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Literature / The Hour of the Dragon

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Cover by Frank Frazetta for Lancer Books.

The Hour of the Dragon is the only full-length Conan the Barbarian novel by Robert E. Howard. Published in 5 parts, from December, 1935 to April, 1936.

An ancient wizard named Xaltotun is brought Back from the Dead by a group of Nemedian conspirators using the Heart of Ahriman. Xaltotun seeks to conquer the world, but first he sets his eyes on Aquilonia, and its king, Conan. Using his dark magic, he defeats Conan and locks him away, setting his forces to reap the spoils of Conan's fallen kingdom.

A slave girl named Zenobia, who has fallen in love with Conan, helps him to escape and steal the Heart of Ahriman. Unfortunately, Conan loses the Heart, and must travel from one end of Hyboria to the other in order to get it back, having many adventures along the way. All the while he is pursued by Xaltotun's evil minions, who seek to reclaim the Heart.

After reclaiming the Heart, Conan rallies his forces, including an order of good magic users called the Cult of Asura, and sets out to reclaim his kingdom and save the world from Xaltotun.

Marvel Comics began their adaptation of the story in their Conan the Barbarian comic book and finished it in the Savage Sword of Conan magazine. Darkhorse Comics would make their own comic adaptation years later. Ablaze, as of 2022, have taken to adapting the story as well.

The story received a loose adaptation with the 1997's Kull The Conqueror movie.

The Hour of the Tropes:

