The Witches of Conan
I had a lot of trouble with this post. Originally, this was to talk solely of Salome, the antagonist of “A Witch Shall be Born.” However, I was unsatisfied with my thoughts on her and waited until I had reread “Red Nails” and thought more of it’s antagonist, Tascela. Part of my problem with trying to worm my way into a decent analysis of both characters is the sexism involved (though subverted or challenged by Valeria).
Here’s the thing. Both characters are female. Both are witches trained by wizards. Both gain positions of power. And both seem determined to ruin what they have power over for their own desires. In a number of ways, this conforms to a nasty, sexist stereotype of overly sexualized queens and witches. In both stories, Howard is drawing parallels between a good woman (Queen Taramis and Valeria) and an evil woman (Salome and Tascela). Along with “Slithering Shadow,” the audience is treated to a binary of good/ evil often with evil representing arcane knowledge, decadent desires, and “obscene” sexualization (at least for the time period).
Beginning with Salome of “A Witch Shall be Born,” I think that it is interesting to question what exactly she was after. We know that she was exposed shortly after birth and raised by a wizard from Khitai. We further know (from Salome) that she was expelled from his company because she wanted immediate and more earthly power and pleasures. She lacked the patience to learn as her master had. This could just be teenage rebellion or perhaps an aspect of the witches in the family that force them to act in certain ways. Irrespective of what happened or what drove her to her actions. It seems that she clearly intended to ruin the kingdom of Khauran to the point of no return. Much like Valerius in Hour of the Dragon, I think that Salome was embittered and filled with an intense hatred for her family and her homeland that she intended to completely destroy them through her gluttonous and psychopathic rule.
This explains, for me, elements of Salome’s plan for capturing the throne. If she had been smart, she could have just eliminated Taramis and ruled in her stead with no one obviously the wiser. But with throwing her lot in with the Shemitish mercenaries, she clearly intends to damn her sister’s memory and to rampage through her kingdom.
So the question is, what made her do it? Was it the family curse (which I think is likely) or her upbringing by the wizard of Khitai? I would go with the former. We do not know much about the wizard, but I suspect his plans were rather similar to the Stygian priest in regards to Tascela. That means that I think the wizard wanted her more as a lover rather than as a student. But I could be wrong and he genuinely wanted her as a protege with little sexual elements. Who knows?
But we do know that was the Stygian’s intention for the beautiful Tascela. The Stygian taught her the secret of immortality. And she promptly began a career of ruining the men who vied for her love. I don’t remember what happened to the priest, but the only one who seems to have come out of it unscathed is which ever Stygian king wanted her. Clearly, the three men of Xuchotil came out of it far worse off. What then, of her intentions?
I would argue that Tascela used her position to maintain power over her group to ensure her own eternal youth. Yes, she contended with the wizards of the other faction. But she is clearly interested in only her own existence and beauty.
But we still haven’t reached conclusions about the why? I think that we have a pretty good handle on Salome’s motivations but not Tascela’s. Perhaps the madness that destroys the people of Xuchotil afflicted her most of all. Or, perhaps the decay was a reflection on her own personality. Very curious.
Now, onto the magic comparison! I would argue that Salome, though being significantly younger than Tascela, is the stronger witch. While I am sure that Tascela has more in her arsenal than sucking the soul out of beautiful women, we do not see it in text, and she seemed not overly inclined to deal with the other side’s magical attacks. Perhaps she lost the drive or just did not have the power. But Salome does display her powers. Given her head start (raised by a wizard), she summoned Thog, uses a crystal ball, and has fire powder.
Any way, this concludes my Witches of Conan post. I plan on hitting Xaltotun and Thoth Amon in a few days. And then I’ll be done with Howard for a while.