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‘No Poison Lurked in His Wine’
Death Strikes a King, by Robert E. Howard: Chapter I of The People of the Black Circle


Bunda Chand, the King of Vendhya, dies a horrific death inflicted through the dimension of dream throughout this entire short chapter. At his deathbed, his sister, the Devi Yasmina, discusses his plight.

“The priests and their clamor!” she exclaimed. “They are no wiser than the leeches who are helpless! Nay, he dies and none can say why. He is dying now – and I stand here helpless, who would burn the whole city and spill the blood of thousands to save him… Since his birth, he has been guarded so closely that the cleverest poisoners of the East could not reach him.”

In that statement, through the voice of the coprotagonist, Yasmina, Howard lays out the subtext clearly. The king of this great civilized nation is not only helpless to protect himself, his people are helpless to protect him, even though their methods for doing so have essentially emasculated him. He may go out and win a battle, but when he’s not on the field, he may as well be a helpless insect queen at the center of the hive. Furthermore, his personality is helplessly lost and wandering at his death, as he tries to maintain his familial connection with his sister—the warrior and his family are essentially negated by the scale of their society.

Throughout the reader is treated to a view of these things from the point of view of the superstitious ancient. The following quote comes from the second scene of the three-scene first chapter, another aspect of this story that marks this as more sophisticated than the others, as Howard uses bookmarks within chapters. “The slant of the moon presaged evil for the king of Vendhya; the stars are in turmoil, the Serpent in the House of the Elephant. During such juxtaposition, the invisible guardians are removed from the spirit of Bhunda Chand.”

In the third scene, Howard depicts grief and despair on both the mass and individual scale:

“Outside, the moan of the tortured thousands shuddered up to the stars which crusted the sweating Vendhyan night, and the conchs bellowed like oxen in pain… But Death stalked through the royal palace and none could stay his ghostly tread.”

The chapter ends with a call that Howard’s characters periodically made, which was to be released from torment through suicide or assisted suicide. His framing of the impulse in Death Strikes a King is akin to a plea against damnation.

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