This year marks a number of anniversaries in Robert E. Howard fandom: 25 years of Howard Days in Cross Plains, 50 years since the first publication of Glenn Lord’s The Howard Collector, 75 years of Robert E. Howard’s Legacy, and 100 years since the founding of Cross Plains. In addition to these, this year is the 40th anniversary of Marvel Comics bringing Conan to comics and the 45th year since the Lancer publication of Conan the Adventurer. It’s the last that’s of interest to us in this post.
Or to be more precise, it’s the stories that L. Sprague de Camp either finished or rewrote that we’re going to take a look at. Specifically, “Hawks Over Shem”, which was a rewrite of an unsold historical adventure entitled “Hawks Over Egypt”. Those of you who are familiar with the Lancer (later Ace) editions might be saying, “Wait a minute, that story is in Conan the Freebooter“, and you’d be correct.
I was reading “Hawks Over Egypt”, remembered it was one of the stories de Camp had rewritten, and thought a post about the changes he’d made might be of interest to some of you, especially since this was the 45th anniversary of the Lancer editions.
So let’s take a look at what de Camp changed. As you might suspect, there will be spoilers.
“Hawks Over Egypt” is currently available in the Del Rey collection Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures as well as Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard) from Bison Books.
The story was probably written in 1932 or 1933, although I’ve not found a definite date (if I do I’ll correct this post). Howard had been submitting, and selling, his historical adventures to Oriental Stories (later renamed Magic Carpet), but the Depression put an end to that publication in 1933, with the last issue being January 1934.
The story as Howard originally wrote it had seven numbered chapters. In the first chapter, two men have an encounter in a dark alley in Cairo. The Turk, Al Afdhal, accuses the Moor of following him. The Moor denies it, and the men are about to come to blows when they are set upon by three Sudanese, who are looking for one of them, Al Afdhal as it turns out. The largest of the three attacks the Moor, who quickly dispatches him and intervenes to save the Turk. They retire to an illegal tavern. The caliph has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. (An echo of Prohibition, perhaps?) There Al Afdhal reveals that he knows the Moor isn’t a Moor but a Christian. The supposed Moor turns out to be Diego de Guzman, and he’s in town looking to settle a score with one Zahir el Gazi, who is currently on of the three general helping the caliph, Al Hakim, maintain his reign of terror on the city. The other two are the Sudani Othman and the Turk Es Salih Muhammad. The chapter ends with Al Afdhal pledging his help to de Guzman.
The second chapter finds a woman, Zaida, roaming the streets. This is an offense punishable by death. Al Hakim is mad and has decreed that women should not be out, day or night. Zaida has no choice. She was the mistress of el Gazi until he tired of her and turned her out. She encounters a cloaked man who turns out to be the caliph, prowling the streets to see if his edicts are being obeyed. In order to save her life, Zaida convinces him he is the embodiment of Allah. (This isn’t hard to do.) To reward her for being the first to recognize his divinity, she becomes his new consort, replacing a very jealous woman named Zulaikha.
In Howard’s version he opens Chapter 3 with a description of what the world political situation is like in the year of the story, 1021. This type of infodump was a common practice in those days, especially in historical fiction. It served in this case to give insight into the motivation of some of the characters in what follows without interrupting the action later. The chapter proceeds with Al Afdhal leading de Guzman through a secret tunnel into the former palace of Es Salih Muhammad, which is now occupied by el Gazi since he has risen in the caliph’s favor above Muhammad. After killing a guard, they find the el Gazi alone. De Guzman engages him in a sword fight, eventually killing him, but not before el Gazi brags of the caliph’s plans to form an army and invade Spain. De Guzman knows Spain is too fractured politically to be able to defend itself against a united attack. He makes it his mission to stop Al Hakim. The only way to do this is to kill him, since he’s mad.
In Chapter 4, the city of Cairo erupts in rioting after Al Hakim proclaims himself God. De Guzman listens in on the talk and rumor and decides the best way to get to Al Hakim is through Zulaikha, who is furious over being deposed by Zaida. He goes in search of her.
