The Library of Female Pirates has thus far focused on historical accounts of real people. But today, let’s have a look at one of my favorite pirate stories: Queen of the Black Coast, by Robert E. Howard, featuring Conan’s brief and ill-fated romance with Bêlit.
The following pages are excerpted from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Random House 2002, compiled by Patrice Louinet, editor, and illustrated by Mark Schultz. It presents the first thirteen Conan stories in their original versions, in the order Howard wrote them. My only criticism is the exceedingly small font size for the text, with letters so thin they practically disappear into the page. The book’s completeness and Schultz’s beautiful artwork make this a worthy paperback anyway, and I suppose you could buy the Kindle version instead of investing in a magnifying glass for the print edition.
In his Foreword, Schultz calls Queen of the Black Coast one of the “indisputable classics of fantastic short fiction, richly deserving recognition and appreciation outside the genre.” You can also appreciate it outside the printed page by listening to a reading of the entire tale, free of charge, at Librivox: Conan and the Queen of the Black Coast. (You have the options to either stream it or download the audio files so you have your own copy.)
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan have taken on a modern comic book adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast for Darkhorse in recent years. It is not the tale’s first appearance in comics, either. The good folks at Longbox Graveyard have reviewed the Marvel Comics adaptation at Queen of the Black Coast. The review includes covers and panels like this glorious Buscema rendering of the final, tragic scene:
What is it about this story that has earned such widespread admiration? Howard’s prose certainly deserves the credit. With a plot that could easily be presented as pulp silliness, Queen of the Black Coast sings like a literary masterpiece under Howard’s pen. The world of masculine power fantasy and adventure take on an urgent, brutal, and even philosophic reality through the author’s use of language.
But what of the character of Bêlit? She is as full of the drive for savage conquest as Conan, and does not fall into the “damsel in distress” role. She is tough, and she is in charge, and her dialogue reveals a sharp mind. This makes the scene of her mating dance a bit hard to swallow, where this incredibly powerful woman suddenly throws herself at Conan’s feet and begs him to take her. This may be the one out-of-tune note in an otherwise brilliantly composed symphony of female piracy.
But Bêlit is no shrinking violet who tumbles passively into the barbarian’s arms. After an all-too brief narration summarizing what must have been an epic season of seafaring mayhem for them, she takes her brawny adventurer on a truly suicidal mission. “We fear nothing,” she says to him boldly. “Let us go and sack that city.” It’s easy to see why Conan loves her!
Other reviewers of this tale have pointed out that Bêlit is a Shemite, which is Howard’s version of Semite, and that Howard borders on ethnic stereotyping by having a Jewish character whose main love is riches and jewels. But I find this avarice very much in character with what we would expect from a pirate, regardless of ethnicity, and we should keep in mind that Howard used all kinds of warrior races as models for his imaginary civilizations. It seems far more odd that Bêlit is described as having pure white skin, despite spending her life in the blazing sun on the decks of her ships!
Bêlit has a dialogue with Conan in which they discuss their philosophies, and she makes her pledge that she would come back from the grave to save him, so powerful is their love. Along with her dance, these are her major character scenes. After a scene in which she directs her crew in the plunder of some hidden jewels, even heartlessly sacrficing a few of them to do it, Bêlit meets a tragic end off-camera. She dies while the reader joins Conan in the jungle getting his psychedelic trip on thanks to the touch of a nasty plant called the black lotus. That Bêlit should become such a memorable character and bear so much narrative expansion in later adaptations is a testament to the way she commands attention in her brief but intense screen time.
Conan’s final scene is poignant. The sea means nothing to him without her. It only mattered to him because it mattered to her, and its music is no longer a siren song for him but a lonely requiem. Not even jewels mean anything to him, as he evidences by including them on her boat with her body, which he sends out to the ocean in a blaze. Howard writes it believably, but the depth of Conan’s emotion tells us that he and his pirate love had bonded with an intensity that perhaps the short story did not have the time to fully explore. Still, it is a beautiful monument to the passion and romance female pirates can stir within us, and the loss we feel when they must take that final, fiery voyage back to the seas they loved so much.
Fair winds and following seas, Bêlit.