Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Lost Conan Adventures: "Queen of the Black Coast," Part 2

Stories Within The Story
Howard's economy of writing meant that a great deal could be described in a few words, but there are times when one could imagine any number of things happening. Sometimes, it's a few months condensed into a paragraph, as frequently happened in The Hour of the Dragon; others, entire years go by between chapters, most famously in "Queen of the Black Coast." Other possibilities include what happens to other characters over the course of a tale, explanations for seemingly incongruous anomalies or plot holes, reconciliations with other stories - anything.

Stories Within The Story

Adventures on the Black Coast
The Tigress ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered. Tom-toms beat in the night, with a tale that the she-devil of the sea had found a mate, an iron man whose wrath was as that of a wounded lion.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p129 
There are a few things that happen between the two periods of "Queen of the Black Coast", all of which could be great adventures in their own right. The "wrath of a wounded lion" may be linked in some part to Conan's alter ego.

Bitter Trees
And survivors of butchered Stygian ships named Bêlit with curse, and a white warrior with fierce blue eyes; so the Stygian princes remembered this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore crimson fruit in the years to come.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p129
It's interesting that Howard chooses to mention the survivors of Stygian ships to name Bêlit and Conan with a curse, rather than Argossean or Zingarian ones: did Bêlit prey particularly heavily upon those sleek, black-hulled galleys?  Why would Bêlit allow any survivors, when her modus operandi seems to be total destruction, to judge by the ruined Black Coast settlement the Argus encountered - were the Stygians just lucky enough to escape in lifeboats, or did Bêlit deliberately let them go to spread terror and fear about her?

Trade and Plunder
I am bound for Cush, to trade beads and silks and sugar and brass-hilted swords to the black kings for ivory, copra, copper ore, slaves and pearls.”
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p122
Since the Argus seemed fairly typical for a Black Coast trader, it's reasonable to suppose that her cargo was also typical of the goods traded.  Obviously there would be more unusual or exotic items, as well as more mundane goods (some of which will be mentioned in Part 3), but it's good background fodder. It's worth noting that Howard was always consistent in trading resources: for instance, the Hyborian kingdoms seem eager to trade in copper.  Not only do they trade with the Black Kingdoms for the ore, but with the Shemites and even Picts.  One then wonders what they do with all that copper.  Also of interest is copra, a meal made from the dried meat of the coconut: this suggests that there were coconuts on the Black Coast, possibly indigenous, or introduced by the proto-Stygians or Kosalans on their westward drift. Copra is in use even today as animal feed for its high protein content, which suggests it may a similar use in the Hyborian kingdoms.

The Argus was a small sturdy ship, typical of those trading-craft which ply between the ports of Zingara and Argos and the southern coasts, hugging the shoreline and seldom venturing far into the open ocean.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p123
It seems like the Argus is one of many such ships sailing from the maritime Hyborian countries to the Black Kingdoms: it's likely the Argus won't be the last to be preyed upon by the Tigress of the sea. "Seldom venturing far into the open ocean" is interesting: are we to assume that some do travel further out? If so, for what reason? Purely accidental, pirate evasion, exploration... or do they know something other traders don't?

Brains of the Operation
Conan agreed. He generally agreed to her plans. Hers was the mind that directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas. It mattered little to him where they sailed or whom they fought, so long as they sailed and fought. He found the life good.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p130
Conan and Bêlit may be partners, but Conan is the junior partner in this relationship. The Queen of the Black Coast is still in rule, and Conan is her consort, not her master: while he may disagree with her on occasion, he seems mostly happy to carry out her orders. In later stories, Conan calls himself "Chief of the Black Corsairs," rather than, say, "King of the Black Coast": this suggests that despite Bêlit's promise to make Conan her "king," and the talk of him "conquering and crushing her" in his lovemaking, it's just talk. In practise, she's lord and master, and Conan her subordinate, albeit highest-ranking and most trusted. It's quite different from Conan's other relationships, where he tends to be in charge.

