Friday 2 December 2011

Hyborian Musings: Yes, We Have No Dragons

Yes, I've been playing Skyrim.  No, it hasn't conquered my life, though it isn't for want of trying: I just don't really have the energy or interest for marathon gaming sessions any more. The quests have been dull and lifeless compared to the best stories in Morrowind and Oblivion, the glitches are bad even for Bethesda, and I cannot understand why they don't go the Bioware/Obsidian approach to character animation - but I don't care, because the realm of Skyrim itself, the game world, makes up for it in every way.  The scenery, by Crom! The creatures!  The dungeons, mountains, forests, skies!  I spend most of my time in Skyrim simply wandering about the lovely landscape, watching the sabertooths prowl after elk, giants herding mammoths, the occasional dragon soar overhead, waiting for the Northern Lights to ripple across the night sky, Tamriel's twin moons looming above.  But in a way, it helps, since so much of Skyrim is influenced by the "Northern Thing" as Tolkien liked to call it, which naturally led me to consider those elements in REH, and so, the Encyclopedia.  Thinking about the dragons in the game led me to ponder dragons in Conan.

Dragons in Howard are a wide subject that warrants further study, but dragons of the Hyborian Age are naturally something I've been delving into for the Encyclopedia. While dragons rarely make an on-stage appearance in the Conan stories - only "The Scarlet Citadel" and "Red Nails" have living, breathing ones drop by - thematic and symbolic dragons are all over the place, be they dragons in heraldry, or colourful metaphors for characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in the singular Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon.

It has been remarked upon that P.S. Miller changing The Hour of the Dragon to Conan the Conqueror for the tale's single-volume publication debut was, in diplomatic terms, a blasted stupid idea. Like the esteemed Mr Rippke, I think The Hour of the Dragon is a strong, poetic, evocative title heaving with mythic resonance and symbolism. Conan the Conqueror may have alliteration on its side, but it's painfully dull in comparison - not to mention misleading in itself, since Conan doesn't conquer so much as regain what was already his. The reason behind  this change, of course, was that the man thought the title was misleading due to the lack of dragons in the text.

Confucius, he say: Whaaaaa?

From a purely literally-minded perspective, no, there are no actual dragons in the story "The Hour of the Dragon." Just as The Day of the Jackal does not feature an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle by an actual jackal, or Silence of the Lambs doesn't feature an actual mute sheep, or One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest does not feature anything to do with actual cuckoos, nests or flying, or... you get the point.* Perhaps he thought fantasy fans are so incredibly dull-witted that they would indeed expect Conan to fight a dragon, and so be tremendously disappointed when the adventure goes by and no gargantuan fire-breathing beasties have an hour to themselves. Part of me thinks Sturgeon's Law led to lowered expectations, and Miller acted accordingly.

However, when ones looks metaphorically (metaphor in literature, dohohohoho, how delightfully absurd), you simply can't move for all the dragons in the story. The most obvious is Nemedia itself:

The Lion banner sways and falls in the horror haunted gloom;
A scarlet Dragon rustles by, borne on winds of doom.
In heaps the shining horsemen lie, where the thrusting lances break,
And deep in the haunted mountains the lost, black gods awake.
Dead hands grope in the shadows, the stars turn pale with fright,
For this is the Dragon’s Hour, the triumph of Fear and Night.

That's really all the reader should need, no? As soon as they see the scarlet dragon banner of Nemedia, I think even the most pedantic readers would guess that the "Dragon's Hour" refers to Nemedia's triumph over Aquilonia, however brief it may be. This is codified in the very text with a title drop. Twice.

“He lives like a foreign prince in the midst of a conquered land,” answered Servius bitterly. “His court is filled with Nemedians, the palace troops are of the same breed, and a large garrison of them occupy the citadel. Aye, the hour of the Dragon has come at last.”
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p139
A roar went up as Amalric was hurled from his saddle, snapping the lance that impaled him, and the Nemedians gave way as a barrier bursts under the surging impact of a tidal wave. They rode for the river in a blind stampede that swept the plain like a whirlwind. The hour of the Dragon had passed.
 - "The Hour of the Dragon," The Bloody Crown of Conan, p239

But it isn't just Nemedia that's compared to a dragon: this story takes place in no less than "the year of the Dragon," with the first chapter starting in "the waning of the Year of the Lion." "The Scarlet Citadel" took place in the Year of the Gazelle, suggesting the Hyborian calendar may have a cyclical organisation not unlike the Chinese calendar (but that's a subject for another post). Yet more fairly obvious symbolism here: Aquilonia and Conan are the Lions, whose years of dominance are about to be supplanted by the Nemedian Dragon, an event mirrored - or predicted? - by cosmic conjunction. It can't just be a happy coincidence that the chain of events which led to Xaltotun's resurrection and Tarascus' ascention and eventual invasion of Aquilonia all took place in such a portentous year.

Dale and more have noted that Xaltotun bears more than a few similarities to the mythic Dragon-Kings of ancient Persia, and Xaltotun himself has the same sort of immense age, antiquity and inhuman intelligence with which some dragons of myth and folklore are imbued. So, while Nemedia is clearly one dragon, Xaltotun himself could be considered one.  After all, Conan's hunt to regain the Heart of Ahriman goes through many of the quintessential stages of a hero's journey to a degree unseen in previous tales: is it not fitting that the final foe to be defeated be a metaphorical dragon?

