This has always been one of my favorite Conan yarns, in spite of the fact that it’s mostly an adventure story, without the depth of “The Tower of the Elephant” or “Red Nails”. Still, there are some significant aspects to the story which could be overlooked. And that’s a shame, because the two things I want to focus on directly relate to some of the criticisms of Howard in particular and sword and sorcery in general.
There will be spoilers in this post. Just so you know.
The story opens with a young girl, Olivia, in a marsh on the edge of the Vilayet Sea, where she has fled from Shah Amurath, to whom she had been sold. The Shah has cornered her on the edge of the sea and is about to take her back to the city of Akif when Conan bursts out of the reeds. He has something of a grudge to settle.
Conan had been with the Free Companions, raiding along the Turanian, Zamoran, and Kothian borders, when Amurath had trapped and killed most of his companions. They weren’t killed swiftly or painlessly. Conan is the only survivor. He’s been hiding out in the swamp, waiting for nightfall to row across the Sea in a boat he found earlier in the day. Of course Conan makes short work of Amurath, even though he’s only wearing a loincloth and Amurath is in full armor.
This brings us to the first point I want to make. Some people, who either clearly haven’t read Howard or paid sufficient attention if they did, criticize the Conan stories because they find Conan to be to much of a superhero. Apparently they think he comes out of every fight without a scratch, in spite of the fact Howard routinely describes Conan’s body as being covered with scars. Conan has been slithering through the muck, eating raw muskrats and roots he dug up. Hardly the life of a successful superhero.
Conan and Olivia row all day and night until they come to an island. Well, Conan rows. Olivia is just along for the ride. There they find an abandoned temple filled with large iron statues. They decide to hide on the island until a passing ship has gone by, for fear of being captured. Instead, the ship lands, filled with pirates. Conan kills their captain in single combat but is taken captive and held in the temple while the pirates decide what to do with him. (Not much of a superhero if he lets himself get captured, is he?) Some say he’s now the rightful captain, others that he isn’t because he wasn’t one of them when he killed the captain.
Olivia has stayed hidden during these events. And this brings me to the main point I want to make. The story is told entirely from her viewpoint. Our knowledge of Conan’s activities come from what he tells Olivia. His captivity is never described from his viewpoint. What we see is the character development of Olivia from a simpering wall-flower to someone who chooses to live by the sword.
One of Howard’s favorite themes is on full display here, that of barbarism vs. civilization. After he rescues her, Olivia tells Conan that her father, the king of Ophir, sold her because she refused to marry a prince of Koth. She was sold several more times before she became the property of Amurath. When she mentions her people consider Cimmerians to be barbaric, Conan’s response is that they don’t sell their children.
At first Olivia is afraid of Conan, but before the end of the story, she not only overcomes her fear of him but much of her fear in general as well. She slips into the temple after the pirates are asleep and frees Conan. And while she hasn’t completely overcome her scream queen tendencies by the end, she is braver and more hardened than she was when we first meet her. She thinks through how she was treated by civilized men and compares that treatment to the treatment she receives from Conan and decides she much prefers the treatment of a barbarian to that of a “civilized” man. Given a choice, she decides to sail with Conan and the pirates for a life of raiding. She’s not simply another nearly naked damsel in distress (although I wish someone would explain to me why those type of characters are so bad, without taking a sanctimonious tone).
I think this story deserves wider recognition. It’s not a perfect story by any means. But through the character of Olivia, Howard demonstrates a clear contrast between civilized and barbaric standards of behavior. It’s pretty clear he considers the barbarians to be morally superior to civilized men who sell their children. We shouldn’t let the adventure aspects make us lose sight of that.
Robert E. Howard