  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The book was written in late 1933 or early 1934, shortly after Hitler took power in Germany. Looking at the map appearing in every Conan book it is clear that Aquilonia is France and Nemedia is Germany - hereditary enemies. There is a new regime in Nemedia, which initially arouses enthusiasm, immediately starts planning war and conquest, and perpetrates countless atrocities. Xaltotun plans to perpetrate "the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen" in order to bring back the glories of an ancient empire. Nemedia/Germany occupies Aquilonia/France, puts a collaborator regime in power, brutally oppresses the Aquilonian Resistance. Finally, the Aquilonians are liberated and take grim revenge on those who had collaborated with the occupiers. Howard, who would not live to see World War II, made a fairly accurate prediction.
  • Artifact of Doom: Inverted with the Heart of Ahriman, which is an artifact of pure good. When Xaltotun comes into posession of it, he hides it in a box because he knows that it can not be used to aid his evil magic. He also knows that it's the only thing capable of destroying him.
  • Back from the Dead: Xaltotun is resurrected by Orestes using the Heart of Ahriman at the beginning of the story.
  • Beautiful Slave Girl: Zenobia, who is a harem slave to the King of Nemedia (although he has so many girls in his harem that he has never touched her).
  • Big Bad: Xaltotun, the ancient Evil Sorceror, raised to help the conspirators fulfill their ambitions before they learn Evil Is Not a Toy.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Xaltotun during the Final Battle mocks Hadrathus of the Cult of Asura as a dog and "false priest of an outworn god" and that he will witness magic terrible enough to drive him to madness. Xaltotun sings a very different tune when Hadrathus reveals he has the Heart of Ahriman.
  • Blood Magic: Xaltotun takes his sweet time using his sorcery to influence the final battle, and when challenged about it explains that blood empowers great sorcery, and he'd rather conserve his strength. Apparently, it doesn't matter if the blood is enemy or ally, as the army Xaltotun supports takes heavy casualties while we waits to his magic.
  • Book Ends: The story begins and ends with the army of Aquilonia going into battle with the army of Nemedia.
  • Burn the Witch!: Happens to Zelata, fortunately she is saved by Conan.
  • The Caligula: Valerius' reign as false king of Aquilonia is known for such debauchery and decadence that even his own allies tell him that he's overdoing it. What they don't realize is he's intentionally doing it.
  • Came Back Wrong: Of a benign nature. The ritual to revive the powerful Stygian wizard Thoth-mekri was not completed due to an interruption, so unlike Xaltotun he still believes himself dead, simply handing the Heart of Ahriman to Conan and leading him out of the labyrinthine temple at his request before retreating back into the crypts.
  • Damsel in Distress and Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Countess Albiona. One of Conan's fiercely loyal subjects. Very young, innocent, with a "proud, rebellious spirit," so Valerius steals her lands, locks her up in The Iron Tower, And Now You Must Marry Me. She quite sensibly refuses, so she's about to be beheaded. Fortunately, Conan finds out and rescues her, assisted by the Asura priests. Safe in Count Trocero's palace in Poitain, she verifies what she and Conan found out from the Asura devotees about Xaltotun's longevity and power.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The Cult of Asura. Its members wear dark robes and are extremely secretive, but they happily aid Conan in regaining his throne.
  • Decadent Court: Valerius turns the Aquilonian court into this after taking over.
  • Decapitated Army: Invoked, Discussed, and Played Straight. As dawn breaks and the hosts of Nemedia and Aquilonia square off to do battle, King Conan is paralyzed in his tent by some foul sorcery. His general notes that, if their mythically undefeatable warrior king does not lead the charge, the army will lose morale and break, so they dress someone of Conan's approximate stature in the king's armor and have him lead the charge. When the substitute falls in battle, the Aquilonian army is instantly routed.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Two-fold. Amalric is merely a baron, nominally subordinate to both Tarascus and Valerius, but everyone knows his wealth and power is what really drives the takeover of both Nemedia and Aquilonia. And in the final battle, it is his death that puts the final nail in the coffin of those opposing Conan. But above even him is Xaltotun; he theoretically has no political power at all, but when, late in the story, he tells the others that he is "the real master of the western nations," they are chilled by the sudden realization that he is correct.
  • Dual Wielding: Conan uses sword and dagger to fend off the ghouls that attack him and his horse in the haunted woods.
  • El Cid Ploy: When Conan is disabled by sorcery before the first battle, his advisers try this (over Conan's objections; Conan himself asked them to strap him into his saddle so he could still lead the charge). It fails, because the stand-in doesn't have Conan's battle experience and falls for a trap— just as Xaltotun planned.
  • The Empire: The thankfully long-fallen dark realm of Acheron. Xaltotun intends to resurrect it, perhaps literally. Tarascus and Amalric both have intentions to turn Aquilonia and Nemedia into the seed of a new empire, but there can be only one imperial throne...
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: The conspirators quickly learn that they're not using Xaltotun to advance their agendas, he's using them to advance his.
  • Evil Is Not Well-Lit: The dungeon Xaltotun imprisons Conan un is just shy of pitch black, only some shafts admitting faint moonlight give it illumination once the jailers take their torches with them. Conan even suspects the shafts close by day, permitting prisoners faint moonlight but no sunlight as a from of psychological torture.
