Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The things you learn in research...

Work on the Encyclopaedia Hyboriana is getting back on track, while Deuce Richardson's suggestion of Hyborica is starting to intrigue me. However, I feel I might've left you all in the dark. So I thought I'd give you an idea of the sort of things which cause me to constantly reassess my work.

I've said before that I find something new in every rereading of Howard, and nowhere has that been more prevalent than my research for the Encyclopaedia. As I go through the tales finding every instance of Conan's utterance of "Crom," correlations between story titles and metaphors in preceding tales, and the plethora of allusions, sometimes something completely unrelated pops out at me.  Sometimes it's just a little extra detail, other times it forces me to totally change entire entries.  Each time, I wonder if it's worth including in the main body of the text, or whether it should be delineated strictly as conjecture. It can lead to me wandering far from the path.

Here are a few of those observations.

The Thing with a Woman's Voice
And suddenly he heard the sound of a woman, weeping piteously. Another of Tsotha’s victims, he thought, cursing the wizard anew, and turning aside, followed the sound down a smaller tunnel, dank and damp.

The weeping grew nearer as he advanced, and lifting his torch he made out a vague shape in the shadows. Stepping closer, he halted in sudden horror at the amorphic bulk which sprawled before him. Its unstable outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jelly-like stuff which made him physically sick to look at. From among this loathsome gelid mass reared up a frog-like head, and he was frozen with nauseated horror to realize that the sound of weeping was coming from those obscene blubbery lips. The noise changed to an abominable high-pitched tittering as the great unstable eyes of the monstrosity rested on him, and it hitched its quaking bulk toward him. He backed away and fled up the tunnel, not trusting his sword. The creature might be
composed of terrestrial matter, but it shook his very soul to look upon it, and he doubted the power of man-made weapons to harm it. For a short distance he heard it flopping and floundering after him, screaming with horrible laughter. The unmistakably human note in its mirth almost staggered his reason. It was exactly such laughter as he had heard bubble obscenely from the fat lips of the salacious women of Shadizar, City of Wickedness, when captive girls were stripped naked on the public auction block. By what hellish arts had Tsotha brought this unnatural being into life? Conan felt vaguely that he had looked on blasphemy against the eternal laws of nature.
 - The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Scarlet Citadel," "pg 100-101

"As for Tsotha – men say that a dancing-girl of Shadizar slept too near the pre-human ruins on Dagoth Hill and woke in the grip of a black demon; from that unholy union was spawned an accursed hybrid men call Tsotha-lanti..."
 - The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Scarlet Citadel," pg 106

So within the space of five pages, we see references to Shadizar women: one the horror under the Scarlet Citadel, and another being the rumoured mother of Tsotha-Lanti. The voice of the thing is mentioned as having an "unmistakably human voice," suggesting that it isn't just mimickry. Is there a correlation between the Thing with a Woman's Voice, and the conception of Tsotha-Lanti?  Could this be what was once his mother, mutated and warped by the union with the black demon until she's barely lost her humanity - save her voice? Or could this be Tsotha-Lanti's sister: the mention of tentacles too short for the body hints at the creature being a half-breed like Tsotha - but while Tsotha takes after his mother, this thing takes after her father...

Then it hit me: "The Dunwich Horror." In Lovecraft's story, Lavinia Whateley had an unholy union with Yog-Sothoth, giving birth to her son Wilbur Whateley and his brother, before disappearing in mysterious circumstances. Wilbur Whateley appeared to be human, but advanced at an unnatural rate, appearing to be a ripe youth at the age of four, and embued with preternatural intelligence.

I have to wonder if Tsotha-Lanti, the Thing, the dancing-girl of Shadizar and the Black Demon are Howard's subtle riff on Wilbur Whateley, the Dunwich Horror, Lavinia Whateley and Yog-Sothoth's monstrous family interactions, even at an unconscious level. "The Dunwich Horror" was published in April 1929's Weird Tales, and we know from correspondence that Howard read that story:

But after a close study of Poe’s technique, I am forced to give as my personal opinion, that his horror tales have been surpassed by Arthur Machen, and that neither of them ever reached the heights of cosmic horror or opened such new, strange paths of imagination as you have done in “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Outsider”, “The Horror at Red Hook”, “The Call of Cthulu”, “The Dunwich Horror” – I could name all the stories of yours I have read and not be far wrong.
 - Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. July 1, 1930
I remember the idea of whippoorwills and psychopomps in your “Dunwich Horror” and how I was struck with the unique grisliness of the notion; did the Puritans bring the belief with them from England or did it spring up in the New World?
 - Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. September 1930

Of course, I suspect that this has already been discovered and discussed in Howard scholarship in one of the countless journals out there, so it probably isn't "breaking news" as it were. Nonetheless, the feeling of making such a discovery on your own is truly thrilling. A real "Eureka" moment.