The Island Kingdoms
Battle and raid had thinned their crew; only some eighty spearmen remained, scarcely enough to work the long galley. But Bêlit would not take the time to make the long cruise southward to the island kingdoms where she recruited her buccaneers.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p130
This shows that just prior to the voyage up the Zarkheba, the Tigress had been involved in more than one battle and/or raid before they had the chance to replenish their numbers. What battles did they fight, and what plunders did they raid? They'd likely be either too close to the Zarkheba for Bêlit to resist the allure, or north of it, too far from the island kingdoms.

We also hear the first of the island kingdoms, home of the Black Corsairs. Little is known of the kingdoms themselves, but more information on their residents can be gleaned from The Hour of the Dragon, which will be discussed in part 3.

An Empress' Ransom
Like a true queen she lay, with her plunder heaped high about her: silks, cloth-of-gold, silver braid, casks of gems and golden coins, silver ingots, jeweled daggers, and teocallis of gold wedges.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p141
Bêlit seemed to have amassed a grand personal fortune by the end of her life, with a particular taste for jeweled daggers and woven precious metals: the story of how she gained all those casks of gem an gold would surely be recounted. The silks may have been pillaged from Argossean ships bound for Kush, or even Khitan junks from a jaunt around southern Kush to the oceans south of Vendhya, while the various gold and gems could come from anywhere. "Teocallis" may simply be Howard's poetic description of the shape they were stacked in (a terraced pyramid), or could it be a subtle hint at the Tigress' making a voyage to the Nameless Continent?


""Ho, N'Yaga!" her voice twanged like a bowstring. "Fetch herbs and dress your master's wounds! The rest of you bring aboard the plunder and cast off."  As Conan sat with his back against the poop-rail, while the old shaman attended to the cuts on his hands and limbs..."
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p128
“A winged ape,” said old N’Yaga uneasily. “Better we had cut our throats than come to this place. It is haunted.”
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p133
N'Yaga is one of several prominent black characters in "Queen of the Black Coast," and seems to function as an advisor, priest and healer to the crew. N'Yaga would have doubtless imparted wisdom, advice and knowledge to Conan. It's curious to note that his fate was not directly revealed at the end of the story: presumably he was slain along with the spearmen, but without seeing N'Yaga's body, you never know.

“...Go ahead,” he grunted to a sub-chief, N’Gora. “March straight on until you can no longer see me; then stop and wait for me. I believe we’re being followed. I heard something...”
...Even as he wondered, the scene shifted abruptly to a jungle glade where N'Gora and nineteen black spearmen stood, as if awaiting someone...
Then he saw that it was a giant black man that crouched ape-like, long arms dangling, froth dripping from the loose lips. It was not until, with a sobbing cry, the creature lifted huge hands and rushed toward him, that Conan recognized N’Gora. The black man gave no heed to Conan’s shout as he charged, eyes rolled up to display the whites, teeth gleaming, face an inhuman mask... For a little space Conan stood motionless. Then he wheeled and ran back the way he had come, flinging himself with reckless haste through the tall grass and bushes, hurdling creepers that sprawled snake-like across his path. His sword swung low in his right hand, and an unaccustomed pallor tinged his dark face.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p135, 138-139
N'Gora is a sub-chief, indicating that there may be a number of them: as Conan is referred to as chief of the Black Corsairs in other stories, this might reveal part of the heirarchy of the Tigress, with sub-chiefs possibly akin to mates on historical vessels. Little of N'Gora's personality is revealed, but he appears to be as nervous as his men.  All that we do know is that he was driven mad by the mere sight of the Winged One: was this the inevitable outcome of an already troubled psyche pushed too far, or did the creature deliberately render the sole survivor of his troop insane through some sorcery in order to torture Conan? There are subtle hints that the creature was leaving Conan to last: this is just the sort of morbid touch to further demoralise and terrorize a victim. The death of the N'Gora seemed to affect Conan quite a bit: though it could just be chalked up to the horrific circumstances of his death, it's not unreasonable to assume Conan would become friendly with his shipmate, and he may be losing a close friend as well as dog-brother. In any case, N'Gora is more or less a blank slate, and one can imbue him with more backstory to fill out the cast of the Tigress. N'Gora is not mentioned in the first chapter of the story: was he always part of the crew, or a new recruit? What was his relationship to Bêlit, N'Yaga, and eventually Conan?

