Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fantasy Fiction Tuesday: A Witch Shall Be Born (1934)

Cover of the Dec. 1934 copy of Weird
 (vol. 24, no. 6)
Conan the Cimmerian is one of the most iconic fantasy protagonists of the past century. Created by Robert E. Howard in 1932 via a series of fantasy series published in the literary magazine Weird Tales, Conan is a barbarian, a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate who has numerous adventures throughout the ancient lands of the Hyborian Age. Many consider him to be the quintessential Sword & Sorcery protagonist, having influenced numerous writers and remains a popular character to this very day.

Like most people my age, my first exposure to the character was John Milius' Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the titular role. While I know the movie doesn't hew very close to the original tales, I would be lying if I said I didn't love it and haven't watched it countless times over the years. I even have a soft spot for the very flawed 2011 film starting Khal Drogo (a.k.a Jason Momoa or Ronon Dex for you Stargate: Atlantis fans out there).

Eventually, I managed to find a collection of Howard's stories at a used book store that I frequent on a regular basis. The very first story within that collection (titled Beyond the Black River: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Vol. 3) was the 1934 novella "A Witch Shall Be Born", which ended up being the first Conan story I ever read.

"A Witch Shall Be Born" tells the tale of a witch named Salome who replaces her twin sister Taramis as queen of the city state of Khauran. This act brings her into conflict with Conan, who has been made the captain of the queen's guard. After being crucified and left to die, the Cimmerian is luckily saved by a passing band of desert raiders who he later takes control of so he may rescue the queen and save Khauran from ruin.

The critical consensus for "A Witch Shall Be Born" is that it's an average example of the series that would be forgettable if it wasn't for a certain scene (which I will touch upon in just a moment). While I do agree there are definitely better Conan stories out there, I feel like "A Witch Shall Be" works as a decent introduction because it shows you what the Cimmerian's adventures are generally like and what you can probably expect from other works within the series. The theme of barbarism vs. civilization that is common throughout the series is present here, the story shows us that Conan is more than just a big barbarian and has some interesting layers to his character, the slightly Lovecraftian elements rear their alien heads near the end of the tale, and you can feel how much confidence Howard had in his writing.

It also doesn't hurt that "A Witch Shall Be Born" contains one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series: Conan's crucifixion by the Kothic mercenary Constantius for his defiance. The scene is visceral and graphic, burning an image into your mind that refuses to leave. We see Conan in a horrible situation that would break a lesser person, but he manages to survive through pure determination. Hell, he even kills an overeager vulture with his freaking teeth. If that isn't badass, I don't know what is.

Although "A Witch Shall Be Born" is nothing spectacular and there are definitely better Conan stories out there ("The Tower of the Elephant" and "Red Nails" are two of my personal favorites), I feel like this novella works as a decent introduction and allows new readers to experience one of the best scenes in the series. If you're interested in checking out the Cimmerian's original literary adventures, give "A Witch Shall Be Born" a shot.