The Lancer Conan Series: Conan the Conqueror

by Gary Romeo

The Hour of the Dragon was first published as a five part serial in Weird Tales. It appeared in the December 1935, January, February, March, April 1936 issues. Below are the front covers and first pages with illustrations. The story was reprinted under the title, Conan the Conqueror, Gnome Press, 1950; Ace Books, 1953; Boardman (UK) 1954; and Lancer Books, 1967.

Information about the Gnome Press, Ace Double, and Boardman (UK) reprints can be found in this link. Along with the covers of each book, it includes the Gnome Press introduction by John D. Clark and Sprague de Camp’s book review that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction.

The Lancer version went through various editions, all with Frank Frazetta’s magnificent artwork. The book was labeled both volume 3 and volume 5 but chronologically it is the 9th book in the series.

There are some minor textual differences between the Weird Tales, Lancer, and Del Rey versions. The biggest difference is that the Del Rey version starts with a short poem that is not present in Weird Tales or Lancer:

There are the normal differences in page/story breaks. Lancer uses “Numedides” as the former king’s name, WT and Del Rey use “Namedides.” One instance of “Crom” is italicized in the Del Rey version. “Surprised” is used instead of “surprized” in the Lancer version. There is a typographical error in the Lancers, where “Zenobia” is spelled “Zanobia” in one instance. Some words are not hyphenated in the Lancer version: head-pieces, war-horse. Other changes are listed below:

WT: The Cimmerian involuntarily shivered; he sensed something incredibly ancient, incredibly evil …

Lancer: The Cimmerian involuntarily shivered; he sensed something incredibly ancient, incredibly evil …

Del Rey: The Cimmerian involuntarily shivered; he sensed something incredibly ancient, incredibly evil.

*

WT: ape-like speech

Lancer: guttural speech

Del Rey: ape-like speech

*

WT: for ever

Lancer: forever

Del Rey: for ever

*

WT: morion

Lancer: basinet

Del Rey: morion

*

WT: burganet

Lancer: helmet

Del Rey: burganet

*

Below are some critical reactions to this novel. First a scan of the Weird Tales readers response to the first installment. (See lower right hand paragraph.) Then Lancer Series editor, L. Sprague de Camp’s overview (from Dark Valley Destiny, Bluejay Books, 1983) and lastly an excerpt from The Robert E. Howard Guide, Skelos Press, 2018 by Del Rey Series editor, Patrice Louinet.

Weird Tales:

L. Sprague de Camp:

Patrice Louinet.

Marvel Comics adapted the story in six parts. The first four chapters were adapted in the color comic Giant Size Conan #1-4. The last two chapters in the black &white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan #8, 10. It was collected into a graphic novel in 2019. Dark Horse adapted the story in King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon #1-6. It was also collected into a graphic novel.

The basic plot of the novel was mentioned previously in the excerpt from de Camp but for those who skipped that part or need more, here is the plot overview from Wikipedia. Co-blogger Brian Kunde is a Wikipedian (Google it!) and responsible for most of the Wikipedia entries for REH and de Camp. (So I’m merely borrowing from a friend here … )

This volume contains the last Conan tale in the Lancer series by Robert E. Howard. The next three books in the series are pastiche by de Camp & Bjorn Nyberg, and de Camp & Lin Carter.

In the oft-quoted letter REH wrote to P. Schuyler Miller about Conan’s career, REH wrote: “In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I was simply chronicling his adventures as he told them. That’s why they skip around so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

REH did refer to the Conan yarns as a saga in a letter to a friend, Alvin Earl Perry; and in his story “The Scarlet Citadel.” he wrote of Conan saying: “His saga, which had led him to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole cycle of hero-tales.”

The Lancer Series was envisioned by L. Sprague de Camp as a “complete saga” in chronological order. It turned out to be a very popular idea. Why this rankles some is beyond my ken. My wallet probably would have preferred limiting the series to those twelve initial volumes. But I love the character and bought everything since. At the beginning of this endeavor de Camp could not have known that the character would later be adapted to comic books, film, and television and that the popularity of the character would have additional authors narrating episodes of Conan “widely separated by space and years.” A new Conan pastiche by S. M. Stirling is due out in October 2022. I plan to purchase it and review it here.

Anyway, onward…

There is a line of dialog in the opening chapter that stood out to me. Valerius, one of the conspirators, says: “What purgatory can be worse than life itself?” Sadly, we know that to be REH’s worldview. It is remarkable that Conan is such a life affirming character, struggling and persevering against all odds, to not only become king of a civilized country, but fighting tooth and nail to regain that same throne, in this novel.

Here we first see Conan through a wizard’s mirror. Conan is described as “a tall man, mightily shouldered and deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs. He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on his square cut mane; but the great sword at his side seemed more natural to him than his regal accouterments. His brow was low and broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of his limbs.” (Later it is said that Conan has a hairy chest, which I believe is new information.)

We are given additional background for Conan in this novel. This novel has Conan declaring, “I have no royal blood. I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.” Earlier Conan tells his general, Pallantides, about a dream, “I saw again the battlefield whereon I was born. I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts. I was a mercenary swordsman again, a hetman of the kozaki who dwell along the Zaporoska River, a corsair looting the coasts of Kush, a pirate of the Barachan Isles, a chief of the Himelian hillmen. All these things I’ve been, and of all these things I dreamed; all the shapes that have been I passed like an endless procession, and their feet beat out a dirge in the sounding dust.”

REH is foreshadowing the experience and skills that will keep Conan alive and winning to the end of this adventure.

I’m not one for lists (unless I agree with them!) Michael Moorcock (creator of the second best Sword & Sorcery hero) and James Cawthorn wrote Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, Carroll & Graf, 1988 and included Conan the Conqueror (The Hour of the Dragon) in the book. Reproduced below is an excerpt from that book giving a summary of the finale and an accurate summation of REH’s writing.

This novel merits study. I’m not smart enough to comment on it all but I think it is significant that Conan meets so many women in the story. First Zenobia who will become his queen, also the witch Zelata, the royal bred Albiona, and the vampiress Akivasha. Conan wisely chooses Zenobia but Akivasha is tempting!

Conan inspires a slave uprising in this story and shouts in his best Nat Turner imitation, “Death to the masters!” But frankly, REH ruins the mood with the former slaves roaring, “We are thy children! Lead us where you will!” Earlier in the story Servius, an ally of Conan, complains about Conan’s usurper, “Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days.” Servius knows how to raise Conan’s dander!

Back in the Conan story “The Treasure of Tranicos” the treasure Tranicos stole belonged to an exiled Stygian prince, Tothmekri. In this novel there is a 3,000 year old Stygian priest called Thothmekri. Since there is only a slight difference in spelling I thought it could have been the same person at first but Thothmekri is definitely a much older fellow.

Lastly I want to add some observations about Thoth-Amon’s appearance in this book. Thoth-Amon regained his ring in “The Phoenix on the Sword” and appears to be back to full strength. When Conan inquires about the priest Thutothmes (whom Conan is searching for) he is told, “Men say that he opposed Thoth-Amon, who is the master of all priests of Set, and dwells in Luxur, and that Thutothmes seeks hidden power to overthrow the Great One.” Later it is mentioned that the western world knows Thoth-Amon as a “figure of terror and myth.”

This is the third story where REH mentions Thoth. The others being “The God in the Bowl” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Clearly REH meant for Conan and Thoth to meet one day. (I will be reviewing de Camp and Carter’s version of that encounter soon. I remember it as less than stellar.) How I wish REH had lived to tell that tale. What a novel that could have been!

Bonus: I’ve seen the Frank Frazetta artwork reproduced in several places on the internet. The coloring/lighting varies on several. Of the two most prominent reproductions, one has a blueish tone and the other has a pinkish tone. Both are frank-tastic!

Maybe one is for boys and the other for girls? The official version appears to be the pinkish tone. Appropriate, since the official version is available at: https://www.frazettagirls.com/

Charlotte Laughlin, the de Camps’ Bibliographer

by Brian Kunde

In the course of writing my review of the Laughlin/Levack de Camp bibliography, I got side-tracked into researching Charlotte Laughlin, the principal bibliographer. The resulting sketch goes well beyond the scope of the review, and as I thought it might not be devoid of interest to readers of this blog, I present the same separately here.

Dr. Charlotte Laughlin was born Charlotte Gay Laughlin in Brownwood, Brown County, Texas, on August 18, 1951, the daughter of Billy Roy and Mildred Fay (Wise) Laughlin. Raised in Brownwood, she attended Brownwood High School, where she served on the student council and was salutatorian of her graduating class. At eighteen she moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. There she earned her M.A. and Ph.D.

She has a number of academic publications to her name, including her M.A. thesis The Conventical Courant: an Example of Political and Religious Journalism (1974) and Ph.D. dissertation A Catalogue of the Denton Welch Collection at the University of Texas (1975), and the article “Mazeppa and the Bride of Abydos: a Comparison of Title-Page Variants” (Library Chronicle of the University of Texas n.s. no. 9, 1978), all issued by the University of Texas at Austin. She is also responsible for the privately printed monograph on the Goggin-Camp Home in Brownwood, Texas, date unknown.

She married Billy Charles Lee on May 24, 1973 in Austin, Texas. When Charlotte was twenty-four, they returned to Brownwood, where she taught English at Howard Payne University. The Laughlin-Lees continued to reside there at least into the mid-1990s.

By the 1970s at the latest she had developed a keen interest in the works of Robert E. Howard and the history of the American paperback. With Billy Lee, Charlotte edited Paperback Quarterly, A Journal for Paperback Collectors, issued by the American Paperback Institute and published by Pecan Valley Press from Brownwood starting with v. 1, no. 1, Spring 1978. The magazine ran through v. 5, no. 4, winter 1982, with which it apparently ceased. Wildside Press has reprints of most issues available.

Robert Hauptman of the University of Oklahoma assessed the journal thusly: “Paperback Quarterly is a small but lively journal that specializes in the history of the paperback book. Mystery, detective, and science fiction, as well as authors, illustrators, and many other topics turn up in articles such as ‘Dashiell Hammett in the Dell Mapbacks’ or ‘Paperback Postcards.’ Book reviews, correspondence, and numerous illustrations make this an appropriate title for bibliographic collections. G. Thomas Tanselle has indicated that Paperback Quarterly covers a previously neglected area.” (Library Journal, v. 107, no. 19, November 1, 1982, p. 2057)

Laughlin’s acquaintance with Sprague and Catherine de Camp stems from their mutual enthusiasm for Robert E. Howard. In March 1978, while researching their biography of Howard, the de Camps came to Brownwood to examine the books from REH’s personal collection at the Howard Payne University Library. Learning of the visit, Laughlin soon tracked the couple down, and a meeting over dinner was arranged. Attending were the de Camps, their hosts Jack Scott (former editor of the Cross Plains newspaper) and his wife Juakana Scott, Laughlin and her husband Billy Lee, and Laughlin’s Howard Payne colleague Professor Bill Crider and his wife Judy. At the dinner, Laughlin surprised the de Camps by providing them copies of a number of REH documents they had been looking for.

Per Laughlin, the de Camps in return “graciously consented to give an informal interview for the PQ and to speak to my English classes about writing and research.” These talks formed the basis of Laughlin’s article “A Conversation with the de Camps,” which appeared in (and made the cover of) the very first issue of Paperback Quarterly (v. 1, no. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 16-22). Sprague de Camp also got an article out of their early acquaintance; “American English from Central Texas,” including a transcription of Laughlin’s reading of Aesop’s “The North Wind and the Sun,” which appeared as a specimen of Texan dialect in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association (v. 8, iss. 1/2, June 1978, pp. 81-82).