The Mystery of Bêlit

Kings of Askalon
“Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance – the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were kings of Askalon!”
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p129
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. It's even possible that Askalon was a former kingdom which has been conquered or otherwise lost, perhaps even legendary.

However, even more tantalising is the revelation - or at least the boast - that Bêlit is a daughter of "kings of Askalon." This seems to suggest a royal lineage to a Shemite kingdom, and the circumstances around why Bêlit is not in Askalon now. Is she the last heir of a lost kingdom of Shem, a queen without a realm? Is she an outcast or illegitimate offspring of royalty?  Has she been usurped from her rule by a jealous rival, or did she run away to join the pirates to be queen of a greater domain than any constrained by land? Is there any real answer, or is this another aspect of the mystique of Bêlit? The possibilities are endless.

A Cloak for a Queen
... his gorgeous scarlet cloak could have been spun nowhere but in Ophir...
... He called Bêlit, who slept on the deck, wrapped in his scarlet cloak, and she sprang to his side, eyes blazing...
But on the deck of the Tigress, on a pyre of broken benches, spear-shafts and leopardskins, lay the Queen of the Black Coast in her last sleep, wrapped in Conan’s scarlet cloak.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p124, 132, 140-141
Bêlit is seen wrapped in Conan's scarlet cloak twice: once as she slept on the deck of the Tigress, and on her funeral pyre. It strikes me that Bêlit has something of an attachment to this cloak: presumably it's something just as simple as being a genuine Ophirean scarlet cloak, or because it's her man's cloak and thus an extension of their intimacy, but it could be something else. These might not be the only times Bêlit has worn Conan's cloak: the fact that Conan wraps her in it for her funeral suggests that.  Perhaps Conan's continued preference for scarlet cloaks in future stories can be at least partially attributed to his love for Bêlit.  Conan also used a scarlet cloak to warm Yasmela in "Black Colossus."

Discovering the Zarkheba
"Once a Stygian galley, fleeing from me, fled up the river and vanished. I anchored in this very spot, and days later, the galley came floating down the dark waters, its decks blood-stained and deserted. Only one man was on board, and he was mad and died gibbering. The cargo was intact, but the crew had vanished into silence and mystery. "
“My lover, I believe there is a city somewhere on that river. I have heard tales of giant towers and walls glimpsed afar off by sailors who dared go part-way up the river. We fear nothing: Conan, let us go and sack that city!”
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p129-130
This is another hint of Bêlit's life before meeting Conan, but of interest is why Bêlit is so sure there is a city along the Zarkheba. Did Bêlit go searching for clues about what could be lurking in the jungle, quizzing tribes on legends and folklore, poring over the books of Skelos? Is this a reason why she hunts Stygian ships? The Stygians, of course, have had ties with the Winged Ones' city since their prehistory - did Bêlit learn of the city from them?

Ape Mythology
And once an inhuman voice was lifted in awful mockery – the cry of an ape, Bêlit said, adding that the souls of evil men were imprisoned in these manlike animals as punishment for past crimes.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p130
An interesting morsel of trivia from Bêlit, and thematically tied into the true origin of the Winged One, but one wonders if this is something she picked up from the blacks, or if it's an aspect of Shemite religion. A more unusual, if unlikely, possibility is that she's personally witnessed such an act of hideous reincarnation. There are examples of men's souls being trapped in those of animals in the Conan tales, most notoriously snakes in "Beyond the Black River," and other Sword-and-Sorcery stories by Howard have soul transference.  It doesn't seem outside the realms of possibility that Bêlit may have witnessed such a thing, or a weird incident which she rationalized in terms she could understand.