  • Evil Overlord: Xaltotun, High Priest of Set and sorcerer-king of Acheron.
  • Famed in Story: Conan. He uses it.
  • Fisher King: Conan's loss of his throne and the corresponding loss of the Heart of Ahriman leads to the devastation of Aquilonia. Though not exactly mystical, this was very much deliberate as Howard was writing the story for a British market.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: After Zenobia helps Conan escape from the dungeons of Nemedia's Royal Palace, Conan rewards her by marrying her and making her the queen of Aquilonia. Even in the few pages they're together, some effort is made to show why Conan would like her for queen. She loves him devotedly, but is very sensible, brings him proper weapons, steals a perfect horse for him, and keeps her head in a crisis. Also, several of Conan's allies tell him frankly that if he had a son, things would have been a lot different after he "died" since the people could have rallied around the heir (even if he wasn't yet of age).
  • Girl in the Tower: Countess Albiona.
  • Grand Finale: Howard originally intended the story as this.
  • Happily Ever After: In the very last sentence of the book, Conan speaks of Zenobia, the slave girl who saved him at great risk to herself: "She was a slave in Nemedia, but I will make her a queen in Aquilonia". Howard wrote no Conan adventures set beyond this moment, evidently intending his hero to have some bit of rest in a blissful happy marriage, and hopefully Babies Ever After to continue his kingdom in the future.
  • Happy Rain: The end of the plague is a storm.
  • I Want Them Alive!:
    • Played straight by Xaltotun, who believes Conan might be of some use to him and keeps Conan alive against all advice to the contrary.
    • Defied by Valerius, who, upon hearing Conan is alive and rescued Countess Albiona, orders his men to find her and kill her and her companion on sight, "Do not try to take them alive."
  • Kick the Dog: Xaltotun turns the belt of a soldier into a deadly snake, which promptly kills the poor soldier with its venom. Xaltotun does this simply to illustrate to his allies how dangerous he is.
  • Killer Gorilla: Conan encounters one while escaping from a Nemedian dungeon.
  • Love at First Sight: When Zenobia first appears at the door of Conan's cell and offers to free him, he is initially suspicious of her motives. She explains: "I have loved you, King Conan, ever since I saw you riding at the head of your knights when you visited King Nimed years ago. My heart tugged at its strings to leap from my bosom and fall in the dust of the street under your horse's hooves".
  • Magic is Evil: Subverted. Unlike most Conan stories written by Howard, in which Conan overcomes evil wizards or supernatural monsters via mundane means, Conan in this story is aided by good-aligned magic users such as Zelata and the Cult of Asura.
  • MacGuffin: The Heart of Ahriman, the only device which can withstand Xaltotun's sorcery, and because it gave him life it can take it away.
  • Mugging the Monster: A galley captain is short a seaman and decides to kidnap an unconscious Conan. Conan reacts exactly as you would expect him to.
  • Nature Hero: Zelata the witch. She lives away from civilisation, finds animals to be much more friendly than humans, and has both a wolf and eagle for companions.
  • Nerves of Steel: The conspirators awakening Xaltotun are described as having these, for even witnessing such black sorcery should drive most men mad.
  • No Immortal Inertia: Xaltotun reverts to a shriveled mummy when the magic that brought him back is dispelled. Zelata claims his living appearance was merely a Glamour.
  • Noble Wolf: Zelata has one.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Though Valerius seems to be a completely debauched wastrel, there is a method to his madness. He hates pretty much everyone in both Aquilonia and Nemedia, especially Amalric, and wants to ruin both kingdoms so thoroughly that Amalric's imperial ambitions will never be realized. It also doesn't help that he realizes early on that he is utterly expendable to his "allies" and will be replaced the moment that he has served his purpose as their puppet ruler.
  • Ominous Fog: Hadrathus summons one to aid some refugees in ambushing Tarascus and his host while they attempt a flanking maneuver on Conan's army.
  • One-Steve Limit: Amalric is the name of three distinct characters within the Conan legendarium: An Aquilonian soldier of fortune who adventures with Conan throughout the Black Kingdoms in "The Drums of Tombalku", the leader of a Nemedian mercenary company who allies himself with Conan during a Khorajan civil war in "Black Colossus", and the Nemedian nobleman who bankrolls Valerius's coup here. It's never explicitly spelled out if they're all supposed to be the same guy, or if this is just a case of Howard's penchant for using similar-sounding names for characters catching up with him. The name Valerius was also used for one of Conan's allies in "A Witch Shall Be Born".
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: Man- (and horse-) eating monsters in a haunted wood. One is strong enough to give Conan a rough time of slaying it, against the full pack he keeps them at bay long enough to mount his horse and flee.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Xaltotun is necromancer of ancient Acheron dead some three thousand years, given life again by the Heart of Ahriman. He was killed well after the fall of Acheron, and a coin minted some 100 years before the fall bears his likeness, indicating he lived for an unnaturally long time.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Akivasha is a legend of a woman granted eternal youth and beauty in a paradisaical afterlife, essentially a tale of Too Good for This Sinful Earth (in some tellings that she blows off as the words of "fools"; other tales of her are apparently far less benign). In reality, she's a lonely vampire lurking in the subterranean bowls of a Stygian temple, commanding nameless horrors who dwell in its darkness, tossed the odd virgin sacrifice to slake her blood thirst. She wants Conan mainly because she wants to taste male blood again, partly because she wants a vampire mate to spend eternity with her.
