Conan: Iron Shadows in the Moon

Iron Shadows in the Moon was  published in the April, 1934, issue of Weird Tales as Shadows in the Moonlight. It is the ninth published story in the Conan canon.

From the hints of internal chronology, this is roughly halfway through the mighty barbarian’s career, halfway between his adventure of his earliest years, Frost Giant’s Daughter, and The Scarlet Citadel, of his latest.

In this story, Conan is between jobs as a freelance mercenary and a freebooter pirate, and is introduced into the scene as a man bent on hideous vengeance, wild and untamed as a wounded man-eating tiger.

It is really Conan at his best.

With this tale, I would say that Robert E Howard hits his stride, and the character of Conan is perfected and portrayed as exactly the archetype Howard had in mind.

Where does that archetype come from? Howard himself offers this tidbit:

Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.

The inclusion of oil field bullies and the honest workman is interesting, and perhaps may give us a clue about the origin of Conan’s world, the Hyborian Age, and the somewhat grim concept of inevitable cycles of growth and decay in civilizations: more on this later.

For now, it is enough to note that  Conan represents not real savagery, but the noble savage of Rousseau.

Like the simple shepherds, fair shepherdesses, satyrs and nymphs of Arcadia praised by Virgil, who lived in a period of moral decay in the last days of the Roman Republic, the noble savage of Rousseau, living in the moral decay of the last days of the French Monarchy, is a fiction.

It is a fiction born from the weariness of men with hypocrisy and corruption of their times, but it is a fiction with a heart of fact.

The vices of civilized men require the wealth and leisure of the city to indulge, rules devoid of tradition, and the indifference to neighbors crowded produces.

Rustic life not only surrounds man with natural beauty, but also with natural hardships, which compel a man to learn the self discipline and self reliance leisure might allow him to forget. Every bite of bread comes of wheat he grew from the soil, every morsel of meat from kid or calf he reared and watched and slaughtered. Farmers and husbandmen know in their bones the link between work and reward.

We all know something is out of harmony between man and nature, and we all have a strange longing for the garden of Eden, when that harmony was whole.  Moderns who glamorize the cruel brevity and brutality of American Indian tribal life in films like DANCES WITH WOLVES are hearkening back to the same image of a noble savage that Howard captured with his pen.

What is the difference between a real savage and a noble savage? Let us look into the iron shadows of the moonlight for an answer.

This story is well suited to the question, for it just so happens to have a lovely, half-clad and large-eyed  brunette in distress; a highly civilized oriental aristocrat bent on her dishonor; a rough and semi-civilized pirate chief who hates Conan with hot passion (and wants him hanged on a hook); eldritch monuments from a forgotten civilization, haunted perhaps with the ghosts of an accursed peoples; and an apelike monstrosity equally likely to originate from the darkness of prehistory as the darkness of the netherworld.

In other words, we have one antagonist from each season of the rise and fall of cultures from primitive to civilized to decadent to dark ages and back to prehistory again.

Our fair-skinned, scantily-clad and dark-haired heroine is Olivia of Ophir. The story is told from her point of view: this is itself an interesting dramatic choice, because it puts centerstage the rough chivalry, and, yes, even the decency, that savage Conan is wont to display.

The curtain opens with her desperate flight into the sedgy marshes bordering the great inland sea, seeking to escape from a sinister and sadistic young Shah named Amurath. The sneering Amurath is in the act of threatening to haul the terrified girl bound to his saddle bow back to his harem for a fate worse than death when a larger than life figure bursts through the surrounding reeds:

Olivia, staring up from the ground, saw what she took to be either a savage or a madman advancing on Shah Amurath in an attitude of deadly menace. He was powerfully built, naked but for a girdled loin-cloth, which was stained with blood and crusted with dried mire. His black mane was matted with mud and clotted blood; there were streaks of dried blood on his chest and limbs, dried blood on the long straight sword he gripped in his right hand. From under the tangle of his locks, bloodshot eyes glared like coals of blue fire.

