Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”
Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on!
Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.
But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!
Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.
What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.
To begin with the character of Conan (and to upset the linearity of the narrative just a bit) I will quote Howard’s description of his hero as he stepped through a doorway and was beheld by Conan’s captive Yasmina:
He looked more enormous than ever with the morning sunlight behind him, and Yasmina noted some details that had escaped her the night before. His garments were clean and not ragged. The broad Bakhariot girdle that supported his knife in its ornamented scabbard would have matched the robes of a prince, and there was a glint of fine Turanian mail under his shirt.
This description of Conan’s diverse accoutrement reveals Conan’s picaresque background as an adventurer. He is experienced, hailing from many lands and climes. But this doesn’t mean that others — particularly the aristocracy — don’t make assumptions about his competence and expertise. Yasmina’s governor Chunda Shan offers to give Conan more gold than he has ever seen, hastily amending his claim to more gold than any “Afghuli” has ever seen (still not accurately identifying Conan’s expansive background) when Conan corrects, “You’re a liar … I’ve seen the suk of the goldsmiths in Khurusun.” Yasmina’s governor underestimates Conan as nothing but a rude hillman, and this, in part, results in Conan’s ease in abducting the Devi from Chunda Shan’s own chambers when she comes to visit her governor moments after this scene. But, unlike Chunda Shan, the Devi Yasmina, first as Conan’s captive, then as a fellow adventurer, learns not to devalue him, coming instead to understand, through Conan’s own words, just what a varied and educational life Conan has lived so far. After a close encounter with three people—a pursuing sorcerer, a man under the sorcerer’s enchantment, and the sorcerer’s lover—Conan ruminates on his observations about the episode, comparing what he noticed to what (so far) he has experienced in the wider world:
I can’t understand how a girl like that could get this far into the mountains with only one man — and he a robed scholar, for that’s what he looked like. There’s something infernally queer in all this. That fellow Yar Afzal beat and sent away — he moved like a man walking in his sleep. I’ve seen the priests of Zamora perform their abominable rituals in their forbidden temples, and their victims had a stare like that man. The priests looked into their eyes and muttered incantations, and then the people became like walking dead men, with glassy eyes, doing as they were ordered.
Pretty impressive, huh? Conan ain’t no dummy. When I got to this portion of the story, while rereading for this exercise, I became convinced that, were one ever to film another Conan movie, this time actually using an REH story, it should be this one. No other story simultaneously contains everything necessary for satisfying Sword & Sorcery and Conan at the height of his early career. But this isn’t the end of Conan’s deductive abilities!
And then I saw what the fellow had in his hand, which Yar Afzal picked up. It was like a big, black jade bead, such as the temple girls of Yezud wear when they dance before the black stone spider which is their god. Yar Afzal held it in his hand, and he didn’t pick up anything else. Yet when he fell dead a spider, like the god at Yezud, only smaller, ran out of his fingers. And then, when the Wazulis stood uncertain there, a voice cried out for them to kill me, and I know that voice didn’t come from any of the warriors, nor from the women who watched by the huts. It seemed to come from above.
Those reading the story will know that Conan is not in error about any of this, that his observations are accurate. He has all the information he needs to make the most informed decision about what to do next. If the passages about his physical description argue for a life of education and experience, this demonstrates the application of this experience. Conan here proves himself a hero not in appearance only but through true use of his background.
The Devi Yasmina, with whom through chance or destiny Conan is sharing these observations, is not entirely unlike Conan at this time. She is a ruler. In comparison, though, while Conan leads a tribe of hillpeople, Yasmina governs an entire nation. In further contrast, while Conan wears evidence of his varied life on his person, Yasmina’s garb is the dainty dress of a woman born and bred for the role of ruler alone. This role is implicitly evident in what is discussed in the rest of this essay and thus does not require textual evidence here.
And if Conan is near fully formed, Yasmina is not. What she lacks is experience, but she gains that throughout the novella. Howard seems to take pains to show how Yasmina comes upon this experience, and does so by making certain to establish who she is at the beginning of the tale. To detail this, Howard shows Yasmina growing excited about some plans she is making. This is how one of her subordinates treated her in this state:
Again the governor knelt, for part of his wisdom was the knowledge that a woman in such an emotional tempest is as perilous as a blind cobra to any about her.
