Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”
Three stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.
Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?
“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.
“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.
The story is somewhat experimental, as Howard has several sections with different protagonists and throughout much of the narrative, Conan is acting off-screen and his exploits are described by other characters. It is also heavily infused with New Testament symbolism and references. Howard was not a Christian, but had an interest in Biblical stories for their historical and literary interest.
The Biblical connection is made explicit with the main antagonist, the witch Salome, who secretly overthrows her twin sister, Queen Taramis, the ruler of Khauran. Howard makes it clear that this Salome is intended to be something of an ancestor to the Salome described in the New Testament (though the “Biblical” Salome is unnamed until the work of the historian Josephus), who demanded the head of John the Baptist from Herod Antipas.
In the most memorable scene in the story – perhaps even the most memorable scene of any Conan story – the Cimmerian becomes a stand in for Jesus of Nazareth when he is crucified, left for dead, but survives and is “resurrected” as the leader of a horde of desert nomads. He is somewhat less than Christ-like in dealing revenge on his enemies, however. This crucifixion scene, immortalized forever by John Milius, including the killing of a vulture with his bare teeth, borrows heavily from Tarzan the Untamed (in which the jungle lord also dispatches a vulture with his teeth), but it captures much of Howard’s view of life itself as a primal and constant struggle for survival. You are either predator or prey.
This idea is further explored in the conflict between Conan and the chieftain of the Zuagirs, Olgerd Vladislav. Olgerd frees Conan from the cross and allows him to join his band – if the Cimmerian survives. Conan does survive of course and over the following months rises in the ranks to become Olgerd’s lieutenant. No pack can survive long with two alphas vying the top spot, and soon it is Conan leading the Zuagirs, while Olgerd is left for the desert.
Howard is here exploring the primal animalistic nature of man, in which the strong thrive and the weak are culled. This conflict between Conan and Olgerd just happens to be the source of one of my favorite Conan illustrations, the painting by Gary Gianni depicting the two rivals sitting together in a tent glowering at each other, the unspoken tension between the two palpable in the air and written on their faces.
Biblical allusions aside, the basic plot of “Witch” with the twin sibling secretly usurping and replacing the rightful ruler was probably inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s musketeer tale The Man in the Iron Mask. This story in which the musketeer Aramis kidnaps the king of France, secretly imprisons him, and replaces him with his previously unknown twin brother Philippe, was the final section of the three-part novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne.
Howard was a fan of Dumas and was familiar with this last of the Musketeer novels as he refers to it satirically in one of his letters. He probably would have seen the film version The Iron Mask (1929) with Douglas Fairbanks as well. Aramis, the musketeer featured in the novel, may have also been the inspiration for the name of the Queen of Khauran: Taramis (alternatively it might have come from Queen Tamyris, ruler of the Massagetae)
One of the more jarring shifts in protagonist point of view in “Witch” comes with the third chapter. It is written in epistolary style, in the form of a letter from the Nemedian scholar Astreas traveling through Khauran to colleague of his back home. Astreas here functions as something of a Hyborian Age Herodotus, describing the kingdom of Khauran and its geopolitics as well as the narrating the events taking place in the story. If this sounds like a device for Howard to get away with a lot of exposition, well, that’s exactly what it is.
But that said it’s a fairly clever way of doing it, if it must be done. Once again, however, this is another example of a story that really should have been novel-length being compressed for the confines of the medium; and it contributes to the complaints that the story is awkwardly constructed.
The weird element in the story is the Lovecraftian, toad-like, tentacled horror known as Thaug. Thaug is a creature similar to Thog in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and the monster in “The Black Stone” – basically an avatar of Tsathoggua. This is, unfortunately, one of the weakest and most disappointing elements of the story. Thaug is not-well developed and appears shoehorned into the narrative, and then to add insult to injury is quickly displaced with a hail of arrows almost like an afterthought.
But despite its flaws there are great moments in “Witch,” particularly when Conan is “onscreen.” The Cimmerian’s powerful charisma and alpha male tenacity are on full display, not just in his survival from the cross, but even more so in his unapologetic take over the Zuagirs from Olgerd. This story captures what I think Howard truly envisioned Conan as: a primal man, with no time or patience for the weakness brought from civilized life. This alone makes “A Witch Shall Be Born” worthy of a second look and perhaps a bit more appreciation.
Howard, Robert E. “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Bloody Crown of Conan (New York: Del Rey), 2004, 255-304.
Louinet, Patrice. “Hyborian Genesis Part II.” Bloody Crown of Conan (New York: Del Rey), 2004, 347-359.
From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter picked up this storyline, with Conan leading the Zuagirs in “Black Tears.” King Yezdigerd of Turan’s men ambush Conan’s band, but are defeated. Conan chases a traitor into the Land of Ghosts. His army leaves him and he pursues alone. It’s an okay story; it reads like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure to me, which is fine.
Dark Horse Comics adapted “A Witch Shall Be Born” in Conan the Avenger, from November 2015 to April 2016. It was covered in Savage Sword of Conan issue #5 in April, 1975.
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”
Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”
Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”
Stephen H. Silver on “Man Eaters of Zamboula”
Keith J. Taylor on “Red Nails”
Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”
The Animated Red Nails Movie that Never Happened
Mark Finn on “The God in the Bowl”
Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”
Bob Byrne on the the Khoraja Saga
Wolfe Deitrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”
Jeffrey Shanks is an archaeologist and popular culture historian and has authored a number of popular and scholarly articles on Robert E. Howard. He currently serves as co-chair of the Pulp Studies area of the Popular Culture Association and has received the REH Foundation Award for Best Print Essay three years in a row. He is the editor of Zombies from the Pulps! and co-editor of the academic essay collection The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror.
