A Witch Shall be Born

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This article is about a short story. For the protagonist and principal character, see Conan the Barbarian.
"A Witch Shall Be Born"
Two identical women on a paved floor that fades to shadow in the background. One woman stands, smiling, holding a cat'o'nine-tails whip in her left hand and the other woman's wrist in her right. The second woman kneels helplessly on the floor.
Cover of the December 1934 copy of Weird Tales (vol. 24, no. 6), the first publication of the novella.
Author Robert E. Howard
Country United States
Language English
Series Conan the Barbarian
Genre(s) Fantasy novella
Published in Weird Tales (vol. 24, no. 6)
Publication type Periodical
Publisher Popular Fiction, Inc.
Media type Pulp magazine
Publication date December 1934

"A Witch Shall Be Born" is one of the original novellas by Robert E. Howard about Conan the Cimmerian. It was written in only a few days in spring of 1934 and first published in Weird Tales in 1934. The story concerns a witch replacing her twin sister as queen of a city state, which brings her into conflict with Conan who had been the captain of the queen's guard. Themes of paranoia, and the duality of the twin sisters, are paramount in this story but it also includes elements of the conflict between barbarism and civilization that is common to the entire Conan series. The novella as a whole is considered an average example of the series but one scene stands out. Conan's crucifixion early in the story in the second chapter ("The Tree of Death") is considered one of the most memorable scene in the entire series. A variation of this scene was included in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Plot[edit]

Queen Taramis of Khauran awakens one day to find an identical twin sister, Salome, staring her in the face. As an infant, Salome was deemed a witch due to a crescent birthmark on her chest. This birthmark was believed to be a sign of evil, so she was left in the desert to die. However, a magician from Khitai (China) found her, brought her up, and instructed her in the arts of sorcery.

Salome has conspired with Constantius, known as "the Falcon," the Kothic leader of a force of Shemitish mercenaries, to take over the city state. Queen Taramis is taken to the palace dungeon, with the implication of torture and rape. Salome assumes Taramis' identity as queen of Khauran and names Constantius her royal consort. The Khaurani army is disbanded and replaced by Constantius' Shemitish mercenaries, an event which turns violent when the captain of the queen's guard, Conan the Cimmerian, refuses to obey the order.

After putting his back to a wall and killing a number of Constantius' Shemites, Conan is finally captured and crucified for his defiance. Olgerd Vladislav, the Zaporoskan leader of a band of Zuagir desert raiders, rides by with a scouting party and happens by the crucified Conan a mile from the city walls. Vladislav does not entirely help Conan. He has the base of the cross cut, leaving it to fate and Conan's hardiness that he is not crushed by the heavy wood. Vladislav then refuses to give Conan any water, claiming the Cimmerian must wait until after a ten-mile trek to the outlaw camp to prove his worthiness to his band.

In Khauran, Salome's reign as "Taramis" has plunged the state into ruin. Citizens are killed, tortured or sold as slaves; heavy taxes are imposed and women are frequently debauched by the Shemites. Salome desecrates the temple of Ishtar in the center of the city and summons a demon, Thaug, to live within it. Khaurani citizens are routinely sacrificed to Thaug.

Conan has been expanding the numbers of the Zuagirs as Vladislav's lieutenant, while also secretly establishing communication with Khaurani knights who had become refugees. When he has sufficient forces he usurps Vladislav's leadership of the Zuagirs, but does not kill him out of gratitude for Vladislav having saved him from the cross. Conan fakes the construction of siege engines with palm trees and painted silk. Constantius is fooled by this as his scouts cannot get close enough to see them properly and Conan is known to be experienced in all manner of warfare. The mercenary army rides out of the city for an open-field battle with Conan expecting only the lightly armed Zuagirs, but are taken by surprise by Khaurani heavy cavalry hidden amongst them. Conan's forces are victorious.

Meanwhile, Valerius, a former member of the Khaurani army, has discovered the secret of Salome's masquerade, and the fact that Salome is holding the real Taramis in the dungeon. With Conan's forces approaching Khauran, Valerius plans to rescue Taramis and reveal the conspiracy to the people or to escape with the true queen. Conan's victory is not certain to the Khauranis and they are nervous about his intentions if he does take Khauran. When it becomes apparent that Conan has defeated Constantius' Shemites, Salome decides to kill Taramis before Conan can take the city. She thwarts Valerius' rescue attempt and takes Taramis to the former temple of Ishtar to sacrifice her to Thaug. Valerius saves Taramis and kills Salome, but not before she unleashes Thaug. Conan, arriving with his Zuagir forces, who kill the demon with two flights of arrows.

Taramis offers to make Conan councillor as well as captain but he declines, nominating Valerius instead. Conan, as chief of the Zuagirs, mops up the remaining Shemites, capturing Constantius in the process, and leaves to raid the nearby Turanians. Before leaving Khauran, he crucifies Constantius by the stump of the crucifix from which he escaped, commenting with irony to the crucified Constantius the difference between their respective situations: "I hung there on a cross as you are hanging, and I lived, thanks to circumstances and a stamina peculiar to barbarians. But you civilized men are soft; your lives are not nailed to your spines as are ours. Your fortitude consists mainly in inflicting torment, not in enduring it. You will be dead before sundown. And so, Falcon, I leave you to the companionship of another bird of the desert."

Style[edit]

Cover of Avon Fantasy Reader #10 (1949). The first reprinting of the story. Unknown artist.