De Camp was evidently taken with Laughlin’s appearance, later dedicating his poetry collection Heroes and Hobgoblins (Donald M. Grant, 1981) “to the prettiest professor: Dr. Charlotte Laughlin,” a description he repeats on describing their initial meeting in his autobiography Time and Chance (Donald M. Grant, 1996, p. 395), now qualifying it as “the prettiest professor of my acquaintance.” (Incidentally, on that same page he name-drops Phillip Sawyer as one of his bodyguards at the fourth World Fantasy Convention.)

The de Camps were also impressed by Laughlin’s bibliographical credentials. It can be no accident that her first major project of that nature after Paperback Quarterly was as principal compiler of De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography (Underwood/Miller, 1983). Her introduction notes that “[t]he attempt at completeness was greatly aided by the active help of Sprague and Catherine de Camp and by examination of their files, opus cards, and personal library.” The book was plainly a fully cooperative venture. I suspect the impetus for the project may have come from Catherine de Camp herself. Laughlin’s share of the book’s dedication page reads “For Catherine Crook de Camp / Without whom this book and many books / Herein described would not have been.” (Emphasis added.)

Over the years the relationship deepened with the continuing visits of the de Camps to Texas, the residence of their sons in the region, and finally their own move to Plano in 1989. While the decision to archive the de Camp papers in the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin seems an obvious one, given its status as the principal academic research institution in the region, it may also have been facilitated by Laughlin’s past connection with the university. In a letter of 11 June 1994 Sprague referred to the Laughlin-Lees as “our main friends in Brownwood.”

Since the de Camp bibliography Laughlin has published relatively little. In the early 1990s she wrote a couple “lift the flap” religious children’s books called Where’s Baby Jesus? and Where’s the Lost Sheep? While these come across as a departure from her other work, religion is more overt in Texas than some parts of the country. This was, after all, where Catherine de Camp, following her husband’s March 1978 talk in Laughlin’s English class, was greeted by a student with “Are you saved?”

More recently and more characteristically Laughlin turned to writing the sort of fiction she had previously written about; in 1994 she was working on a fantasy novel with the working title The Heart of Ahriman. This, of course, was the name of the magical artifact invented by Robert E. Howard in his Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon (or Conan the Conqueror, if you prefer). Laughlin’s novel seems not to have been published in full, or perhaps even finished. Still, a selection from it, “An Excerpt from The Stone of Namirha,” did later appear in Cross Plains Universe: Texans Celebrate Robert E. Howard, edited by Scott A. Cupp and Joe R. Lansdale (MonkeyBrain Books and Fandom Association of Central Texas, 2006).

This “excerpt” was written in collaboration with Bill Crider, a long-time professional associate of Laughlin’s, whom the sharp-eyed will note appears above as an attendee at that memorable 1978 meeting with the de Camps. He was a seasoned author in his own right, best known for his mysteries. He also wrote spy fiction, Westerns, horror novels, and children’s books, His expertise was doubtless helpful to first-time fiction writer Laughlin. Crider passed on in 2018 at the age of seventy-six. (Photo below of Bill Crider from http://www.billcrider.com)

One may wonder why the title shifted from The Heart of Ahriman to The Stone of Namirha. Gary Romeo, who called my attention to the connection of the excerpt with the novel, notes: “I’m pretty sure it had to be changed since CPI now owned Howard’s phrase ‘The Heart of Ahriman.’” While the name Ahriman itself, drawn by Howard from Zoroastrianism, can’t be owned, a need was evidently felt to forestall any possible legal dispute. So Heart became Stone and Ahriman became Namirha, which, as Gary also notes, is merely Ahriman spelled backwards.

And what’s become of Laughlin since? These days, she continues to teach English, now at McLennan Community College in Waco, where she has the reputation of being personable and supportive but lecture-light and reading/writing-heavy in her teaching style.

# # #

Bonus:

Brian adds:

For those not acquainted with the International Phonetic Alphabet de Camp uses to transcribe Laughlin’s speech, we append a transcript in standard English and the standard alphabet. The text of the fable Laughlin reads, incidentally, is a common one used for phonetic demonstrations in comparative linguistics. Her reading deviates slightly from the prescribed script in a few instances.

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger,
when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm coat. They agreed that
the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his coat off
should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as
hard as he could, but the more he blew, the more closely did the
traveler fold his cloak around him, and at last the North Wind
gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shone out warmly, and immediately
the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to
confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

I went down town today to shop and had such a fine time buying
——– and things that I forgot the time and came home late.

The Lancer Conan Series: The Scarlet Citadel

by Gary Romeo

“The Scarlet Citadel” first appeared in Weird Tales, January, 1933. It was reprinted in Skull-Face and Others, Arkham House, 1946 and in King Conan, Gnome Press, 1953. It is the fourth and last story in Conan the Usurper, Lancer Books, 1967.

Comparing the Weird Tales, Lancer Books, and Ballantine (Del Rey) versions we find some textual changes. There are the normal differences in page/story breaks. “Hell” is capitalized in the Lancer version. “Gray” is spelled “grey” in the Del Rey version. “Surprize” is changed to “surprise” in the Lancers. Tamar is changed to Tarantia in the Lancers. Namedides is changed to Numedides in the Weird Tales and Lancer versions. (See “Note” at end of article.) De Camp added some additional commas. Other changes are detailed below:

*

Weird Tales: south-eastern

Lancer: southeastern

Del Rey: south-eastern

*

Weird Tales: “And so you want to swine my kingdom,” rasped Conan.

Lancer: “And so you swine want my kingdom,” rasped Conan.

Del Rey: “And so you want to swine my kingdom,” rasped Conan.

*

Weird Tales: How have you proved yourself my superior?

Lancer: How have you proved yourself my superior?

Del Rey: How have you proved yourselves my superior?

*

Weird Tales: His lean hand came from his sleeve …

Lancer: His lean hand came from his sleeve …

Del Rey: His lean hand came from his wide sleeves …

*

Weird Tales: The word was a maniacal shriek ….

Lancer: The word was a maniacal shriek …

Del Rey: The last word was a maniacal shriek …

*

Weird Tales: “Silks and gold again,” he sighed.

Lancer: “Silks and gold again,*” he sighed.

Del Rey: “Gold and silks again,” he sighed.

*

Weird Tales: your majesty

Lancer: Your Majesty

Del Rey: your majesty

*

Weird Tales: central realm

Lancer: central realm

Del Rey: central provinces

*

Weird Tales: “The king! It is the king!”

Lancer: “The king! It is the king!”

Del Rey: “The king! It is the king!”

*

Weird Tales: bowmen

Lancer: bowmen

Del Rey: archers

Marvel Comics adapted the story in Savage Sword of Conan #30. Dark Horse adapted the story as a four issue mini-series King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel.

“The Scarlet Citadel” is a direct sequel to “The Phoenix on the Sword.” In chapter 3 when King Conan is chained in a dungeon he recalls Rinaldo’s poem, The Song of the Pit: “[Rinaldo’s] brain had crashed to dust beneath Conan’s battle-axe on the night the king had fought for his life with the assassins the mad rhymer had led into the betrayed palace, but the shuddersome words of that grisly song still rang in the king’s ears as he stood there in his chains.”

Although this tale was the second Conan story published in Weird Tales it was the fifth Conan story written by REH. Clearly REH had a sense that this character was worth developing and he was creating a biography for the character. Early in this story REH writes: “His saga, which had led him to the throne of Aquilonia, was the basis of a whole cycle of hero-tales.”

Conan’s past comes up in this story when a jailer remembers Conan’s time spent as a pirate when he went by the name Amra. But right now let’s backtrack a bit and start at the beginning of the story.

Conan is introduced as the last survivor of a great battle. A former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, asked for Conan’s aid against King Strabonus of Koth but the two kings were actually in league with each other and overpowered Conan’s army of 5,000 with their own combined army of 30,000 men.

A wizard named Tsotha-lanti is the real ruler of Koth and he would rather bribe Conan into abdicating his throne than kill him. Tsotha drugs Conan with a swipe of purple lotus juice and captures him.

Conan is thrown in a dungeon when he refuses the bribe. Conan is not given any detailed physical description in this story. He has been compared to a lion and a tiger, and now we know he is strong: “His limbs were free, but he knew that his shackles were beyond even his iron strength.”

Conan hears, and then sees Satha, an 80 foot snake. Lots of comments have been made about the symbolism of snakes and Frank Frazetta’s cover of Conan the Usurper (which illustrated this story) was seen as a sort of “inside” joke since it featured the large snake between Conan’s legs. Surprisingly L. Sprague de Camp in Dark Valley Destiny, Bluejay Books, 1983, pretty much says, a snake is just a snake.

Conan stands deathly still and the snake hesitates, but then the jailer enters the dungeon and the snake slithers off. The jailer is from Conan’s past. “Long have I wished to meet you, Amra.” Conan had killed the man’s brother decades ago. REH was very clever here, giving Conan a past-history and creating background for future stories.

Satha kills the jailer and Conan retrieves the man’s keys and frees himself. Conan wanders through the tunneled dungeon and encounters a weeping frog-like amorphic bulk. He leaves in fear and disgust. This scene reminded me of “The Tower in the Elephant.” But in that story, Conan shows compassion. When Conan encounters the sorcerer Pelias in the dungeon, Pelias mentions a “Yag the Accursed.” I’m not sure if REH intended these scenes to be a reference to “The Tower of the Elephant” or not?

Pelias is a scary but friendly type. Pelias scares Satha off simply by looking at the large snake. Conan is mystified. Pelias says “You see my fleshly guise; he saw my naked soul.” But Pelias says he is human and that Tsotha is the offspring of a demon-raped dancing girl. Later Pelias animates a dead man to free them from the dungeon.

Pelias summons a bat/bird creature for Conan to ride to battle and the story proceeds toward the conclusion. Tarantia is in chaos as factions break out and Tsotha leads the armies to takeover the kingdom. There is a huge battle and once Conan arrives the tide is turned. Conan beheads Tsotha and an eagle (Pelias in disguise) that had been helping Conan before scoops up the head and flies away. Tsotha’s headless body rises up and gives chase.

“Crom!” [Conan’s] mighty shoulders twitched. “[…] What would I not give for a flagon of wine!”

This was a fine sequel to “The Phoenix on the Sword” and laid the groundwork for future stories set in Conan’s past. Most authors keep their hero in the present once created, but REH knew that a king’s past was the key to exciting new adventures ahead.

Note: I was curious about Weird Tales and the Lancer version both using “Numedides” and Del Rey using “Namedides” and asked Howard scholar, Rusty Burke about this difference. Here is his reply: “In 1933, when REH was preparing a story collection for [British publisher] Denis Archer, he retyped “The Scarlet Citadel” from the WT version. [Howard scholar Patrice Louinet] says he “slightly corrected” as he did so. Why he didn’t just send tear sheets, as he did for “The Tower of the Elephant,” I couldn’t say. As the WT typescript is no longer extant, so far as known, and the retype was Howard’s final version, we used it for WS/DR. Whether “Namedides” was a typo or not, I cannot say, but it’s what was there in the typescript we used.”