Meanwhile in Chapter 5, Al Hakim decides its beneath his godhood to mate with a mortal and gives Zaida to Othman. While taking Zaida back to his palace, Othman is confronted by Zulaikha, who buys Zaida from him with the added incentive of threatening to tell el Gazi’s followers that Othman killed el Gazi.
Chapter 6 finds Zulaikha torturing Zaida. Othman bursts in, kills Zulaikha. De Guzman enters at this point, sees a black man attacking a white woman, and kills Othman. He releases Zaida from her bonds but shows no further interest in her, even though she’s beautiful, tied down, and naked. He’s that bent on stopping the invasion of Spain. Al Afdhal shows up, and de Guzman reveals that he’s known the man to be the third general, Es Salih Muhammad. De Guzman manages to convince Muhammad to kill Al Hakim, forgo the invasion, and rule Cairo as the caliph.
Chapter 7 is fairly short. Zaida makes her way back to Al Hakim, convinces him she’s leading him to safety, and stabs him. De Guzman and Muhammad take over the city.
That’s the story as Howard basically wrote it. My synopsis doesn’t do it justice. It’s more detailed and complex than I’ve made it sound. In the interest of length, I’ve only hit the high points and have left out some minor plot elements.
So now let’s look at what de Camp did to make the story a Conan story. Although he has his defenders, primarily Gary Romeo, de Camp has taken a huge amount of flack over the years because of his heavy handed editing and revision of Howard and for his Howard biography Dark Valley Destiny. The bulk of this controversy is outside the scope of this essay.
What we want to look at here is how de Camp changed “Hawks Over Egypt” when he rewrote it as “Hawks Over Shem” to make it a Conan story. It was the lead story in the Conan the Freebooter. There are enough characters in this tale that I’m not going to give the names of any other than Conan simply to keep things from getting too confusing.
There are no chapter breaks in the rewrite. Instead there are merely line breaks denoting scene changes. Also, the historical summary of 1021 has been deleted, which is not surprising since Conan’s world isn’t the real world, only an imaginary analogy. At least de Camp didn’t try to rewrite that portion.
One of the first changes is in the opening scene, when instead of about to fight, the man who turns about to be Conan (de Guzman in the original), has beaten his opponent without killing him. They are then set upon by not three but four Kushites. I guess de Camp added the fourth to show what a badass Conan is. This causes de Camp to rewrite that part of the fight.
Here’s a small part of Howard’s original version. De Guzman “…did not await the attack. With a snarling oath, he ran at the approaching colossus and slashed furiously at his head. The black man caught the stroke on his uplifted blade, and grunted beneath the impact. But the next instant, with a crafty twist and wrench, he had locked the Moor’s blade under his guard and torn the weapon from his opponent’s hand, to fall ringing on the stones. A searing curse ripped from [de Guzman’s] lips. He had not expected to encounter such a combination of skill and brute strength. But fired to fighting madness, he did not hesitate. Even as the giant swept the broad scimitar aloft, the Moor sprang in under his lifted arm, shouting a wild war-cry, and drove his poniard to the hilt in the negro’s broad breast.”
And here’s a bit of de Camp, when Conan dispatches the second attacker, the one that matches the description of the attacker in the original: “As the stranger struck, so did the giant, with a long forehand sweep that should have cut the stranger in two at the waist. But, despite his size, the stranger moved even faster than the blade as it hissed through the night air. He dropped to the ground in a crouch so that the scimitar passed over him. As he squatted in front of his antagonist, he struck at the black’s legs. The blade bit into muscle and bone. As the black reeled on his wounded leg and swung his sword up for another slash, the stranger sprung up and in, under the lifted arm and drove his blade to the hilt in the Negro’s chest.”
See the similarities? You do? What have you been smoking? It’s not even the same fight. De Camp does have the fight end with a paraphrase Howard’s words, but everything that came before was completely rewritten.