This is the way Conan should be first seen: blood-soaked, blazing-eyed, and lion cloth clad. Well, this tale is not the Wondrous Victories of Shah Amurath, so he does not make it out of chapter one alive. Indeed, he dies a craven death while begging for the self same mercy he did not show Olivia a moment before.

Conan can perhaps be excused this harshness in not granting quarter, for it turns out he had been a mercenary whose company, cut loose without funds, had turned to banditry, and then been hunted down and brutally blinded, maimed and killed by this same Shah with only Conan surviving to avenge them, for he escaped into a putrid swamp, living on muskrats at gnawed raw.

Her background is summed up neatly:

“I am a daughter of the King of Ophir,” she said. “My father sold me to a Shemite chief, because I would not marry a prince of Koth.”

The Cimmerian grunted in surprize.

Her lips twisted in a bitter smile. “Aye, civilized men sell their children as slaves to savages, sometimes. They call your race barbaric, Conan of Cimmeria.”

“We do not sell our children,” he growled, his chin jutting truculently.

(Pure nonsense, of course: barbaric tribesmen sell children and keep slaves and commit the same basic sins as civilized man, only with fewer tools and less efficiency. But let us not break the spell of the tale! The poetic image of an Arcadian, uncorrupted by the decay of the city, works as well with the rugged warriors of Rousseau’s fancy as with dainty shepherdesses of Virgil’s.)

We see how Olivia can do double duty, both as a fair princess and as a sexy harem slave, encompassing both the highest and lowest rank of desirable women. She senses that Conan likewise combines savagery and decency:

There was a wolfish hardness about him that marked the barbarian. His features, allowing for the strains and stains of battle and his hiding in the marshes, reflected that same untamed wildness, but they were neither evil nor degenerate.

The pair flee in a stolen boat across the inland sea and find a deserted island. They discover three mysteries: First, approaching a gloomy thicket, something as strong as a catapult hurls a boulder at them; they retreat. Second, they see a pirate ship hoving near the isle, crewed by cutthroats worse than any wild animal. Third, they find the looming ruins of a lost civilization: Here is a grim temple where hawk-faced ebon figures of black iron stand, figures to inspire awe and foreboding.

As she is falling asleep, her thoughts touch on the central theme of this tale, perhaps of all Conan tales:

How strange, to move in fellowship with a barbarian, to be cared for and protected by one of a race, tales of which had frightened her as a child! He came of a people bloody, grim and ferocious. His kinship to the wild was apparent in his every action; it burned in his smoldering eyes. Yet he had not harmed her, and her worst oppressor had been a man the world called civilized.

Olivia, in a dream, sees the dread origin of the iron statues: after torturing a young demigod to death, the murdering warlords of a long vanished age are cursed by a supernatural apparition, perhaps the divine father of the slain youth, and turned to stone. She wakes, and sees, or thinks she sees, the statues coming to life in the moonlight.

She flees, and Conan follows. They find the boat which bore them hither has been smashed.  An unseen foe is heard moving in the leaves of a dark wood nearby, approaching. Again they flee, with Conan carrying the girl.

They exchange words: Howard in his tales correctly captures not only the weird and savage romance of paganism, but its melancholy character. Olivia cannot identify the god and demigod seen in her dream, even though she can see by family resemblance that they are father and son. She say:

… The gods of old times mated sometimes with mortal women, our legends tell us.’

‘What gods?’ Conan muttered.
‘The nameless, forgotten ones. Who knows? They have gone back into the still waters of the lakes, the quiet hearts of the hills, the gulfs beyond the stars. Gods are no more stable than men.’

Olivia says that sleeping amid the living statues was like a sheep wandering into a shambles. (Howard is using the archaic word: a shambles is a slaughterhouse.) Even though Conan saw nothing, he expresses no doubt:

The natural skepticism of the sophisticated man was not his. His mythology contained ghouls, goblins, and necromancers.

He also expresses no shame at this retreat:

Foes of flesh and blood he did not fear, however great the odds, but any hint of the supernatural roused all the dim monstrous instincts of fear that are the heritage of the barbarian.

