Monday, 8 October 2012

Conan The Rebel, Chapters I-III

Conan The Rebel (New York, 1981) is another example of Poul Anderson's versatility. In this heroic fantasy novel, he does not imaginatively create a new central character or present a previously unchronicled fictitious realm but competently contributes to an established series. Not having read any other Conan novels, I do not know how many of the geographical or other details presented here are invented for this single work. Nor do I know whether Conan had teamed up with the female pirate captain Belit at the end of the previous volume or whether we are to understand that this has occurred between volumes.

The prehistoric civilisation has a mixture of, to us, partly familiar place names, races and gods. We recognise the serpentine Set and Mitra of the Sun. The name of the river Styx half suggests that the characters are already in the underworld. (They are not but that connotation is certainly present.) In the city of Khemi at night, sacred pythons seek for prey but slither away in alarm from the sound of footsteps. Nevertheless, "...the streets after sunset held their special perils." (p. 10)

There is an intolerance uncharacteristic of polytheism:

" '...the infidels who acknowledge you not...' " (p. 2)

" 'Cursed be Mitra and the Hyborians that follow him...' " (p. 3)

We can see one way that some nations moved from polytheism towards monotheism. A temporal ruler who extended his power over several realms came to be called not just "King" but "King of Kings". Similarly, a god was flattered when his worshipers called him Lord not, eg, of the Nile Valley but of the whole Universe. Set is addressed in this way but acknowledges that he has not yet attained that level of power:

" 'You have called me lord of the universe, but you know how many and diverse are the gods of earth, sea, sky, and underworld. You know how few of them own me their master, how few of their peoples look on me as aught but a devil.' " (p. 3)

Since Set's servant sleeps on a mattress "...stuffed with the tresses of sacrificial maidens...", let us agree that he is indeed a devil. (p. 1) He is referred to, very inappropriately, as " 'He Who Is...,' " the highest of divine titles. (p. 14)

The viewpoint character of Chapters I and II is the centuries-old Topathis, a priest in Set's temple and head of the Black Ring of magicians. Set shows him the approaching Conan and Belit as on a television screen. They do not appear in their own right until Chapter III. Before that, we learn of the preparations being made against them.

Set tells Topathis that the conflict must remain terrestrial " '...for if the great gods intervened, that could bring on the Last Strife.' " (p. 3) This recalls Odin avoiding a too early Ragnarok in Anderson's The Broken Sword and also the US and USSR backing opposite sides in local wars but avoiding Mutually Assured Destruction on the global scale - a situation that Anderson reflected in the conflict between Terrans and Merseians in his main future history series and that Star Trek also reflected with the Federation and Klingons.

In Chapter II, we learn of a hidden axe, believed to be a Mitran relic with which a leader will free a people, thus a counterpart of the magical swords in other Anderson fantasies.    

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