Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hyborian Musings: Of Iberians and Cloods

I've decided I'm going to periodically share a few random musings in regards to the Encyclopedia, both as a form of soundboard, and to let you all know that yes, I am still typing away and tearing my hair out (that list of Cimmerian names is driving me berserkamad), though hopefully some of my theories won't sound quite so insane as they might in my head.

One valuable resource I've been utilizing is de Camp's "Hyborian Names," which appeared in Conan the Swordsman: lest you think I've gone soft on the Spraguester, I find myself disagreeing as often as agreeing when it comes to derivations that aren't crystal-clear like Khorshemish.  A perfect example is in regards to the etymology of Belesa. Here's what de Camp thinks:

Belesa, Beloso Respectively, the Zingaran heroine of TT and a Zingaran man-at-arms in CC. Origin uncertain; remote possibilities are Belesis, a Babylonian priest of -VII mentioned by Ktesias; a Belesa River in Ethiopia; and Berosos (or Berossus, &c.), a Hellenized Babylonian priest and writer of early -III.

It's been remarked upon that de Camp was an extremely intelligent, erudite and well-informed man who has a curious habit of utterly failing to see the simplest of things. As such, while de Camp was struggling to draw comparisons between a fantastical-Spanish noblewoman and Babylonian priests, I think there's a far simpler origin for Belesa.

That explanation: the Spanish word belleza, "beauty," ultimately derived from the latin bellus, "beautiful."  It has the Spanish connection to Zingara, and Howard could easily have encountered it at some point. That seems more reasonable than a Babylonian priest or an Ethiopian river, no?

There's another possibility I came across recently, in Walter Montagu's "The Shepherd's Paradise" (with certain interesting parts highlighted in bold):

The King of Castile negotiates a marriage between his son and the princess of Navarre. The former, however, is in love with a lady of the court named Fidamira, who repulses his advances in favour of Agenor, a friend of the prince's. The prince therefore resolves to leave the court and seek the Shepherds' Paradise, a sequestered vale inhabited by a select and courtly company, and induces Agenor to accompany him on his expedition. In their absence the king himself makes love to Fidamira, who, however, escapes, and likewise makes her way to the Shepherds' Paradise in disguise. Meanwhile, Belesa, the princess of Navarre, misliking of the proposed match with a man she has never seen, has withdrawn from her father's court to the same pastoral retreat, where she has at once been elected queen of the courtly company. On the arrival of the prince and his friend they both fall in love with her, but the prince's suit is seconded by the disguised Fidamira, and soon takes a favourable turn. At this point the King of Castile arrives in pursuit, together with an old councillor, who proceeds to reveal the relationship of the various characters. Fidamira and Belesa, it appears, are sisters, and Agenor their brother. The marriage of the prince and Belesa is of course solemnized; the king renews his suit to Fidamira, but she prefers to remain in Paradise, where she is chosen perpetual queen.

There are several interesting parallels to be drawn not only with Bellesa and Belesa, but in "The Shepherd's Paradise" and "The Black Stranger": both feature a noblewoman who has taken flight to a far-off refuge in the wilderness who is negotiated into a marriage, though the refuge is hardly the platonic paradise in the latter story. What's most striking is that Bellesa is a princess of Navarre, a medieval Spanish kingdom - obviously, Zingara is the Hyborian Age's answer to medieval Spain.

Too much of a coincidence? I suppose one must then ask if there is any evidence that Howard read, or even read of, "The Shepherd's Paradise." I don't think it's entirely out of the question: Howard was an extremely well-read man, and judging by the plays in his letters, he had an affinity for the sort of restoration comedy that "The Shepherd's Paradise" exemplified. Yet even if one doesn't buy that Howard read or knew of Montagu's masque, the name Bellesa can't be that uncommon, especially in a state which had a decent number of Portuguese and Spanish populations.

As for Beloso, well, here the dangers of the internet come into play, because I can find a Belloso, but no idea if Howard could possibly have any knowledge of his existence: one Diego Belloso, a Portuguese adventurer and explorer who operated in 16th Century Cambodia. Again, the Iberian nationality and historical period are compelling, but without a "smoking gun" like Howard mentioning the name in the letters or having a copy of a book of Indonesian history with Belloso's name included, it's just a hypothesis. Still, I think Diego Belloso is a far likelier candidate than Belesis or Beroso.

The Age of Clood is Upon Us

Well, it should be no surprise that I'm extremely torn about this.  Which is good: it would've been worse if I outright hated it, right?

As Usual, Bad Scot Comes First

One of the few things I really dug about Busiek's run on Conan was that in his pastiche stories, he stuck with the usual comic font for the captions, but when he got to the real adaptations, he used a typewriter-style font whenever he was getting to Howard's prose.  The shift in tone was almost palpable: the power of Howard's writing combined with the noticeable change in typeface was subtle, but strong, and you got a distinct "all right, this is the real McCoy" feeling. Here, Wood is using a similar typewriter font... but that ain't Robert E. Howard's prose.

Here's Howard's opening paragraph:

Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did not look back. He swept out onto the wharfs and jerked the plunging stallion back on its haunches at the very lip of the pier. Seamen gaped up at him, as they stood to the sweep and striped sail of a high-prowed, broad-waisted galley. The master, sturdy and black-bearded, stood in the bows, easing her away from the piles with a boat-hook. He yelled angrily as the horseman sprang from the saddle and with a long leap landed squarely on the mid-deck.

And here's how Wood introduces the story:

MESSANTIA, CAPITAL OF ARGOS. Like a gilded pearl glittering against the cobalt waters of the Western Ocean. A city of aristocracy, of finance, of the rule of law and the justice system. A city where great merchant villas adorning terraces high in the hills look down over grimy hovels bordering the quays, crime-infested bazaars where the abstract corruption of the upper classes translates down to a knife lodged in the ribs of a man dying in a dark alley. Conan the Cimmerian does not notice this divide. This barbarian from the north is busy riding for his life.

