Beyond the Black River
|"Beyond the Black River"|
|Author||Robert E. Howard|
|Series||Conan the Cimmerian|
|Publication type||Pulp magazine|
"Beyond the Black River" is one of the original short stories about Conan the Cimmerian, written by American author Robert E. Howard and first published in Weird Tales magazine, v. 25, nos. 5-6, May-June 1935. The story was republished in the collections King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953) and Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967). It has more recently been published in the anthology The Mighty Swordsmen (Lancer Books, 1970), and the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz, 2001) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935-1936) (Del Rey, 2005). It is set in the pseudo-historical Hyborian Age and concerns Conan fighting the savage Hyborian Picts in the unsettled lands beyond the infamous Black River. Due to its unique elements and atypical frontier setting, the story is considered an undisputed classic of Conan lore and is often cited by Howard scholars as one of his best tales.
(From Conan The Warrior, ISBN 0-441-11465-2)
The foreword to the story tells of his travels to Punt with Muriela, refers to a scam perpetrated against worshippers of an ivory goddess and then on to Zembabwei, where he joins a trading caravan on its way to Shem. Around 40 now, Conan visits his homeland and finds his old friends are fathers. Bored, Conan sets off for the Bossonian Marches and becomes a Scout at Fort Tuscelan on the Black River. Naturally, there is a war going on...
A young settler named Balthus encounters Conan in the forests slaying a forest devil. Accompanying the young man back to the Fort, Conan finds the body of a merchant ensorcelled by a Pictish wizard named Zogar Sag and slain by a swamp demon.
The Fort Tuscelan Commander, Valannus, is a desperate man and asks Conan to slay Zogar Sag before he raises the Picts against the whole borderlands. Taking a hand picked team of scouts and Balthus, Conan sets off stealthily in canoes. Balthus is captured and most of Conan's men slaughtered in an ambush.
Balthus and one of the Scouts are tied to stakes and the scout is sacrificed by Zogar Sag to one of his jungle creatures. Before Balthus can meet a similar fate, Conan sets the Pictish village on fire and the two flee into the woods. Conan tells Balthus of the cult of Jhebbal Sag, now forgotten by most. Once all living things worshipped him when men and beasts spoke the same language. Over time men and most beasts forgot his worship. Zogar Sag has not, however, and can control those few animals and creatures who also remember. And they are on Conan's trail now.
Conan is able to neutralize them using a symbol he once noticed, and the pair hurry to return to the Fort to warn them of the impending Pictish assault, but they are too late.
They then go to warn the settlers that the Picts have crossed the river and are raiding. They are joined by Slasher, a feral dog formerly owned by a settler who had been slain by the Picts. Balthus is sent on to warn settlers of the coming Pict raid, and Conan parts from him to warn a group of settler who had gone to gather salt. Balthus warns the settlers, and—accompanied by Slasher—makes a stand against the coming Pict raiders. Their sacrifice delays the Picts and give the settlers time to reach safety. Conan manages to warn the salt-gathering party in time, but finds he has been marked for death by the gods of darkness for misusing the symbol of Jhebbal Sag. In the end Conan triumphs, but the fort is lost.
The story ends in a tavern. A survivor tells Conan about the courageous act of Balthus and Slasher, and how their final stand had delayed the Picts just barely long enough for the settlers to reach safety. Upon hearing of the fight, Conan vowed to take the heads of ten Picts to pay for Balthus' sacrifice, along with seven heads for the dog, who was "a better warrior than many a man."
Stylistic and Thematic Elements
The last few Conan tales are heavily flavored by the American West, and this story has the strongest parallels. The Aquilonians have encroached on Pict land and Fort Tuscelan is an isolated garrison in hostile country. The scattered settlers are described as living in cabins, rather than huts or other dwellings that might evoke an exotic setting. Canoes are used for transport on the river. Themes explored include adaptation to a new land and misunderstanding of the subtleties of indigenous culture. Howard described the Picts as the European equivalent of Native Americans. They are the antagonists of the story and are extremely brutal and vicious, but Conan understands their motivations even as he happily slaughters them. Conan believes the Aquilonians pushed too far inland and can not hold the land, there by putting the settlers in tremendous danger. This story reveals that a similar land grab in Cimmeria (Conans Homeland, which lies directly to the North of Aquilonia). At the age of 14 Conan had taken part in the wars to drive them back. The inevitability of wild humanities eventual triumph over the civilized world (a core Howard theme) is openly discussed in the story.
The point of view character is not Conan and there is no love interest of any kind. It is considered one of Howard's finest stories.
- Ziemke, Mark. "The Sword are Gods of the Earth". Ground Control. Retrieved 28 December 2012.
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