Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Adventure classics -- REH's wonderful women

People of the Black Circle

by Robert E. Howard


Conan-creator Robert E. Howard a specialist in spunky heroines? Not the first characteristic that leaps to mind in considering the king of 1930’s pulp fiction, but I dare you to find a spiritless or even resigned woman in any of Howard’s stories. Especially not in today’s discussion of one of his best, People of the Black Circle, whose heroine Yasmina defies protocol, not to mention loss of life and sanity, to rescue the soul of her beloved brother from wizardry.

And despite the racy cover of the September 1934 Weird Tales, which serialized the novella, Yasmina, in typical Howardian fashion, manages to win without stooping to the exploitation of her own sexuality. Not even to gain the aid of the warrior Conan, turning up in a surprisingly non-Hyborian context.

Briefly, as Bunda Chand, king of Vendhya, lies dying, he reveals to his beloved sister, the Devi Yasmina, that he has been “ensorcelled by the wizards of the Himelians,” who are intent on imprisoning his soul in the body of a demon. The distraught Yasmina determines to free her brother’s soul. To do so, she travels incognito to the borders of Himelian territory, determined to find the famous Conan and force him to aid her in penetrating the wizards’ fastness.

The Devi finds the tables turned on her more than once in a typically twisty Howard plot, but she and Conan will eventually acknowledge each other as the best of enemies.

“. . . of all the Conan-girls, I have a special fondness for Yasmina,” writes the reviewer at “Somehow, Howard combines in her a perfect blending of imperious strength and fetching vulnerability that makes her stand out from all the rest.”

Conan thought so, too.

At the story’s end, he tells Yasmina, now queen of her own country, “‘I will collect your ransom in my own way, at my own time. . . And I will come with fifty thousand men to see that the scales are fair.’”

“She laughed, gathering her reins into her hands. ‘And I will meet you on the shores of the Jhumda with a hundred thousand!’”

Where did Howard (not to mention Conan) get this appreciation for strong women? In spite of the disapprobation heaped on Howard’s mother, Hester Ervin Howard, who added her surname to the name of her only son, I suspect he appreciated her strength, both as she and his father argued famously and as she endured an agonizing death from tuberculosis.

But not surprisingly, Howard never married. And although Conan sometimes appears about to take the plunge, I can’t remember one of his stories that ended with a wedding, either.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at another Howard hero, Frances X. Gordon, aka El Borak. And of course, a heroine, in “Son of the White Wolf.”)

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