A theme of paranoia runs through the story. Howard uses a theme common to his works in having evil hide behind innocent features. Similarly, Vladislav is unaware of Conan's plans until it is too late. Of all the characters, only Conan is aware of all the facts.[1] The twin sisters Taramis and Salome are an instance of Howard's interest in siblings and the theme of duality, which appeared in several other works.[1]

Howard may have been experimenting with style in this novella, leaving behind any standard pulp formula. Conan dominates the story but he is only actually present in two chapters.[1] The narrative instead builds the plot by follows others, such as Valerius, Salome and a wandering savant Astreas.

Louinet suggests that Conan becomes figuratively immortal and superhuman following his crucifixion: "How can anybody kill a character—literarily or literally—who can survive such a scene as that one?"[1]

The supernatural elements of the story are minor and may only have been included to justify publication in Weird Tales.[2] The demon Thaug is similar to that in Howard's unfinished novel Almuric, which he had abandoned only a few months before starting this story.[1] The quick reveal and defeat of the demon may indicate that Howard was embarrassed by its inclusion.[2]

The ongoing theme of Barbarism vs. Civilization, which pervades the entire Conan series, is present in this story in two crucifixions. Conan is able to endure and survive his crucifixion, and the subsequent journey without water, thanks to his barbarian stamina. When Constantius is finally crucified, Conan states "You are more fit to inflict torture than endure it. ... You civilized men are soft; your lives are not nailed to your spines are as ours."[2]

Background[edit]

This story was written in late May or early June 1934.[1] Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was running out of Conan stories which were growing in popularity and attracting new readers to the magazine.[1] Howard had recently finished the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, which was not intended for publication in Weird Tales and the story previous to that, "The People of the Black Circle" was already scheduled for August.[1] He finished "A Witch Shall Be Born" in only two drafts over a period of days in order to meet this deadline.[1] Wright accepted it without hesitation, telling Howard it was his best Conan story to date, and made it the cover story for the December issue.[1]

Reception[edit]

Howard scholar Patrice Louinet refers to this as a rather forgettable Conan story but one that contains the most memorable scene of the entire series: Conan's crucifixion at the hands of Constantius.[1] He goes on to say that, while of average quality, it "exudes Howard's confidence in his creation."[1]

Robert Weinberg concurs, mentioning the "best scene in the entire Conan series" but comments that the remainder of the story in only average.[2] Of the crucifixion, Weinberg writes, "Only Howard could have given the scene life."[2] He states that this scene, the "blood and passion", is an indicator of why Howard is better than any of his imitators. The violence is "graphic and elemental" while the torture "barbaric, primitive and real" not allowing the hero a chance to escape. Instead, Conan survives by sheer endurance, even killing an overeager vulture with his teeth. The passion in the text and strength of the prose suspends disbelief in Conan's survival on the cross.[2] However, Weinberg criticizes the fact that much of the action takes place offstage, for instance, being related to the reader through a letter from the otherwise unseen Astreas or through a priest communicating with Salome.[2]

Publication history[edit]

The story was first published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales.[3] The first reprint followed in 1949, when the story was published in the digest anthology Avon Fantasy Reader #10.[3] The novella was the cover story and main feature of both publications.

A version of the story that was edited and altered by L. Sprague de Camp appeared in the collection Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press, 1954). This was reprinted several times, notably in the collection Conan the Freebooter (Lancer Books, 1968).[3] It was first published by itself in book form by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., titled A Witch Shall Be Born, in 1974, which did not use the de Damp version.[3][4]

The novella has more recently been published in the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000), The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005). It was selected by John Clute as part of the Penguin Modern Classics collection Heroes in the Wind (Penguin Books, 2009). All versions used pure-Howard texts with de Camp's alterations excised.[3]

Adaptation[edit]

The story was adapted for comic books by Roy Thomas and John Buscema in Savage Sword of Conan #5 (1975). The crucifixion scene was adapted for the first Conan film, Conan the Barbarian (1982). The original script for the film, written by Oliver Stone, was based on this novella and another Conan story, "Black Colossus", and re-set in a post-apocalyptic future.[5] When John Milius took over directing the film, he had the script changed but retained the crucifixion scene, described by Kenneth Von Gunden as "Howard's quintessential Conan scene: the mighty Cimmerian, hanging on a cross, nails driven through his hands and feet, tearing out the throat of a vulture which comes to peck out his eyes."[5]

The name "Queen Taramis" was also used in the second Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer (1984), played by actress Sarah Douglas. The mark of Salome also appears in this film, with the character Jehnna, but it is not used in the same way.

The Czech death metal band Animal Hate released the album ...A Witch Shall Be Born in 2008 based on this story.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Louinet, Patrice (2003), "Hyborian Genesis Part II", The Bloody Crown of Conan, Del Rey Books, pp. 358–359, ISBN 0-345-46152-5 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Weinberg, Robert (1976), The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword and Socrcery, Starmont House, pp. 114–117, ISBN 0-916732-00-2 
  3. ^ a b c d e "A Witch Shall Be Born". HowardWorks. Retrieved 2011-05-08. 
  4. ^ Chalker, Jack L.; Mark Owings (1998). The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Bibliographic History, 1923–1998. Westminster, Maryland and Baltimore: Mirage Press, Ltd. p. 322. 
  5. ^ a b Von Gunden, Kenneth (1989). Flights of Fancy. McFarland. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-0-7864-1214-3. 

External links[edit]

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