In this passage, we can see how, in some measure, “Black Circle” is a kind of The Taming of the Shrew. Yasmina is a proud, dangerous and capricious ruler. It is implied that she needs to learn humility, perhaps even to learn her rightful place as a woman (that’s the 1930s talking, not me!).
She gains some of this humility almost immediately after her introduction. The Devi walks in to have a word with her governor at the very moment that Conan has slipped in to negotiate the release of his seven chieftains. Like a fool, Chunda Shan lets cry that this woman entering his chambers is the Devi. Conan sees his opportunity and quite literally seizes it, making an escape from the compound with the ruler of all of Vendhya in his arms. Evidence of the Devi’s new “education” begins to manifest shortly after Conan encounters members of a hill tribe in the darkness well away from civilization. The tribal scouts demand Conan reveal what he is hiding.
“I have a prisoner,” answered the Cimmerian. And moving aside he disclosed the cowering girl. Reaching a long arm into the crevice he drew her trembling forth. Her imperious bearing was gone. She stared timidly at the ring of bearded faces that hemmed her in, and was grateful for the strong arm that clasped her possessively.
Here we can see that the Devi already has come down a peg or more from her pedestal. She is ”cowering,” “trembling” and “timid.” What is notable is the preponderance of “bearded faces” hemming her in. Could it be that she never in her life has had to account for the threat of male aggression? It also is notable that, faced with such a suggested danger, she is “grateful” for Conan’s seeming “possession” of her. She’d rather have one protect her from the many than to have to face them all on her own.
Such adaptability, Howard suggests through another of his axioms, should be expected of one of her standing and pedigree. The next morning, after the passage in which Conan is described in his armor, she realizes that she is ravenous and has to breakfast in a manner unfamiliar to her:
Making no comment she seated herself cross-legged on the floor, and taking the dish in her lap, she began to eat, using her fingers, which were all she had in the way of table utensils. After all, adaptability is one of the tests of true aristocracy. Conan stood looking down at her, his thumbs hooked in his girdle. He never sat cross-legged, after the Eastern fashion.
Something curious here is not so much the Devi’s “adaptability” but Conan’s seeming immunity to it. Is it because he is a man and doesn’t have to change his customs so as to sit in the “Eastern fashion”? Is this unique to Conan? Or is this saying more about aristocracy and pointing out that, since he is (at least in this instance) not adaptable, then Conan is evincing characteristics that are non-aristocratic? Does this suggest that Conan is beyond the gentility, something other, a leader not beholden to civilized convention?
This last might be the case. For many of these early episodes, Conan appears to have no interest in the Devi other than what she can offer him as a political hostage. Then he determines that she needs a change of clothes, not only because her dainty garments are wearing out while adventuring but because she is too recognizable in them. He arranges to have them traded with those of a common hillwoman. After the Devi has changed herself,
“By Crom!” said he [Conan]. “In those smoky, mystic robes you were aloof and cold and far-off as a star! Now you are a woman of warm flesh and blood! You went behind that rock as the Devi of Vendhya; you come out as a hill girl — though a thousand times more beautiful than any wench of the Zhaibar! You were a goddess — now you are real!”
Careful readers now perhaps are encouraged to compare Conan’s changed reactions to the Devi to his interactions with an unnamed hillwoman at the breakfast scene:
The squatting girl laughed up at him, with some spicy jest, and he grinned wolfishly, and hooking a toe under her haunches, tumbled her sprawling onto the floor. She seemed to derive considerable amusement from this bit of rough horse-play.
Conan’s affections for the Devi — and the Devi’s responses — are now similarly evinced:
He spanked her resoundingly, and she, recognizing this as merely another expression of admiration, did not feel particularly outraged. It was indeed as if the changing of her garments had wrought a change in her personality. The feelings and sensations she had suppressed rose to domination in her now, as if the queenly robes she had cast off had been material shackles of inhibitions.