As in all Conan stories, he is ruled by his instincts, but his instincts are healthy, and so never lead him astray.

But sometimes they lead him into danger: He goes to confront the pirate ship which has made landfall, while the girl cowers amid the rocks above, watching from afar.

The chief turns out to be an old enemy of his. This captain calls on his men to rush the barbarian, but Conan mocks him, challenging him to fight a duel for the captaincy, one on one, man to man. Conan slays his foe, but is struck down from behind by a slingstone, apparently dead.

Curiously, there follows a dispute argument between the bloodthirsty pirates as to whether the outcome of the duel is legally binding, according to the Code of the Pirate Brotherhood.

Let no one overlook the irony of the contrast between the lawless shah, and the scrupulous pirates. The less civilized men are the ones who are actually more concerned with fair play and the forms of the law.

Conan is not dead, but stunned, and Olivia, now all alone, looking on in secret from afar, realizes much the protection of the Cimmerian means:

With (this realization) came a revulsion toward her own kind. Her father, and Shah Amurath, they were civilized men. And from them she had had only suffering. She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there was an ulterior motive behind his actions. Conan had shielded her, protected her, and—so far – demanded nothing.

Let no man sneer at the girls in Conan stories for being weak sisters. Nonsense. Although terrified when she sees Conan carried back into the haunted temple by the bloodthirsty pirates, and even though she is aware she is being stalked by some dark and fell beast that lurks in the deepest shadows as it glides hungrily after her, she braves dizzying climbs, deadly pursuit in the dark forests, and drunken guards to sneak into the fearful ruins and cut the cords binding of Conan.

One his bonds are broken, and his deadly sword once more is in fist, more commotion and bloodshed ensues, some of it supernatural and some not, and some onstage, and some not. A titanic ape-thing, hold over from some prior age of stone or age of ice still haunts the isle, and it must be faced and overcome.

Even as the horrid struggle begins, Olivia sees the kinship between ape-man and barbarian:

Yet as she stared in wide-eyed horror at the bronzed figure facing the monster, she sensed a kinship in the antagonists that was almost appalling. This was less a struggle between man and beast than a conflict between two creatures of the wild, equally merciless and ferocious.

Meanwhile, while the iron statues do move in the moonlight, and none can overcome them, certainly not the pirates surprised in their drunken slumber. Nature, even at her most savage, can be overcome by savage men; but the supernatural cannot be.

In the end, Conan is chief of the surviving pirates, the half naked girl is clinging to his manly thigh, and he barks out orders to set sail. Let us pause to salute the curtain line, which sums up the whole mood and appeal of a Hyborian Age yarn quite neatly:

“And what of me, sir?” she asked.

“What would you?” he countered, watching her narrowly.

“To go with you, wherever your path may lie!” she cried, throwing her white arms about his bronzed neck.

The pirates, clambering over the rail, gasped in amazement.

“To sail a road of blood and slaughter?” he questioned. “This keel will stain the blue waves crimson wherever it plows.”

“Aye, to sail with you on blue seas or red,” she answered passionately. “You are a barbarian, and I am an outcast, denied by my people. We are both pariahs, wanderers of earth. Oh, take me with you!”

With a gusty laugh he lifted her to his fierce lips.

Let us return to the question we have been circling, but have not directly addressed: why is the noble savage noble? There is nothing in history or reality to suggest that there is any veracity in the archetype. Whence, then, comes it? Why does it have such appeal?

That may be a question beyond the scope of a simple story review column, but we can perhaps address the lesser question of why the image of a noble savage had appeal for Howard.

In preparing for this column, I came across this fascinating nugget from Robert E Howard’s biography from the webpage of his foundation, describing his hometown in the era of his formative years. Allow me to quote it at length.

Cross Plains in the 1920s was a small town of approximately 2000 people, give or take a thousand. Like much of the Central West Texas region, though, it went through periodic oil booms that brought hundreds, perhaps thousands, of temporary inhabitants who set up camps just outside the town limits, jammed the hotels beyond capacity, and rented rooms or beds in private homes.

