I recently checked out Conan the Barbarian (2011) from my local library, and I have had Conan the Barbarian (1982) languishing in my TIVO for months now. So, last night, I decided to make a movie night of the two films. And this time, I made the right choice in watching the most recent (and worse) film first. While watching the two films, I noticed something. Many things, in fact. (To differentiate the two films, I’ll be using their dates)
The first thing I noticed is how similar the plot of 2011 is to both 1982 and Conan the Destroyer. Destroyed village (with parent killed before young Conan)? Check. Murderer a warlord? Check. Has a mountain like fortress? Check. Has strange paternal relationship to Conan? Check. Seeks to sacrifice young woman to summon an ancient evil? Check.
So, you see, Khalar Zym is a depowered and more megalomaniacal Thulsa Doom, and Marique is Taramis without being the big bad.
Another thing I noticed are the themes of the two Barbarians. Both deal with the relationships of parents to children. In 1982, the death of both of Conan’s parents lead his pursuit of vengeance. Meanwhile in 2011, it is only the death of Conan’s father that drives him (as his mother died in childbirth on a battlefield).
But, for 2011, the theme of fathers’ relationships with their children is mirrored. Conan and his father contrast with Marique and Khalar Zym. Of course, while Conan’s relationship with his father is wholesome (well, as wholesome as a warrior culture can get), Marique’s relationship with her father is not wholesome (classic Electra complex). So, does this mean girls cannot (or should not) have strong relationships with their fathers? Or could it be that the child, while honoring the father, should seek their independence? Perhaps both?
The theme of family and vengeance in 1982 is depicted as inherently more tragic. Indeed, this film has all the hallmarks of a classic revenge tragedy (save for the protagonist’s death). Thulsa Doom murders Conan’s family, Conan kills Thulsa’s snake (and robs his temple), Conan is crucified, Conan and co. kidnap the princess and kill many servants, Thulsa shoots a snake and kills Valeria, Conan wipes out the bulk of Thulsa’s force, and finally Conan kills Thulsa Doom himself during a mass rally. But in the end, Conan is left empty. His revenge only sowing more sorrow as the price is the loss of Valeria.
Finally, this got me thinking why Conan the Barbarian (2011) failed at the box office. Personally, I think a lot of the problem with the film itself is the shaky and disappointing plot. The movie jumps too much. I would also like to point out the ridiculousness and monstrous nature of the antagonists.
I could rehash what is wrong with Conan as a film property. Al Harron and many other bloggers have done a far better job of it than I can.
I would like, though, to reiterate my argument that a film franchise might not be the right way to go. Why not attempt to film the original stories in a way similar to Poirot? That could be awesome. Hell, I may think more on this and blog about it later.
So, it seems the world will be graced (or blighted) with another Conan film in the next few years. This time, it will be Legend of Conan staring Arnold, the former Governator. Yesh.
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on the preproduction hype for this movie. Let’s just say that Al over at The Blog that Time Forgot expresses similar opinions to mine. With more entertainingly harsh analysis.
Basically, the new movie will ignore Conan the Destroyer and forget that there was a reboot in the form of Conan the Barbarian (2011). Instead, this new film is a direct sequel, thirty plus years removed, of Conan the Barbarian (1982).
No, just, no. I don’t want to see Arnold back as Conan. I don’t want to see more craptacular adaptations of the Cimmerian.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Conan the Barbarian (1982). I’m less fond of the sequel (Conan the Destroyer). And my attitude towards Conan the Barbarian (2011) is torn. I don’t remember if I reviewed the film or not. I disliked the movie’s plot intensely. But Jason Momoa made an excellent Conan.
I’ve posted a few comments on other sites (BtTF, Black Gate, and John R. Fulz’s blog) expressing my lack of enthusiasm and hope for the day when Howard’s Conan stories are finally in the public domain.
All of this raises the question. Do I want to see Howard’s Conan adapted? And how do I want to see it done?
Yes. I want to see the Conan stories that Robert E. Howard wrote adapted. That most of the films have mishandled the material is unquestioned. And disconcerting.
So, how would I do it? One word. Poirot. Go the route of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle’s detectives. I’ve loved the adaptations of Christie’s work that Poirot and Miss Marple/ Marple have done. So why can’t there be a Conan television series that sets itself the goal of adapting the entirety of the Robert E. Howard stories?
Why does it have to be a Hollywood film. Why does it have to be a blockbuster?
I’m a Conan fan even though I came to Robert E. Howard’s stories of the Cimmerian later than I did his pastiches. I started, like most fans of my generation, on the movies starring Arnold, then I moved on to the comic books, and finally I reached the Tor Conan line from the later eighties and nineties. It’s been a decade plus since I read many of them, but it’s been less than a decade since I read my first Robert E. Howard penned Conan yarn. In that time, I’ve read most of them (mostly last year when I did my Wizards of Conan series). I took the opportunity to re-read some of my favorites by Howard. So here they are:
5. The Scarlet Citadel- The scenes set in Tsotha-lanti’s dungeons are amazing, filled with awesome weirdness. I also really enjoy the play of the two wizard rivals- Tsotha-lanti and Pelias. The implication that there are few “good” wizards is a cool one. And King Conan’s telling off of the two kings is simply amazing.
4. The Tower of the Elephant- This yarn is likely to be my earliest favorite. The story’s most powerful moment is the encounter with Yag Kosha. The humanity of the non- human entity and the inhumanity of the human wizard is simply a great theme.
3. The Queen of the Black Coast- The powerful and tragic love story of Conan and Belit. Simply moving and terrifying.
2. Red Nails- The fall of a society due to the insane jealousies of the three leaders is truly horrifying. The lost city is amazingly well done and provides, I think, a suitable setting for this dark drama.
1. The People of the Black Circle- I love this story largely for the wizards. Khemsa is an amazing character and acts, I think, as a nice foil for Conan. And I really love the Black Seers of Yimsha.
There you have it, my favorite stories of Conan penned by REH. This is a personal list that is not meant to be academic. Indeed, I often wonder if I am an atypical sword and sorcery fan. So often when I read anthologies, blogs, and other sources, the emphasis is on the sword rather than the sorcery. As stated before, I’m all about the sorcery. Give me a good wizard any day.
Post script: While I’ve been rereading Howard’s Conan, I’ve also taken the chance to read some of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. I may have a post up soon on my favorite Bond novels (and movies).
Yesterday, I finished reading the fourth volume in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords! anthology series. On the whole, I rather liked the book. My favorite story is beyond question Moorcock’s “The Lands Beyond the World” with John Jakes’s “Storm in a Bottle” a mid distance second. Katherine Kurtz, the lone woman in the anthology, had “Swords Against the Marluk” as her entry. I’m torn on my opinions about that story. The writing and world building are well done, but the posthumous save by the long dead king hampers the story, if you ask me. Reading the anthology, I’m struck by several different thoughts about Sword and Sorcery, or, in Lin Carter’s estimation, the Sacred Genre.
To be honest, I always smiled whenever Carter inserted the words “the Sacred Genre” in his introductions. Clearly, he is trying to valorize Sword and Sorcery as a genre; a genre denigrated save for brief respites. But it comes off as a little silly, parodic really.
Reading “Storm in a Bottle,” I realized something- Conan is a genius. He isn’t stupid. He isn’t ignorant. He is an able military strategist, a polyglot, and has been known to attend philosophical debates. So why is he seen in the popular imagination as all brawn with little brains? I think the term barbarian colors our understanding of Conan (and honestly the cultural Other). Barbarian means an Other, someone who is not from one’s own ethnic or nation group. The ancient Greeks viewed anyone who was not Greek as being a barbarian. From Macedonian and Italic to Scythian, Persian, and Egyptian, all were barbarians. And tell me, were the Persians and Egyptians any less advanced than the Greeks? The Chinese have also used similar terms to describe others, although a significant amount of Chinese cultural influences can raise a group from barbarian to civilized (a good example would be the Japanese). And do not forget that even “barbarous” peoples have technology and skills that major civilizations may lack (the chariot was likely developed on the steppe).
So, why does the “Barbarian” character have to be either stupid, uneducated, or unwilling to learn? Duality, I think. Often times in a Sword and Sorcery tale a warrior of prodigious skill is either antagonized by or antagonizes a sorcerer of some prodigious skill. As the sorcerer is often an analogue for the priest, the scientist, the scholar, and the bureaucrat, the barbarian often has to fill the opposing roles. The barbarian (or the warrior) is by default less educated. It also provides room for critiques of civilization and notions of civilization. Although Brak’s rationalism and agnosticism are hard to believe. Again, there is a contrast- rationalism and agnosticism are products usually of higher education but Brak is incapable of even understanding “chess.”
I find all of this annoying, but understandable. As much as any epic fantasy is going to be inspired by Tolkien to varying degrees, so too will Sword and Sorcery be inspired by Howard to varying degrees. And to degrees that makes no sense. Howard’s Conan can be seen as a commentary on the attitudes of the formally educated towards those without it. The point is that Conan looks like he is dumber than a log, which is all the more surprising when he starts speaking several languages and formulates battle strategy. But other writers don’t see beyond just the “beefy stupid barbarian.”
