Welcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best. Keith West (love his Adventures Fantastic blog) landed one of my favorites, “Beyond the Black River.”
“Beyond the Black River” is the best Conan story. There are several reasons why. First, there is plenty of action. It’s well choreographed and the pacing is superb. Unlike some of the Conan stories, which are simply adventures stories (not that there’s anything wrong with simple adventure stories), this one contains quite a bit of philosophizing. Finally, the structure of the story is such that not only do we see Conan through the eyes of the supporting cast, Howard gives us enough information to place the Conan of this story in the context of the rest of the stories. We’ll look at each of these strengths. And just so you know, there will be spoilers.
II. The Action
The story opens with a young man named Balthus heading through the region known as Conajohara towards a fort on the Black River. He’s not sure if he wants to join the garrison there as a recruit or try to clear some land and build a cabin. Although a competent woodsman by the standards of the Bossonian Marches, he’s out of his league in the wilderness, as he soon learns. Conan saves his life from a Pict who’s been watching him.
Balthus was completely unaware of both Conan and the Pict. On their way back to the fort, they come across the headless body of a merchant. Hearing something in the forest, Conan throws his ax at it but misses. Conan tells Balthus that the commander of the fort had recently imprisoned a Pict sorcerer named Zogar Sag who had stolen some liquor and drank enough that he passed out before he made it back across the Black River. They should have either killed him or let him go with gifts since imprisoning a Pict is a mortal insult.
Now Zogar Sag has summoned some type of demon. It has been killing men one by one and removing their heads. Conan and Balthus reach the fort and learn that Zogar Sag has managed to unite the quarreling Pict into a massive army. He plans to wipe out all the Aquilonian settlements from the Black River all the way back to Thunder River and beyond. Conan leads a small group across the Black River to reconnoiter. All but Conan and Balthus are wiped out.
Conan manages to rescue Balthus before Zogar Sag can kill him by summoning a giant snake, but they have to flee deeper into the forest and circle back around to the river. They lose a day as they dodge pursuit from both Picts and creatures summoned by Zogar Sag’s sorcery. Conan lures a Pict in to the shore when the reach the Black River by pretending to be a Pict himself, and the two men are able to take his canoe and reach the other bank.
When they arrive at the fort, it is under siege. The Picts are so great in number than it’s only a matter of time before it falls. Conan and Balthus circle around behind the fort and head out to warn the scattered settlers, accompanied by a hound whose master was recently killed by the Picts. Conan and Balthus split up; the men from several cabins have gone to gather salt. Balthus and the dog escort the women and children to the nearest city, Velitrium.
Some Picts have bypassed the fort. Balthus and the dog make a final stand to buy the women and children time. Conan is able to warn the men, who take off for Velitrium after being told Balthus is with their families. Conan starts to run with them, but soon he hears Balthus calling him. Only it isn’t Balthus but the demon summoned by Zogar Sag, which was mimicking Balthus’s voice. It turns out both the demon and Zogar Sag are half-brothers, the spawn of a god of the outer darkness. I probably don’t need to tell you Conan is able to defeat it.
The story ends with Conan in a tavern, learning of Balthus’s last stand. He also learns the Picts were defeated when Zogar Sag suddenly began displaying fatal wounds, wounds that matched the ones Conan inflicted on the demon.
There is plenty of action in “Beyond the Black River”, and it moves along at a great clip. Yet it never feels rushed. Howard is at the top of his game with the pacing. He inserts dialogue and description at the right places, allowing the reader to catch his/her breath. He also injects some philosophy through the words he puts in his characters’ mouths. More on that in the next section.
Another thing Howard does successfully is to build suspense. When Balthus is captured, for example, he’s not the only one alive. Zogar Sag is summoning creatures from the forest to one by one kill the survivors, who are tied to stakes. Zogar Sag saves Balthus for last. Balthus is the viewpoint character until the last chapter in the story, so we see things from his perspective, a technique that heightens the tension. Balthus is in over his head, and he knows it. He doesn’t quiver in fear or let that stop him from doing what he knows he needs to do. The fact that Balthus recognizes that he isn’t and can never be Conan’s equal foreshadows his fate.
III. The Philosophy
There are three points of philosophizing in this story that we’ll look at here.
The first point is somewhat subtle, and if you aren’t careful, you might miss it. Late in the story, when Balthus and Conan are warning the settlers of the invading Picts, they come upon a cabin containing only women and children. Their men have gone for salt along with the men from the previous cabin. Conan goes to warn them, leaving Balthus to continue sounding the alarm at cabins along the road. He has warned one cabin and is escorting the woman and her children to Velitrium. Although scared, the woman isn’t a simpering damsel. They reach a second cabin inhabited by an old woman, two young women, and four children.