Book Review: The Honorable Barbarian

by Brian Kunde

Today’s de Camp highlight is The Honorable Barbarian (Del Rey/Ballantine, 1989), a late de Camp novel probably more familiar to readers than most—because it was better promoted than most, and the market was saturated with editions. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that it came on the heels of the equally well-promoted conclusion of the Jorian trilogy—and was a sequel to it, as well! It was also the last de Camp novel of the 1980s, serving as a sort of capstone to a remarkably productive decade.

The 1980s in general were good to de Camp; constituting the core years of his impressive late writing career, a period of roughly two decades extending from the mid-70s to the mid-90s. In fact, in the 80s alone, twenty-one books were published under his name, if we omit straight reprints. These include two new Novaria novels (the second being the subject of this article), an omnibus of three previously published Novaria novels (the Jorian trilogy), two new Krishna novels, an omnibus of two previously published Krishna novels, the first complete omnibus of all the de Camp/Pratt Harold Shea stories, the first novel in the Neo-Napolitanian duo, and the first novel in the Kukulkan duo, as well as a new fiction collection (the Willy Newbury stories), two nonfiction collections, a verse collection, and a collection of mixed fiction, nonfiction and verse, in addition to two new Conan novels (one the movie tie-in), two new illustrated editions of old Conan novellas not previously published as stand-alones, an omnibus edition of previously published Conan books, an anthology of Conan-related nonfiction, and a major biography (of Robert E. Howard)! Oh, and as if these weren’t enough, there were also a couple related works; the de Camp bibliography by Laughlin and Levack, and a Harold Shea “choose your own adventure” book by Tom Wham.

Echoing de Camp’s wry observation on Conan in response to the flood of Tor Conan novels in the 80s and 90s, it’s a wonder our author found time to go to the bathroom.

Unlike so many late de Camp novels, The Honorable Barbarian is not co-credited to his wife Catherine, his first reader, sometime collaborator, and literary fixer. As she generally was credited when her input was seen as crucial, we can assume this book left Sprague’s hands with little in need of repair. But we will assess its merits soon enough. First, the usual bibliographical history and cover survey.

This was a Ballantine/Del Rey show all the way. Del Rey was the main market for de Camp’s fantasy at the time, as Ace was for his science fiction, and it did right by him. The first edition was a Del Rey, a handsome hardcover issued in July, 1989. Some may protest, “Wait, wasn’t there an Easton Press first edition?” Nominally, yes; there was indeed an Easton Press edition, and it was indeed issued in their series of “signed first editions,” but it didn’t actually come first. Rather, it came out in August, 1989, a month after the Del Rey. And Del Rey handled things thereafter, too; a Del Rey/Science Fiction Book Club hardcover in January, 1990, and an American and Canadian mass market paperback edition in May, 1990—superficially separate editions, but not really. The book is priced for both countries right on the cover—$4.95 U.S., $6.50 Canadian. Reprints may have followed, as they customarily did, but I’ve seen no indication of them.

Foreign editions definitely followed; in France, L’honorable barbare, translated by Luc Carissimo (Paris, Denoël, May 1991, reprinted Feb. 1999), and in Britain, The Honourable Barbarian (Gateway/Orion, Sep. 2011). The French edition was a paperback, the British an ebook, only partially spell-corrected for the Old Country. (It’s “Honourable” only on the cover; “Honorable” is retained on the title page.) The most recent publication of which I know is in a French trade paperback omnibus, Novaria, le roi malgré lui (“Novaria, the King in Spite of Himself”) (Saint-Laurent-d’Oingt, Éditions Mnémos, 2017), in which L’honorable barbare is appended to the Jorian trilogy.

The covers can be briefly discussed, with due allowance for my fulminating.

All the Del Reys sported the same cover painting by Darrell K. Sweet. If you’ve got an American edition, that’s what you’ve got. And what I’ve got, and so scanned as my main illustration for this article. At least it’s the first edition, and bought right off the press at that. (My stamped-in acquisition date is July 12, 1989.) In those days Sweet was Del Rey’s go-to artist for fantasy in general, and for de Camp fantasy in particular. Which is to be regretted, for Sweet, while certainly talented and usually inclined to render a scene that actually had something to do with the book, did have his quirks. One of them, as I’ve written elsewhere, was giving an Arabian Nights flavor to any fantasy with an east-of-Europe atmosphere. The Honorable Barbarian is set primarily in fictional countries analogous to the Philippines and China, with the scene illustrated by Sweet occurring in Salimor, the Philippines stand-in. So what do we get? A medieval tower in a Middle Eastern city, with an Oriental hero and a Caucasian heroine. Oh dear, Darrell… On the plus side, the scene portrayed is in the text. But had you really paid attention to the book, you would know your architecture is a few thousand miles off-base, and that Kerin, our hero, is definitely Caucasoid, while Nogiri, our heroine, should look Southeast Asian. As for their attire, well, you blew that, too. But, hey, at least you got the rope trick right! Oh, and Kerin’s hair color. And physique. Other artists make him too beefy.

Easton Press favors leather covers sporting gilt designs. For The Honorable Barbarian they give us a leather cover with a gilt design.

Thank God for the French! The cover of the first Denoël edition, by Sébastien Lebeaut, does everything Sweet doesn’t. Setting his scene in Kuromon, the China-analogue, he gives us the Far Eastern architecture and attire called for, a properly Western Kerin, and a properly East Asian Nogiri. Kerin’s even wearing the neck-pouch with his credentials, as dictated by the plot. All this and Belinka the sprite, as well! Well done, Lebeaut! Downside? He really does do everything Sweet doesn’t, including going against the things Sweet actually gets right. He makes Kerin too blond and too beefy.

The second Denoël printing isn’t as good. This one’s by Olivier Frot, who takes the “barbarian” bit too literally. Kerin is a “barbarian” only in that he’s a westerner, and to the ultra-civilized denizens of Kuromon, anyone west of their own shores is by definition barbaric. Frot, though, is thinking fantasy stock-character barbarian, or perhaps just following and exaggerating Lebeaut’s version. In any event, he provides a hunky, Conanesque Kerin that better resembles Kerin’s brother Jorian than Kerin himself. (Except, Like Frot’s barbarian, he’s blond. Jorian’s got black hair, Kerin’s got brown. Damn it, Frot, read the book!) But! Otherwise, it’s not bad. He takes the island of Kinungung as his scene, where Kerin first meets and sort of rescues Nogiri from pirates. (She also sort of rescues him.) We get the pirate ship, and a suitably Far Eastern (and nude) Nogiri. Nude being suitable because, well, pirates. Captured beauty. You fill in the blanks. And, we get Belinka, again. Sure, she looks like a little statuette, but, still, she’s there. Really, if not for the hysterically off Kerin, this cover would be okay.

Gateway again insults us with their yellow cover with red and black print and nothing pictorial. Bad Gateway! Bad! Bad!

Mnémos gives us a weird brown scene with a stylistically eclectic castle between a misty, broken, and rocky landscape and an optically wacky sky. With imagination, I’m sure someone could tie it in to something in one of the four books making up the omnibus, though I doubt any such tie-in would have been intentional from the unknown artist.

In summary, to go from best to worst, the Lebeaut cover is the most faithful to the book, the Frot cover is adequate, the Sweet cover is beautiful but infuriatingly wrong, the omnibus cover gets our WTF award, Easton escapes being the worst by simply not being Gateway, and Gateway is the worst because it’s Gateway.

Right. Let’s talk about the book. (I draw on my articles for Wikipedia here, as is my wont.) It’s set in the nameless parallel world of King Jorian, Zdim the Demon, and Emperor Tsotuga the Fourth, protagonists we encounter in other entries, which should whet your appetite right there. The nearest thing it has to a name is the “Prime Plane,” which distinguishes it from eleven other “planes” inhabited by various varieties of demon. Though the Prime Plane itself is a world of humans. It has a peculiar relationship to our own world, which serves as the Prime Plane’s afterlife; that is, its denizens are reincarnated here when they die. So, congratulations! Your previous life, spent in a world of magic and adventure, was doubtless more interesting than your present one.

The cultures and nations of the Prime Plane resemble ours, in some ways. The Twelve City-States of Novaria serve as their “Europe,” with Shven, to the north, akin to the Eurasian steppes and Penembei and Fedirun, to the south, akin to the Fertile Crescent and Arabia. To the southeast, the Empire of Mulvan stands in for India and Persia, while far to the east, across the ocean, Salimor and Kuromon stand in for Southeast Asia and China, respectively. Oh, and across another ocean to the west is Paalua, an Australia analogue, whose natives are civilized cannibals who occasionally raid the other countries for meat. Novaria, the main setting, is divided into a crazy-quilt of states and odd governmental systems, with ample scope for de Campian satire. In one of these, the kingdom of Xylar, the heroic Jorian once became king by inadvertently catching the head of his executed predecessor. He spends three books of adventure on the lam from this unwanted crown and the grisly end attendant on it. On the way he regales us with entertaining folktales about the history of his own country. His brother Kerin helped him out in the last of the Trilogy.

In The Honorable Barbarian, we’re past all that. Jorian is safely settled down in his native Kortoli, having had enough adventures to last a lifetime. The author has pretty much run out of folktales, too; we really only get three in this book (and they’re all recaps). It’s another matter, though, for his brother Kerin. When he commits an indiscretion with Adeliza, a neighbor’s daughter, he is packed off on a hasty quest to uncover the secret of an advanced escapement for the family clock-making firm. A pragmatic, cautious sort, he prepares for his journey with a crash course from his experienced brother in useful skills — swordsmanship and foreign tongues, of course, but also lying and burglary. He is hampered and sometimes aided by the sprite Belinka, commissioned by the calculating Adeliza to ensure Kerin’s fidelity.

Kerin’s goal will take him east across the Inner Sea, the Sea of Sikhon and the Eastern Ocean to the empire of Kuromon. He takes passage on a ship called the Dragonet, on which he meets a Mulvanian, Rao, who is also headed that way. Rao, who much resembles Kerin, is on an errand to take the secret for making a magical fan to the Kuromonian emperor. When Rao goes missing in the city of Akkander, Kerin inherits this mission.

Meanwhile, he must contend with the Dragonet’s Captain Huvraka and his suspicious navigator Janji; disbelieving his given reason for going to Kuromon, they think he actually seeks the secret of the Kuromonian compass, which could break the monopoly Janji’s guild of magical navigators holds in guiding sea travel. Learning from Belinka they plan to murder him, Kerin jumps ship at the island of Kinungung.

There he becomes embroiled in the affairs of the duplicitous sorcerer Pwana, a power-hungry cult leader exiled from the island empire of Salimor. Both are soon imperiled by pirates, led by Malgo, an old enemy of Jorian who figured in the third Jorian novel, The Unbeheaded King. Kerin lulls the pirates to sleep by telling them stories, as Jorian had once done in similar circumstances, though in contrast to that occasion, we don’t get the stories (except one, and it’s just a fictionalization of an actual episode in the first Jorian novel). Kerin, Pwana and the pirates’ captive Princess Nogiri, also from Salimor, then murder the pirates and take their ship.

