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Robert E Howard’s Beyond the Black River
Going to do something a little different. I believe there is massive value in reading Robert E Howard’s Conan stories. Howard himself grew up in the south, full of stories about the frontier and the Confederacy. Some believe his character Conan is based off the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and if you read about the man, the similarities are striking.
“Nor was the face below it that of a civilized man: dark, scarred, with smoldering blue eyes, it was a face as untamed as the primordial forest which formed its background.” -Beyond the Black River
Conan is an outsider — a northern barbarian — who interacts with effeminate civilization, eventually conquering one for himself. There’s hidden message in the stories of Robert E Howard’s Conan not many realize as they read them. Howard is the master of throwing the reader right into the fray. He was one of the best writers of action. It would be easy to miss hidden meanings.
Howard offers framework for the man born into the modern world, which at his time was already becoming too effeminate. Conan is a barbarian struck by wanderlust and travels the world, taking on many roles through the years. He was a thief, pirate, mercenary, soldier, captain, and eventually takes the crown of Aquilonia for himself.
Conan travels further then any other Cimmerian. By the time of Beyond the Black River, his name is already well known. Howard did this by design. There are lessons to be learned from Conan that you see echoed on the dissident right.
Conan doesn’t try to rvturn to some better time, nor does he seek to create some Cimmerian ethnostate.
The barbarian doesn’t try to get society to change to his values, to revert back to some prior normalcy or conform to his standards. He manipulates the world around him to his own ends without changing the Raison D’Etre of the people around him. Some things just are, you’re not going to change them. The best you can do is manipulate the world to work in your favor.
Beyond the Black River takes place in Conan’s “middle period.” He tells Balthus — who narrates much of this story — that he’s took on many roles, held many titles and may even be called a king one day. Conan is a mercenary employed by the Aquilonian fort commander to protect settlers on the frontier. Beyond the Black River is a homage to the American frontier.
“When they smoke my head the whole river will know,” grunted Conan. “They’ll hear Pictish women wailing their dead as far as Velitrium—I was on a lone scout. I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing drums talking across the river.” -Beyond the Black River
The antagonists of Beyond the Black River are the Picts, a race Conan described as white but swarthy. They’re led by a forest devil — wizard — called Zogar Sag. They’re the Indians of this story. They’re many clans all spread out on the other side of Thunder River. If they united, Conan warned, they could easily overrun the fort and slaughter the settlers. The Aquilonian King refuses to send enough men to hold the frontier.
Zogar Sag appears to be up to no good, killing settlers and robbing them of their heads. For what reason Conan doesn’t know. Balthus, a young upstart who’s traveled to the frontier to either pick out a piece of land or join the garrison, decides to join Conan as he fights the Picts. The fort’s commander later asks the barbarian to hunt down Zogar, believing the forest devil will cause his men to desert in fear.
Beyond the Black River delves heavily into barbarism vs civilization.
There are three types of people in Howard’s Beyond the Black River. The settlers represent civilization. They’re soft and require protection out on the frontier. Not unlike the Indians, the Picts terrorize the settlers who are encroaching on their territory. These are people who have been raised too far from the frontier, being shielded from violence and bloodshed.
There’s a middle group out in the frontier that’s gained Conan’s respect. A group of civilized men who have adapted well to the frontier. Trappers, hunters, and the like. It’s from this group that Conan recruits a crew to help him hunt Zogar Sag.
“They(the Picts) were wild men, of a sort, yet there was still a wide gulf between them and the Cimmerian. They were sons of civilization, reverted to a semi-barbarism. He was a barbarian of a thousand generations of barbarians. They had acquired stealth and craft, but he had been born to these things. He excelled them even in lithe economy of motion. They were wolves, but he was a tiger.” -Beyond the Black River
The barbarians in this story are the Picts and on the extreme edge is Conan himself. Living on the frontier, being a barbarian, makes a man hard and Conan speaks to Balthus on this when he finds out that Balthus lived in a city far from the edge. He tells Balthus that his people have grown soft and need to spend more time on the frontier to get their hardness back.
Conan’s barbarism is distinct even on the frontier. Balthus is amazed by the change in the barbarian as he prepares to fight. He becomes beast-like. Conan believes anything can be cut down with a sword — man or demon. Most of all, Conan is hell bent on going down fighting. If he’s overwhelmed, he promises to take down as many with him as possible.
Unlike most of the Conan stories, Beyond the Black River doesn’t have a happy ending.
Most Conan stories end with Conan running off with the girl after slaying some beast or sorcerer, but Beyond the Black River is different. This tale is perhaps Howard setting up Conan’s desire to take the Aquilonian throne. He a seasoned warrior by this point and feels like Aquilonia isn’t doing enough to protect the settlers on the frontier.
Beyond the Black River hits you with one setback after another. Conan the whole time is plowing through Picts, but near the end it becomes obvious that they can’t stop the Picts. The fort falls as the barbarian, Balthus, and a dog they found along the way try to evacuate as many settlers as they can.
It ends with Conan bitterly drinking in the nearby city. He swears a barbaric oath to collect Pict heads to avenge the friends he lost.
“Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” -Beyond the Black River