In other words, a woman is made for a man’s affections, however the man chooses to show them, and false dignity goes against the nature of a woman. In fact, aloofness is (in this reading) an artificial check against a woman’s proper, instinctive responses.
Alas, though, Yasmina is not left free to finish her education under Conan’s capable hands. She is abducted yet again, this time from Conan by a sorcerer. The character that Yasmina now is confronted with functions as a kind of anti-Conan: whereas Conan is young and hale and of the earth, the Master of Yimsha is a veritable skeleton, mystical and ethereal. Conan is a warrior. The Master of Yimsha is a sorcerer. Nonetheless, the Master of Yimsha is the one to complete Yasmina’s education, and he does so through sorcery. He humbles her by forcing her, through his magic, to experience all her past lives. Interestingly, in every one of these lives she is a human female.
She knew the agonies of child-birth, and the bitterness of love betrayed. She suffered all the woes and wrongs and brutalities that man has inflicted on woman throughout the eons; and she endured all the spite and malice of woman for woman. And like the flick of fiery whip throughout was the consciousness she retained of her Devi-ship. She was all the women she had ever been, yet in her knowing she was Yasmina. This consciousness was not lost in the throes of reincarnation. At one and the same time she was a naked slave wench grovelling under the whip, and the proud Devi of Vendhya. And she suffered not only as the slave girl suffered, but as Yasmina, to whose pride the whip was like a white hot brand.
Conan comes to save her, of course, but perhaps the Master of Yimsha’s attempt to ready her for himself has made her all the more willing to yield herself to Conan, the captor she has chosen. Now, whereas Conan has lived many lifetimes in his one, natural span, the Devi is cognizant of her own that have taken place over Space and Time. She throws “herself upon Conan, catching him about the neck with a frantic grasp, half hysterical with terror and gratitude and relief.”
His own wild blood had been stirred to its uttermost by all that had passed. He caught her to him in a grasp that would have made her wince at another time, and crushed her lips with his. She made no resistance; the Devi was drowned in the elemental woman. She closed her eyes and drank in his fierce, hot, lawless kisses with all the abandon of passionate thirst. She was panting with his violence when he ceased for breath, and glared down at her lying limp in his mighty arms.
The elemental woman is now clasped in the violent, lawless man, as is both their desires. Yet it proves to be not an entirely happy ending for these two lovers. After they leave Yimsha, Conan witnesses his tribesmen being slaughtered by Turanians. He must go to them. The only hope for Conan and his men is for the Devi to go to her own people, whom she now notices searching the hills for her. But Conan is loath to let her go. It’s because she’d “be the Devi again.” Conan prefers her as “a woman of flesh and blood, riding on [his] saddle bow.” What follows is a fairly protracted negotiation about what either would be comfortable with, were Yasmina again to become Devi, and about who would have more power. But Conan’s people must be spared, and the Devi returns to hers. Together, each leader commanding his and her respective hosts, the Turanians are defeated. The tale concludes with Conan’s promise that he will collect his “ransom” from Yasmina “in [his] own way, in [his] own time.”
To conclude the project of the Devi’s education of a woman of flesh and blood, Conan’s
eyes shone with fierce appreciation and admiration, and stepping back, he lifted his hand with a gesture that was like the assumption of kingship, indicating that her road was clear before her.
Conan, a leader, a man of experience and resourcefulness, will visit and make love to Yasmina, another leader, likewise a woman of experience and resourcefulness — experienced, now, because of her recent adventures with Conan and because of her abuse resulting from the sorceries of the Master of Yimsha, but also because Conan has awakened in her the “elemental woman.” Though a queen, she now knows that the nature of woman is to be possessed by a likewise powerful man, and that the man should admire her in turn.
And so Conan finds a woman with character enough to complement him, perhaps not the first woman to have what it takes, certainly not the last. But this is the only tale that exhibits the formation of such a woman, and that makes this the very best Conan story.
