Click to Subscribe
▶  More from Blog A Well of Heroes
'Torches for a King’s Pyre!'
The Uncertain Genesis of the Most Persistent Character in Modern Masculine Fiction


“My songs are torches for a king’s pyre!”

-From the unsold draft of Phoenix on the Sword

Having at this point in my life, written more fiction and dealt with more editors than Robert E. Howard, most of it reviled by editors and critics, and having been published in the 20th century, before self-publishing in print was an affordable option for the writer, I am intimately familiar with the road to print publication in the days of mailing parcels to editors thousands of miles away.

The two fantasy articles I had published in the 1980s came as a result of 17 mailings of six drafts.

The 13 articles I had published in martial arts magazines between 1998-2007 were the result of two years of frantic writing and mailing, in which I wrote and sent out 48 articles. The unsold material was worked into my books.

The three books that Paladin Press published of mine [2000, 2001, 2011] were written between 1998-2005, along with three books they accepted and then decided against when the market changed, one book rejected, and another book still languishing in Donna’s maybe pile since 2011.

The editor that Howard published his Conan stories through appears to have been quite resistant to the subject matter, particularly the subject matter of the early Conan tales focused in European settings.

The poem, Cimmeria, was written in February 1932 and unsold, the author’s first investment in the Conan saga coming in winter, while considering a bleak setting and, retrospectively it seems, the descent of his forefathers from such a place as well.

The first Conan tale, Phoenix on the Sword, a rewrite of the rejected Kull story By This Axe I Rule!, was the result of at least two draft submissions and was not published until December of that year.

The Frost Giant’s Daughter, originally Gods of the North, one of the best fantasy shorts ever written, was rejected in three versions in 1932 [?] 33, and seems to have been in the works before The Phoenix on the Sword, based on the subject matter and Howard’s brief notes on Cimmerian names and gods and adjacent countries.

The God in the Bowl, utilizing the starter notes, and seemingly written and rejected in 1933, and utilizing the same villain as The Phoenix on the Sword, Toth-Amon, was possibly in the works—at least conceptually—at the time The Phoenix on the Sword was composed.

These were all regional tales, involving Conan of Cimmeria, a patently Gaelic realm, in contact with adjacent civilized and Nordic realms.

Howard’s own Hyborian Names and Countries focused predominantly on Cimmeria and the Nordic kingdoms, with the names of kings, gods and individuals, focusing heavily on Cimmeria and Aquilonia.

The King of Cimmeria is Cumal. The Cimmerian deities include Crom, Badb, Morrigan, Macha, Diancecht, Dagda and war-goddesses known as Nemain. These gods and the six Cimmerian character names are never used across the Conan tales, although first conceived—obviously—for use. The hand of the editor—the same editor who rejected much of Howard’s fiction set in Ireland, Scotland and the misty reaches of Dark Age Europe, and who also founded an oriental stories magazine, seems to have been pushing Howard toward the white interloper story set in exotic climes. Likewise, the Solomon Kane character, at first developed in European settings, is sent for the second half of his career into Africa. Much of this was certainly a reflection of Howard’s own wandering mind’s eye.

There may have been editorial letters to this effect, though I doubt it. Editors tend to the manipulative and oblique and successful commercial writers learn to read their deep silences and qualified approval. It would have been enough for the Editor of Weird tales to reject the Nordic Masterpiece The Frost Giant’s Daughter in three superb versions, yet seize on the previously rejected Kull tale of palace intrigue once a black sorcerer from an obviously Egyptian setting has been added to the plot, and then go on to snap up the Tower of the Elephant, set in exotic climes and featuring a jungle-haunted back story, for Howard to decide to send his Gaelic hero south and east into the civilized realms and tropical frontiers, setting aside his obsession with Gaels battling Nords and Picts and feuding with each other in the lonely North.

Conan would never set foot into Hyperborea, the Nordic kingdom which seems to have inspired the very naming of his creator’s world, but leave his homeland never to return, or to ever again meet another Cimmerian.

It is telling how commercialism—the fount of much alienation and cultural dislocation in our and Howard’s day-to-day world—extended its claws into the realm of mythic fiction to send an imaginary hero forever away from his imagined people, to adventure only in alien lands, to return only in song. If, to the mythic character, the writer of his story is akin to his god, then the editor surely represents Fate, the force that holds sway over gods as if they were mere mortals, most particularly in the kind of fatalistic universe, “…suggested…” to one man “…by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in the mist of winter rain.”

Perhaps the most heroic aspect of the Conan character is that he was such a compelling creation, that an editor who would reject a half dozen tales of his daring-do [The Vale of Lost Women and The Black Stranger [1] were also rejected Conan tales] would still eagerly await stories of his fantastic exploits.

Notes

The rewrite of this tale into a historical pirate yarn, Swords of the Red Brotherhood, also failed to see publication in Howard’s life time. Both tales involved blood feuds between a Gaelic character and men of other northern races and will be reviewed side-by-side in this volume.

Add Comment