“The Bloody Crown of Conan” is the second installment of the Conan anthology published by Del Rey and contains unedited versions of three stories: “The People of the Black Circle,” “The Hour of the Dragon” and “A Witch Shall Be Born.” These three stories were authored by a peculiar yet fascinating individual often described as the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy literature — Robert Ervin Howard.
Isolated in Cross Plains, Texas, Robert E. Howard used his vivid imagination to escape his dreary surroundings in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Through the portal of his mind, the Texan fled to imaginary kingdoms, fought in sweeping battles and lived in brutal eras of history long since forgotten. Howard’s ability to vividly transcribe this escapism onto the typed page created an artistic touchstone: Not since Jules Verne had the geographic isolation of a writer fueled such fantastic and bizarre stories. Of those stories, the character and environs of Conan the Cimmerian was Howard’s masterpiece.
In his Conan stories, Howard weaved a dark tapestry of Wagnerian grandeur with war, conquest and natural selection as his fabrics. Woven at its interior were the immortal themes of man versus nature, individualism versus collectivism and barbarism versus civilization. As the decorative fringe, he used a pulpy yet inventive blend of adventure, horror, mysticism and hedonism. However, these touches are merely intriguing items in tales which are held together by a secret ingredient.
The secret ingredient that makes Howard’s stories stand out so sharply is that he himself, perhaps unintentionally, is in every one of them. In both physical description and mindset, Conan was the uninhibited literary reflection of the Texan who believed that all men had “a secret desire to be a swaggering, drunken, fighting, raping swashbuckler.” As such, the reader is not so much reading about Conan the Cimmerian as he is reading of Howard daydreaming throughout history.
In my opinion, “The People of the Black Circle” is one of Howard’s greatest tales. Set in the pseudo-historical land of “Afghulistan,” a nomenclature combination of Afghanistan with Moghulistan. Conan is a leader of the Kozaki (“Cossacks”) who are raiding the northern frontiers of Vendyha (“India”). The story climaxes on the mountain which is clearly modeled after the Hindu-Kush.
“The Hour of the Dragon” is a 200-page epic.
“A Witch Shall Be Born” is, in its own right, the deification of Conan and nearly places him on a mantle next to Hercules or Odysseus. There are clearly parallels to Jesus Christ but, instead, a “Warrior Christ” re-chiseled in the image of Howard.
The Bloody Crown of Conan
**** Out of ***** stars