Note, too, that Xaltotun, like other dragons and monsters, is all but unassailable, save for one crucial weakness. Fafnir and his spiritual descendent Smaug were unassailable save for a tiny weak spot; Antaeus was invincible so long as he always touched the ground; Achilles had his heel. Xaltotun is so potent a menace that only the talisman which brought him from the abyss could send him back.  Think about that: cold steel was enough to defeat mighty sorcerers such as the Master of Yimsha, Salome, and Thugra Khotan, while Tsotha-Lanti was at least highly compromised by decapitation. Apparently, this just won't be enough against Xaltotun. We can't truly know if Xaltotun was invulnerable to earthly weapons, but it's noticeable that no-one, not even Conan, ever makes the attempt. Considering Xaltotun was undead, I think running him through would go about as well as it did against Thulsa Doom.

There's another dragon that's frequently overlooked: Tarascus. Tarascus' name, to me, gives yet another clue that The Hour of the Dragon has many meanings beyond the first. In Hyborian Names, de Camp offers the following possibilities for Tarascus' etymology:

Tarascus In CC, CA, the brother of the king of Nemedia. Possibly from Tarascon, France, or from the Tarascan Indians of Mexico.

The first is a perfectly reasonable possibility (not sure what de Camp was thinking with the Tarascans, but hey, every possibility's worth mentioning regardless of likelihood), but if de Camp looked a bit further into the etymology of Tarascon itself, he might have found a fascinating third possibility. For Tarascon was named after a dragon -  the Tarasque. While the Tarasque sounds like quite a funky dragon (six stubby bear legs, an ox's body, a tortoise's shell, a tail with a scorpion's sting, and the head of a lion - for some reason I'm visualising Terry Gilliam going wild with this design), dragons in Medieval Bestiaries can come in all manner of shapes and sizes. A sextupedal, chelonian, bovine, leonine, scorpionoid beastie has as much right to be considered a dragon as the Lindworm or Zilant.

It's worth pointing out that the Tarasque bears a few similarities to Xaltotun himself: it cannot be slain by earthly weapons, its head is often compared to that of a lion.** It even has a beard and moustache (man, of all the varied countries with dragons in their legendry, I wouldn't have pegged France to be the land of crazy Monty Python horrors).   Could Howard have known all this? As ever, difficult to say, but he may have encountered it through the tale of Saint Martha.

So in addition to Nemedia's banner, Nemedia itself, and Xaltotun, we can add the other primary antagonist of the story. But wait - there's even more!

One seemingly unrelated chapter of the story is "The Fang of the Dragon." It's one of a number of vignettes within the tale that might seem to be irrelevant or slow down the narrative, but thematically tie into the story to function as symbolic allusions to the tale.  Everything, be it the episode with the ghouls in the forest, Akivasha, or "Drums of Peril," has a place in the story.  Here, the titular fang is the unknown trap built into the box - carved and decorated with writhing dragons, naturally, and curiously with one holding a sphere that might symbolise a certain jewel - housing the Heart of Ahriman, a spring-loaded fang dipped in poison.  Essentially, the subject holding and keeping the Heart betrayed the person who wrested it from its rightful owner.  Now remember that Tarascus betrayed Xaltotun by removing the heart.  Then remember that Amalric planned on betraying Tarascus and Valerius, and that Xaltotun planned on betraying everyone...

That box symbolises every villain in the entire story, and one of the main themes of the tale: don't place your trust in dragons, for they're likely to betray you.

The theme of dragons and betrayal is consistent throughout the tale.  Remember Conan putting Valannus in armour?  The helm he's wearing is a described as having a "wivern crest."  Wivern being a synonym for wyvern, a heraldic subtype of dragon.  Here, Valannus, Conan and Pallantides are conspiring to fool both armies into thinking Conan is indeed leading them into battle - but when Valannus is slain, the Aquilonians' morale melts away like spring snow.  Because that armour, with the helmet with the wivern-crest, fooled them into thinking that Conan was dead, slain by sorcery.

Can't trust dragons, even if they're just designs on boxes and helmets.

*OK, one more: just like To Kill A Mockingbird is not an actual guide to assassinating mockingbirds.  That said, I'm not averse to being disappointed by titles that have nothing to do with the story when the title sounds better than what I read or watched.  Monster's Ball, for instance - no dancing vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies, not even a Creature from the Black Lagoon, just an overwrought, exploitative mess of self-congratulations and easy targets. I liked 12 Monkeys, but you can't tell me it wouldn't have been immensely better if all the actors were replaced with hyper-intelligent capuchins.

**Very odd, that Xaltotun is compared to lions and dragons, when the story is so symbolically invested in the conflict between the two: perhaps a commentary on the duality of his nature as a Hyborian who has turned to the dark arts? Or that his human arrogance and patriotic zeal, the "lion" side of his personality, have compromised the arcane and sophisticated "dragon" aspect?


  1. Great article, Al. Thanks!

    (heh, my captcha to post this is bigal)

  2. I always took it as finding your heart(or courage,symbolized by the heart of ahriman) in your darkest hour (the hour of the dragon)-But this is you at your best Al , I really enjoyed it.-Mario

  3. Have you seen Real Steel, Al? Actually, it have 0 resemblance with Matheson tale... it really FEEL like "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie"!!!

  4. Great read!
    This is exactly what I like to read about.
    Interresting how REH make use of a sybolic dragon in this way, related to deciet and unfairnes, when the actual beast (in Conans world) is basicly a dumb brute of a ovezized lizard (no offence towards your precious dinosaurs, mind you).
    Makes a good point on "the evil that men do" vs cruel Mother Earth, perhaps.