Monday, August 8, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Witch Shall Be Born

Like many who made his living writing for the pulps, Robert E. Howard (and his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian) is easy to reduce to a caricature. I can certainly understand why this is the case. Not all of Howard's stories are of equal quality and, even leaving aside a handful downright stinkers – "Vale of the Lost Women," I'm looking at you – there's often a degree of sameness to many of his yarns. Even at his worst, though, REH frequently has a lot to offer. Indeed, I feel he doesn't always get enough credit for his willingness to try out different styles and approaches, not to mention content, in his established series.

I thought of this fact as I re-read "A Witch Shall Be Born," which first appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Critics of Conan generally consider this story middling at best, while some judge it more harshly. Even those who think better of it largely do so because it contains perhaps the most memorable scenes in all of the Cimmerian's adventures: Conan's crucifixion – a scene so unforgettable that it was included in the 1982 John Milius film, albeit in a very different context. 

Again, I can certainly understand this perspective. "A Witch Shall Be Born" is no "Red Nails" or Hour of the Dragon; it's not even "The Pool of the Black One." At the same time, I genuinely feel as if Howard was attempting to do something different with this story. For example, a lot of the story's actions focuses on characters other than Conan – in particular, two women: Taramis and Salome. It's almost as if Howard knew that Conan was such a draw for Weird Tales that he had sufficient leeway with its notoriously demanding editor, Farnsworth Wright, to experiment with his own proven formula. Whether he succeeded or not is a question for each reader, though I personally feel as if "A Witch Shall Be Born," while a lesser Conan tale, is nevertheless a worthy one.

The story begins as Taramis, Queen of Khauran, awakens from her sleep to see a figure standing over her bed:

In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman's head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared—and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis's throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.

"Ishtar!" gasped Taramis. "I am bewitched!"

Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.

"Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery."

"Sister?" stammered the bewildered girl. "I have no sister."

"You never had a sister?" came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. "Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?"

"Why, once I had a sister," answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. "But she died."

As the text suggests, the figure is in fact Salome, the twin sister of the queen. From birth, Salome bore the mark of being a witch – "a scarlet half-moon between her breasts" – and, for this reason, she was left exposed in the desert to die, lest disaster befall the kingdom. Rather than dying, she was found by a magician "from far Khitai," who raised her and taught her his "black wisdom." Now, Salome has returned to Khauran to fulfill her destiny by taking the place of her twin sister and ruling in her place.

In this, Salome has the aid of Constantius, a foreign mercenary commander whose army Taramis had allowed to cross her borders on the way to other lands. Once Salome has assumed the identity of Taramis – the real Taramis being thrown into the palace dungeon – she makes Constantius her consort and places his mercenaries in charge of the realm's defense. This sudden turn of events does not sit well with the queen's captain of the guard, Conan the Cimmerian.

Purely from a narrative perspective, it's fascinating that Howard has other people talk about Conan before he actually appears in the story himself. Conan's suspicion of the orders given by Salome-as-Taramis and his subsequent battle against the soldiers of Constantius isn't something we see firsthand. Instead, we hear others describe these events and their reactions to them. This is what I meant above when I suggested that Howard was experimenting with this story. In it, Conan almost appears as a legend, a larger-than-life figure of rumor and tall tales, as if Howard was slyly offering commentary on the popularity of his own creation.

Despite his great strength and skill in battle, Conan was eventually overcome by Constantius' men, who capture him and then cart him out to the desert, where he is to be crucified for his defiance. Being a barbarian, Conan is loyal to the real queen Taramis, the woman to whom he had sworn an oath of allegiance and nothing, not even the threat of death by crucifixion, is enough to make him foreswear that loyalty. This is an important theme within "A Witch Shall Be Born," along with Howard's perennial musings on the relative merits of civilization and barbarism. 

Before leaving him to die, Constantius mocks Conan.

"I am sorry, captain," he said, "that I cannot remain to ease your last hours, but I have duties to perform in yonder city—I must not keep your delicious queen waiting!" He laughed softly. "So I leave you to your own devices—and those beauties!" He pointed meaningly at the black shadows which swept incessantly back and forth, high above.

"Were it not for them, I imagine that a powerful brute like yourself should live on the cross for days. Do not cherish any illusions of rescue because I am leaving you unguarded. I have had it proclaimed that anyone seeking to take your body, living or dead, from the cross, will be flayed alive together with all the members of his family, in the public square. I am so firmly established in Khauran that my order is as good as a regiment of guardsmen. I am leaving no guard, because the vultures will not approach as long as anyone is near, and I do not wish them to feel any constraint. That is also why I brought you so far from the city. These desert vultures approach the walls no closer than this spot.

"And so, brave captain, farewell! I will remember you when, in an hour, Taramis lies in my arms."

Astute readers might well see a parallel between Conan's abandonment to die in the desert and that of Salome, the twin of the queen whom Conan serves. Like Salome, Conan does not die in the desert but instead escapes the fate intended for him to forge his own destiny, namely the defeat of those who tried to slay him and who have usurped Taramis through deceit.

While "A Witch Shall Be Born" is far from a masterpiece, it has much to recommend it. In addition to the stylistic experimentation I mentioned earlier, it's also a fast-paced story of loyalty and revenge, two favorite themes of Howard's fiction. Further, the story touches on the themes of identity and duality, as exemplified by the twin sisters who advance much of the tale's actions, not to mention the theme of personal destiny. The result is a fairly satisfying story that I think catches more flak from Conan fans than it deserves. This is, in my opinion, a story that's much better than its reputation and well worth a read.


  1. While of course some of REH's 21 Conan stories are better than others, I find each and every one of them a pleasure to read and re-read.

  2. This is one of my favourites, how come people don't like it? Of course I first encountered it as a Marvel comic, it was great then, too.

    1. The most common criticism is that Conan is sidelined by other characters in his own story. Others complain about the pacing and specific content, in particular the various Biblical allusions made throughout (not just the crucifixion but Salome herself).

    2. I enjoy "A Witch Shall Be Born," especially the out-of-left-field letter from the Nemedian scholar which broadens the canvas. I know the other issue is the ending: It's very rushed. After being offstage so long, Conan dashes in with his troops to save the city from the standard issue monster.

    3. I'm also in the camp of considering this one of the best of the Conan stories.

  3. I need to revisit the comic book adaptation, which is where I first encountered the story. The comic I suspect is a great adaptation of a mediocre Conan story, as my memories of reading it (I had already seen the movie, so seeing a story centred around the crucifixion, combined with how well the comic version is told, with the cutaway to the letter after Conan's rescue from the cross, and the revelation of the Lovecraftian beast at the end) was that this was THE Conan epic (I was still unaware of Hour of the Dragon).

    A good recent review of that comics adaptation is available here: