Contra “Hyboria”; Or, Convenience Isn’t Everything

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Readers who have shipped with Ahab on his voyage-of-the-damned pursuit of the great white whale might remember that Herman Melville has this to say of master harpooner Queequeg’s natal site: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I’m here today to inveigh against a false place that has elbowed its way onto maps and into gaming paraphernalia and goes unchallenged in a dismaying number of articles, reviews, and blog or forum posts: “Hyboria.”

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a Cynara to whom Roy Thomas, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan all sought to be faithful in their fashion. Not one of them ever resorted to the ersatz term “Hyboria,” but recently this un-Howardian usage has been spreading like the invasive kudzu in Wagner’s Knoxville horror story “Where the Summer Ends.” Google “Hyboria” and it comes a-choogling at us with “Kings of Hyboria,” “Gods of Hyboria,” “Welcome to Hyboria,” “Living Hyboria,” “Images of Hyboria,” “Cities of Hyboria,” “The Women of Hyboria,” exhortations to “strap on your sword, it’s time to explore Hyboria,” and the especially irksome “Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.” I don’t believe that either Kurt Busiek or Tim Truman has slipped and referred to “Hyboria” in one of their scripts for a Conan comic, but reams of Dark Horse promotional copy has demonstrated no such taste and discernment. The term is creeping into submissions to The Dark Man, and Richard Tierney, as well-versed in Howard as he is well-equipped to write weird verse, dignified it with title-status in his “The Doom of Hyboria” cycle for TC. On May 16 of this year the Entertainment Weekly website offered a slideshow of “18 Awesome Imaginary Worlds” and added Austrian-accented insult to injury by not only listing “Hyboria” but illustrating said “world” with a still of Arnold the Isshurian looking particularly learning-disabled.

Why is this happening? I haven’t seen anyone champion the rightness or needfulness of “Hyboria” yet; maybe this post will provoke some such defense. My suspicion is that the spurious term is flourishing out of a vague sense that the Hyborian Age, Howard’s formulation, doesn’t work due to being by definition a when rather than a where, a time rather than a place. So a perceived necessity is the mother of this misbegotten invention: we have to call Conan’s world, the kingdoms that dominate human history from the fall of Acheron to the equally uncushioned fall of imperial Aquilonia, something, don’t we? “Hyboria” is. . .convenient, almost like an abbreviation or acronym in that respect, and why shouldn’t authorial intentions join so much else as burnt offerings on the altar of our modern Moloch Convenience? Thus the Entertainment Weekly feature lumps ‘Hyboria” (described as “vaguely Eurasian,” like some Macao chanteuse seducing sailors in a pulp story) in with Narnia, Oz, Terabithia, and, amusingly, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV.

Perhaps the least of the many sins of “Hyboria” is that it encourages the irritatingly frequent conflation of “Hyborian” and “Hyperborean” in hit-or-miss, or hit-and-run articles about Howard, and the split-the-difference misspelling “Hyborean.” Howard never saw fit to coin the name, despite scads of opportunities to do so, and I tend to privilege his nomenclature over that of Funcom or Entertainment Weekly. No wardrobe-accessible otherworld, the Hyborian Age is the history that preceded our prehistory (Same goes for Middle-earth, so often trotted out as Exhibit A in any discussion of imaginary worlds; Tolkien was simply repurposing middangeard, that Old English cousin of the Norse Midgard). Here’s Howard writing to H. P. Lovecraft in April 1932, months before “The Phoenix on the Sword” hit newstands:

I’ve been working on a new character, providing him with a new epoch, the Hyborian Age, which men have forgotten, but remains in classical names, and distorted myths.

Providing him with a new epoch, the Hyborian Age, not a new world, a “Hyboria.” Similarly, note Howard’s prefatory remarks for his “Hyborian Age” essay: “In writing about [Conan] and his Age, I have never violated the “facts” or spirit of the “history” here set down, but have followed the lines of that history as closely as the writer of historical fiction follows the lines of actual history.” Conan and his Age — we might also say, an Age undreamed of, not a world undreamed of. “Hyboria” taints any text that tolerates it with a slight but sour smell of Stephen Colbert’s truthiness. The final sentence of Rusty Burke’s introduction to The Bloody Crown of Conan — “So turn the page, and get ready for an exhilarating journey through the historical wonderland of the Hyborian Age” — would come up lame were “Hyboria” substituted for “Hyborian Age.”

