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‘Law of the Knife’
A Barbarian from the Hills by Robert E. Howard, Chapter II of The People of the Black Circle

Chunder Shan is a fine portrait of a political functionary, of the bureaucrats that are the one timeless facet of civilization, who are the straight men in any joke about the society they serve. As an author critical of the very structure of civilization as a social entity, Howard had to master his depiction of the bureaucrat.

The two main protagonists in this story are introduced to the torment and chagrin of Chunder Shan, who is the governor of a frontier province beset by Conan’s tribesmen and also by the demands of his mistress, the Devi Yasmina. The obligatory physical introduction of Conan is more veiled than typical:

“The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a Hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.”

In The People of the Black Circle, Conan is double the barbarian: he is the savage to the city dweller and the Aryan to the Asiatic. With the entrance of Conan, Howard brings his elemental and totemic imagery into play:

“…with the devastating speed of a hurricane.”

As if the reader could not have guessed, the second chapter ends with the Devi Yasmina over the hairy barbarian’s shoulder, riding for the hills.

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