The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
—The Song of Bêlit

Robert E. Howard’s novellette “Queen of the Black Coast” was published in Weird Tales May 1934. It was the ninth story of Conan the Cimmerian published in Weird Tales, and is notable as one of the most popular, critically lauded, and most influential of the Conan adventures. The story by itself is very tightly contained, with Conan and Bêlit meeting, falling in love, and being separated by death all within five quick-paced chapters. The story and characters have been adapted several times in comics, with the writers and artists stretching out the narrative inserting additional episodes so that more of the adventures (and romance) of Conan and Bêlit can be explored. The story provided the inspiration for the first Conan comic, La Reina de la Costa Negra, and in 2019 Marvel Comics published a prequel series Age of Conan: BelitPoul Anderson wrote an entire authorized novel, Conan the Rebel (1980) which similarly takes part between the first and second parts of “Queen of the Black Coast.”

In that dead citadel of crumbling stone.
Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
And curious madness took me by the throat,
As of a rival lover thrust between
—The Song of Bêlit

As the name implies, and the “Song of Bêlit” that opens each chapter, Bêlit herself is a character coeval with Conan for this story—it is her story as much as it is his, and can be compared to “The Phoenix on the Sword” in how she is presented through her song as already a legend to the readers. While Conan would be involved with many women throughout the series as written by Howard (and expanded on by various others), Bêlit represents his first, and for most of his initial run in Weird Tales, only real equal: a woman, warrior, and queen as fierce as himself. In authorized and unauthorized materials, writers and artists have explored and expanded on her character and characterization.

Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curst each laggard hour that does not see
Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.
—The Song of Bêlit

Fandom and literary criticism have both borrowed the term canon to refer to those texts in a particular series or body of works which are considered, for whatever purposes may be put to them, to be “true” in any given sense. The idea of canon gets murkier when you consider that anyone can potentially write their own sequel, prequel, etc. to a given story, they can take an established character and put them in an entirely new story of their own invention, or take their character and put them into an established setting. Different writers can draw connections between their work, as Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard did by slipping references to each other’s fictional worlds into their own stories, so that Howard’s Hyborian Age is technically a node of the Cthulhu Mythos shared universe…

How much of that is canon? It depends. Pretty much everyone agrees that what Robert E. Howard wrote and published during his life is as “canon” as Conan gets. What about his unpublished works, like “The God in the Bowl?” What about unfinished works, which were completed by later authors? What about works that were officially commisioned and licensed by Conan’s estate or their agents, like the aforementioned comic books and Conan the Rebel? What about works which are set in the period but don’t feature Conan at all, like The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella?

The question closely parallels (and in places, overlaps) with questions of canonicity in the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s fiction is generally considered as canonical Mythos as you can get, and Lovecraft includes references to Howard’s stories: does that make Conan & company Mythos-canon by extension? All or none of these might be “canon,” depending on whom you ask. In terms of fandom, you yourself as the reader are the final arbiter for what you consider canon.

The intellectual property lawyers might have other ideas.

The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.
—The Song of Bêlit

Intellectual property law is complicated, and there is money invested in copyrights and trademarks. It’s not just a question of publishing collections of Howard’s original stories: all the writers, artists, inkers, colorists, letterers, editors, etc. who produce new works of Conan are contributing to the total body of Conan-related work, and there are rights, percentages, and real money, issues of creative control and branding that are at stake. While it’s nice to think that Conan and Bêlit’s ongoing appeal is due to Robert E. Howard’s original story alone, the reality is that there decades of work by many individuals that have gone into the ongoing promotion, adaptation, and development of the Conan properties…but, eventually, copyrights expire and a work falls into the public domain.

In the European Union “Queen of the Black Coast” is in the public domain. That doesn’t just mean that publishers can freely translate and publish it, but that authors can take the original text and transform them into original works in various ways. Which is exactly what Rodolfo Martínez did.

Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
Blue girdle of the world, receive again
Her whom thou gavest me.
—The Song of Bêlit

Martínez is a Spanish fantasy and science fiction writer and translator, perhaps most notable to English-language audiences for his Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Wisdom of the Dead (2019). The Song of Bêlit is a pastiche of and expansion of Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”—literally reproducing essentially the entirety of the text of Howard’s novelette, but wrapped around and combined with original chapters that extend and expand the scope of the original story.

Except for the chunks of pure Howard, the story is a pastiche in the purest sense: Martínez is familiar with Howard’s entire Conan ouevre, including the stories that had not yet been written when “Queen of the Black Coast” was, and in addition to Conan and Bêlit other familiar characters poke their head in to the narrative, which is considerably lengthened and convoluted. It’s a fun story, and doesn’t come up to Howard’s original prose, but then no one but Howard could do that. There are a few errors, no doubt more from translation issues than anything else; the wizard Thoth-Amon from “The Phoenix on the Sword” is here as “Toth-Amon.” There are a few references to Isis and Osiris that might have made even Howard wince—but then again, perhaps not.

Rodolfo Martínez was cognizant of all the criticism he might receive for doing this, and discusses the issues involved in some depth in an essay at the end of the book. One of the most interesting things is that Martínez did not just sit down and write the novel; he mapped out the blank space between the beginning of “Queen of the Black Coast” and the end, the three years which Howard had said separated Conan and Bêlit’s meeting and their parting. Howard later alluded to some of the events that happened during this period in later stories, and those had to happen, but beyond that Martínez wished to deliberately avoid the plot that Roy Thomas had written when he expanded on that missing period during his run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian.

The approach is very Sherlockian: finding the gaps in the existing canon, trying to fill it with something new while not reproducing someone else’s work. Which is what makes The Song of Bêlit a kind of recension—a variation on a text, part of a group of texts. Martínez was trying to fill in the gaps without contradicting anything that Howard wrote (although he does a little judicious shuffling of paragraphs for narrative purposes). So consider this a “might have been”…and, perhaps more importantly, a glimpse at what might yet be.

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
—The Song of Bêlit

By itself, The Song of Bêlit is an oddity: a Spanish fantasy novel based on a public domain English pulp novelette, now translated into English and available to buy and read. Yet in making that transatlantic crossing to the United States of America where copyright law is different, it gives readers a first taste of what is to come.

Because when they enter the public domain, that means that anyone can play with Howard’s original text, and write original stories with Howard’s characters. We’ve already seen something of the explosion of creativity that has led to with regard to Lovecraft and his Mythos. Who can forget Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky & “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon? We have seen far from the last of Bêlit, whether in her own adventures or with Conan by her side, readers will no doubt see much, much more of their characters…and then they will have to decide for themselves which stories fit into their canon.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

3 thoughts on “The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez

  1. Fascinating and informative, as usual.

    “While it’s nice to think that Conan and Bêlit’s ongoing appeal is due to Robert E. Howard’s original story alone, the reality is that there decades of work by many individuals that have gone into the ongoing promotion, adaptation, and development of the Conan properties…”

    Indeed! And then there is Red Sonja, far more popular (she’s had her own comic, and movie) and widely-known a warrior-woman than Bêlit.

    Roy Thomas — knowledgeable about fiction from the pulps, classic SF, and “golden age” comics — campaigned for years to convince Stan Lee that Conan would be “marketable” as a comics writer.

    And he transmogrified REH’s Red Sonya of Rogatino, “a gun-slinging warrior woman of Polish-Ukrainian origin with a grudge against the Ottoman sultan” (as the Wikipedia entry for “”The Shadow of the Vulture” describes) into the Conan-era Sonja.

    More credit for the character’s popularity goes to artist Frank Thorne, who inflated her assets to melon-sized, and put her into a chain-mail bikini.

    Like

      1. You’re right, Maroto DID draw her for a while! Hmmm… (Trying to recall that far back, and failing…)

        Like

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