The old woman is made of grit, which is a good thing. One of the young women is in a daze, while the other is prone to hysterics. It’s the old woman who keeps the others from panicking. When Balthus urges her to ride, she insists on walking because one of the younger women is pregnant.
Howard has his detractors, and one of the criticisms they express is Howard’s portrayal of women. Although there aren’t many women in the story, the ones we see in this segment display some diversity in how they respond to their situation. The first two women are not damsels in distress. While the first woman Balthus encounters does need his assistance, she does show some fortitude. Her initial reaction is to pull Balthus into the cabin and make a stand. It’s only when Balthus explains the situation to her that she shows any real fear.
It’s the old woman who really breaks from stereotype. She’s calm and doesn’t freak out. Rather than requiring Balthus to do everything for her, she assists him. The old woman keeps the younger women, and consequently the children, calm. She also takes responsibility to guide her party to Velitrium when Balthus stays behind to delay the Picts, promising to fight if she has to.
The unnamed old woman is an example of the strong women Howard would insert into his fiction. I can’t help but wonder if she was a composite of elderly women Howard had known growing up. This story was written in the 1930s. The pioneer days weren’t that far in the past. Women who were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s would have remembered when Texas was still a bit wild. Stories of Indian raids were still circulating, many of them first hand. We know Howard was growing increasingly interested in Texas pioneer history in the last years of his life. It’s not unreasonable to assume he may have based the character of the old woman on women he either knew personally or had heard stories about.
Second is when Conan lures the Pict to the shore by pretending to be another Pict. Conan’s intention is to kill him and take his canoe. Balthus thinks this is not a fair trick, and even says it isn’t fair. Conan’s response is to ask “which is worse – to betray a Pict who’d enjoy skinning us both alive, or betray the men across the river whose lives depend on our getting over?”
This brief scene highlights the differences between barbarism and civilization. Balthus, representing the civilized man holds to a code of chivalry that is very different from that of Conan. Conan’s code of honor is one of practicality. A few pages before this exchange Balthus was reflecting on how different he and Conan are, concluding “Bloodshed and violence and savagery were the natural elements of the life Conan knew; he could not, and would never understand the little things that were so dear to the souls of civilized men and women.” Balthus is acting a foil to Conan, contrasting the barbarian with the civilized man.
This exchange foreshadows the real philosophical aspect of this story, the famous quote at the end. Voiced by an unnamed woodsman who has been discussing the recent battle with Conan, he says, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind…Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
It’s in this final conversation that Howard summarizes his thoughts on barbarism and civilization. The theme has been running all through “Beyond the Black River”. Balthus has been an example of a civilized man, while Conan portrays the barbarian.
When Conan first meets Balthus, he describes a situation that is inherently unstable. The garrison doesn’t have enough support from the politicians and nobles back in Aquilonia. As Conan puts it, “Your idiotic king doesn’t understand conditions here. He won’t send enough reinforcements, and there are not enough settlers to withstand the shock of a concerted attack from across the river.”
Conan’s words prove to be true. The Picts pushed the frontier back to Thunder River. Aquilonia had lost Conajohara.
The story ends on a pessimistic note. It’s obvious that the barbarians have won the day, even though they were pushed back across the Black River. The conclusion of the story is no surprise. It’s been expected from the very beginning, foreshadowed by Conan’s words and the authorial voice of Howard in his descriptions. The final sentence stating that barbarism will triumph hammers the point home.
IV. The Structure
Howard could have easily made this an adventure story with no deeper themes. He could have also written a treatise of barbarism and civilization. Instead he combined both into something I would argue is greater than the sum of its parts.
Howard mixes his philosophizing with a rousing adventure tale. Some have called “Beyond the Black River” a western at heart. I think that’s an accurate description. Howard often mixed other genres in his fantasy as a means of trying to write a new type of story. “The God in the Bowl”, for example, was Howard’s attempt at a police procedural.
The Picts are stand-ins for Native Americans, and the descriptions of the settlers and woodsmen could have been lifted from James Fenimore Cooper, except Howard had an economy of words and a poetic style that Cooper never had. I think it’s no coincidence that the Gregory Manchess illustrations for this story in the Del Rey The Conquering Sword of Conan resemble Howard Pyle’s illustrations in The Last of the Mohicans.
Howard has been accused of inserting himself into story in the character of Balthus, with the hound Slasher representing Howard’s beloved dog Patch. Maybe; maybe not. I’m not prepared to say one way or the other. I’ll save that discussion for the comments.
Writing all but the last two chapters from the point of view of Balthus allowed Howard to show Conan through someone else’s eyes. Balthus admires Conan almost immediately, having heard of the Cimmerian before heading to the fort. Balthus is the first volunteer for Conan’s task force to slip across the river.