By trial and error, the three manage to sail the pirate ship to Salimor. Belinka’s displeasure notwithstanding, Kerin and Nogiri are thrown together by the need to keep watch against the treacherous Pwana, and grow mutually attracted to each other. Kerin comes to value her common sense, and Nogiri the fact that he is a nice guy, having met vanishingly few such in her life. In Kwatna, capital of Salimor, Kerin buys passage for the last leg to Kuromon on the ship Tukara Mora, under Captain Yambang, while Nogiri returns to her family. That proves a bad idea, as her father disowns her, assuming, rightly, that she has suffered rape by the pirates, making her damaged goods, He forthwith sells her to Pwana for use in the cult leader’s nefarious designs, specifically, a human sacrifice to further brewing a potency serum for Salimor’s king. This echoes the plot-driving gimmick in de Camp’s earlier historical novel The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate, in which a protagonist is to be sacrificed to create an immortality serum.

Feeling obligated to save her, Kerin goes for advice to the wizard Klung, Pwana’s rival. After having Belinka scout Pwana’s temple, he buys the wizard’s aid, and by use of a distracting demon and a magical rope gains access to the tower in which Nogiri is immured. Fleeing, the two take refuge in the Tukara Mora, and when Pwana shows up to demand Nogiri’s return they thwart him by marrying forthwith, thus extending the protection the captain has already granted Kerin to them both. Belinka, upset in having failed in her mission from Adeliza, departs in a huff. Before the ship sails, Kerin defends his new bride against a demon sent by Pwana in a last-ditch effort to recover her.

On reaching the Kuromonian port of Koteiki, Kerin finds his way smoothed by the credentials of his lost friend Rao, for whom he is mistaken. He and Nogiri are soon conducted to Chingun, the capital, where they must wait while the magical fan is recreated by the court wizard Oshima. Kerin whiles away the interval by visiting the great clock there and sketching its escapement, as well as learning the secret of Kuromon’s compass, of which he had never been curious until it had caused him so much trouble. Now he wants it to pay Klung for services rendered. The couple also learn how to roller skate, the means by which courtiers travel rapidly about the Proscribed Precinct. And Kerin is told the story of the original magic fan, which (is anyone here surprised?) turns out to be that of de Camp’s classic short story, “The Emperor’s Fan,” the events of which occurred a few centuries before. With that fan, it will be recalled, the user could “fan away” foes into limbo, from which they could then be recovered by a coded series of taps with the fan. While the original fan was lost, the codebook was preserved. The current emperor, Dzuchen, feels both would be useful to have.

At last Kerin is summoned to the imperial presence for the testing of the fan—it will not go well for him if it doesn’t work. It does work, but it’s a hot day, and the emperor is testy. Absent-mindedly, he seeks to cool himself … Oops! No more emperor! Thinking quickly, Oshima has Kerin secure the fan and code book. Together, they tap the code to recover Dzuchen—and get a different man entirely. The codes restore things, as it happens, in the order they were consigned to limbo. And the first emperor so consigned just happens to have been Tsotuga the Fourth, centuries before. Taking command, Tsotuga decrees that “one Emperor at a time be all the Empire can afford.” Bad luck to Dzuchen! The once and future monarch grants his rescuers boons; Oshima the right to be left alone to continue his magical experiments with an unlimited budget, and Kerin escort back to Koteiki and travel allowance to see him the rest of the way home.

But all is not done. Shipping back to Kwatna, Kerin and Nogiri find the sprite Belinka, back in a reasonable mood and full of news, the main item being that Pwana, despite no longer needing Nogiri in his experiments, remains hostile. To avoid being taken, they employ their Kuromonian roller skates to pay Doctor Klung a speedy visit. Klung gives them refuge, but will not be able to hold out long against Pwana, even with his magic. Desperate, the couple agree to try his experimental teleportation spell, which if successful could take them all the way home to Kortoli in an instant. (In less straitened circumstances, Kerin had declined an earlier offer to get to Kuromon that way.)

It works—but not perfectly. In Kortoli City, the two appear amid flash and thunderclap in the midst of the services of a fanatic puritanical cult—sans clothes or anything else. Mistaken for the deities being worshiped, they proclaim a new doctrine, command the congregation’s abasement, and escape in the confusion.

Back home, Kerin introduces his new wife to his family, recreates from the memory of his lost notes the design of the escapement, and wrangles family funding to go to university in return. The difficulty in regard to Adeliza is done with—it seems she took up with some other swain. All’s well that ends well!

So! Is it a good book? You bet it is! A rousing adventure, dueling wizards, showy magic, disgruntled demons, a very wry attitude toward human nature—even a storybook romance, which we don’t always get in de Camp, especially late de Camp, where the male and female leads end up separate at least as often as they do together. It’s more mature, realistic, and grounded than most romances, but, hey, take your happy endings where you can!

And it’s a satisfying conclusion to the Novarian series, which is well, because The Honorable Barbarian was the last published Novarian book. De Camp subsequently wrote a follow-up novel featuring the sprite Belinka, but it was deemed unpublishable, then or since.

If I have one peeve, it’s that I miss the inset folktales. We do get “The Tale of the Frog God of Tarxia,” which we witnessed first-hand with Jorian in The Goblin Tower, but Kerin diplomatically leaves his brother out of it, given that he’s telling it to Malgo, his brother’s enemy. And later we get a highly truncated version of “The Tale of King Forimar the Esthete and the Sophi’s Tower,” as told by Nogiri, and a slightly more expansive retelling of “The Emperor’s Fan” by the Kuromonian courtier Hiei. But mostly, we just get the titles of several tales Kerin supposedly told Malgo’s pirates, with a footnote directing us to the books in which they were originally told by Jorian. Which feels like a cheat. Surely he could have told other tales, preferably ones de Camp teased but failed to recount in full (or at all) in the Jorian books. (As veterans of the now defunct d for de Camp Yahoo group will recall, I myself was teased enough that I was moved to write fan fiction versions of some of these.)

A subsidiary gripe also involves the inset tales. Jorian himself was never wholly consistent in them; for instance, in the original of the “Sophi’s Tower” one of his main characters hails from the Republic of Vindium, while in “The Golem General,” set a couple of generations later, he tells us Vindium had justbecome a republic after overthrowing its former monarchy. In this book, though, the chronological inconsistencies are taken to a whole new level, again involving “The Sophi’s Tower.” Nogiri’s version has it happening about a century ago, but Jorian had set it about three generations before King Fusinian of Kortoli, whom we are told reigned many centuries ago. Well, even Homer nodded.

These are quibbles. The Honorable Barbarian is top-of-the-line late de Camp. If you haven’t read this one, well, first, sorry for the spoilers, and second, get it and read it anyway. Spoilers or no, you won’t be sorry. De Camp tells the story better, and at novel-length, too!

One final gripe. The book is not dedicated, leaving me no dedicatees to expound on.

# # #

The Lancer Conan Series: The Phoenix on the Sword

by Gary Romeo

“The Phoenix on the Sword” first appeared in Weird Tales, December 1932. This was a rewritten version of “By This Axe I Rule!” an unpublished King Kull story. “The Phoenix on the Sword” was reprinted in Skull-Face and Others, Arkham House, 1946. Then again in King Conan, Gnome Press, 1953. It is the third story in Conan the Usurper, Lancer Books, 1967.

Robert E. Howard wrote “By This Axe, I Rule!” first. It failed to sell. Years later (1931) he wrote a story featuring a character named “Conan of the reavers” that was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, June 1932 called “People of the Dark.” This earlier version of “Conan” may have been the spark to influence REH to rewrite “By This Axe, I Rule!” as “The Phoenix on the Sword.”

“People of the Dark” is a reincarnation story. A modern man relives his life as a Celtic warrior.

There are some similarities to Conan of Cimmeria…

That this Conan spurred the idea of “Conan of Cimmeria” is mere speculation. In any event, REH liked the name. Soon after receiving payment for that story REH took a trip to Mission, Texas where he composed the poem, Cimmeria. REH now had the setting and Conan of Cimmeria was quickly born.

In “A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard” by Alvin Earl Perry he quotes a letter from REH: “Conan simply grew up in my mind a few weeks ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.”

REH submitted three Conan stories to Farnsworth Wright. “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The God in the Bowl,” and “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” It was not an easy sell. Wright asked for a rewrite of “Phoenix” and rejected the other two stories.

The completed first submitted draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword” was reprinted in The Coming of Conan, Ballantine Books (Del Rey), 2003. The big difference between this first draft and the final Weird Tales version is in the final paragraph:

With Thoth-Amon appearing in both this story and “The God in the Bowl” it seems clear REH was originally going to make Thoth-Amon more of a participant in the Conan saga. This last paragraph in the first submitted draft above even suggests a Conan vs. Thoth-Amon sequel.

But as stated before, Wright rejected “The God in the Bowl” and asked for “Phoenix” to be rewritten. Any idea of Thoth-Amon as a reoccurring antagonist for Conan (as Thulsa Doom was for Kull) was crushed in its infancy. De Camp, of course, liked the idea of Thoth-Amon as a reoccurring villain and ran with it.

Comparing the Weird Tales published version with the Lancer and Del Rey versions we find that L. Sprague de Camp only changed one word in the story but added numerous commas. He understandably removed the “Know, oh prince …” opening introduction and reused that for the very first story, “The Thing in the Crypt,” in the Lancer Conan series. The Lancer version has a typo: “spend thrift” is spelled as “spend thirfty.” REH’s spelling of “Thoth-amon” was changed by Farnsworth Wright to “Thoth-Amon.” De Camp changed “waxed papyrus” to “waxed tablet.” There are the usual page/story break changes and some hyphenated words are no longer hyphenated.

Marvel Comics adapted the story in Conan the Barbarian Annual #2. Dark Horse Comics adapted it as a four issue mini-series.

Marvel Comics ran a Thoth-Amon short story by Matt Forbeck called “The Fall of Thoth-Amon” in Age of Conan: Valeria #1-5. It is a very slight tale that more or less explains how Thoth-Amon lost his ring and became Ascalante’s slave.

“The Phoenix on the Sword” follows “Wolves Beyond the Border” in the Lancer chronology.

I’m a big fan of the Kull stories. They have a dream-like narration at times with mundane scenes coming alive through dialogue. They arguably make for better fantasy than the Conan tales. But they lack the heroics and romance of the Conan yarns. “The Tower of the Elephant’ is perhaps the one Conan yarn to retain the style of a Kull story.

Anyway, onward…

“By This Axe I Rule!” is a good story but was heavily revised to turn it into a Conan story. It lacked any weird or fantastic element. Kull becomes sort of a benevolent dictator at the end of the tale. Conan’s rule seem more democratic. In “By This Axe I Rule!” the bored King faces a coup and also realizes the antiquated laws (a noble cannot marry a slave) of his Kingdom need to change. Killing his enemies in a bloody battle he decides that his axe hand can dictate how he rules. “By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!

“By This Axe I Rule” was first published in King Kull, Lancer Books, 1967. There was some slight editing by Glenn Lord for this story. Since the coup plotters held some of the same names as in “The Phoenix on the Sword” some of the names were changed for this version. Ascalante became Andyon; Volmana, count of Karaban became Ducalon, count of Komahar; Gromel became Enaros. These sort of changes were thought necessary at the time.

“The Phoenix on the Sword” starts with Thoth-Amon and Ascalante discussing the planned coup. They clearly do not like each other. Thoth-Amon is held in thrall by a threat from Ascalante. The principal players are named and motivations given. The poet/troubadour Rinaldo is given special attention. “Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next.” Woody Guthrie was the most influential rebellious folk singer of the Depression Era. Perhaps REH was making a criticism of him, or perhaps not. REH did have socialist minded friends but REH was against extremists of the left or right, in a December 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, REH said: “You are right; economics will have to be revolutionized entirely if the nation is to continue, and the choice seems to lie between fascism and communism – both of which I utterly detest.”