Howard’s stubborn disinclination to invent the term is presaged by his Pre-Cataclysmic formulations: always “the Thurian Continent” or “the Thurian civilization,” never “Thuria.” And “Thuria” would be arguably more justifiable as a catchall for the world at that time than is “Hyboria” for the far more multicultural main landmass of Conan’s period. We know his words to Balthus — “I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians, the Shemites, the Stygians and the Hyrkanians” understate the extent of his travels, and they also underscore what a pitifully reductionist term for the wide world he roams “Hyboria” would be.

Let’s frisk the canon. Here are the “Hyborian” stories:

1. “The Phoenix on the Sword”
2. “The God in the Bowl”
3. “The Scarlet Citadel”
4. “Black Colossus”
5. “Rogues in the House”
6. “A Witch Shall Be Born”
7. The Hour of the Dragon
8. ‘Beyond the Black River”

And here are the “non-Hyborian” stories:

1. “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (No Hyborian characters)
2. “The Tower of the Elephant”
3. “Queen of the Black Coast”
4. “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
5. “Xuthal of the Dusk”
6. “Pool of the Black One”
7. “The Vale of Lost Women”
8. “The Devil in Iron”
9. “The People of the Black Circle” (No Hyborian characters)
10. “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” (Muriela is the only Hyborian character)
11. “The Black Stranger”
12. “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” (No Hyborian characters)
13. “Red Nails” (Valeria is the only Hyborian character)

That’s 13-to-8 in favor of the non-Hyborians, and not only “Beyond the Black River” but also “Black Colossus” and “A Witch Shall Be Born” are really borderline, or borderland, cases, as the latter two are set in pocket-kingdoms “carved out of Shemite lands by the swords of Kothic adventurers.” The fragment we know as “The Hall of the Dead” is non-Hyborian, and the same goes for “The Hand of Nergal,” “The Snout in the Dark,” and “The Drums of Tombalku.” As a first foray into the Pictish Wilderness, “Wolves Beyond the Border” should be grouped with the Hyborian stories. Some might object that The Hour of the Dragon should count as at least two Hyborian stories, but I would counter that Conan’s quest for the Heart leads him first to Zingara (non-Hyborian) and then to Stygia (you can’t get more non-Hyborian; in fact the Stygian chapters serve as a climax and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”-style payoff not to the novel but to everything Howard had told his readers about “the dark-bosomed mistress of the south,” from “Phoenix” through “The God in the Bowl” — “The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth, and who now sleep in their knighted caverns far below the black pyramids” — and that forbidding offshore glimpse of Stygia in “Queen”. Seems to me it’s tough to justify “Hyboria” on the basis of these numbers.

If we restrict ourselves to the best-known, best-loved Conan stories, the children of Bori fare even more poorly. “The Tower of the Elephant” is set in Zamora (non-Hyborian). “The People of the Black Circle” is set in Vendhya and Afghulistan (non-Hyborian). “Red Nails” is set in and around Xuchotl (non-Hyborian), and even if I’ve listed “Beyond the Black River” as Hyborian, the story’s very title promises that what follows will step outside the known, the Mitra-mediated world. Promote “Queen of the Black Coast” to that elite group, and we’ve got a storyline which loses no time in fleeing the Hyborian seaport of Messantia for wilder climes.

Yes, the Hyborians are big shots; it is after all their Age. They’re the tragic heroes of the meta-drama whose hubris invites the nemesis of Gorm from the aboriginal forests of the west and the Hyrkanians from the blue mazes of the east. Conan’s words in “Queen” — “Mitra of the Hyborians must be a strong god, for his people have builded their cities over the world” — are echoed by Arus in “The Hyborian Age”: “. . .he pointed out the power and splendor of the Hyborian kingdoms, as an example of the power of Mitra, whose teachings and works had lifted them up to their high places.” I’m not denying that “Hyborian-ness” is front-and-center in a story like “Black Colossus”: the Hyborian god instructs a Hyborian princess to save her Hyborian realm from an ancient, Hyborian-hating threat by risking everything on a decidedly non-Hyborian sellsword.