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 Khoraja Saga
Wolfe Deitrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”
Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”
Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”
Patrice Louinet on “Queen of the Black Coast”
Gabe Dybing is Black Gate‘s leading RPG commenter. He and Bob Byrne have talked (and written at length) about Modiphius’ RPG, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Gabe’s specialities include MERP and Norse-themed RPGs. He is a Professor at Winona State University.
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.
Wow, what a nice Monday morning bonus…had just been thinking how I’d miss this series, so thanks to both of you for yet one more thoughtful turn with the Cimmerian!
Great post, Gabe!
Compelling post. I think a value that informs Howard’s Conan stories (and S&S in general) is “authenticity in conduct.” It’s not so much that male Conan is a pedagogue to Devi, the unruly spitfire. Conan is a lovable scoundrel; Devi is an ice-queen. Conan conducts himself with authenticity (to use your term, his “elemental” nature is unbound); by way of demonstration, Conan shows Devi how to be authentic, to be real (i.e. how to drop her civilized affectations and pretensions and unbind her “elemental” nature). It’s a ubiquitous trope in popular culture — the liberated liberates the self-alienated (repressed). Of course, this type of relationship happens with the genders reversed elsewhere, so I take issue with your gender myopia. Consider the venerable stuck-up guy meets wild, care-free girl or muse. Of course Jane Austen’s *Pride and Prejudice* comes to mind. More recently, there is the film *Garden State,* where Natalie Portman’s plays a joyful pixie who cures the depression of an adhedonic and lost young man. Anyway, such a skillful, nuanced analysis. Thanks.
I believe I’m misunderstanding you, and that you’re not attributing the gender discourse in this tale to myself rather than to (as I intended) Howard or his culture. Your gender-swapped examples are welcome and illuminating. I think, for a literary antecedent, I was playing dangerously by referring to The Taming of the Shrew, though I expect Howard was familiar with all of Shakespeare. Upon reflection, because of your comment, he probably was familiar with Austen, as well.
Though I’m a critic, I’m not enough of a Howard scholar to be certain of what “Circle” says about gender outside of what it seems to say. I expect a larger discussion would be fascinating. I believe I even read somewhere that Howard actually would have preferred to write the adventures of a sword-wielding woman, but he was unable sell those tales!
“were one ever to film another Conan movie, this time actually using an REH story”
You dreamer. Why would they start now?
Excellent post, Mr. Dybing. Thank you!
This is probably my favourite Conan tale. It’s the right length, has plenty of sorcery thrown about and a great deal of blood is spilled by the end of the story. It is the perfect example of S&S at it’s finest, and a template that wanna-be writers need to study. I enjoy some S&S novels, but the natural environment for this genre is found in short story, novelette and novella lengths. One of the greatest faults of the TOR line of Conan pastiche novels was the failure to publish any short story anthologies. I think they would have been better than most of the novels that seen print. Maybe Perilous Worlds might give this a try with the new line of books coming out soon…
But I have derailed myself here; this is a great review of the best Conan tale -well done.
A well-thought out and intriguing treatment, though my feeling is that the full substance of what makes the story great gets a bit swamped in explication of gender dynamics, and whatever claim the latter may have to a universal application is sandbagged by the way the author’s attitude is shown to be so rooted in 1930s culture. Good argument, all the same.
Sorry the series must end, though I’m glad we got this nearly overlooked chaser.
And this REALLY was the last post. this time. Seriously. I mean it…
as I said last week, more REH lies ahead at Black Gate – from me and other folks.
I’m in the busiest part of my work schedule, and this period lasts a couple months (I’m Fiscal Officer for a $63 million County government agency).
And I need to have hernia surgery soon (I always knew exercising would be bad for me!)
But ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand is ready to start on Monday mornings some time in August – when I’m ready to go.
And first, I want to write a few computer game posts. I’ve played WarTile, Railroad Empires and a couple other fun games over the past six-plus months.
But ‘Hither Came Conan’ was fun, by Crom!
[…] Gabe Dybing’s final post wrapped things up, and it includes links to every prior post in the series. Everyone did a great job, and every essay is worth reading. Even mine! […]