Conan is introduced in the second chapter as was Kull in “By This Axe, I Rule!” Note the similarities and differences in the descriptions below:

There isn’t a lot of difference between Kull and Conan at this point. Grey eyes versus blue. The biggest difference between Kull and Conan was in the rejected story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” where Conan shows a sexual appetite that Kull lacked. Some have suggested REH visited a whorehouse on that trip to the lower Rio Grande and that made him want to create a more sexually driven character. Hello Conan, Goodbye Kull.

In the third chapter, Thoth-Amon regains his ring and unleashes his revenge on Ascalante. This sets the stage for future confrontations between Conan and Thoth-Amon. I don’t believe REH introduced this new character and gave him back his power to just abandon him. Wright’s rejection of “The God in the Bowl” was a pivotable event.

Conan meeting Epemitreus in Chapter 4 and being given a somewhat magical sword seems a little out of place in hindsight and decades later it resulted in the Conan the Adventurer cartoon series and Conan being heckled by a baby Phoenix calling him a “big dumb barbarian” in every episode! But REH had no idea that was going to happen! The sequence works for this story.

The final chapter is full of bloody action and cements Conan as a capable King. The bewilderment of his court after Conan’s tale is similar to the bewilderment of Conan’s fellow warriors at the end of “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” In “The Frost’s Giant Daughter” it is the “wisp of gossamer” in “The Phoenix on the Sword” it is the “secret sign” on his sword that makes them believe Conan. Perhaps it was that similarity that caused Farnsworth Wright to reject “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” more than the “rape” aspect of that story.

All in all a great tale. I suspect that if Wright had accepted the first draft and the other two stories Conan’s future would have played out differently. But maybe not. Something to discuss at the Howard Day’s celebration in June?

Book Review: The Bronze God of Rhodes

by Phil Sawyer

Sprague wrote this superb 404 page historical fiction novel in 1960. I bought a discarded library edition which looks like it landed on Normandy Beach on D Day. I will enclose a few photos of my old copy and then a photo of the new Phoenix Pick copy.

(1.): The new edition has a nice introduction by Harry Turtledove. There is no dust jacket. As in the 1982 edition of “The Hand of Zei” the art is printed directly on the hard cover. The artist makes a big mistake. Sprague and his fictional main character Chares of Lindos carefully explain that you could NOT build the Colossus of Rhodes so that ships could sail between his feet because of basic physics and engineering limitations. So sure enough that’s what the artist portrays. Oh, well…

(2.): Chares of Lindos is a small man. He has a big mouth and is very insensitive. He has a temper and the novel several times has him beating and bullying slaves. His big ego generally puts people off and he is too insensitive to realize how people react to him. He learns but it takes a long time. At least twice his attitude and mouth gets him knocked down. Late in the novel his old teacher tells him that “you were the snottiest little bastard I ever dealt with.” Chares replied “I still am, you old tyrant, but I’ve learned to hide it.” Chares is definitely one of the more unloveable characters Sprague has ever written about.

(3.): A large part of the novel deals with the life and death drama of the siege of Rhodes by the son of one of Alexander’s old generals, Antignos. The son Demetrios would not give up and the siege went on a long time. Demetrios was nicknamed Poliorketes: The Besieger.

(4.): Because of his engineering skills and his ways with machines Chares becomes the leader of a catapult battery. He and his team end up in epic battles on land and sea as they try to defend Rhodes from the vindictive and rapacious Demetrios. The citizens of Rhodes are under no illusions about what would happen to them if Demetrios and his army and their pirate allies take over Rhodes.

(5.): Chares goes on a expedition to Egypt to try to enlist the aid of Ptolemy against Demetrios. They confront the head of an organized crime family in Memphis named Tis. There are battles and deeds of derring do in caverns and tombs and caves beneath Memphis. Chares and his crew get the better of Tis and escape to flee on the Nile. Tis NEVER forgives or forgets when someone gets the better of him so Chares has made a deadly and vengeful enemy for life.

(6.): One of my favorite characters in the tale is the Celtic slave of Chares named Kavaros. The novel starts with Chares being brutal and nasty to Kavaros. One of the themes of the story is Chares learning better and becoming friends with Kavaros. During the siege Kavaros is offered his freedom in exchange for fighting for Rhodes. The giant warrior Kavaros would like nothing better and by the end of the book he and Chares are best of friends.

(7.): I was raised a good Lutheran. Sprague once startled me in a letter when he told me that people would have to get over the sentimental Christian idea that mercy is a virtue. The characters in this novel very much live up to that ideal. Mercy is in VERY short supply in the Hellenic world. Most of the characters Chares deal with also exemplify Spragues writing that “Whatever inhibitions the emigre Greeks may have against lying, theft, extortion, bribery, treachery, and murder they seem to have left behind in Greece.” Sprague never shies away from the cruelty and nastiness of the ancient world.

(8.): Chares only begins working on the Bronze God on about page 364, after the siege has been lifted. Sprague gets to show his love of engineering and general mechanical know-how by describing how Chares actually builds the Bronze God. Building the colossus also does much to help Chares grow up and mature. All in all, this is a marvelous tale. Sprague writes his usual excellent afterword. He informs us that this story takes place about 20 years after the “Elephant for Aristotle” story. Sprague tells us that Alexander the Great spent so much of the captured Persian treasury that consumer prices more than doubled in those 20 years!

Please be sure to read this book! It is a superb story for those of us who love tales of “old wars and forgotten gods.”

PS: Thinking about it, I think the fantasy writer with the most ruthless and unmerciful heroes is not Sprague or REH but Jack Vance! I don’t ever recall a Jack Vance character giving someone a break! Any other opinions?

Yours in Crom!

Brian Kunde responded:

Very nice, Phillip Sawyer! I got a better impression of Chares’ character than you seem to have, but he is definitely depicted as difficult. Kavaros has always seemed to me a precursor sort of character to Jorian in the Novarian novels, in that he is an inveterate teller of entertaining little inset tales, all involving his improbably superhuman ancestor Gargantuos (a nod of de Camp to Rabelais’s Gargantua). Tis’s enmity, incidentally, provides the climax of the book, in which his hired assassins chase Chares up the finished statue to try to do him in. There is also an incognito appearance early on by the Trap Door Spiders in the amusing role of a group of cronies (the Seven Strangers) who hold symposia of the original Classical type.

The Lancer Conan Series: Wolves Beyond the Border

by Gary Romeo

“Wolves Beyond the Border” was never completed by Robert E. Howard. L. Sprague de Camp edited and completed the story for publication in Conan the Usurper, Lancer Books, 1967. The original drafts by REH were published in The Conquering Sword of Conan, Ballantine Books (Del Rey), 2005.

De Camp gives his reasons for editing some of REH’s prose in “Editing Conan,” The Blade of Conan, Ace Books, 1979. He addresses this story in particular: “The original draft of “Wolves Beyond the Border” … indicated a gap of ten years or more between the events of “Beyond the Black River” and Conan’s rise to kingship. But these assumptions would have put Conan well into his fifties when he became king, whereas Howard himself wrote that “Conan was about forty when he seized the crown of Aquilonia.””

There are two drafts of this story published in The Conquering Sword of Conan. The second draft (Draft B) is what de Camp used for the Lancer Books version. The REH draft and de Camp’s version are practically the same until near the end of Chapter 3. Detailed changes are listed below.

*

Lancer: It was a warning and a threat, a promise of doom for those invaders whose lonely cabins and axe-marked clearings menaced the immemorial solitude of the wilderness.

Del Rey (Draft B): It was a warning and a threat, a promise of doom for those white-skinned invaders whose lonely cabins and axe-marked clearings menaced the immemorial solitude of the wilderness.

*

Lancer: all Hell’s demons.

Del Rey (Draft B): all hell’s demons.

*

Lancer: and, Mitra he was a Hyborian.

Del Rey (Draft B): and, Mitra he was a white man!

*

Lancer: But two years before this tale, the Picts broke…

Del Rey (Draft B): But when I was ten years of age, the Picts broke…

*

Lancer: yet every cabin was like a tiny fortress.

Del Rey (Draft B): yet every cabin was like a tiny fort.

*

Lancer: sunset

Del Rey (Draft B): sun-set

*

Lancer: “Nay, I was but a stripling …

Del Rey (Draft B): “Nay, I was a child …

*

Lancer: Numedides

Del Rey (Draft B): Namedides

*

Lancer: “A chaken!””

Del Rey (Draft B): A Chaken!”

*

Lancer: surprise

Del Rey (Draft B): surprize

*

Lancer: He released the drunkard to carry word to the fort of what had befallen, and we set out at once through the starlight.

Del Rey (Draft B): We set out at once through the starlight.

*

Lancer: There were Valerian, …

Del Rey: (Draft B): There was Valerian, …

*

There are the usual page/story break changes as well. REH completed 3 chapters. Near the end of Chapter 3, with the paragraph beginning: “Listening there, we heard them all laughing and conversing, …” de Camp starts adding his own verbiage to complete the story.

Marvel Comics adapted the de Camp version of the story in two parts. Part 1 was in Savage Sword of Conan #59 and Part 2 in (a very long wait!) #76. Dark Horse Comics adapted the REH draft in a four issue mini-series.

This is the only “Conan” story in the Lancer/Ace series to mention Conan only in passing. But it is not the first story published to do that. That distinction belongs to “The Crimson Bell” by Raul (Ray) Garcia Capella, published in Amra V2, #20, 1962. The author announced his intention to write these stories in Amra V2, #11 with an article called “The Leopard of Poitain.”

De Camp, demonstrably supportive of new writers, published one of the Arquel stories in The Spell of Conan, Ace Books, 1980. The Arquel of Argos tales were collected in The Leopard of Poitain, Celt Press, 1985.

In 2005, Conan Properties International did the same thing (new stories set in Conan’s world) by issuing 12 books set in the “Age of Conan.” This appeared to be part of a corporate strategy at the time to make “The Hyborian Age” as much of a marketable product as Conan was. There was even a Dark Horse comic book to promote the idea. And most famously, the “Age of Conan” MMORPG was featured on an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Why did I start this summary with all that info?

Mainly because I don’t have a whole lot to say about this story. This story, along with “Beyond the Black River” and “The Treasure of Tranicos/The Black Stranger” form a sort of Pictish trilogy. REH was obviously writing “westerns” here in the disguise of a Conan yarn. Brian Kunde, who also posts on this blog, is a Wikipedian (the community that creates and maintains Wikipedia), he started the Wikipedia entry for this story. (See Fun Fact below.) I’m going to use that summary to start before a brief discussion of the story itself.

Conan is mentioned in passing a few times in the story. Clearly the narrator admires him: “What man of Thandara could forget Conan?” “[…] I remember him when he was a forest-runner and a scout there. When his rider came into Thandara, telling us that Poitain was in revolt, with Conan striking for the throne, and asking our support – he asked no volunteers for his army, merely our loyalty – we sent him word: “We have not forgotten Conajohara.””