Through the course of the story, Balthus compares himself to Conan. At one point he realizes that he will never be the barbarian’s equal as a woodsman. Woodcraft is a skill Balthus has learned. In Conan, though, it’s an innate talent the Cimmerian was born with.
Balthus is in many ways a foil for Conan, contrasting the barbarian with the civilized man who is out of his element in the wilderness. This technique not only allows the reader to see Conan through a different viewpoint, and thus expanding on our understanding of Conan’s character, but it also keeps the story fresh. If all the Conan stories only had Conan as a viewpoint character, they would get repetitive quickly. “Beyond the Black River” isn’t the only story in which Howard used other viewpoint characters (see “A Witch Shall Be Born” for one example), but I think he’s more successful at this trick here than anywhere else.
So, why do I think “Beyond the Black River” is the best of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories? As I’ve discussed, the action is among Howard’s best, with strong pacing that still leaves room for character development. Howard’s philosophy on barbarism and civilization is articulated here as clearly as it is anywhere else and in such a way that it enhances the story rather than slow it down. Furthermore, he shows his respect for strong women in the character of the old woman who is brave in the face of danger and helps to lead the others to safety. Finally, Howard structures the story so that we gain further insight into the character of Conan, something necessary if a continuing series is to remain fresh.
Robert E. Howard was writing at the top of his game when he wrote “Beyond the Black River”. It’s among his best work and is certainly the best of the Conan stories.
In all honesty, I’m just glad I didn’t have to defend “The Vale of Lost Women” as the best Conan story ever written.
From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)
This story appeared in the May and June, 1935 issues of Weird Tales. Perhaps because Margaret Brundage didn’t get to draw any scantily clad females being whipped, it didn’t get the cover in either month. A suspenseful scene from Arthur B. Reeven’s Craig Kennedy detective story, “The Death Cry” was used, instead.
Howard was truly a Weird Tales staple at this point. “A Witch Shall be Born” appeared in December of 1934. “Jewels of Gwalhur (Servants of Bit-Yakin)” appeared in March of 1935. Then, “Beyond the Black River” in May and June, with “Shadows in Zamboula” in November. Hour of the Dragon would begin in December and run through April of 1936.
In a letter written to H.P. Lovecraft in December of 1934, Howard said of this story, “In the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely – abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a back-ground of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen. Some day I ‘m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or more parts.” That was “The Black Stranger”?
In July of 1935, Lovecraft wrote Howard that the story was ‘splendidly vivid,’ and that there was “no question that you and Clark Ashton Smith are the twin pillars of that institution (Weird Tales).”
Novalyne Price recorded that Howard said, “I sold Writhe a yarn like that a few months ago. I’m damned surprised he took it. It’s different from my other Conan yarns…no sex…only men fighting against the savagery and bestiality about to engulf them. I want you to read it when it comes out. It’s filled with the important little things of civilization, little things that make men think civilization’s worth living and dying for.”
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter wrote “Moon of Blood,” which takes place a bit after “Beyond the Black River.” Picking up on Howard’s story, Conan had risen quickly to Captain in the Aquilonian military and was commanding regular troops as the Picts pushed the Aquilonian settlers out of the lands that been taken from the savages. The Picts were rumored to be uniting for a massive strike (which kinda sounds like the prior story…) and Conan must save the day. I think it’s not a bad story.
Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan covered this story in issue 26 and 27.
The introductory adventure in Modiphius’ Conan: Adventures in Age Undreamed of’s Quickstart Guide, To Race the Thunder, is based on this story and has the characters rushing to save settlers along the trail.
I guess that the Picts got to this hut! From the Quick Start Guide to Modiphius’ Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of
Prior Posts in the Series:
Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”
Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”
Jason M Waltz on “The Tower of the Elephant”
John C. Hocking on “The Scarlet Citadel”
Morgan Holmes on “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
David C. Smith on “The Pool of the Black One”
Dave Hardy on “The Vale of Lost Women”
Bob Byrne on Dark Horse’s “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
Jason Durall on “Xuthal of the Dusk”
Scott Oden on “The Devil in Iron”
James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”
Next Week it’s Fred Adams with “The Black Stranger”
Keith West has been a fan of the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and historical adventure genres for more years than he’s willing to admit. By day he teaches impressionable young people his bad habits (of which there are many) and by night he tells lies for fun and profit (more fun than profit). He commits dayjobbery in the field of Physics where in addition to teaching he occasionally writes cross genre documents known as grant proposals, consisting of science fiction (the proposal), fantasy (the budget), and horror (the reviewers’ comments). He and his wife make their home in West Texas with their son (adopted from Kazakhstan) and two dogs (adopted from the animal shelter). He denies having an addiction to using parentheses. Here’s the link to his Adventures Fantastic blog – which includes links to his other blogs. He’s a busy guy!
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
And he is in a new anthology of new Solar Pons stories, out now.