The lease men, riggers, drillers, tool dressers, and roughnecks who followed the oil were followed in their turn by others who sought to make a quick buck off them, from men or women who set up temporary hamburger stands to feed them, to gamblers and whores who provided “recreation,” to thugs, thieves and con men who simply preyed on them.

An oil boom could transform a sleepy little community into a big city in no time at all, in those days, and bring with it much social upheaval.

The few extra thousand who swelled the population of Cross Plains managed to make it a far wilder and rowdier town than usual. One resident recalls her family driving into town on Saturday night just to watch people, hoping fights would break out.

Of the atmosphere in a boom-town, Howard wrote: “I’ll say one thing about an oil boom: it will teach a kid that life’s a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of.”

Just as fast as the town grew, however, it could decline: when the oil played out, the speculators, oil-field workers and their camp-followers moved on.

The influence of this boom-and-bust cycle on Howard’s later ideas about the growth and decline of civilization has often been overlooked: Namely, that societies are built by hardy pioneers, who are then followed by others who grow decadent and enjoy the fruits of the society but contribute nothing to its continued growth, and thus inevitably the society will decay or be overthrown by a new generation of pioneers.

One is reminded of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, which was published in 1919, less than twenty years before the first Conan story.

Now, you and I both, dear reader, know the uncertainty and even the absurdity of attempting to trace the work products of an author’s muse back to an author’s experience or attitudes. I have had critics attempt this folderol on me, resulting in speculations that were so offbase (and offputting) that they would be offensive if they were not so wrong. Usually it says more about the psychology of the critic than it does of the author.

Despite the risk, I will offer a speculation about Howard’s creation here. (The reader may will see more of my psychology revealed in the words that follow than Howard’s: you have been warned.)

The period between the world wars was a time that, to those trapped in those years, felt as if the world had ended, or were about to end.

The ancient regimes in Europe had lost legitimacy in the eyes of the common man. Thrones toppled and altars were desecrated. Scepters and crosiers were broken. Classical music fell silent. Poetry died.

In Eastern Europe, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive politicians among the victors were busily tearing apart the traditional forms of government on both sides of the Atlantic, denying crowns to Austrian Emperors, denying states’ governors the right to select their own senators, and erecting the abomination of the Federal Reserve Board, to remove from the people lending money their freedom to set the interest rates where and as their own wisdom directed.

From the Church to the banks to democracy to monarchy, from the press to the pulpit, people were justifiably disenchanted and cynical about the inherited institutions of civilization.

All hope had been banished in those days from the mainstream “slick” publishers, replacing romance and adventure with social welfare lectures and grindingly dismal smaller-than-life portrayals ironically called realistic.

If you recall the books matrons forced you (or, if you are not my age, your fathers) to read in grammar school to inflict on you the dull chore of appreciating allegedly high and serious literature, you may recall desolate stories about hangings and hallucinations, cowards getting badges for courage, and about meat packing plants run by evil millionaires, hypocritical preachermen, lotteries and stonings, adulterers and dipsomaniacs, famines and dustbowls, idiots with pet mice who must be murdered by best friends for their own good, and all other fashions of quotidian and mundane morbidity.

The contrast with medieval literature could not be sharper: the moderns retain no trace of high exploits, low comedy, angelic joy or devilish fear, and nothing of faith, hope or love.

Only two things still kept alive the hope that had been banished from polite society and slick magazines: nostalgia for the past and daydreaming about the future: or, in short, fantastic stories in the pulps, and science fiction.

Art reflects life. Science fiction and fantasy tell stories set in the tomorrows that might be or in the pasts that never were because in real life there ate only two places a contrast to the grim and hopeless days of this present darkness can be found.

In dark days, when looking for a glimpse of light, there are but two two choices:to progress toward a glorious future, to discover the fine things the unknown tomorrow hides; or to return to the glory days of old, and rediscover what fines things were lost.