The story has quite a bit of action and supernatural weirdness but the basic plot is that Lord Valerian is a traitor who collaborates with the Picts and gets his comeuppance. No one like a traitor but history does get reevaluated. The Picts in this story are obvious stand-ins for North American “Indians.” A lot of people (maybe even most) these days view many of the North American tribes as sympathetic. Depending on motivation (sympathy vs. greed) collaboration is viewed more nuanced now. This story was weak on what Valerian’s motive was. He was pro-Numedides and against Conan; but it’s possible he had (or at least thought he had) the Pict’s best interest in mind. It was said earlier in the story he held the Pict’s respect and he (presumably) loved a half-Pictish woman. His motivations should have been elaborated on. That might have made this a complex and interesting story!

Fun Fact. I had asked co-blogger, Brian Kunde, if he wrote that “Wolves” Wikipedia summary quoted above. Here is his response:

The answer is sort of, yes, but not really. I did create the article, on November 25, 2006, as a stub of 962 bytes. It had grown to 2734 bytes, all but the initial stub added by other people, by July 19, 2012, when I contributed an update of 1257 bytes. Other contributions, also all by other people, grew it to 4946 bytes as of November 20, 2021, which marks the most recent revision of the article to date. So I’m responsible at most for under half the existing article (some revisions rewrite or delete earlier text, so other than by raw byte count I can’t say how much of the article as it stands is my work). It’s fair to say I was not heavily involved or interested in this one, aside from starting it. In copying information from the article it’s probably best to attribute it to Wikipedia in general, and if you want to add a “fun fact” you can say I created its earliest iteration.

Book Review: An Elephant for Aristotle

by Phil Sawyer

I have just finished re-reading this superb historical fiction novel which Sprague wrote in 1958 (when Moi was 3 years old!) and which a company named “Dobson” published in 1966 in England. Brian is our Master of Book Lore. Perhaps he can tell us a little about the Dobson company?

(1.): Alexander the Great has just won a stupendous battle in India. He captures a royal elephant named Aias. Alexander recalls that the philosopher Aristotle wished he had seen an elephant in person. Alexander decides to send the elephant Aias to Aristotle. Alexander does it at least partly as what we would consider a sick joke. He will send the elephant to “old spindle-shanks” but will not send any money for the elephant’s upkeep. Alexander is portrayed here as already the worst for wear because of his heavy wine drinking and the constant wars he is waging. Alexander has a savage temper and woe betide anyone who angers him!

(2.): Alexander assigns the soldier and horse trader Leon of Atrax to deliver Aias to Aristotle. Leon is consumed with doubt but an order is an order. Alexander also instructs Leon to write him letters and to report on how Alexander’s subordinates are governing his vast empire.

(3.): Leon and his troop set out on their journey of thousands of miles. Through blazing deserts and towering mountain passes and constantly being chased or harassed by many tribes who see them as fair game. Leon is carrying several chests full of money with him and guarding the chests is a constant worry. And Aias the elephant consumes 200 pounds of food a day!

(4.): A theme in this novel is how Leon at first is stumped by the alien and un-Greek ways of his Indian companion Kanadas and the Persians Vardanas and his sister Nirouphar. Nirouphar is not like the submissive and mild Greek females that Leon is used to. She is extroverted and bossy and very much used to getting her own way. Yet Leon in time learns to love Kanadas and Vardanas like brothers and he eventually falls in love with and after many trials and tribulations marries Nirouphar.

(5.): One of the big ironies of the novel is that the people who give Leon the most trouble and try to more than once end his life and get their greedy paws on his chests of money are Alexander’s governors. It seems that these people were loyal to Alexander out of a sense of duty and more than a little fear, but they thought that everybody else was fair game. You can see why Alexander’s empire broke up the minute he died. It was then every man for himself and the devil took the hindmost!

(6.): On page #270 Leon meets the extremely tough one eyed general Antigonos. Antigonos also looms large in The Bronze God of Rhodes. He is a very nasty and scary character who Leon notes later did not get what was coming to him until he was in his eighties.

(7.): On page #292 the expedition arrives in Athens after a journey that lasted 10 months and 12 days. Aristotle gets his elephant and Leon figures out a clever way for Aristotle to pay for boarding and feeding Aias.

(8.): For a while Leon learns philosophy from Aristotle. Aristotle teaches amongst other things that since the Northern Europeans were brave but stupid, and the Orientals sly but cowardly, only the Greeks, who combined the virtues of both, deserved to enslave the Northern Europeans and the Orientals!

(9.): At the end of the novel Leon marries Nirouphar. She turns out to have quite a literary flair and helps him write his memoirs. A brilliant and spirited and beautiful wife who helps her author husband. Gee, who does that remind us of?All in all this is a marvelous novel. It is Sprague at his best, whether describing pitched battles or with his engineering knowledge telling you how they converted an ocean going ship to be strong enough to hold the elephant Aias. If you have not read this tale, you are in for a real treat! The usual excellent de Camp mixture of philosophy and history and action and color and romance. Sprague hit this one out of the park!

Yours in Crom!

Brian Kunde adds:

Hi, Phillip Sawyer. I haven’t made a study of the firm. But according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Dennis Dobson was a “UK publisher, possibly founded in the 1930s. Seems to have ceased publishing in the early 1980s.” Its genre imprints included Dobson Interludes, Dobson Science Fiction, Science Adventure Fiction, and Studies in Science Fiction. Presumably this would not have been issued under one of them, being a historical novel. Looks like the Dobson edition was the first UK edition, the original US one having been issued by Doubleday eight years earlier, in 1958.

As always, great write up! Though I note you omit de Camp’s creative use of nonstandard English dialects to represent Greek ones. It was an inspired touch, and contributed to the whimsy and humor of the book, though rather derided by critics when it first came out. I believe he abandoned the practice for the subsequent historicals.

Phil Sawyer responded:

I guess I thought that it was such a natural Sprague thing that I didn’t comment on it.

The Lancer Conan Series: The Treasure of Tranicos

by Gary Romeo

“The Treasure of Tranicos” was first published under the title “The Black Stranger” in Fantasy Magazine, March 1953. It was reprinted as “The Treasure of Tranicos” for King Conan, Gnome Press, 1953. It was revised and re-published as the first story in Conan the Usurper, Lancer Books, 1967. Conan the Usurper was the fourth book published in the series but is the 8th chronologically.

This story has a unique history. L. Sprague de Camp explained it all in “The Trail of Tranicos,” published in Conan The Treasure of Tranicos, Ace Books, 1980:

“When, in 1951, I discovered three apparently unpublished Conan stories, I edited them for magazine publication, then edited them some more for book publication, and lastly edited them once more for publication in the [Lancer and] Ace paperback series. In addition, I learned that Howard himself rewrote two of them, so altogether these stories have seen many forms.”

The three stories de Camp is referring to are: “The God in the Bowl,” “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” and “The Black Stranger.” The first two stories have been discussed previously and their edits and changes are mentioned in those blogposts. Use the links below if interested in those stories:

In the article cited above de Camp continues discussing this story: “”The Black Stranger” has an even more labyrinthine history, which I thought might interest Howard buffs and bibliographers. Judging from the appearance of the manuscript, Glenn Lord thinks that Howard probably wrote the story (30,000 words) around 1933-34. Evidently Farnsworth Wright rejected it. A year or so later, Howard rewrote the story as a 25,000 word Spanish Main pirate yarn, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood.” He sent it to Otis Kline Associates on 28 May, 1935.”

“Swords of the Red Brotherhood” was eventually published in Black Vulmea’s Vengeance, Donald M. Grant, 1976. This collection later appeared in paperback and has been reprinted several times by various publishers. Although not appearing in the Robert E. Howard Library from Del Rey Books it was reprinted in Pirate Adventures, REH Foundation Press, 2013.

When Fantasy Magazine first published “The Black Stranger” in 1953, it was a heavily edited version of the story. Fantasy Magazine editor, Lester del Rey, also added verbiage to the story. When the story was reprinted in King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953) the magazine version was used but the title changed to “The Treasure of Tranicos.”

In the introduction to Conan the Usurper, de Camp writes: “For the present publication, I have gone back to the original Howard manuscript and have edited it much more lightly, not trying to condense it and making only such changes as seemed urgently necessary. I have omitted the magazine editor’s changes; I have, however, kept the interpolations I introduced the first time to tie the story in with the rest of the saga – e.g. Conan’s account of his escape from Aquilonia. What you read is, therefore, a good deal closer to Howard’s original than the previously published version.”

I am going to forgo the usual textual comparisons that I have made before since this time out de Camp’s changes are fairly significant even in the Lancer version. However I did compare the Lancer version with the Del Rey version and would estimate the story still has about 80% or more of Howard’s original text.

This is the ONLY completed original Conan story that de Camp significantly edited.

De Camp describes his story changes in “The Trail of Tranicos”: “I added interpolations to bring King Numedides, Thoth-Amon, and the subsequent revolution in Aquilonia. Selon [according to] Howard, the menace in the cave was a lethal volcanic gas. Count Valenso’s slayer was a black demon sent from afar by an unnamed wizard whom the Count had cheated. I put the demon in the cave in place of the gas, called in the vengeful wizard Thoth-Amon, and brought the latter to the scene of the action to free the demon from the cave and direct it against the Count. At the end, Howard had Conan abandon the quest for the jewels in the cave and signal the pirate ship Red Hand, proposing to sail away as its captain to another orgy of piracy. Because this would have entailed serious chronological difficulties, I made the ship a galley bearing Aquilonian rebels looking for Conan to lead their uprising.”

Readers were able to read REH’s original version, after the popularity of the Lancer/Ace Conan series, and during de Camp’s lifetime. In 1987, Tor Books published, Echoes of Valor, which reprinted “The Black Stranger” in its original form.

With Echoes of Valor plus the books in the Lancer or Ace Conan Series, the reader now had a full set of REH’s completed Conan stories (with only minor edits) plus lots of other entertaining Conan adventures. The closest thing to non-edited Conan (i.e. based on the typescript when available) are the three volume Del Rey Conan books. The current crop of ubiquitous POD collections have the original Farnsworth Wright edits and the U.K. Gollancz collections contain stories edited by Donald M. Grant, and also, either de Camp or Robert Lowndes, for the story “The Vale of Lost Women.” (If you have the complete Lancer or Ace series and Echoes of Valor then the cheap thing to do, if you really care about textual changes, is to read this blog and just take note of the textual changes I have detailed in the previous articles. LOL.)

“The Treasure of Tranicos” was adapted to comics in Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan #47 and #48. Roy Thomas provided the script for both, and Gil Kane is credited as the primary artist for the first installment, while John Buscema is the lead artist for the conclusion.

The story starts with Conan fleeing from a band of Picts. The Picts are described as wearing “beaded buckskin loincloths, and an eagle’s feather was thrust into each black topknot. Their bodies were painted in intricate designs, and they were heavily armed with crude weapons of hammered copper.”

De Camp added that detail about hammered copper. REH just says heavily armed. I can see how that detail might make the Picts seem a touch less “Indian” than REH intended. Which I suppose could arguably affect any analogy REH might have been trying to make. But do North American “Indians” really belong in the Hyborian Age?

Conan is described: “For all his massive, muscular build, the man moved with the supple certitude of a leopard. He was naked except for a rag twisted about his loins …”

Conan finally reaches a point where the Picts no longer chase him. He has scrambled up a rocky ledge and sees a tunnel like cavern and an iron-bound oaken door. (This is vaguely reminiscent of a similar scene in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars where John Carter was chased and left alone after entering a cave.) In de Camp’s version the cavern behind the door contains a blue mist that solidifies and attacks Conan. In the REH version it is “unseen fingers that clutched his throat.” (Unless I missed something, Conan’s escape is not real clear in the REH version; presumably he just backed out of the place and closed the door.)