But the Hyborians often serve a more workaday purpose, one that we can pick up on in what was effectively Howard’s peroration on Conan and his stomping-grounds, the March 1936 letter to P. Schuyler Miller:

I’ve never attempted to map the southern and eastern kingdoms, though I have a fairly clear outline of their geography in my mind. However, in writing about them I feel a certain amount of license, since the inhabitants of the western Hyborian nations were about as ignorant concerning the peoples and countries of the south and east as the people of medieval Europe were ignorant of Africa and Asia. In writing about the western Hyborian nations I feel confined within the limits of known and inflexible boundaries and territories, but in fictionizing the rest of the world, I feel able to give my imagination freer play. That is, having adopted a certain conception of geography and ethnology I feel compelled to abide by it, in the interests of consistency. My conception of the south and east is not so definite or so arbitrary.

The Hyborian kingdoms function as a sort of default mode, relatively recognizable, not especially crepuscular, that part of Conan’s world where readers most quickly find their footing. Howard’s phrasing — “I feel confined,’ “inflexible” — suggests that his creativity was a bit cramped and claustrophobia-prone in what some would have us call “Hyboria.” Patrice Louinet catches something of the role of Hyborian lands as “base camp” or “staging area” when he examines the geographical reach of The Hour of the Dragon in his “Hyborian Genesis, Part II”:

The [originally targeted British] reader would thus have hints of Stygia, of the Hyborian Age equivalents to the African kingdoms, would even get a glimpse — by way of the mysterious sorcerers — of the countries east of Vilayet in a tale which remained, however, centered on the Hyborian countries: he would be familiar with the kingdoms corresponding to modern occidental Europe.

By “mysterious sorcerers” M. Louinet means the four human hellhounds from Khitai that Tarascus sics on Conan, and perhaps we can use that reference as a springboard to an insight about Aquilonia, Nemedia, and their sisters that draws on Don Herron’s “Howardian Fairyland.” Posit a spy satellite peering down in search of evidence of any such fairyland, thermal traces of thaumaturgy and the like, and from that perch it would be immediately apparent that the Hyborian countries are largely de-magicked; they usually eschew the eldritch. We never hear tell of an Aquilonian sorcerer — the closest Howard comes is the rumors about the priests of Asura, and their beliefs are eastern, non-Hyborian in origin. De Camp and Carter were aware of this “material” or “rational” aspect of the Hyborian lands, and went all the way to an unfoundered fragment of Lemuria to import an archmage (Thulandra Thuu) as a buttress for Numedides’ misrule. The fact that the half-human Tsotha-lanti can operate in Koth indicates just how far that nation, already suspect thanks to Ishtar-worship and asshuri-recruitment, has fallen from the comparatively pristine Hyborian norm. From a continent-wide perspective, the western kingdoms are the boondocks, the exurbs of anything preternatural or prestidigitatory, which is why it is such a big deal when Xaltotun sets up shop in Belverus.

Patrice speaks of “the kingdoms corresponding to modern Europe,” and my guess is that some people conceptualize “Hyboria” as being for the Hyborians what Europe is for the Europeans. But the un-place I’m assailing here lacks the continental or peninsular credentials of a Europe. Far from qualifying as a continent on their own, the Hyborian countries are part of a much vaster landmass. I remember an old National Lampoon issue that described Europe as “that crinkly-looking bit hanging out Asia’s asshole”; the Hyborian lands aren’t even an extrusion or outcropping. No North Sea or Baltic divides them from the proto-Gaelic and proto-Nordic reavers who give them so much grief, and no Mediterranean or Black Sea serves them as a moat against the ambitions of satraps and sultans. As an “Asiatic” superpower the Ottomans had to take Constantinople and fight their way up through the Balkans to reach the gates of Vienna; Yezdigerd’s Turanians merely have to ride west to bedevil Shadizar, the cities of Brythunia, perhaps even Numalia.

Is our supposed “Hyboria” at least a distinct and demarcated region? Culturally and ethnically, yes, mostly, but we’re not talking a pre-Reformation unitary Christendom here. The Kothians have been seduced by Ishtar, the Hyperboreans cling to Bori, and the Gundermen could backslide at any time — in “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age” we read of them that “their main concession to the ways of their more civilized southern neighbors [was ] the adoption of the god Mitra in place of the more primitive Bori — a worship to which they returned, however, upon the fall of Aquilonia.” (This leads me to speculate that the mysterious “ancient feud” between Aquilonia and Hyperborea alluded to in ‘The Hyborian Age” is best explained not by a “Conanian” dynasty’s resentment of the Cimmerian’s adolescent captivity in Hyperborea — an episode that Howard did not reveal until 1936, four years after he drafted ‘The Hyborian Age” — but by Hyperborea’s wrath, as the surviving center of the Old Religion, over the conversion the Aquilonians exacted from the Gundermen in exchange for the protection and power-projection the larger kingdom could offer: jettisoning Bori for Mitra)

Thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare; the Hyborians have no equivalent of Latin or Greek. The Acheronian empire is hardly analogous to Rome as an underlier-state and aspirational model. Acheron does not shape the learning, languages, and institutions of the successor-kingdoms, save as a bogeyman. A Hyborian Charlemagne or Holy Roman Empire would not be conceivable. No way does the name of an Acheronian conqueror live on as a title of Hyborian rulers the way Caesar did as “Kaiser” and “Czar.” Things might have been different, though; one of the gobsmackingest surprises of The Bloody Crown of Conan was Howard’s original conception of Acheron as revealed in his “Untitled Synopsis” for The Hour of the Dragon: “Many centuries before the people of Acheron, Hyborians more highly civilized than their neighbors to the east and west, had been lords of an empire which included what was later southern Nemedia and Brythunia, most of Corinthia, most of Ophir, western Koth and the western lands of Shem, northern Argos, and eastern Aquilonia.” The “Untitled Synopsis” goes on to say “The descendants of the people of Acheron were more numerous than men supposed, dwelling in the fastness of the hills, in communities in the great cities, and scattered throughout the kingdom as priests, menials, secretaries, and scribes” Only the hill-folk made it into the novel we know today, and while the notion of relict Acheronian communities, an intelligentsia that durst not speak its name like the conversos of Spain or the Roman bureaucrats who kept things running while their new Germanic kings fashioned drinking goblets from the skulls of rivals, is a fascinating one, it had to go as soon as Howard souped up the Acheronians’ sinister mystique and made them not only un-Hyborian but mercilessly anti-Hyborian.

Absent Arus and Gorm, what might have befallen the latter-day Hyborian kingdoms? Let’s go with the European model for the sake of a little fun: having evolved in a few cases into constitutional democracies, they would detonate a catastrophic century with the assassination of a Kothian archduke. After the second of two devastating wars was launched by an ultranationalist totalitarian Nemedian regime, half would be liberated by armies from across the Western Ocean (I’m resisting the temptation of de Camp and Carter’s “Mayapan” here) while the other half was enslaved by the Union of Zaporoskan Socialist Republics. The luckier, freer nations would form a Common Market and a Hyborian Economic Community, introducing a new currency, the “hybo,” and then get contemptuously dismissed as “old Hyboria” by a Secretary of Defense from the western continent during his shortlived triumphalist phase.

It’s remarkable how often “Hyboria” misses its cue; Howard constantly refers to “the western world,” or “the Hyborian civilization,” as in “Five hundred years later the Hyborian civilization was swept away,” but never to you-know-what. When he conjures “a vast Pictish empire, wild, rude and barbaric, [stretching] from the coasts of Vanaheim in the north to the southernmost shores of Zingara,” we never get a phrase like “over the ashes of Hyboria.” Thus “For a short age Pict and Hyrkanian [snarl] at each other over the ruins of the world,” not “the ruins of Hyboria.” If just “a few names of lands, tribes and cities [remain] in the languages of the barbarians, to come down through the centuries connected with distorted legends and fable,” “Hyboria” is not one of those few names. Howard’s endlessly re-readable essay ends with these words: “The origins of other races of the modern world may be similarly traced; in almost every case, older by far than they realize, their history stretches back into the mists of the forgotten Hyborian age.” Same as it ever was; a time, not a place.

Our old friend the savant Astreas has no need of “Hyboria” when he writes to Alcemides in Nemedia, nor does any such name turn up in Howard’s “List of Hyborian Names and Countries” (see The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian). Orastes doesn’t resort to the term when he’s trying to scare the hell out of his fellow conspirators, nor does his killer when he in turn addresses the surviving three: “It is not Tarascus, nor Valerius, no, nor Amalric, but Xaltotun who is the real master of the western nations.”

