Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

This is the longest of Howard’s Conan stories, the only Conan novel he wrote. Originally appearing in Weird Tales (1935-36), when it was published in book form in 1950 it was retitled Conan the Conqueror, but nowadays we are calling it Hour of the Dragon again. I read the version in the 2003 Del Rey collection The Bloody Crown of Conan, illustrated by Gary Gianni. I like Gianni’s illustrations; the drawings remind me of the classic American illustrators of the period during which the Conan tales were written, and the cover painting is a good depiction of what (I think) Conan is all about: the unshackled barbaric individual outdoing the men of sophisticated civilized society.

Not unlike his earlier character Kull, Robert Howard’s Conan is an incredibly strong barbarian who takes the throne of a civilized kingdom by force, and then proves himself a good king whose rule benefits his subjects. Of course, not everyone supports Conan's rule of his adopted country of Aquilonia.  Valerius, a relative of the previous king (whom Conan strangled to death) wants to seize the crown himself, and he enlists an evil wizard to help him. That wizard revivifies the mummy of an even more powerful wizard who died three thousand years ago.

The black magic of these wizards enables them to capture Conan and crown Valerius, but with the help of a beautiful woman Conan escapes, and pursues a quest to regain his throne. This quest takes Conan all over the Hyborian world Howard created from bits and pieces of real history and traditional fantasy elements, and Conan has many wild adventures: there are battles between mass armies, an escape from a monster-inhabited dungeon, a consultation with a witch, the rescue of an imprisoned countess, an encounter with a pale vampire princess in a massive black pyramid, and so forth. The people and creatures Conan encounters are boldly drawn archetypes; conniving merchants, evil priests, sexy girls, brave knights, ravenous ghouls, giant snakes, and so on, but I found that they pulsate with life rather than feeling tired.

Partly because Conan in this story is not some kind of a pirate or burglar, but a man trying to do the right thing by his adopted people, and partly because of its peripatetic nature, Hour of the Dragon reminds me of the Barsoom novels I love in which John Carter or some other hero travels hither and yon all over Mars, encountering strange cultures and fighting villains and monsters in his quest to rescue a princess or save Helium from invasion. Of course, Howard is much more cynical and grim than the basically optimistic Burroughs, and Howard also has that Lovecraftian horror edge.

The works of Robert Howard may not be the first place I would look to for political and social commentary, but in the contrast between Conan and Valerius I think we can see a sort of ideology here, especially if we contrast the Conan stories with, say, the Lord of the Rings. In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is the legitimate king of Gondor because he is descended from the royal line, and Tolkein shows Aragorn to be great hero and a great king. Howard, conversely, shows Valerius, though legitimate heir by blood to the throne of Aquilonia, to be a foul fiend and an easy patsy of manipulating foreigners and wizards, while Conan, an alien from a less sophisticated culture, is a very good king. Howard’s vision of who should lead and whom we should admire is more meritocratic and more individualistic than Tolkein’s, we might see Howard's vision as more “modern” or more “American.” Conan is a self-made man whose legitimacy rests on his own abilities and accomplishments, while Aragorn is the product of centuries of tradition whose legitimacy rests on who his ancestors were.

When I first read the Conan stories years ago I thought Hour of the Dragon the best of them, and after reading it this week I am I still inclined to think so; this is a thrilling fast-paced sword and sorcery adventure that justifies the praise Howard receives from his many fans.

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