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, but really haven’t had the time to explore it in any real depth. As those who have read my Sorcerers of series, I am a proud member of team Sorcery. Maybe that is why I like Elric and Clark Ashton Smith so much.
Anyway, I will end this by saying- libraries and used bookstores are still relevant! Go to your local library!
Next time- Expect some Fairy Tail.
This past weekend, Robert E. Howard would have been 105 years old. In a way, I feel terrible for not having something more to say, some interesting insight into his work that no one else has. But I don’t. The best essays commemorating Howard have come from Blackgate Magazine. Especially the piece by Matthew David Surridge (Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is still a classic in my book, by the way).
So, what does Howard represent for me? A fount of inspiration, a key to worlds undreamed of, a mixing and merging into a prehistory that never was. As a budding writer interested in sword and sorcery, Howard is the foundation, the legend that all have tried and failed to surpass.
That is Robert E. Howard. His life was too short, but his influence will live on.
Today, we got nineteen views. Today marks the most views we’ve gotten in a single day. The previous record has been a few sevens. Thanks everyone.
The most popular posts seem to be my Bas-Lag reading project and my Wizards of Conan. So, I will be aiming to do more with them (and expanding out to other weird/ new weird and sword and sorcery).
So here is what I plan to focus on in January: The first thing is that I am planning on recording what I read over an entire year. Some of those things may get reviewed and others won’t. I am planning my first post to be a double review of Axis Powers: Hetalia volume one and Nabari no Ou volume one. I am also planning on hitting a review of the anime adaptation of Nabari no Ou and of Kaze no Stigma . Also, I plan to start work on The Scar for the Bas-Lag reading project. And I may begin with my Fullmetal Alchemist, Fairy Tail, and Naruto (I want to do that one too) reading projects. But many of those may have to wait until I slog through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
A few days ago, I finished Henry Hodges’s Technology in the Ancient World. While likely out of date (given the amount of new research over forty years), I still feel that it is a valuable research tool for creating a secondary world with an ancient basis. And I am currently tackling Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (don’t know whether I want to actually finish the damn thing or not though).
And finally, my co-writer is planning on making his come back sometime in January, hopefully to give us more football wisdom and gamer’s perspective.
I had planned to get this written and posted later this week, but I decided to tackle this first before getting down to revisions for my short story. But I also plan of hitting The Hour of the Wolf and my review of X towards the end of the week or during the weekend.
This is it. The final wizard of my Conan’s Wizards project. And for this final installment, we have Howard’s strongest, most powerful sorcerer: Xaltotun of Python.
Xaltotun appears in the only Howard written Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Here, Xaltotun is resurrected by a conspiracy of four men who would see King Conan overthrown and Valerius, a relative of the deposed king, installed in his place. Haven’t we seen this before? To further their plans, they resurrect the ancient and mummified sorcerer Xaltotun using the Heart of Ahriman. After his resurrection, Xaltotun aids the conspiracy until he is strong enough to implement his own plan, the restoration of Acheron itself.
I asked, though, if we have seen this before. And we have. The Hour of the Dragon is the product of cannibalizing “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” and “Black Colossus.” Indeed, Xaltotun is a merger of Thoth-Amon, Tsotha-lanti, and Thugra Khotan. While combining all three sorcerers, there are a few things all his own.
Xaltotun is as feared as Thoth-Amon (and as unreliable an ally), the true power behind his erstwhile “masters” (like Tsotha-lanti), and is undead (like Thugra Khotan). But he is much more powerful than all of them. He was centuries old at his original death, and he had the power (or knowledge) to allegedly turn back time.
Xaltotun is of Acheron. Now if you know anything about the Hyborian Age, you should know Acheron. Acheron is the millenia fallen empire of wizards that dominated the lands that are (in Conan’s time) inhabited by Hyborians. The elite (if not the entire population) were wizards. The sole magocracy in Howard’s constructed pseudo-history (that I know of). And Xaltotun was the greatest of them, though he reigned at the very moment of Acheron’s fall.
I am certain that a case could be made that Xaltotun was infact the King of Acheron. While he is described as a great sorcerer and a high priest, those exalted positions likely position him as a noble. And likely a king given his image on ancient coinage. Beyond that, he know little of him save his greatest weakness is the Heart of Ahriman.