Pallantides, Ophir and Redemption

“They spur for the river; they are broken, hurled on like spume before a storm. I see Pallantides striving to stem the torrent – he is down, and the horses trample him! They rush into the river, knights, bowmen, pikemen, all mixed and mingled in one mad torrent of destruction. The Nemedians are on their heels, cutting them down like corn.”
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p98
"Pallantides was sorely wounded at Valkia, was ransomed by his family, and now lies in his castle in Attalus. He will be fortunate if he ever rides again."
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p141
“Of course the tale has lingered stubbornly in the land that Conan was not really slain at Valkia, but not until recently have the masses accepted it. But Pallantides is back from exile in Ophir, swearing that the king was ill in his tent that day, and that a man-at-arms wore his harness, and a squire who but recently recovered from the stroke of a mace received at Valkia confirms his tale – or pretends to.
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p219

Reinforcements were daily expected from Nemedia, until word came that the king of Ophir was making hostile demonstrations on Nemedia’s southern border, and to spare any more troops would be to expose Nemedia to the risk of an invasion from the south.
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p221

"The garrisons we left there are not sufficient, and we can hope for no reinforcements from Nemedia for the time being. I see the hand of Pallantides in this brawling on the Ophirean frontier. He has kin in Ophir."
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p223
The final break did not come until the fall of Amalric. The baron, striving in vain to rally his men, rode straight at the clump of knights that followed the giant in black armor whose surcoat bore the royal lion, and over whose head floated the golden lion banner with the scarlet leopard of Poitain beside it. A tall warrior in gleaming armor couched his lance and charged to meet the lord of Tor. They met like a thunderclap. The Nemedian’s lance, striking his foe’s helmet, snapped bolts and rivets and tore off the casque, revealing the features of Pallantides. But the Aquilonian’s lance-head crashed through shield and breast-plate to transfix the baron’s heart.
 - The Bloody Crown of Conan, "The Hour of the Dragon," p239

It was only as I was re-reading the second quoted passage that I realise Pallantides' defeat of Amalric was actually signposted by Howard: for one thing, Howard dramatically hinted at the unlikelihood that Pallantides would ride again, a standard dramatic device to surprise and relieve the audience when it transpires he does return to the saddle. The lack of reinforcements from Nemedia infuriated Amalric, and they were heavily hinted to be the result of Pallantides using his influence in Ophir to threaten Nemedia's southern border. Finally, Pallantides failed to defend his king from the Child of the Dark, which undoubtedly preyed upon his mind: felling Amalric when he was riding for Conan works as redemption for the king's most trusted bodyguard.

As for his kin in Ophir: remember how Pallantides was notable by his absence in "The Scarlet Citadel"? He was in the very first King Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," so his disappearance for the second is something of a mystery. But then, he returns for The Hour of the Dragon, without any apparent explanation for why he wasn't with Conan on the Plain of Shamu or elsewhere.  I have to wonder if Howard's seemingly innocuous reference to Pallantides' kin in Ophir was an attempt to explain his absence during the events of "The Scarlet Citadel," especially since his influence is all but confirmed to have massive clout.

The Baton of Authority

Trocero at first refused the order to give up his baton of authority, but the people swarmed about him, hissing and howling, hurling stones and offal at his knights. Seeing the futility of a pitched battle in the streets with Arpello’s retainers, under such conditions, Trocero hurled the baton in his rival’s face, hanged the leaders of the mercenaries in the market-square as his last official act, and rode out of the southern gate at the head of his fifteen hundred steel-clad knights.
 - The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Scarlet Citadel," pg 111

Batons were commonly used in military to denote high rank and command, as a smaller counterpart to the Staff of Office of ecclesiastical figures, and a more functional version of a sceptre. I haven't found many uses of the phrase "baton of authority" in my internet searches, but as well as references to ancient Egyptian, Biblical and Napoleonic examples, there are many from the Middle Ages and Renaissance:

HENRY IV, Emperor (1050-1106). Son of Henry III and Agnes of Poitou, the young Henry, crowned in 1054, was put, on his father's death in 1056, under his mother's tutelage until 1062. Archbishop Anno of Cologne then tried to remove her in order to exercise power, which eventually precipitated the declaration of majority in 1065. The baton of authority then passed to Archbishop Adalbert of Bremen.
 - Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages: Volume 2, p662
Standing on his own sarcophagus (much in the same way Christ stands on his in the Resurrection), the doge is flanked by two pages carrying his baton of authority and a shield bearing his coat of arms.
 - Italian art, 1250-1550: the Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society, p140
Francois Pot de Rhodes removed his sword before entering the Grand-chambre with a summons for a Lit de Justice in 1616, but Nicolas Saintot entered freely with a sword and baton of authority in 1635.
 - Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics Since the Middle Ages, p97

There are also references to baton of authority being used as a metaphor: the caduceus, fasces, rolls of paper, and even pencils are all called "batons of authority."