Alright, on the one hand, I can understand that putting Howard's introduction as it is would be redundant since we can see everything that's Howard's describing. However, does that necessarily mean that there must be any text at all, let alone text that might be mistaken for Howard's own? Again, in fairness, this isn't just Wood: Truman also did this in his adaptations of "Black Colossus," where the divide between Truman and Howard isn't made as explicit. Aficionados don't need a font to tell bona-fide REH from pastiche, but what of the new readers discovering REH through the comics?

 Far up the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did not look back.
 - Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"

Another little thing which bothers me is the treatment of Conan's threats. It's something that annoyed me in the recent "Hawks of Outremer" adaptation, too. In both stories, the hero asserts his will and dominance with threats that are conveyed through intent and expression rather than action. In "Hawks," Cormac assures the guard that he is no ghost by grabbing him by the shoulder: in the adaptation, Cormac grabs the guard by the throat.  It's needlessly brutish and openly posturing.  The only time Cormac grabs someone's throat is when he was intent on choking the life out of that individual.

I bet that Argossean (who isn't exactly "stockily built," is he?) is thinking "weren't you just running away from the High Constable of Messantia?

In "Queen of the Black Coast," Conan assures the captain of the Argus in no uncertain terms what will happen. In this comic, not only is Conan remarkably nonchalant for someone who was apparently running for his life, but he raises his sword to the captain's throat.  The entire tone and mood of the confrontation is totally different from the story. In the original story, Conan is livid, desperate and panicking: of course he makes wild threats like that when he thinks the Argossean authorities are catching up to him.  But here, it's almost laissez-faire.  This is exacerbated by the fact that Conan was smiling as he was fleeing from the authorities - looking back, even, in direct contradiction to the text! - giving the impression that rather than being a wild, chaotic ride of his life, this is just another fun wacky misadventure for Captain Conan Sparrow.

I don't even want to talk about the platform-gaming interlude.

"No no no, that's not the way it happened. Shall I start again?"

Now Good Scot to make up for it

In regards to visuals, I don't hate it. It doesn't blow me away like some of Cloonan's art has, but it isn't bad by any means. It's just different.  I'm not going to hate on it for being different.  I do hate that Conan has about a third of the armour of the original story (no mail sleeves and cuisses or Kothic greaves I can understand, but the lack of the horned helm is just baffling), but this is something common to all Dark Horse adaptations, not just this one.

While I gave Wood some stick for completely ignoring REH's opening paragraph only to replace it with his own prose, I do commend him for using REH's dialogue, albeit with a few pointless additions (some extra lines that don't really add much, Tito calling Conan "barbarian" despite not actually knowing who or what he is yet, many of the lines that are from REH are altered). I would've preferred he used REH's words entirely without going all de Camp on us, but there you go.

Overall, I don't really know what to think. My immediate thoughts were "this isn't REH's text," "why is Conan smiling as he's running for his life?" "what happened to his horned helmet?" "why is Conan so relaxed after that high-octane chase?" and "why does Conan still look like Adrien Brody?" But at the same time, I really want to give this team the benefit of the doubt. Frankly, though, this looks like a continuation of Truman's run from a writing side: mostly sticking to REH, but making baffling changes, omissions and additions that don't improve on the original.

Time will tell, as always.


  1. Good point about Conan's frame of mind, Al. I didn't care much for the cheeky grin either, but I liked some of the other art. I posted John Buscema's version of the same scene at my blog. He showed a much more wild eyed Conan, complete with horned helmet and Scarlet cloak. Not to mention a more 'Lets get out of here!' attitude.
    Overall I liked Cloonan's art, and I too am rooting for this team. I want to see a few more shots of Conan's face though, just to get a better idea of what he looks like from different angles.

  2. Interesting exploration of the possible meanings of Howard's naming. That is so cool. Personally, that is one of my favorite aspects of scholarship.

  3. Hero of the Federation1 December 2011 at 00:59

    In Every age there is a cause worth fighting for...

  4. Cloonan's Conan is far too comely. That's my gut reaction, completely subjective.

    Actually, my gut reaction was: "He's too pretty to be Conan", so I guess the alliterative version is my considered opinion. Either way, they're one and the same.

  5. Clood put their own spin on the scene all right, but I think it'll still fit in thematically.

    In the original, Conan only "grins hardily" when he's in the clear. Here, he's grinning in the midst of danger. I guess this is derived from "the mad exultation of battle". Clood probably took this to mean thrill-seeking, but it's still part of Conan "living deep" and "burning with life".

    I look forward to seeing Conan's expressions while recounting his murder of the judge. Will he be exasperated at his civilized ways or will he be amused?

    I like the platform jumps, it just shows that Conan's not some lumbering bodybuilder. If he can climb cliffs with bare hands...

  6. Oh, I saw the thread on the REH forum and Wood himself posted the link to the preview. I think some of you guys were too hostile in return for the show of goodwill... I mean, interpreting a character's looks or emotions (for a single scene) differently is nothing compared to changing his background and motivation entirely.

    (I would have joined long ago, but for some reason my IP address is denied access.)

  7. I've never bothered to offer an opinion on the upcoming QotBC on the Conan forums (for obvious reasons to some), but I admit I'm leery of the project. I just don't like Conan's look. Guess I'll just have to wait and see to pass final judgement.

    @Martin. The Conan forums are constantly attacked by spammers, so your IP may have been caught up in an IP ban. If you are Joe Martin, then send me your IP address in a Facebook message and I'll see what I can do. If you are not, then email me at b_durham at rogers dot com, if you wish.