The Wizards of Conan, Part One: Tsotha-lanti and Pelias

As I mentioned earlier, I am a fan of Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan the Barbarian. But I did not grow up with Howard’s vision of that unwillingly heroic Cimmerian. Instead, I grew up with the current governor of California’s interpretation in the two Conan films (Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer). I also remember the ’80s comic book series that I picked up at a convenience store on the way to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents (this is the extreme late ’80s or early ’90s). And there were the animated cartoon series and the short lived mid ’90s live action series.

It was not until the late ’90s and early ’00s that I discovered Conan in writing. And those were the pastiches of the Tor series from the ’80s and ’90s. As a teenager, I really enjoyed them even though it has been years since I read any of them. I was a sophomore at St. Edward’s University when I first discovered Robert E. Howard’s own stories about Conan. I was amazed and astounded by Howard’s writing skills, and I find myself inspired by his Hyborian vision. But there is one thing about Conan that I like more than anything else. The Wizards. When I read a Conan story, any Conan story, whether it be by the master himself or his imitators, I always look to the magic and the wizard. For me, it is all about the wizard with Conan.

This post covers the two rival wizards from the short story “The Scarlet Citadel.” I am sure you are familiar with the plot: Conan, now king of Aquilonia, is tricked by the kings of Ophir and Koth into falling into a trap. He is captured and taken to the Kothian capital while an usurper supported by Koth takes temporary control of Aquilonia. Conan escapes with the aid of a rival wizard and defeats his enemies. On the surface, a pretty good story. Of course, why they did not kill Conan off immediately is beyond me. But Conan is the hero, so he needs to escape and defeat the villains of the week. But this is not about Conan, this is about Tsotha-lanti and Pelias, the two rival wizards of Koth.

The primary antagonist is Tsotha-lanti, the sorcerer who possesses the mysterious and titular Scarlet Citadel. He is a powerful sorcerer who, according to Pelias, is likely a Cambion. Pelias (of course the reader cannot really trust him) claims that Tsotha-lanti’s mother, a Zamoran, slept too near an ancient ruin and was impregnated by something other than human. While this would explain some of his apparent powers, I am not sure that Pelias is telling the truth. I’ll come to this later. For now, we will continue on with Tsotha-lanti’s background. He then seems to have risen by some means to become the court mage/ shadow ruler of Koth.

Much of Tsotha-lanti’s power seems to be derived from his studies of the ancient ruins beneath the Scarlet Citadel and his knowledge/ experiments in eldritch biology. The only offensive “spells” he uses is a spiked ring and “tomb” powder that renders both Conan (ring) temporarily paralyzed and the King of Ophir (powder) insensible (Thanks Taranaich for catching that!). Beyond that, his powers seem pretty tame and it is only the creatures in his dungeon that give his reputation any justification.

Pelias, on the other hand, is a far different story. After Conan rescues him from the plant that was leeching his power, it only takes him a few moments to return to full strength (or an approximation). It is Pelias who necromantically resurrects a dead man to free themselves from the dungeons, shows Conan a vision of his capital under the usurper, and summons a bat demon to fly Conan back to Aquilonia in less than a day. It is also implied that it takes him that long to stage a coup in Koth and place himself as the new ruler. So given what the reader sees in the story, is Tsotha-lanti more likely to be a demon spawn or is Pelias? My money is on Pelias if anyone. But very little is learned about him save that he is Tsotha-lanti’s primary rival for the position of court mage/ shadow ruler. Beyond that, not much is stated about Pelias’s background.

But is Pelias accurate in his description of Tsotha-lanti’s conception? Both men have motive enough to exaggerate Tsotha-lanti’s background. For Tsotha-lanti himself, he adds a bit of fear to his name that he may not merit. If you go against this wizard, who is the son of a demon, then you are likely going to face a fate worse than death. But Pelias also has a reason to make it up. If Conan believed that Tsotha-lanti is a demon spawn, then he would be more likely to aid Pelias in destroying their common foe. Of course, this does not work on Conan because as Pelias tells Conan this, Conan is speculating that Pelias is just as likely to be a demon spawn as his enemy is. Conan does not slay (or try to slay) Pelias because the two of them have a mutual enemy and Conan needs the wizard’s aid in restoring himself to his throne. After Tsotha-lanti has been defeated, Conan wishes never to deal with either wizard again.

There is also a bit of politics at work with Pelias’s narrative of Tsotha-lanti’s background as well. By his description, Tsotha-lanti is Zamoran and not native Kothian. Perhaps his intention is to stir up an innate sense of revulsion at foreigner’s control of government (all too common in history), but again, Conan is himself a foreigner who rules Aquilonia. Again, I find this rather confusing.