Of Names and Spellings

There are a few examples of alternate spellings being used in the Conan stories. De Camp viewed these as either errors on Howard's part, or changes made later in the series, and it's easy to see why he came to that conclusion: Akbatana/Akbitana, Cush/Kush, Khorusun/Khurusun, and Nordheimer/Nordheimr are likely to be different spellings of the same thing, and that's the end of the matter. But that's no fun: it's more exciting to me to treat these seeming incongruities as more meaningful than Howard changing his mind on spelling. So, I'd like to make a different tack: what if some of these are intentional?

The above examples could be a simple matter of pronunciation.  Many place an people names have slightly different spellings depending on language and derivation: "Akbatana" is only mentioned in dialogue, whereas "Akbitana" is used in the prose: perhaps Natohk is using an archaic spelling (he is 3,000 years old, after all) or phonetic pronunciation.  Cush/Kush is more complex, since Howard went back-and-forth on the spelling depending on the story, but generally "Kush" seems to be the final word, with Cush treated as an alternative. "Khorusun" is used in prose in "The Devil in Iron," while "Khurusun" is used in dialogue in "The People of the Black Circle": does this mean Khorusun is the "correct" spelling, with "Khurusun" being a regional pronunciation or variant?


In “Queen of the Black Coast,” Bêlit claimed to be descended from “Kings in Askalon.” Given the etymological similarity to Asgalun, as well as geographic probability – it seems reasonable to suggest that Askalon was a coastal city given Bêlit’s occupation – it’s possible that Asgalun and Askalon are one and the same. Since Asgalun is the spelling used in the later story “The Servants of Bit-Yakin,” the later spelling may be assumed to be Howard’s final word on the matter. Alternatively, Asgalun may be the common name, with Askalon being a variant: possibly archaic.)


Aquilonia is ruled by at least three kings over the course of Conan's life: Vilerus, Namedides and Conan (four if one counts Valerius in The Hour of the Dragon). Vilerus was the king during the events of the Tombalku fragment, which could be placed anytime during the middle of Conan's career, likely around twenty years before Conan's kingship.  Namedides followed, the earliest chronological mention being "Wolves Beyond the Border," when Conan strikes for the throne: however, hints in other Conan tales suggest he may have ascended earlier than that. In "Beyond the Black River," Conan mentions the "idiotic king" who doesn't understand conditions in the Westermarck, and won't send adequate resources, which suggest that this might be one and the same with Namedides.

Namedides is used in "The Scarlet Citadel," The Hour of the Dragon and "Wolves Beyond the Border." However, Numedides is used in "The Phoenix on the Sword," and crucially, only used by Conan in dialogue (though he uses Namedides in "The Scarlet Citadel"). How to reconcile the two names? My guess is that Numedides could be a mispronunciation on Conan's part, perhaps his Cimmerian accent: by the time of the second King story, he would use the Aquilonian pronunciation.  It's worth noticing that Conan uses an Aquilonian accent in The Hour of the Dragon when confronting the Nemedians planning on murdering Zelata: perhaps he unconsciously adapts a few Aquilonian quirks as king. The other possibility is that Robert E. Howard, the English translator of the Nemedian Chronicles, misspelled Namedides in the first story, and never got around to correcting it.

Hope this has been of interest: there are plenty more examples, but I have to leave something for the Encyclopaedia.


  1. Interesting stuff about the baton of authority. A few years ago I inherited a couple of what officially are called "swagger sticks" from the estate of a distant uncle who had been in the US Marine Corps. They are short batons carried by the drill sergeants. It seems the baton of authority is still in use, albeit by another name.

  2. Very cool and interesting. Your new insight into old Tsotha from "The Scarlet Citadel" indicates that I need to revise my own assessment of the sorcerer.
    Just goes to show that rereading always gives new insights into a text.

  3. So CPI gave you the go-ahead, including permission to quote the tales a lot in a work you'll be paid for? Robert Foster's Guide to Middle-earth doesn't do that. Will you consider publishing it digitally as well?

    For names with different forms, I'd place the entry under the most common spelling and the other variants can have "See ____". But you probably don't need that tip...

  4. "'Khorusu' is used in prose in 'The Devil in Iron,' while 'Khurusun' is used in dialogue in 'The People of the Black Circle': does this mean Khorusun is the "correct" spelling, with 'Khurusun' being a regional pronunciation or variant?"

    I have no doubt, my friend! :) Remember neither Conan nor Chunder Shan were Turanians/Hyrkanians... ;)

    Have a nice week! :)