Xaltotun is clearly powerful. He easily bested Conan on their first encounter, he brings down a cliff, summons a flood (which failed), and planned to use a giant blood sacrifice to restore Acheron itself to life. He is clearly very powerful and does not seem to rely on a magical object to increase his powers (like Thoth-Amon). I am therefore tempted to say that Xaltotun may very well be of a similar status as Tsotha-lanti’s alleged parentage. He comes from a race of wizards, so who knows how much demonic genes are present?
Xaltotun is cool, but I also have a problem with him. When it is clear that he is now in charge of Nemedia and Aquilonia, why not press his advantage? Why does he go along with their attempt to crush Conan? Mind you, he did not know that he lacked the one thing that could defeat him. Or that Conan had it.
But that is my real complaint. I wanted to see the attempt to restore Acheron. After Orastes reveals Xaltotun’s objective, nothing more is said. It is dropped. And I feel that the Heart of Ahriman is a sort of Deus ex Machina in that it provides a too simple way of getting rid of a powerful sorcerer after an obligatory quest.
In this, my final comment on Howard’s wizards, I am a little disappointed. I don’t think Howard took his sorcerers as far as he could. But, it does lay the foundations for some great inspiration.
There are only two wizards left to do for my Wizards of Conan series. This post will target Thoth- Amon, I am aware that Thoth Amon has an extended life outside of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. Thoth Amon is not the only character who has gotten this treatment (I remember Valeria [from “Red Nails”] being Conan’s love interest in Conan and the Gods of the Mountain [I think]). Thoth Amon has been expanded from a powerful antagonal ally in “The Phoenix on the Sword” to being King Conan’s archenemy. I have not read any of those. So I will limit myself to solely talking about Thoth Amon from “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The God in the Bowl.”
We do not know much about Thoth- Amon’s background. All we know is that he was a long term member of the Black Ring of Stygia. The Black Ring seems to be an organization of sorcerers and wizards affiliated with (if not entirely composed of) the priesthood of Set. This is a bit nebulous, although given the theocratic nature of Stygia I would not be surprised if the sorcerous priesthood of Set is not active in politics. Thoth- Amon was both the most powerful and likely the “leader” or the organization. Mind you, the Black Ring looks to have been loose and rather fractious. Compared to the Black Seers of Yimsha, the Black Ring is very anarchic and filled with sorcerers looking to enhance their own positions by eliminating their competition with in the organization.
This leads to a secondary plot involving Thoth- Amon in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” By the time of the narrative, Thoth Amon has been rendered powerless and enslaved because his enemies had successfully stolen the source of his power- the Serpent’s Ring. Without it, Thoth Amon is powerless.
Seeking his ring, he becomes enslaved and endures as the slave of Ascalante after the later’s band of outlaws raid the caravan he was traveling in. Becoming a sort of aid and adviser to his master, Thoth-Amon endures the humiliation of his fall with dignity. Until he gets his ring back.
Once that happens, he has his powers back. Now what do we mean by this? Clearly, Thoth-Amon’s power is solely granted by the Serpent’s Ring. I don’t know if Thoth-Amon was a brilliant scholar and insanely brave to face whatever horrors undoubtedly guarded the ring, but his only sorcerous strength comes from the Ring. The Serpent’s Ring is, therefore, a very powerful and potent goetic artifact. It is with this object that Thoth-Amon is the unquestioned power in Stygian sorcery circles.
While Thoth-Amon is most prominently featured in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” he is mentioned in “The God in the Bowl” and The Hour of the Dragon. In “The God in the Bowl,” he is the mastermind of a failed assassination plot in which a giant snake in a bowl- sarcophagus is meant to kill a rival priest in Nemedia and instead kills a crooked collector. As far The Hour of the Dragon is concerned, Thoth-Amon has returned to power in Stygia and is not free of attempts against him as Thutmekri hopes to use the Heart of Ahriman to destroy his foe. And, of course, Conan saves him.
This brings into question Thoth-Amon’s chronology. We know that Thoth-Amon must still have been in power during Conan’s youth (he is in his late teens during “The God in the Bowl”). So he must have been overthrown at some point between “God” and “Phoenix.” And he is back in his original position by the time of Hour.
So let’s now focus on his powers. Using the power of the Ring, Thoth-Amon summons a demon to kill his master and his allies.
Beyond that, there is not much more to tell about Thoth-Amon. I like Thoth-Amon, but he really only has a ghost presence in Robert E. Howard’s stories.
I’m planning on working on Xaltotun this week. I’m also going to post a review of X and some thoughts on the future of Hour of the Wolf. But all of that is contingent on revisions of a short story I wrote.
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.
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?