  • Power Crystal: The Heart of Ahriman, aside from being the MacGuffin, is a magical artifact so powerful and mysterious that it can bring the dead back to life which no other magic can do - and that is considered one of the least of its abilities. Not even Xaltotun, the greatest Acheronian sorcerer of his day had unlocked all or even most of its secrets. Xaltotun even feared it for this reason and kept it safely hidden because it could undo him easily.
  • The Power of Friendship: Many of Conan's triumphs in this story are due to assistance from allies that he helped at some point in the past. The villains, on the other hand, ultimately fail because they have their own conflicting secret agendas, do not trust each other, and cannot work together effectively. In fact, the villain's downfall began the very moment Tarascus stole the Heart of Ahriman without Xaltotun's knowledge, believing it was the source of his power but in reality was the only thing capable of stopping him, and sends it away. This is the only reason why Conan is able to go on his quest for it, retrieve the Heart, and put an end to the villain's plans.
  • Plot-Irrelevant Villain: The vampire princess Akivasha is just one obstacle that Conan faces on his adventure, she has no ties with Xaltotun or his conspirators whatsoever. Conan doesn't even kill her, he flees her lair and she isn't even referenced ever again at the end.
  • Religion of Evil: Inverted with the cult of Asura, an eastern deity whose followers were accused during Conan´s reign of performing human sacrifices, eating human flesh and casting black magic. Being a man who knows a lot about actual evil sorcerers, he did not believe any of it and ordered the priests of Mitra to leave them alone. That gesture turned all followers of Asura unto his stalwart supporters whose help will end being crucial against his enemies.
  • Rightful King Returns: Twice.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Big time. The novel begins with Conan leading an army into battle, then he escapes from the dungeons of Nemedia, then he goes on a quest to recover the only weapon capable of destroying Xaltotun, and the novel ends with him rallying an army to his cause and defeating the invaders. Conan is probably the most proactive king in fantasy since King Arthur.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: The Khitan assassins Valerius sics on Conan pursue him across several kingdoms and an ocean without much trouble. They appear to be doing much of it just by smell.
  • Secret Circle of Secrets: The cult of Asura.
  • Seers: Zelata gives Conan some cryptic advice, prophesy from the gods, about reclaiming "the heart of his kingdom." Conan initially assumes this to be the steadfast holdouts against the occupation in Poitain, but when he hears about the Heart of Ahriman from Hadrathous, the message clicks.
  • Slave Galley: Conan get shanghaied to served in one, at least until he takes over the galley in question.
  • The Starscream: Almaric wanted to manipulate his allies in order to become the emperor of the Hyborian kingdoms.
  • There Are No Coincidences: The first time we see Conan in person, he clearly isn't buying the idea that the recent plague in Nemedia was a natural occurrence, stating that it was far too swift and killed too discriminately to have been anything other than some sort of sorcery, particularly how it ended when the royal family was killed off and conveniently letting Tarascus ascend to the throne.
  • Touch of Death: The Stygian priest Thutothmes uses the Black Hand of Set, which turns his hand fully black and kills at the merest touch, to deal with his enemies.
  • Turn Coat: Publio promises to aid Conan, since Conan used to a pirate not sanctioned by the government of Argos, and Publio did business with him, and if it comes it would cost both of them their heads. Publio decides it would be better for some assassins to eliminate Conan to remove the threat of his ties to the pirate ever being uncovered.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: In Argos, the fact that Conan the Cimmerian, King of Aquilonia and Amra the Lion, the legendary pirate, are one and the same is known to a select few.
  • The Undead: The Heart of Ahriman can grant a sort of false life to long dead and mummified corpses that has all the appearance and function of true life - however it is still a false life and can be undone by the same magic from the jewel that granted it.
  • The Vamp: Akivasha.
  • Villain Opening Scene: With the conspirators as they bring Xaltotun back to life.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Xaltotun has one when he sees that Hadrathus and Zelata have the Heart of Ahriman in their possession.
  • Villainous Valor: Tarascus when he realizes the battle is lost refuses to retreat but makes a beeline directly to Conan to fight him. His defeat is swift, but Tarascus is still pragmatic enough to surrender willingly rather than be slain.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Xaltotun attempts this to unleash an unholy fury upon the heroes, but is stopped.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: When executions are held.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Tarascus believes the Heart of Ahriman is the source (or at the very least, an amplifier) of Xaltotun's black magic, so he has it stolen from where Xaltotun hides it and replaced with a fake one so his men can dispose of it in hopes Xaltotun will be weakened in case of inevitable betrayal. In fact, the Heart is the only thing that can actually counter Xaltotun's dark magics, and Conan's quest and victory is only made possible by this act.