even though this is heresy in some quarters. Yet, for all that ambivalence, one of its images, that of an aged Conan, seated upon a throne, after he "became a king by his own hand," endures in my imagination. 

Partly, I think, this is because I find myself wanting to know more about Conan's time as king of Aquilonia. The character's first appearance, in the story "The Phoenix on the Sword," features him as already king and is generally considered one of Robert E. Howard's best tales of the Cimmerian. When I first read the story (which I thought I'd already written about, an oversight I'll have to correct soon), I was really struck by the picture it paints of a middle-aged Conan, forced to deal with political intrigue despite his preference for a straight-up fight. That's a rich vein to be mined for storytelling and I've thought more about the idea than is probably justified.

Besides "The Phoenix on the Sword," Howard wrote another tale of King Conan entitled "The Scarlet Citadel," which appeared in the January 1933 issue of Weird Tales. There are a number of similarities between the two stories, but there are also enough differences to keep them distinct. "The Scarlet Citadel" begins with Conan leading the knights of Aquilonia in battle in neighboring Ophir.

That day Conan, king of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of his chivalry cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity. With five thousand knights he had crossed the south-eastern border of Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadows of Ophir, to find his former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, drawn up against him with the hosts of Strabonus, king of Koth. Too late had he seen the trap. All that a man might do he had done with his five thousand cavalrymen against the thirty thousand knights, archers and spearmen of the conspirators.

Amalrus, we later learn, had lured Conan into Ophir under the pretext of requesting aid from Conan against Koth, which had supposedly invaded. Ever the loyal ally, Conan rushed to Ophir's aid, apparently never considering the possibility that the call for help was but a stratagem for luring him away from Aquilonia. The mastermind of this plan is "the lean vulture Tsotha-lanti," a sorcerer "clad only in silken robes, his great black eyes glittering from a face that was like that of a bird of prey."

Of this Kothian wizard dark tales were told; tousle-headed women in northern and western villages frightened children with his name, and rebellious slaves were brought to abased submission quicker than by the lash, with the threat of being sold to him. Men said that he had a whole library of dark works bound in skin flayed from living human victims, and that in the nameless pits below the hill whereon his palace sat, he trafficked with the powers of darkness, trading screaming girl slaves for unholy secrets. He was the real ruler of Koth. 

How's that for the introduction of a villain? Equally impressive is his first encounter with Conan, after the Aquilonians have been defeated and the Cimmerian is the only one among them left alive.

"I offer you life, Conan," said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

"I give you death, wizard," snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha's lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan's left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

"Take him up and fear not; the lion's fangs are drawn." 

Tsotha-lanti used a ring with a poisoned needle embedded in its underside to incapacitate Conan. Thus temporarily paralyzed, the Cimmerian is brought to as a prisoner to the titular Scarlet Citadel. There, the three conspirators, including the faithless Amalrus, make plain their intentions.

"Our desires are spoken quickly, king of Aquilonia," said Tsotha. "It is our wish to extend our empire."

"And so you want to swine my kingdom," rasped Conan.

"What are you but an adventurer, seizing the crown to which you had no more claim than any other wandering barbarian?" parried Amalrus. "We are prepared to offer you suitable compensation –"

"Compensation!" It was a gust of deep laughter from Conan's mighty chest.

"The price of infamy and treachery! I am barbarian, so I shall sell my kingdom and its people for life and your filthy gold? Ha! How did you come to your crowns, you and that black-faced pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger – except to poison a few brothers – I fought for.

"You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty – bah! I climbed out of the abysss of naked barbarians to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors?"

It's a terrific exchange, filled with passion and indignation. I have little doubt that Howard poured more than a little of himself into it, with his disdain for the "high and mighty" who looked down on men of modest means such as himself. The anger behind it is palpable and suffuses the rest of the story, as Conan eventually frees himself from captivity and then sets about avenging himself upon those who would steal his throne and immiserate his people. 

"The Scarlet Citadel" is a fine pulp fantasy yarn, one that shows off not just the writing skills of Robert E. Howard but also the virtues of Conan as king of Aquilonia. Re-reading it, I found myself once again yearning for more stories of this sort, stories that show the kind of ruler Conan had become and what he was willing to do for the people of Aquilonia, whose lot he had improved by his reign. Even so, "The Scarlet Citadel" is a good read and one I highly recommend. It may well be one of Howard's best tales of Conan.


  1. The story also presents us with a dungeon that bears more than a little responsibility for what Arneson and Gygax later developed ...

  2. Agreed. I think it is one of REH's best Conan tales: the images of what Conan finds in the dungeons of the Scarlet Citadel and of Tsotha-lanti's fate have stuck with me ever since I first read this story fifty years ago.

  3. One of the few times we see Conan accepting supernatural aid from the wizard he rescues from said dungeon, and I've always liked how uncomfortable it obviously made him to do so - particularly at the very end of the story.

  4. If you want more stories of King Conan, they exist - if you don't hate the pastiches and "posthumous collaborations" of DeCamp & Carter. The, too, there's [i]Hour of the Dragon[/i].

  5. I really liked "Hour of the Dragon" as a further tale of King Conan-- kind of a re-telling of The Scarlet Citadel in some ways, but also a fitting reprise of Conan's earlier adventures. It showcased some interesting character growth-- at one point after he escapes from captivity, Conan considers hanging up the "King" venture and just getting back to the rougher life of vagabond violence, but finds he has become attached to his adopted country of Aquilonia and feels a keen sense of responsibility to its people--now his people. If anyone could do it justice, it would be a good premise for nice high-budget "HBO" style series: the deposed and exiled King Conan travels across the Hyborian realms and meets friends & foes, old and new, as he seeks the reclaim his throne. Tales of Conan's prior exploits could be interwoven with the "present" narrative, weaving a pretty good saga. And, though it's not very "Howardian," I think there's a lot of potential to exploring the aging Conan-- still a large, powerful figure, but perhaps someone who finds himself waking up in the mornings with a sore shoulder from an old injury, and more mindful of his mortality and legacy; someone who could break a bull's neck in his youth, but has learned with age that sometimes it's better to let the bull break its own neck by running of a cliff.

  6. "I've never made any secret of my ambivalence toward the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie of John Milius, even though this is heresy in some quarters."

    Ha! We're the orthodox on that score. Gary himself hated the film, and with good reason: That is NOT Conan. Can you imagine Conan being thrashed by two temple thugs, and then crying about his mommy? Good grief.

    1. I third the motion. Watching that movie actually nauseated me.

    2. Howard's Conan would have never accepted slavery so docilely, even as a child. But Arnold pushed that wheel around for his entire youth and had to be practically shoved out the door when his master gifted him his freedom. It's a character named Conan, but it certainly isn't Howard's Conan.