I can roll with changes that involve adding to the Hyborian Age, or Conan’s world; I have a soft spot for Meru, the tropical Tibet of “City of Skulls,” and I wish de Camp and Carter had conveyed us to jungle-girded Angkhor in Kambuja, although Leonard Carpenter scratched that itch with Venjipur, the bad trip/jungle warfare quagmire into which the Turanian Army blunders in Conan the Hero. Even Yanyoga at the southernmost tip of the continent could have been memorable had “Shadows in the Skull” not been such a pathetic, Conn-blighted excuse for a story. But “Hyboria” adds nothing save. . .convenience. And I acknowledge the rueful wisdom of Rusty Burke’s dictum that getting Howard fans to agree on anything “is like herding cats. Big nasty saber-tooth cats.” Far be it from me to infringe on the freedom of action of Zabu and his Smilodon brethren; no, obviously each of us will do as he or she pleases. Especially the gaming industry; Howard purists would have better luck trying to boss the incoming tide around, Canute-style. But for me adopting the name “Hyboria” diminishes the purple-towered majesty of Howard’s conception, so down with incontinent references to this non-continent!

Anyone who grew up with Ballantine’s first authorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, the one expressly designed to hang the Ace “pirate” edition from the yardarm, will recall the JRRT statement on the back covers: “. . .This paperback edition and no other has been published with my consent and cooperation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other.” When Henry N. Beard and Douglas Kenney were readying their still-brilliant Bored of the Rings, they parodied everything about the Sixties Ballantine covers and their Barbara Remington artwork, and were careful to include a back cover “statement” of their own: “Those who approve of courtesy to a certain other living author will not touch this gobbler with a ten-foot battle-lance.” Well, Howard might be dead but his work is more alive than ever, and approving of courtesy to him as I do, I wouldn’t touch “Hyboria” with a twenty-foot battle-lance.

LEO ADDS: My first thought upon reading this was to wonder why you didn’t express your objection to the term “Hyboria” back in January of 2006 as a proofreader when the first triptych of Dick Tierney’s “The Doom of Hyboria” was set to appear in The Cimmerian! But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Howard would have enjoyed both the birth of this bastard word and the fight against it which you have kicked off here.

One of Howard’s many goals with “The Hyborian Age” was to create a mythical pre-history that resonated with the aura and complexity inherent in real history. Language in our real world is not static, it constantly evolves to deal with new needs and challenges, and that evolution almost always fails to follow rigorously logical paths. The ways in which old words are co-opted and reforged into new words with new meanings never ceases to charm me.

With that in mind, how is the construction “Hyboria” any more egregious than, say, using the appellation “Europe” to describe much the same terrain in modern times? The etymology of the latter word is shrouded in mists of prehistoric doubt, but regardless of whether it came from the Greeks, the Akkadians, or some other forgotten people, and regardless of whether it was originally the name of a mythological princess or just a descriptive name for a people or a place now unknown, it grew and morphed over millennia and with the rise of The West finally achieved its present continental importance.

Might not the current, unconscious mass embracing of “Hyboria” among fans be the result of a similarly fascinating dynamic at play regarding Howard’s world? A linguistic maturation which Howard didn’t expect to occur, but which in hindsight he may have approved of had he lived to see it? I consider it a testament to the depth and complexity of his creation to see it fall prey to the same sorts of messy etymological forces that have shaped the real world. To me, Hyboria feels as wrongly right as Crusader-era Muslims calling all of Roman Christian Europe Frengistan — The Land of the Franks — regardless of how reductive that term sounds to modern ears.

And while it may be argued that it is unfortunate that Howard isn’t around to approve, the same can be said about any of the movers and shakers of real history, all of whose names and struggles and languages have been endlessly pilfered, rebranded, and artfully skewed to fit the needs of new peoples. Fandom can thus be seen to be taking Howard’s already half-buried vision and unintentionally covering it with fresh layers of geologic sediment. Obscuring a bit of Howard’s protean world-building, yes, but in doing so making the archaological unearthing of the original creation by Hyborian scholars all the more fun.

Take this piece of yours: with the drift of “history” causing such a glaring “mistake” to happen, we now have the Hyborian scholar coming in with his research, showing us exactly what occurred and how it is at odds with the “actual” civilizational composition and racial migrations of that timeworn epoch. How many fictional worlds could support such discussions about the precise meaning of one word without quickly falling apart under the pseudo-historical scrutiny? Your entire argument rests on a detailed analysis of Howard’s imagined geography, philology, archeology, anthropology, theology, and polemology, all of which must retain an impressive internal consistency throughout the examination. On this, the 72nd anniversary of Howard’s death, the ability of his Hyborian Age to withstand your prolonged (decades and counting) eagle-eyed gaze is a heartening spectacle indeed.

Thus I can sympathize with your argument without abhorring the word that lured it into the sunlight. To my mind, the mere existence of a movement towards Hyboria reflects the scope and durability of Howard’s imaginative genius.