There are, in the end, only three ways to look at the story of the world: the pagan, the Christian, and the Progressive.
In the Christian view, the movement is a descent and a re-ascent. Paradise once was ours, was lost to a fall that brought all nature down with us, and life is a long series of defeats and disasters, culminating in the redemption of mankind and the descent of the New Jerusalem, our first estate regained.

Note that all drama, from murder mysteries to romance novels, follow this pattern.

In the Progressive view, the movement is an ascent leading to final descent. Some inexplicable life force or social-economic evolution forces each generation to be greater and better than the prior, so that the world starts in cannibal savagery and superstition and ends in socialist enlightenment. Eventually science will conquer all nature. But, sadly, entropy will wipe out the civilization, life and the stars, and endless night ensues, with no monument to mark the memory of the extinct.

Note that no drama follows this pattern, or could, since a series of endless victories guaranteed and effortless, makes for a poor beginning, and an inescapable downfall, coming for no reason no matter the case, makes for a poor ending.

In the Pagan view, the time is a cycle. It is an endless wheel of suffering, where each summertime of growth and glory is followed by winters of death and dishonor, and back again, time after time, with neither beginning nor end.

No dramas, but many a situation comedy, has this pattern, where at the end all things are back as they were at the beginning. Punch and Judy are never going to end their quarrels, and the castaways never escape Gilligan’s island.(And, lest anyone quarrel, we need not count any television specials made years later where Tina Louise did not play Ginger as canonical.)

The pagan view is the closest to the Spenglarian concept of an endless cycle of rising and falling civilizations. The pagan cycle can be seen, in miniature, in the boom and bust cycles of the oil towns Howard beheld in his youth.

But the thing to note is that the ideal of the noble savage cannot happen in the Christian worldview, since the men who know not Christ, like the ancestors of the poet who wrote Beowulf, while glorious, are melancholy and doomed, worshiping devils.

In the Christian worldview, chivalry and chastity, that is, respect for enemies and respect for women, can only follow after the sad wisdom that comes from knowledge of Christ, and the knowledge that all men, including you, while being sons of God, are also sinners under condemnation. It is a humbling vision, but one without which it is impossible to held the weakling, the foeman and the stranger in high regard.

In this worldview, chivalry comes after Christ. The noble man from the far past is Adam before the Fall: and he is no barbarian.

Likewise, in the Progressive worldview, the past is worthless and has nothing to teach us, because everything before the socialist utopia is evil and primitive capitalism, and before that was even more evil and more primitive feudalism. In this view, later civilization is always better, higher and more enlightened than earlier, and so the barbarian savage is just that, and the only truly noble people are those living here and now.

But in the cyclical worldview of the pagan, the current decay is an inevitable byproduct of the ancient successes, and it precisely in the past, when men were wild, strong, and free, that the simple virtues were found.

In this worldview, the lack of writing does not mean a lack of laws — every lusty tribesman, like the wolves in JUNGLE BOOK, can recite the tribal laws by heart — but it means a lack of lawyers, of schemers, of glib tricks.

In the cyclic world view, the good things civilization corrupts and forget are remembered and uncorrupt in the simpler times that came before: the savage times, when men were men. Things were harder and ruder then, but better.

Only in this world can a noble savage of the type envisioned by Rousseau be found: since he is a non-Christian form of Adam, that is, he is primitive without being blessed, and the garden in which he lives is simply the unclaimed forest before the invention of axes and plows and houses.

This allows the us the poetic license of imaging a smelly illiterate as a purehearted hero who, albeit without any courtliness in words, can be as manly, protective, and courtly in his motive as any Knight of Arthur or Paladin of Charlemagne.

So whichever worldview is most suited to the truth, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

To tell a Conan tale, however, nothing but the cycle of time will do. A Christian like Milton can speak of the fall of Adam and the loss of paradise as a tragedy. A progressive like HG Wells can speak of the glories of man like the gods who will conquer all the world and put nature under his dominion. But the noble savage is not found there. Conan would not be at ease in such a setting.

To have Conan, we must have the rise and fall of city and of continents, the desolate panoply of merciless eons who will one day overwhelm Europe just as Atlantis was overwhelmed, or Lemuria in her vanished glory.