The one disappointment I have with “The Scarlet Citadel” is that I wished there was a fight between Tsotha-lanti and Pelias rather than Conan lobbing off Tsotha-lanti’s head and Pelias sending a demon to pick the damn thing up with Tsotha-lanti headlessly running after it. I wanted a wizard’s duel! Oh, well, Conan has to have the last word.

A note for next week: I have Yara (from “The Tower of the Elephant”) and Thugra Khotan (from “Black Colossus”) on the way, but I want to do review of Sengoku Basra next week. I may do more posts next week too, though.

Notes on the Update: Again, thanks go to Taranaich for catching a goof on my part concerning Tsotha-lanti’s offensive capabilities.

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Posted on October 14, 2010, in Books and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thosa knew he would live past decapitation before it happened. his immortality is no doing of Pelias. He said to Conan that “you can hack me bu t the pieces will find each other and I will haund you til your death” or some such… and Pelias has no real good reason to lie to Conan. Especially about where Thosa was born.

  2. One other minor point that you missed: it was not a demon sent by Pelias to pick up Tsotha-lanti’s head.. it was Pelias himself in the form of an eagle.

  3. You forgot Tsotha’s glass spheres of “hellish fire”. He only got to toss one before his decapitation though.

  4. Fair point, but I’d guess the rumours of Conan’s death are just rumours. Most people know that Conan would make a terrible captive, and that he’s either dead, or has escaped.

    As for Pelias, I don’t doubt that he’s superior to Tsotha (and considering Tsotha’s reputation that’s saying something), but I just think that there’s enough precedent for humans “steeped in diabolism” who can dominate demons in some manner. The question is how Pelias could be so much more powerful. The “sense of humour” explanation is one I never considered, and it’s a rather fun one, come to think of it. It reminds me of a Clark Ashton Smith story where the protagonist puts a spell of immortality on their enemy, and then cuts them into tiny pieces, where they would crawl around in eternal agony…

    • Its all very ambiguous. And the more I think about it, the more I enjoy reading that ambiguity. Now, if only I could figure out what Yara was the priest of. . .
      Speaking of CAS, that may have influenced that reading of Tsotha’s demise. I love how Smith writes his sorcerers and wizards.

  5. Good article, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Of course, why they did not kill Conan off immediately is beyond me. But Conan is the hero, so he needs to escape and defeat the villains of the week.

    The narrative element is undoubtedly a factor, but there’s another reason: negotiation. Tsotha, Amalrus and Strabonus intended to ransom him back to the kingdom (and then renege on their deal and invade anyway). This was common practise in Medieval times.

    The only offensive “spell” he uses is a powder that renders both Conan and the King of Ophir temporarily paralyzed or insensible.

    Tsotha used a barbed ring dipped in the juice of the purple lotus to incapacitate Conan, not the tomb dust.

    By his description, Tsotha-lanti is Zamoran and not native Kothian.

    We know that Tsotha’s mother was Zamorian: that doesn’t mean he was born in Zamora. Zamorian women are prized in the harems of kings and slave caravans. It’s entirely possible – likely, even – that Tsotha was born in Koth. Dagoth Hill could be in Koth, too: western Koth was originally part of ancient Acheron.

    Finally, I don’t see why Tsotha can’t be a demon-spawn simply because Pelias is more powerful than him. Don’t forget the Master of Yimsha’s words in “The People of the Black Circle”: “. A human steeped in the dark arts is greater than a devil.” Thus Tsotha can be (half) devil, but Pelias is the superior sorcerer. I think the fact that Tsotha can live after decapitation all but confirms his supernatural origins, since most other human sorcerers in the Conan tales are killed with mortal blades.

    The one disappointment I have with “The Scarlet Citadel” is that I wished there was a fight between Tsotha-lanti and Pelias rather than Conan lobbing off Tsotha-lanti’s head and Pelias sending a demon to pick the damn thing up with Tsotha-lanti headlessly running after it. I wanted a wizard’s duel! Oh, well, Conan has to have the last word.

    I kind of see what you mean. Now I want to see Tsotha vs Pelias!

    • I forgot about the ring! I’ll have to update the post then. I can see your point about the ransoming angle (and that could explain it, but does that explain the rumors of Conan’s death?).
      About Tsotha-lanti’s alleged parents, he could be Zamorian-Kothian. But I’m still not entirely convinced that he is the son of a demon (or such like). Clearly, Pelias is the superior sorcerer and how else could Tsotha-lanti hope to compete except through burnishing his diabolic lineage? The post decapitation life is a matter of concern, but that could just as well be Pelias having a rather sick sense of humor. Either way, the question of Tsotha-lanti’s parentage lies in whether or not one is inclined to believe Pelias.
      Taranaich, thanks for your comments (which are great, by the way) and pointing out some of my mistakes. I’m finding that I enjoy writing my thoughts on Conan and the dialog that ensues.

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