And it didn’t have to be! There was absolutely nothing wrong with Howard’s prose. It flowed, it pulled the reader in, it was good. De Camp’s isn’t bad, but Howard’s was better. And why add an opponent to the fight? It didn’t serve any purpose as far as plot is concerned.
In the interest of time, I won’t detail all the changes. Some of them were necessary to change the setting of the story from the real world to the Hyborian world. Others were completely unnecessary or inconsistent with Conan’s character. For instance, the el Gazi character in both stories sets events in motion with an ambush. De Guzman survives and is taken prisoner, only managing to obtain his freedom and come to Cairo a few years later. Conan feigns death on the battlefield and trots into town a few months after the ambush. Conan? Playing dead on a battlefield? Give me a break.
The scenes with Zaida are placed in the text in a different order. She is also present when Conan and the Al Adfhar character burst in on the el Gazi character but escapes. She wasn’t present in the original. De Camp placed her here to give Conan motivation for staying after he extracts his revenge. He wants to claim her as his own. Conan would have no interest in stopping an invasion and most likely would have signed on to fight.
The biggest change is in the ending. The Zulaikha stand-in is a witch in de Camp’s version. She is summoning up some sort of creature when she’s killed. The fight that follows between Conan and the Othman character ends not with Conan killing him, but with a creature of smoke rising up and enveloping him, draining the blood and bones from his body. Blood sucking smoke monsters aren’t that original; Howard would have done better. Conan frees the girl he has come there to find. She wants him to plunder the house and run away with her; he prefers them to stay so he can be co-ruler of the city. Then the dead body of Zulaikha rises up and runs out of the room. Conan changes his mind and hits the road.
In the end, the mad caliph isn’t stabbed by the girl he spurned but is instead run off of a tower to his death by a mob. A complete rewrite by de Camp. Again, the original ending was better and would have been consistent with Conan. Not all the villains in the Conan stories are killed by Conan IIRC.
The changes de Camp made to “Hawks Over Egypt” in turning it into a Conan story were pretty substantial. The plot had to be significantly altered in places to make it work, and there are times when Conan’s character just isn’t all that consistent with the way Howard wrote him. What’s more, the passages de Camp inserted aren’t as well written as Howard’s. They tend to stand out in places.
When de Camp was putting together the Lancer Conan books, there wasn’t much Howard in print, to put it mildly, nor was the possibility of bringing some of Howard’s other work into print a guarantee. The first Howard boom was still a few years off. I can understand the temptation to alter some of the unpublished historical adventures to make them Conan stories. Publishing standards in those days tended to demand books that would be considered thin or short by today’s standards. L. Sprague de Camp was trying to impose an internal chronology on Conan and fill in what he viewed to be gaps. Such a project would naturally require new content, and the lengths of books publishers were willing to publish mandated more books than the three Del Rey has published.. I can understand that. I really can. I just can’t condone it.
I met the de Camps several times during their last decade and found them both to be cultured, erudite, and easily approachable. Also, I’ve enjoyed many of de Camp’s original works and wish more were in print. But I just can’t sanction him taking such liberties with Conan. The problem with changing a tale set in the historical world and transforming it into a fantasy starring an established character in an imaginary world with its own detailed geography and history is that you have to make so many changes to the plot and/or the characters to make it fit. If de Guzman had been more Conan-esque, it might have worked in this case. But a careful reading of both stories will show that de Guzman and Conan aren’t the same; their personalities are too different.
In my opinion, there hasn’t been anyone who can successfully imitate Howard. The unique elements that came together to produce the man also produced the writing style. The two cannot be separated. So far, no one who has tried has been able to match that style. I doubt there ever will be anyone who can. De Camp and Lin Carter certainly couldn’t, and de Camp, despite his butchering of Howard’s prose, was an accomplished writer. One whose original works were important and should be read today. Just not his Conan pastiches. Most people who have read Carter (and I admit I haven’t), at least those I’ve talked to, wouldn’t give him that much credit.
Personally, I prefer the original version of this story, the straight historical. And that goes for all of Howard’s works that have been changed, edited, or adapted.