Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Conan: The Two Hyperboreas

As promised, here's my blog on reconciling different presentations of Hyperborea in the world of Conan. Now, some may wonder what the Hell I'm talking about--what different presentations of Hyperborea?

Good question. For the most part, Hyperborea has been portrayed pretty consistently, though almost entirely by pastiche writers. The only writing we see about Hyperborea from Howard himself is in his seminal essay "The Hyborian Age," wherein he writes the following about the kingdom:

  1. Hyperborea was the first Hyborian kingdom
  2. Hyperboreans were the first to build walls, fortresses, and cities of stone.
  3. It is a cold, bleak land and at least in its beginnings was a "rude, barbaric kingdom."
In his various pastiche works, L. Sprague de Camp stuck mostly to this characterization, which is rather impressive given that the vast majority of what was written about that kingdom was written by de Camp and Carter. Many later works, including Mongoose's The Road of Kings sourcebook for the Conan Roleplaying Game, also stick to this portrayal of a gray, dark, cold kingdom ruled by sorcerer-kings who treat anyone without the propensity for magic as a slave.

The difference comes in when one looks at Dark Horse Comics' excellent Conan comic series which still runs in some form to this day, after having begun in 2003 (if I am not mistaken).

I've never been a fan of Conan in comics--the Marvel comics version of Conan was bloody awful, in my opinion, though I know many fans bow at the altar of Roy Thomas. I will admit that his The Horn of Azoth, which is an adaptation of the original screenplay for Conan the Destroyer, before too many cooks and movie studios ruined it, is pretty outstanding.

But I digress. Dark Horse's series is pretty solidly and consistently fantastic.  I have read it in collected format, and beginning with Volume 0, Born on the Battlefield, I was captivated.  This volume shows an origin story for Conan of which Howard fans can be proud, which matches Howard's own notes about Conan's youth, and which (thank Crom) doesn't give us a boy obsessed with avenging his father's murder who never grows up.  The same cannot be said of the films.

In any case, as I understand it, the original idea for the Dark Horse series was to follow all of the original Howard stories, in chronological order using the Dale Rippke chronology, writing original pastiches to fill the gaps between them.  This was a noble goal, and one that it saddens me they didn't complete, in their rush to get to King Conan. 

As another side-note, I have to say that I like the Rippke chronology, and despite the fact that some have criticized his placement of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" as first, I personally agree with it.  The characterization of Conan in that tale, to my mind, as well as the fact that it takes place in the north, both seem to me to make sense only if it is the first tale. In other, prior chronologies, Conan spends far too much time getting home for a quick visit--it's a pretty huge world for him to have wandered so far south and east to just "pop home" for awhile every so often. 

That being said, volume 1 of the collected editions is entitled The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories. In this volume we see a very different Hyperborea than the one given to us by de Camp and Carter, and different than that written by Howard. As something of a purist, that should've bugged me, but it didn't, and I spent some time thinking about why.

The first answer that came to mind was the obvious--the writing and characterization was so strong and spot-on it made up for it.  But upon further examination, it also occurred to me that the presentation of Hyperborea in the Dark Horse books does not have to contradict that previously given us, and indeed can complement it quite nicely.

The Hyperborea in the comics is the mythical "land beyond the North Wind."  It is described as a temperate paradise where the weather is impossibly warm and the land green and fertile.  Everyone in Hyperborea is said to be immortal.  When Conan goes there to see for himself, he discovers that this is true--but only if you are one of the noble Witchmen. Everyone else is a slave. The land he discovers is the very picture of a dystopia masquerading as an utopia. Even the Witchmen eventually grow so old, bored, and careless that they take their own lives along with those of their entire retinue of servants, servitors, and slaves.

Conan and his Aesir companions, of course, become slaves forced to fight in drug-addled stupors in the gladiatorial arenas, until Conan wakes up one day and battles his way free from the mad land.

So what occurred to me as I thought this over was this: why can't both Hyperboreas exist in the Hyborian Age? The one we see in the pastiches of de Camp and Carter, based on the sketchy notes Howard gave us, is "Lower Hyperborea," or Hyperborea proper.  This is the land most people know as Hyperborea--grim, gray, forbidding, full of rude stone towers and fortresses, ruled by evil Witchmen who act as cruel taskmasters over everyone in the land.

North of Lower Hyperborea, beyond the North Winds and only accessible by those who know its secrets (which, naturally, includes only the Witchmen), is Upper Hyperborea. This is the fertile, beautiful land that masquerades as a paradise but really is a land of nobles who have become degenerate in their easy complacency, bored with life and playing with slaves like puppets in desperation for some amusement. This is where the Witchmen go to retire when they've got more power than they can drink and have tired of the cold lands of Lower Hyperborea.

For most people, Upper Hyperborea is a myth, a legend and nothing more. Since only the Witchmen and slaves ever go there, and no slaves ever return, whispered stories (likely spread by that very rare escaped slave, or a Witchman who comes back for some reason) are all the knowledge anyone has about this northern wonderland, which leads to speculation that it is truly a paradise.

So there you have it.  That's my reconciliation of the Dark Horse Comics Hyperborea with that presented in the de Camp/Carter pastiches and Howard's own notes. You can, of course, ignore it and blow it off (and I'm sure many will) but it works for me, and seems very Howardian to my mind. It also lends a neatly increased air of mystery to the land to the north.

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