Bêlit knows no fear
“I am not afraid either,” she said meditatively. “I was never afraid. I have looked into the naked fangs of Death too often. Conan, do you fear the gods?”
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p131
It may seem redundant to point out Bêlit's skills and experience in leading her crew, but here is a direct example of Bêlit explaining her fearlessness, borne from frequent acquaintance with the spectre of death. This does not necessarily mean battle - what we know of Bêlit marks her as the strategist, tactician and mastermind, not warrior - but the high seas are hazardous enough. Storms, squalls, freak waves, falling overboard, sea creature attacks (in the Hyborian Age, that doesn't just mean whales), even simple dehydration or heat exhaustion when trapped out at sea too long.

Bêlit's Religion
“But the gods are real,” she said, pursuing her own line of thought. “And above all are the gods of the Shemites – Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish, for he was born in ancient Shumir, long, long ago, and went forth laughing, with curled beard and impish wise eyes, to steal the gems of the kings of old times.
 - "Queen of the Black Coast," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p131
This is a glimpse into Bêlit's religious beliefs, which appears to be the same of other Shemites in the stories. Bêlit's Shemite heritage would be a logical place to explore, in conjunction with her possible royal heritage. The corsair's veneration of Bêlit goes beyond that of crew to beloved captain, but worshipper to goddess. Other black kingdoms, such as Keshan and Punt, also worship ivory goddesses. Is Bêlit manipulating her own crew, convincing them of her godhood through her theatrics, driving them on with guile and technique that convinces them of her powers? Indeed, given that she comes back from the grave to aid Conan, is it not possible that she is versed in certain sorceries, or privy to ancient knowledge, which allowed her to crawl back from the abyss to aid her love - and if so, what else does she know, and could do? It would certainly explain her stilted and theatrical mannerisms when addressing Conan, if she was used to speaking in the imperious tones of a goddess.


  1. Just one quibble:

    Conan is the junior partner in this relationship... Conan is her consort, not her king

    Change "king" to "monarch", since Bêlit tells him, "Be thou my king!"

  2. The reason I went with "king" as opposed to monarch specifically is that, traditionally, kings "outrank" queens: calling Conan king and Belit queen gives the impression that Conan is the boss, because that tends to be the case in history. After all, even after Belit took Conan as her mate, she was still the figure of terror and hatred. They always named Belit with a curse, "and a white warrior with fierce blue eyes." If Belit is Elizabeth II, then Conan is Philip. In terms of rank, of course.

    Conan's rank during this time appeared to be "Chief of the Black Corsairs": he was never "King of the Black Coast." Belit's use of king strikes me as her "selling" the position to Conan rather than truly acknowledging him as her master, even considering all the talk of her "conquering and crushing her with his fierce love," since in practise, Belit was always in charge.

    As I say, Conan and Belit's relationship is quite complex.

  3. *In retrospect, though, I think I'll change it all the same.

  4. "It strikes me that Bêlit has something of an attachment to this cloak: presumably it's something just as simple as being a genuine Ophirean scarlet cloak, but it could be more meaningful."

    She wears it because it's her man's cloak, just like a woman wears her man's shirt here in the Post-Cataclysmic Age (which just makes her look EVEN MOAR SEXAY!)


    Bêlit loved wearing Conan's cloak, so he let her wear it into Eternity.

    (looking forward to the next part)

  5. That actually occurred to me, but it seemed so obvious I didn't put it in. Nonetheless, it kind of speaks for itself.

    I have this vision of Conan and Belit wrapped together in the cloak like that scene in Spartacus, where Spartacus wraps up Varinia as they talk to each other. It's a really intimate, lovely moment, one of my favourite "love scenes" (so to speak) in all of cinema.

  6. there are very few things more sexy than a woman wearing a mans shirt unbuttoned