Thursday, April 18, 2013

Short Take: "The Scarlet Citadel," Robert E. Howard

This story was originally published on Pol Culture.

Robert E. Howard’s “The Scarlet Citadel,” originally published in the January 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover at right), is something of a sequel to “The Phoenix on the Sword,” his first story featuring Conan the Barbarian. It takes place during the character’s “King Conan” period, when he is the middle-aged ruler of the city of Aquilonia. The story is not among Howard’s more compelling ones. It is mediocre adventure pulp which follows a very basic formula: the hero is defeated, only to come back and be victorious over his enemies. As with “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Conan is fighting efforts to strip him of his crown, but he’s not dealing with an assassination attempt this time. His enemies here confront him on the battlefield. They still use treachery to draw him out and defeat him--a king he thought an ally calls for his help in what turns out to be an ambush. His enemies are working with a sorcerer, Tsotha-lanti, who gives Conan a choice: renounce his throne and accept exile, or face death in the sorcerer’s dungeon. He chooses the latter. The dungeon sequence, in which Conan faces numerous threats in his efforts to escape, is easily the best part of the story; Howard catches the reader up in the dread of the unknown. But the story never regains its tension after Conan is free. One knows exactly where the story is going at that point: Conan is going to avenge his earlier defeat on his enemies, and he of course does just that. There is little suspense in the tale’s final section; it’s just violent spectacle. The better aspects of other Conan stories, including the use of irony and the portentous hints of the supernatural world, are not much present.

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