In the next chapter several characters are introduced. Count Valenso, his niece Belesa, her ward Tina, and the pirate Strombanni (Strom in REH’s version).

Going back to Conan, the blue mist has formed into a black demon that is choking him. De Camp references Baal-Pteor from “Shadows in Zamboula.” Conan luckily escapes and the scene shifts back to Count Valenso. A new character, Zarono, shows up and tells Valenso that a treasure is waiting to be found. A century ago, Bloody Tranicos had stormed the island castle of the exiled prince Tothmekri of Stygia (a similar name, Thutmekri, was used in “Jewels of Gwahlur”) and the treasure lies hidden somewhere nearby. Zarono wants to form an alliance against Strombanni and take Belesa to be his wife. Before any deal is struck Tina enters the scene and tells of seeing a black stranger in the woods. Valenso goes nuts and starts brutally whipping the young girl. Valenso agrees to Zarono’s proposal.

The black stranger summons a storm and Zarono’s ship is destroyed. Conan kills a member of Strombanni’s crew and steals the treasure map. Strombanni meets with Valenso and Zarono to discuss an alliance. Conan interrupts the proceeding. (Conan shortens Strombanni’s name to just Strom several times making me wonder why de Camp changed it from REH’s original Strom in the first place!) Conan has acquired clothing and is decked out in high pirate fashion. He burns the map and proposes his own plan.

Valenso has a plan to double cross Conan and tells Belesa she has to marry Zarono. He then tells her that the black stranger wanting to kill him is Thoth-Amon. (In REH’s original version an unnamed black magician summoned a black demon in the form on a man and the black magician and Valenso betrayed the demon. The demon is now seeking revenge against Valenso.) Meanwhile Conan leads Zarono and Strombanni to the cave with the blue mist/black demon and plans to trick them into going inside to meet their death. The plan fails and Picts attack. Conan says “… I don’t leave white men, even my enemies, to be butchered by Picts.” (In “Beyond the Black River” it is explained that the Picts are white (Caucasian) but just not generally thought of that way.) Conan helps the men get to Valenso’s fort but the Picts are in full-attack mode and waiting outside the stockade.

The Picts have relented somewhat and Thoth-Amon appears. He has put the demon in the cave under his command and has sent the demon to attack. Meanwhile Zarono and Strombanni’s men start attacking each other. Conan stops them and the Picts renew their attack. Conan goes to rescue the women and confronts Thoth-Amon’s demon. Conan uses silver and fire to overcome the demon. (De Camp changed REH’s 100 pound silver bench to a 50 pound candelabrum.)

The final chapter called “A Pirate Returns to the Sea” by REH is changed by de Camp into “Swords of Aquilonia.” De Camp rewrote the last chapter and it has Aquilonian rebels looking for Conan to lead a revolution against King Numedides. In the REH version, Conan sails off with the crew of the Red Hand. Both versions contain REH’s criticism of civilization letting people starve simply because they have no money. Both versions end with a boast. De Camp’s is “How d’you like “King Conan”? Sounds not bad, eh?” REH’s is “I’ll show the dogs some looting! … What are a handful of gems to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?”

De Camp’s changes have some good and some bad. In REH’s version, the menace in the cave being volcanic gas confined to the cave by a Pictish wizard is clever but de Camp’s integrating the two menaces (gas and demon) works for me as well. De Camp making the black stranger Thoth-Amon was a good idea. It adds continuity to the saga and it is enjoyable to see Thoth-Amon in another story. De Camp changing the finale and having Conan return to Aquilonia works well also. Otherwise he and Carter would have had to write a whole new story that took Conan from being a pirate yet again to his being recruited by Aquilonian rebels. Both the REH and the REH/de Camp version are entertaining enough. REH’s use of Picts as “Indians” is less effective than in “Beyond the Black River” where REH is making a statement about colonization and barbarism vs. civilization. The adolescent girl whipping scene should have been excised from both versions!

As a final treat, here is Frazetta’s fantastic art again, without the cover matter!

Book Review: The Virgin of Zesh

by Brian Kunde

For today’s de Camp highlight I’m reviewing a book I do not own in physical form, and which doesn’t even exist in that form as a stand-alone publication, except in German. (There are stand-alone ebook versions.) It can, however, be found as a component in two other de Camp publications, both of which I do have. So, in a sense, I’m addressing three different books today; the work itself, and the two other books in which it appears. But the work itself is, I feel, a major one, deserving recognition in its own right. I refer to The Virgin of Zesh, a Viagens Interplanetarias novella set on the planet Krishna.

The Virgin of Zesh first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories v. 41, no. 3, February 1953. It’s “featured” on the cover, along with another novella, Kendell Foster Cressen’s “Assignment to Aldebaran,” though the Jack Coggins cover art fits neither, showing instead a fellow in space-armor on a sort of rocket sled prospecting the rings of Saturn. Virgin does get pride of place in the contents.

As its title suggests, de Camp regarded The Virgin of Zesh as a Krishna novel. It has the format he always used for such, “The [Noun] of {Proper noun starting with Z].” It is not, however, of novel length. Of course, not all de Camp novels began as book-length works. Others also first appeared as shorter one-offs in magazines. Of these, some were expanded for book publication, some had been cut for the magazine appearance and reverted to their original lengths, and some were filled out in other ways, usually by appending one or more shorter stories, with the resulting book taking the title of the longer work. Examples include Divide and Rule (paired with “The Stolen Dormouse”), The Undesired Princess (paired with “Mr. Arson”), The Queen of Zamba (paired with “Perpetual Motion”), The Tritonian Ring and Other Pusadian Tales (with three stories added), and The Continent Makers and Other Tales of the Viagens (with seven stories added).

I suspect The Virgin of Zesh, too, was intended to be make up its own book, either by expansion or addition of one or more companion tales. But, in the short run, neither happened. Probably because the first wave of the Viagens Interplanetarias tales was truncated, the bottom falling out of the planetary romance type story as the 1950s progressed. Whatever the reason, it didn’t make it into book form at all.

Or, rather, it didn’t until really, really late, just before de Camp finally revived the Viagens series in the late 1970s, when, as with other not-quite-novels, it too got paired with a shorter work to fill a book—this time, the parallel universe novella “The Wheels of If”—resulting in The Virgin & The Wheels (Popular Library, April 1976). I have a copy of this book somewhere, but have mislaid it. So my primary cover scan for this article is from the later The Virgin of Zesh & The Tower of Zanid (of which more anon), and the one of this one was swiped from the net. Sorry.

That said, The Virgin & The Wheels features a gorgeous wrap-around cover painting by Don Maitz. It illustrates the scene from Virgin in which Yuruzh and his aqualung-equipped Záva subjects board the flagship of Sofkar, Dasht of Darya, to save hostage Althea Merrick, who is tied naked to the main mast. Maitz has done his homework and read the story, and it shows. The only thing he missed is that all Krishnans, both the tailed Záva and the more humanoid Daryava, are sprout feathery antennae from between their eyebrows. No antennae here. That aside, this may be the best cover illustration of any Viagens tale, ever.

It would be interesting to learn how it was this book came to be. The Virgin & The Wheels reeks of someone, author, publisher, or both, having hedged their bets. This is demonstrated in the volume combining both pieces in its title rather than taking the title of the longer work. Though Virgin is the longer of the two pieces, is given primacy in the joint title, hogs the cover art, and comes before the other piece, I suspect “Wheels” was intended as the main draw. Unlike Virgin, “Wheels” was already a classic, and had achieved book publication before, headlining its own collection (The Wheels of If and Other Science-Fiction (Shasta, 1949, and Berkley Medallion, October 1970).

It was certainly the main draw for me; I myself bought the book for “Wheels,” because its collection had vanished from the bookstores by 1976, so I didn’t (then) have that story. Moreover, like other younger readers of the time, I had not previously encountered any Viagens stories, or even heard of The Virgin of Zesh.

It looks to me like someone didn’t think Virgin would sell without a sweetener, but still wanted to publish it. Maybe de Camp was testing the waters for his revival of the Viagens series? Though … why do it with the long-mothballed Virgin, and paired with “The Wheels of If,” when, clearly, any sales figures would more likely reflect the latter? Doesn’t sound like a very valid test.

Regardless, it was done, and The Virgin of Zesh, and with it the Viagens series, was put before a whole new generation of readers. The following year saw both republication of The Queen of Zamba, in a restored edition, and initial publication of The Hostage of Zir, the first new Viagens tale in nearly two decades. The series was off and running once more.

When Ace Books issued its uniform paperback edition of the Krishna books in the 1980s Virgin surfaced again, this time paired with The Tower of Zanid, in the combined edition The Virgin of Zesh & The Tower of Zanid (Ace Books, February 1983). This version marked a step up for the story. Not only was it again given pride of place in the title over the paired piece (which, again, had previously been published separately, and in this instance was the longer story), but the book did better than Ace expected it to, necessitating a second printing two months after the first. The only downside here for Virgin was that the cover art, by Paul Alexander, illustrates the other story, The Tower of Zanid. (Otherwise, it’s a fine cover, and, as previously indicated, is the one I scanned to go with this article.) Alexander, incidentally, was Ace’s go-to cover artist for all but one of its Krishna titles. He gives the set a nice uniformity, even if his ayas all look like multi-legged horses and his bishtars like multi-legged and multi-tusked elephants.

The next year, finally, saw Virgin’s first publication on its own, in German translation. Die Jungfrau von Zesh, translated by Joachim Pente, was issued in paperback by W. Heyne Verlag, München, in September 1984. But … it took its cover art from The Virgin of Zesh & The Tower of Zanid, which, as noted, illustrated Zanid, not Zesh. Strange.

Digression time! You may well wonder, “What cover art did Heyne use for its edition of Zanid, then?” As did I! So I checked. Heyne took the art from Ace’s edition of The Prisoner of Zhamanak (also by Paul Alexander)—which, of course illustrated Zhamanak, not Zanid! (Though it does at least feature Percy Mjipa, who appears in both books—so that’s something.) This, in turn, begs the question, what did Heyne use for its edition of Zhamanak? For some reason, it went completely outside de Camp and the Viagens series for that one, swiping the Paul Alexander cover art of the Ann Maxwell novel The Jaws of Menx. The scene shown kind of fits Zhamanak, with a man and woman journeying on alien monster-horses through a weird landscape. But the man’s white, unmistakably notZhamanak’s black protagonist Percy Mjipa, the alien monster-horses are different alien monster-horses from those Alexander has stand in for de Camp’s ayas, and the weird landscape is a giant cavern—for Zhamanak, it should have been a dense jungle. Quite a game of musical covers, here, though all by Paul Alexander! (Incidentally, The Jaws of Menx at least sounds a bit like a Krishna book, in that it too is set on a non-technological world warily monitored by an interstellar organization)

Back to Virgin, and its editions. There are two more in English, both from SF Gateway/Orion, British purveyor of all those infamous yellow cover e-editions, and both from September, 2011. Yes, that’s right, two versions of Virgin from these folks! One is an e-edition of The Virgin & The Wheels, which perhaps they issued to make up not having an edition of The Wheels of If and Other Science-Fiction. Why don’t they? Dunno. But at least they realized they couldn’t have a relatively comprehensive set of de Camp’s fiction without “The Wheels of If.” The second version is, finally, a stand-alone, English language edition of The Virgin of Zesh itself! Hallelujah! I can almost forgive them their horrible yellow covers, for that alone! But, yeah. It’s an ebook. There’s still no stand-alone print English language edition.

