Conan’s Wizards: The Black Seers of Yimsha
Having just finished up Thugra Khotan, and having read “The People of the Black Circle” for the first time today, I fell that I should go ahead and tackle Khemsa and the Black Seers of Yimsha. My thoughts on Khotan easily meld with what I have come to think about the Master of the Black Seers. But we’ll get to all of that later. As this is my first time reading it, I have to say that this is one of my favorite yarns. Although I don’t know whether or not I actually like Conan in this story.
“The People of the Black Circle,” is a complicated tale in which Conan finds himself a chief among the Aghulis. He kidnaps the Devi/ Queen Yasmena (sound familiar?) in exchange for seven tribal chiefs. At the same time, Yasmena was hoping to force Conan into destroying the Black Seers of Yimsha for their assassination of her brother at the behest of Turan. A young member of the Black Seers, Khemsa, seeks to rise as a sorcerer king in his own right. And Turan wants Vendhya. To be honest, I rather like this complication.
But, my focus is on the wizards. So, I will tackle these guys in three parts: The Black Seers of Yimsha as an organization, The Master of the Black Seers himself, and Khemsa.
With the Black Seers of Yimsha, we see yet another option for sorcerous career paths. From court mage, to priest, to king, to scholar. The Black Seers of Yimsha is run rather like a school. There are green robed acolytes and neophytes just beginning to learn the sorceries of the Black Seers. Indeed, the powers of these acolytes is rather impressive although ineffectual. Sending a dog, a brazen hawk, puff bombs, and the horn were all quite impressive. But they were just students with little experience or power. Had they been allowed to grow, who knows what they could have accomplished.
After they have become adepts, it seems that the students leave and become priests in Turan and other locales. It is the adepts who have become the hidden power in Turan who convince the Master to take Turan’s side in the Turan- Vendhya conflict.
Now, I have an issue with this. The Black Seers are often described as not wanting or not usually taking part in mundane affairs, so why do they interfere now? Well, there are the Turanian adepts, but there seems to be hints of other agendas. The Master, for instance seems to have his own plans beyond what is best for the group as a whole.
Plus, this makes me wonder, we hear of the Turanians, adepts who have become priests, Khemsa, the acolytes and neophytes, the Four Lords, and the Master. What about the other adepts. Were they all described as above or are there others who were not mentioned? Are the Black Seers going to survive the death of the Master? And who actually attacked the King of Vendhya? The Four, the Master himself, or Khemsa? One never quite knows, do they?
I must admit that I like the Four Lords of the Black Seers. I take it that they are the highest ranked next to the Master with their existence tied to the orb. But they are also described in some ways almost as demonic servants. The Master implies that Khemsa called upon their power for his steed of air. Of course, there is also the implication that they are the enforcers of the Black Seers, maintaining the discipline and integrity of the group. But besides their mesmerism and flying cloud, they really are not that impressive given that it took all four of them to defeat Khemsa.
The Master of the Black Seers seems to have the same case of stupid as Thugra Khotan. He is clearly insane, or so esoteric and cosmological in his sorcerous thinking as to appear rather mad. That is the only way I can explain his self destructively whimsical aiding of Turan and later abduction and attempted enslavement of Yasmena. And then of course his royally stupid petty attempt to kill her as a serpent and then as a vulture before his death. I’m having a Skip Bayless moment here because of all the stupidity.
Now, I will admit that the Master is one of the most powerful sorcerers I’ve encountered so far. He is akin to Pelias and Thugra Khotan and far superior to Yara and Tsotha-lanti. I suspect that he is the one who set up the castle’s magical defenses (the smoke ravine moat and the crystal door). He is a “master of transmutation” as evidenced by his dagger lotus and corpse, serpentine, and vulture transformations. He also has the power to force people to relive their past lives. And he is telepathic and telekinetic. I just love the way he rips Khan’s heart out of his body. And he does not appear to use magical incantations for his sorceries.
There is also the implication that the Master is hundreds of years old and he does survive a climatic encounter with Conan in a serpentine form. It is only in his stupid final attack on Yasmina that he gets killed.
I find the Master oddly humorous if insane. Enjoyable, but frustrating in his stupidity.
My favorite character is the tragic but powerful sorcerer Khemsa. An adept of the Black Seers but not in the upper echelons, Khemsa is in reality the strongest member after the Master.
At the beginning of the tale, Khemsa is the representative of the Black Seers to the Turanian agent. After Yasmena’s abduction and Gitara’s urgings, Khemsa begins to work for himself. Fueled by his love to Gitara and his ambitions, he shows himself to be, perhaps, the most powerful young sorcerer Conan ever faces.
We don’t know much of Khemsa’s background. He seems to have been well traveled. Ethnically, he could be either Stygian, Hyrkanian, or Vendhyan. He is well trained in mesmerism, the primary sorcerous art of the east. Indeed, mesmerism is the core ability that he uses, though not the only one. This could indicate that he is native to the east or that mesmerism is the core art taught by the Black Seers of Yimsha. It is also mentioned that he has a Stygian girdle that supposedly protected him from the magic of the Black Seers. So, it is likely he traveled there.
Beyond his impressive mesmerism, Khemsa also displays the ability to summon steeds of air, produce a black jade ball that turns into a spider (from Yezud), kill a cell full of people with a green mist, kill several angry villages (and drive the sole survivor mad), and break men’s necks rather easily. This is no squishy wizard here.
He is also able to withstand the combined might of the Four Lords for a while. Indeed, had he not died during that battle, who knows how far he would have gotten?
Speaking about the battle, as I mentioned in my Tsotha-lanti/ Pelias post, I really want to see a magical fight in a Conan story. Here it is, and it is quite impressive despite the fact that it is almost entirely mental.
Personally, I think Howard has one of the few really realized wizards with Khemsa. He could be a hero in his own right, but sadly serves as the wizard ex machina to Conan’s survival. It is his need for revenge that he gives Conan his girdle. And it is his love of Gitara that allows him to hold his own for a while.
But there are some troubling elements in this narrative. Why does Khemsa’s girdle work for Conan but not for Khemsa himself. I somehow doubt the explanation given. Perhaps it was the attack on Gitara that overthrew Khemsa?