Click to Subscribe
▶  More from Blog Book Reviews REH Civilization
‘Out of the Night of Ages’
A Witch Shall be Born by Robert E. Howard


Reading from pages 257-301 of The Bloody Crown of Conan, 2003, robustly illustrated by Gary Gianni

One of Howard’s more multifaceted novelettes, A Witch Shall be Born is told from the perspective of a virgin queen, an Elizabeth of a desert kingdom, one of her loyal guardsmen, a travelling scholar and the savage of savages, Conon, a barbarian in mercenary service to the queen who possesses a higher morality than her actual subjects.

The movie Conan the Destroyer was based largely on this plot and the crucifixion of Conan depicted in Conan the Barbarian is taken from this story as well, indicating that Howard came closest to mainstream storytelling and furthest from its morality in this horror story set in an Arabian nights fantasy, yet executed almost precisely like an American Western yarn, with Conan standing in as an outcast straddling the world of the Whiteman and the Indian and the queen’s beleaguered city a town in which men had grown too soft to deal with criminals.

In no Conan story is Howard’s internal debate between civilization and barbarism better wrought. Likewise, in A Witch Shall be Born, with Conan and the situation seen mostly through civilized eyes, in this story Howard takes his apex creation so far over the top in terms of his hyper-masculinity and barbaric values that not even a passing love interest can be developed between him and the civilized queen. In this yarn, Conan is King Kong with a brain, a goonish savage rendered appropriately massive by Gianni in the illustrations.

The American Indian, specifically the Comanche, is obviously on the author’s mind, with Conan a cross between a war chief and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest, who figures strongly in his story For the Love of Barbara Allen. Conan even uses one of Forest’s siege ploys in Conan’s attempt to take back the city of his dainty employer.

The horrific aspects of this story are drawn from various stories, which Howard failed to get published, such as Almuric, and an extensive untitled draft about a desert city where Conan is seen exclusively from the perspective of a fellow mercenary named Amalric, which the editor thoughtfully includes in the appendices of this volume. The monstrous aspect of an evil twin—now a common horror theme—is accompanied by her [Salome, the witch twin of Queen Tamaris] control of a very Lovecraftian frog deity similar to that in Xuthal of the Dusk and Almuric.

Howard presents Conan as a rough old uncle to the tender perspective characters, kind of like John Wayne in The Searchers, a very Western theme, betraying his actual deep attachment to civilization, despite his deep misgivings about its degenerate effects on mankind. As savage as Conan is in this story he does not take the queen and city for himself, but simply steps in like an elemental fury and makes a enough of an instructive mess of the political situation to permit civil folk to pick up the pieces.

Lastly, the story begins with the helpless queen waking to a horror that begins as a point of light and becomes a hovering head terrorizing her in the dark, almost precisely as did that vision which often haunted Richard Francis Burton, who was quite a melancholy soul. One wonders if such visions afflicted Howard, for whom melancholy is a centerpiece of his worldview.

Below are some of the most telling quotes from this outstanding novelette, presented in order as they appeared in the text as a brutal poetic on human domestication and enslavement:

“It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilization to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust—even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, and see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure!”

“The villagers are agriculturalists—nothing else. Of a mixed, aboriginal race, they are unwarlike, unable to protect themselves…Dependent wholly upon the soldiers of the city for protection…”

“Nor do the people of the city fare any better. Their wealth is stripped from them…the treachery of their queen delivered them into the hands of their oppressors. The Shemites are the only armed force in Khauran, and the most hellish punishment is inflicted on any Khaurani found possessing weapons. A systematic persecution to destroy the young Khaurani men able to bear arms has been savagely pursued…”

[The above three paragraphs precisely describe postmodern America, with the queen understood to be the State.]

“…the grim altar and beyond the great metal door, obscenely carven, through which many had gone, but from which only Salome had emerged.”

“But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood, restless harbingers of violence and bloodshed, knowing no other path…”

A Witch Shall be Born ends openly, in much the way that The People of the Black Circle ended, in the classic fashion of the American Western, with the hero refusing to stay and enjoy the fruits of his victory, which he knows would sour into the wine that sapped his vitality and made of him a member of the herd rather than the leader of a pack.

Conan Images by Gary Gianni

https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=MlI6A%2bhA&id=73FD2B1B17B24C851829DFE93BEF0388D8C1747B&thid=OIP.MlI6A-hAZRfJ_PaPJ-o89wDfEs&q=gary+gianni+conan+images&simid=608044255722998807&selectedIndex=0&ajaxhist=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAT0iHS3woo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa1bZglVw74

A Well of Heroes

https://www.amazon.com/Well-Heroes-Literary-Impressions-Robert/dp/1534808256/ref=sr_1_6/180-6301626-9959864?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467037854&sr=1-6&keywords=james+lafond

http://jameslafond.blogspot.com/

Add Comment
seventeen17October 28, 2017 6:37 AM UTC

There is an essay called "Conan the Initiator : The Barbarian Path to Enlightenment" that deals with the first Conan movie as an "allegory of initiation and self-overcoming." The crucifixion scene is mentioned so I thought I would post the link here :

https://phalx.com/2016/10/08/conan-the-initiator-the-barbarian-path-to-enlightenment/#more-1040
seventeen17October 27, 2017 11:59 AM UTC

That last sentence with "the hero refusing to stay and enjoy the fruits of his victory, which he knows would sour into the wine that sapped his vitality and made of him a member of the herd rather than the leader of a pack." reminds me of, well, a prose poem I guess, that I found on a website a few years back. I am not sure how the author feels about the whole thing being copy/pasted, so I will just quote the first half here and anyone interested in reading the whole thing (it's quite short) can visit the website.

So the first half goes : "There is something deeply, primally satisfying about jogging shirtless and barefoot under the hot, midday sun. I feel like a wild animal, some un-caged beast running free on the streets of suburbia.

I feel wonder in the gaze of the civilized mortals around me. They know that I am not one of them."

The rest you can read at :

http://www.elhazablaze.com/2010/11/wolf/
responds:October 27, 2017 5:21 PM UTC

This was very thoughtfully linked. Thank you.

Yes, I prefer links preceded by a brief quote as you did, so that the author gets the traffic.
ShepOctober 25, 2017 6:56 PM UTC

Seattle Sounders supporters invoke the spirit of Conan:

https://gilmanpark.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/tifo_3.jpg