There’s one more edition to tell of, an ebook of the German version, Die Jungfrau von Zesh, issued quite recently, in 2020. The publication data is messy. OCLC has two records for it, reflecting different publishers, BookRix, München, and epubli, Berlin. Since both are also credited to publisher Apex-Verlag, one of these is likely a phantom. The amazon.com listing gives the publisher as Apex Fantasy, a variation of Apex-Verlag.

This edition has a very odd cover, showing the face of an angry young woman with a brushy headdress (or maybe just hair) of black and red. She’s also got red eyes and lips and an ivory/yellow complexion. Whether she’s meant to be protagonist Althea Merrick or the “Virgin of Zesh” herself (a tailed Záva oracle woman) is unclear. She’s quite human-looking, so probably Althea. Or the two could simply have been conflated. Or, most likely of all, the title just prompted someone to decide, “Hey, we need a young woman on this thing!” The artist is uncredited.

So much for the bibliographical and artistic details. Now, confession time. I wrote above that the first book publication of Virgin, The Virgin & The Wheels, put the story before a new generation of readers. My generation, actually. Well … hopefully the rest of my generation appreciated it more than I did.

Some things one loves at first sight, and later detests. My own example is Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, coincidentally released about the same time as The Virgin & The Wheels, which I thought the funniest thing ever on first viewing, but find worse and worse every time I’ve seen it since—the Suck Fairy’s been at that one big time. Other things you don’t like, then come to love. For me, that’s The Virgin of Zesh.

As previously admitted, I bought The Virgin & The Wheels for “The Wheels of If,” but, of course, I read the other story as well. And I just didn’t get it. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, with masterful heroes, obvious villains, and very subsidiary (if plucky) heroines. In Virgin, we’re introduced right off to five characters, four male and one female, all underwhelming. Two of the men fade from the scene quickly; one is revealed as a baddy, but is left behind until quite near the end. The others all just run from him. So … who’s the hero? Who do I root for?

You will perceive I had little notion then that a protagonist didn’t have to be heroic, or could develop heroic qualities as the story went on, or could be female. Or of how de Camp sometimes stands reader expectations on their heads and does something unexpected, like, you know, challenging the reader. That’s what happens here. This isn’t the sort of story you can predict; you have to actually read it to see where it’s going. While I later came to value that sort of thing, at sixteen it just confused me.

Suffice it to say that it took me some time to see that the protagonist of this story is mousy little viewpoint character, Althea Merrick, and the “hero,” if such there is, is the late-appearing tailed Krishnan, Yuruzh. At the beginning, Althea is at loose ends, carried on by events, her flawed male acquaintances Kirwan and Barr, and her need to escape the Terran security chief Afanasi Gorchakov, who has duped and date-raped her into marriage.

Which is another thing I failed to realize the first time around. We see Gorchakov getting Althea drunk. We see her wake up the next day, with little memory of what happened. For a long time, I thought he just took advantage of her drink-induced amnesia to claim she had married him—after all, we never saw it happen. But a closer reading shows that prim, strait-laced Althea loses her inhibitions (and common sense) when drunk. The thing she’s running away from is real.

With no good options, she joins Brian Kirwan and Gottfried Barr in their journey to the island of Zesh, where the former intends to join a Terran utopian colony and the latter to study the same. De Camp took a skeptical view of utopians, as we see in this and other stories—”New Arcadia” is one that comes to mind. On the voyage, Althea is nearly raped again by a Krishnan sailor, whom she later gets on her side by reviving him after he is keelhauled for the offense. His warning is the Terran trio’s first clue their journey could involve them in some perilous geopolitical affairs.

Then we get to Zesh, and the Terran utopians of Elysion, who prove impractical, pacifistic, riven with factionalism, and deaf to our trio’s news that their island is about to become a bone of contention between the neighboring isle of Zá, from whom they rent the place, and the imperialistic Dasht of Darya, who intends to conquer it. Filled with premonitions of doom, the three elect to warn Zá themselves, by visiting the primary representative of Záva authority on Zesh, the native oracle known as the Virgin of Zesh. Knew the title element was going to come in somewhere, didn’t you?

Incidentally, another peculiarity of de Camp is his tendency to choose titles only tangentially related to the story. One might presume going in that the “Virgin of Zesh” would be a reference to Althea, given her sexual inexperience and intent to go there. But no. And the actual Virgin appears only in the scene in which Althea and her companions visit her, promptly dashing off to carry their news to Zá without so much as a thank you.

Such titular misdirection is common in the Krishna books. The Virgin of Zesh may be the worst offender, but it’s far from alone. The Queen of Zamba is offstage through most of the book she appears in, and merely its MacGuffin. The Hand of Zei and The Prisoner of Zhamanak are, as well, albeit much more prominent. The Hostage of Zir and The Bones of Zora each reference but one episode in the books by those names (though the hostage is, at least, its book’s protagonist, and the bones do drive the plot in their book). De Camp will do almost anything to sneak in that vital Z!

Kirwan attempts at one point to forcibly seduce Althea. Young me: “What’s with all this sexual peril stuff?” Old me: “It presents a realistic view of how women fare in lawless, male-dominated frontier societies. The thing to watch is how Althea copes, and grows from a helpless waif to a capable, decisive player in forging her own destiny.” Young me: “I don’t get it.” Old me: “Give it time.”

From there, events follow fast and furious. The Záva, under their charismatic leader Yuruzh, arrive to defend Zesh and remind the utopians of their obligations. Althea bravely volunteers to help the Záva by carrying false intelligence to the invading Daryava. (That’s how she ends up tied to the mast.) Yuruzh defeats the Daryava by brilliant stratagems. Then, just as things are starting to look up, Gorchakov shows up. Oh, yeah. Remember him?

Gorchakov abducts Althea at gunpoint, and it’s evident he’s mad at her for running off. Mad enough to torture and murder her. Kirwan attempts to redeem himself by intervening, only to be shot dead for his efforts. Cowardly Barr runs off. Practical Yuruzh declines to interfere. (And he was doing so well up till now, too…) So Gorchakov absconds by ship with his prey. Althea is doomed!

Until Yuruzh swoops in and save her, that is. He may be practical (what use is a dead hero?), but that doesn’t mean he’s indifferent, or unresourceful. But—here’s the kicker. It takes both of them to take down Gorchakov. Althea really comes into her own, here. And there’s even a happily ever after. Yuruzh proposes to Althea, and is accepted. (She was attracted to him the first time she saw him, and, it turns out, vice versa.) Though the prospect of marrying an alien is as disconcerting as it is exciting. She helps decide by fortifying herself with kvad, the native version of booze…

Is there a pattern, here? Is Althea going to wake up the next day with second thoughts, again? Well, no. This union has the blessing of the author, whose account naturally looked more straightforward to his original audience than it does to our woke 21st century eyes. We may feel misgivings, but sometimes you just have to accept original intent.

There’s an important subplot in this story I haven’t touched yet, that is resolved in the final pages. It’s been a mystery all through the tale how the tailed Krishnans of Zá, formerly little more than exploited primitives, have risen under Yuruzh to become a major power in the Sadabao Sea region. As it happens, he was taken to Earth in his youth, where he was subjected to the “Pannoëtic treatment,” an experimental process that can either increase intelligence (in lower primates) or lead to madness (in humans). For tailed Krishnans, it turns out to do the former. Pretending it wore off so he would be allowed to return home, Yuruzh subjected his fellow Záva to the procedure, so uplifting them to equality with the dominant tailless Krishnans.

A few points about Yuruzh and his background. First, his account of his time on Earth makes me suspect he might have been the unnamed tailed Krishnan who played a small but heroic role in the Viagens short story “The Colorful Character” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1949, collected in Sprague de Camp’s New Anthology of Science Fiction, 1953). The individual in that tale was also on Earth and subject to scientific study, and the events portrayed occur early enough in the Viagens chronology that the two characters could be one and the same. I like to think so, anyway.

Second, the manner in which he acquired his advanced intelligence and (supposedly) lost it is, in outline, the plot of Daniel Keyes‘s award-winning story “Flowers for Algernon“ (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959, expanded to novel-length in 1966). The primary difference is that Yuruzh, unlike Keyes’s Charlie Gordon, merely feigns losing his newly acquired brainpower. Given that de Camp’s story antedates Keyes’s, it is at least plausible that Keyes found the idea for “Flowers” in The Virgin of Zesh. I don’t know that this theory can be proven one way or the other, but the possibility intrigues me.

Third, I the idea for Yuruzh’s Pannoëtic treatment is prefigured in de Camp’s own Johnny Black stories (1938-1940), in which a similar process bestows human intelligence on black bear Johnny Black, chimpanzee McGinty, and other animals. It also drives at least one human mad—Johnny’s patron Professor Methuen, supercharging his inventiveness while removing his moral compunctions and connection to humanity. (Getting drunk returns him to normal, making him a sort of opposite to Henry Kuttner’s later tales of Galloway Gallegher, who is normal when sober and brilliant when drunk.) One might reasonably postulate a link between the Johnny Black and Viagens series on the basis of this treatment!

In The Virgin of Zesh, however, the Pannoëtic treatment seems an obvious spoof of pseudo-scientific notions of the 50s like those of Hubbard, which promise enlightenment while inculcating idiocy. De Camp, while decrying such ideas in real life, where they can lead the gullible astray, was not averse to employing them in his fiction, where they can be “real” for plot purposes. The Viagens series is in fact chock-full of such gimmicks. Want mind control? Try the Osirians’ pseudo-hypnosis. Longevity? There’s a pill for that. Cures for personality disorders, deviant behavior, or alcoholism? There are effective psychiatric treatments. There’s even a way around basic geological processes that permits raising new continents within human lifespans! All good, clean fun—in fiction!

Final thoughts. Putting such peripheral issues aside, Virgin is, as you might well guess from the above, not a story likely to fly in today’s cultural climate. The attitudes of the characters and author alike, particularly on gender roles, are too much of their time. But these or similar attitudes have held throughout history, until very recently. I’m not sure pretending otherwise, as happens in so much modern speculative fiction, does the reader any favors. Still, some today will be horrified, or at least made uncomfortable, by the casual brutality of the story, and what it puts Althea through. And I wouldn’t call that a wrong response.

What I would say is that, for its time, The Virgin of Zesh was a milestone in the realistic treatment of women in speculative fiction. Most female characters of the time are at best ciphers, but de Came gives us an actual honest-to-God female protagonist, an everywoman rather than a superwoman, facing challenges a person in her situation likely would have, and maturing and rising to match them. Regardless of the assumptions behind it, it’s a good story, and I feel de Camp did well with it. In my opinion, it holds up better today than some of his later efforts, from the 70s onward, to update the social environment of his settings to reflect contemporary mores. I find some of these truly wince-worthy. In contrast, I find myself liking The Virgin of Zesh more and more all the time.

Because it never got a stand-alone edition during de Camp’s lifetime, there’s no dedication associated with this novella. At least, I think there isn’t. I would double-check my copy of The Virgin & The Wheels for one, if I could find it, but none is quoted in Laughlin and Levack, which is usually good on such things. There’s definitely no dedication to The Virgin of Zesh & The Tower of Zanid. Probably because it was a combination rather than its own book.

# # #