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018.
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 organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as 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.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V and VI.
And he is in a new anthology of new Solar Pons stories, out now.
It’s interesting to watch the participants in this project squirm verbally, and occasionally even evade the issue, when they know their assigned story is NOT the best Conan story. Shanks kind of does both, noting that “A Witch Shall Be Born” “is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories,” as if to imply that it is on his, and then not quite making the argument for it, even as he points out its highlights and notes how it exemplifies Howard’s worldview. Words to the effect of “and that’s why it’s the best Conan story” somehow avoid appearing.
I doubt anyone would deny the iconic status of the crucifixion scene. The trouble is, for me and no doubt others, it’s the ONE memorable scene in the story. If someone asked me about the story, this is what I would remember. And in fact, it’s all I did remember, other than the twin motif. I had to refresh my memory of the tale over at Wikipedia in order to even place Shanks’s observations in their proper context. That done, I’ll say he makes some good points. I readily agree with his conclusion that the story is “worthy of a second look and perhaps a bit more appreciation.”
But that’s a far cry from saying it’s the best Conan story. He doesn’t, and it isn’t. I might say here that it could use a better advocate, but that would be unfair to Shanks. He probably does as well with it as anyone could.
Having just recently read TARZAN THE UNTAMED, the same bells went off in my head.
I will add I believe there was a another influence–besides the Bible–on the crucifixion scene. Arthur O. Friel’s short story, “The Peccaries,” features the hero being crucified to a tree, surviving, and returning to exact his revenge. (Adventure, March 1920)
While the original intent was to argue ‘It’s the best story,’ it’s clear, some of them aren’t. And, even, not particularly good.
So, folks picked out what was good in each story. I didn’t call it ‘The Best of Conan’ because it didn’t truly fit the task at hand.
I like the whole Zuigar thing quite a bit. Conan had so many professions, I always enjoy the various ones.
Squirm and evade? You bet! As one who wrote on one of the middling-to-poor Conan stories earlier in this series of posts, I can tell you that it was a difficult task indeed. At bottom, I think Bob Byrne just wanted us to show some appreciation and love for each story in the Conan REH-canon. I think Jeff Shanks did that well.
I seem to recall that John Maddox Roberts’ ‘Conan and the Manhunters’ had Conan in charge of his band of Zuagirs again. I don’t think I was crazy about the plot, but I liked the manhunters after Conan. The leader was a pretty good supporting character in a Tor pastiche.
I didn’t have time to re-read it, though.
Squirm and evade? Guilty as charged. I’m just glad Bob didn’t assign me “The Vale of Lost Women”! LOL
Jeffrey, I may have been a bit harsh. You did, as I noted, likely do as well with this one as anyone could have. Plus, I’m not the one on the hot seat, so one could argue I’m not in a position to criticize.
Yes, defending “The Vale of Lost Women” is a fate not to be wished on anyone. Poor Dave Hardy! (Though he, too, made a most valiant effort.)
Thank you, Mr. Shanks.
I didn’t have quite the same reaction to this story as some. I read Burroughs before I read REH, so the idea of the hero killing a vulture with his teeth wasn’t unique; I had read about the history of the Roman Republic so crucifixion wasn’t solely a Christian image (Rome and Carthage raised that form of execution almost to the level of a varsity sport). What struck me was the eye for an eye way that Conan paid his debts.
Olgerd saves Conan’s life but ruthlessly tests his toughness and will to live in the process. When it comes time for Conan to take over the Zaugirs, he let’s Olgerd live, but dispassionately tests the man’s own fiber by breaking his arm and then grinding the bones in Conan’s own iron grip. So too with Salome’s chief henchman; the man who crucified Conan but failed to kill him is nailed to timbers in the same spot and left to the buzzards. Conan seems very true to himself in this story.
I agree that this story does seem disjointed, almost to the point where it could have been written as a Taramis story with a piece of Conan thrown in. The death of Thaug doesn’t bother me however; this isn’t a a monster who jumps Conan in a ruined temple, a shadowy warehouse or a dank cave. Thaug comes out in the open in broad daylight when Conan’s companions are a hundred or so of the best horse archers on the continent; of COURSE Conan uses superior firepower to vanquish this unspeakable horror (and then probably burns what is left down to a greasy smudge on the flagstones).
Overall, not REH’s best but still good and practically seething with ideas for a role playing campaign.
Hey Paul, cool cross-reference to Arthur O. Friel’s short story, “The Peccaries.” I failed to find an online version to read, but nonetheless that was a nice addition.
Nice job, Jeff. I didn’t even have to think too much/long on my own assignment, so kudos to all of you who had challenges. As the last signee to the project, I was extremely fortunate to land a great tale. Thanks Bob!
I stumbled on it quite by accident a couple of years ago. It can be found in the Wildside Press collection, AMAZON NIGHTS. ($3 US on Kindle.)
I wrote a post on the book. You can find it here;
He doesn’t lead a tribe of Zuagirs in Conan and the Manhunters. They are a band of thieves from several different nations.
Nice coverage and interesting comments. I am with John E. Boyle in terms my appreciation of the story. One other reason it remains one of my top Conans’ is simply I read it to my wife years back and it was an opportunity for mutual appreciation of Howard, where she doesn’t care for many of the other Conan tales.