This review will examine the work of Robert E. Howard and, in particular, his greatest creation the barbarian Conan. For the purposes of concentration and illustration, I will look at the comic strip “Zukala’s Daughter,” scripted by Roy Thomas, and featuring in the 1972 Fleetway annual in Britain. It happened to be one of the earliest numbered editions of the color comic known as Conan the Barbarian.
Conan happens to be the superman (or Super-barbarian, in Fritz Leiber’s wiles) into which Robert Erwin Howard projected fantasies of undying masculinity, the heroic, adventure without end, heterosexuality, and a sublimated racial mystique. In this story a young and precocious Conan—drawn in a mannerist and Art Deco style—meshes neatly with one of the author’s poems about Zukala. Robert E. Howard was a prolific poet, and his Selected Poems are available on Lulu.com (the electronic publishing web-site).
In the piece known as “Zukala’s Daughter” (based on the poem “Zukala’s Hour”) the plot can be briefly summarized. To my mind, it is supremely well done—being positively filmic in its crisp and sequential execution. Conan arrives in a village on market day and discusses the price of a sword with a sword-seller. He does not have the money necessary for it, however.
Suddenly a panic or general alarm spreads among the stall-holders. This is the day—of all days—when they should have shut up shop earlier. It is the moment when the Wizard, Zukala, who dominates the town, sends an emissary to obtain tribute—a form of taxation, in other words.
A creature forms out of dots in the atmosphere and then springs into life as a tigress. It smashes the market stalls and corners a child that’s become separated from its mother. Ever heroic, Conan defends the child by drawing his sword and challenging the magical tigress. It breaks his blade easily by leaping across him, and then the two of them wrestle in the dirt.
During their bout a voice in the tigress (a woman’s voice) talks to him and says, “I shall never harm you—not now; not ever.” Conan is bemused and attracted by the voice . . . and calls out for the Tigress to return to him as it retreats from the village. The villagers gather around their champion, an uncouth barbarian from the North, and tell him the truth about the tax and its collector.
The latter is, in reality, a shape-shifting creature who, at this very moment, shall morph back into the body and soul of a woman called Zephra (the West wind). She happens to be the old magician’s daughter, but the villagers regard her as a sad individual because she has the gift of second-sight and can predict the moment of her own death. Both she and her father, the wizard Zukala, are apparently ageless as well—the centuries mean nothing to them.
One of the old women in the village, who remembers Zephra playing ’neath the moon when she was a child, calls out curses upon them. “I am old and wizened,” she declares, “where’s the fairness in that? Death to ’em, I says!”
Conan learns that the villagers are prepared to pay him 20,000 gold pieces—the price of their tax burden—if the young Barbarian will kill Zukala for them. Conan accepts with alacrity—although he may just ask the mage to leave. The sword-smith provides Conan with a new version of his old blade—the one which he eyed earlier on at the market-stall. Once Conan is out of ear-shot, the villagers begin to plot his demise, “if and when the stripling can kill Zukala.”
Conan then gains egress to the magician’s castle by climbing a very tall tree and leaping across the battlements. He enters a chamber where Zukala is performing Ritual or High magic. But before this Zephra has returned home to her father—who stands waiting for her inside the battlements. “Why are you trembling like a leaf or a calf-sick mortal?” he demands of her. She then faints in his arms under the abjuration “Tell me!”
Meanwhile, Conan observes Zukala making magic and summoning up an enormous da(e)mon from Hades in the form of Jaggta-Noga. This is an interesting hybrid which consists of a centaur and a devil, in that the creature concerned is half-horse. Zukala insists that the townsfolk yonder must pay him homage, and Jaggta-Noga is dispatched to see that they do so. He will return later in this adventure with 20,000 gold pieces in the requisite sack.
Conan steals behind a rug on one of the walls only to run into Zephra—the magician’s tiger-daughter. She promptly starts to make love to Conan as she has precognition or the gift of second sight . . . and she sees no reason not to get on with things! Conan is nonplussed by this, but more than keen enough to engage in passionate embraces with a sultry lovely.
Zukala, her father, then begins to materialize behind Conan. “Crom’s Devils!” explodes Conan in a rare moment of humor, “do doors have no meaning in this place?” Zukala and Conan then start fighting—with Zephra trying to intercede between them. Conan’s animal agility, strength, and daring—his barbarism tout court—out-foxes Zukala, who is used to cowering enemies like the villagers down below.
During the course of their battle, Conan cuts off half his face-mask with the sword from the village seller; it reduces Zukala’s power by fifty percent. Just as it looks as if it’s all up with Zukala, Jaggta-Noga reappears from a window, and he and Conan start a fight to the death. The demon has brought with him the tribute which amounted to 20,000 gold pieces.
Zephra—keen to protect her lover—leaps across Conan as the tigress. But Jaggta-Noga picks her up and hurls her into the ground. She remains there lifeless and still, but recovers later. Jaggta-Noga is oblivious to the Mage’s emotion over his daughter. “Let her perish, wizard. She is nothing. It is not life you should worship—but death. For even life that spans the centuries is naught to Jaggta-Noga.”
Enraged by this—and anxious for his daughter—Zukala sends the demon back, back to the pit which spawned him. He then takes up his daughter, who is beginning to recover, but who keeps repeating “Conan; Conan . . .” He tells the barbarian to beware as they disappear into the ether . . . and blames him for the fact that the Barbarian has stolen his daughter’s heart from him. Conan stoops to pick up the gold pieces. His mission is accomplished—the Wizard has vanished . . . what purpose is served by going back to the village . . . none at all. THE STORY ENDS.
I would contend that this pastiche of a Howard poem—itself part of a longer cycle—tells you everything you need to know about Howard’s fiction. We begin with the exhilaration, the sense of excitement, the existence of a Caucasian Superman, as well as the headlong action and narrative drive. The agelessness of the protagonists and the almost Pulpish heterosexuality are very much in evidence.
Likewise, magic is considered to be a normal part of life and, in this sword and sorcery universe, it is the equivalent of scientific writ in our own time. It is fascinating to think that Zukala’s version of Crowley or Adolphe Constant is treated like the second law of Newtonian mechanics in this universe.
Broadly speaking, the moral cleanness of the barbaric character (Conan) in comparison to the civilized ones is also clearly pointed out. Indeed, one could say that all of Robert E. Howard’s barbaric heroes—Bran Mak Morn, Kull, and Solomon Kane—all build up into the one Super-character, Conan; a man whose saga was left evident yet uncompleted on Howard’s death.
I think the basic point of the Conan stories—and of Howard in general—is as a moral corrective. For those who feel broken, lonely, afraid, cowardly, uncombative (and so on), the Howard mythos in its 16 or so volumes is a wilful counterpart. Morally, his entire mythos is a species of counter-culture or current.
A Superfluous Man
Jesus, We Hardly Know Ye
Superstitious Minds: The Importance of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
Scott Howard’s The Open Society Playbook
Higher Education: Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game
Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill
Remembering P. R. Stephensen (November 20, 1901-May 28, 1965)
Lothrop Stoddard’s Into the Darkness, Part 2