Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm

I’m going to review one more short story, this one written by de Camp and Carter for the 1969 collection Conan of Cimmeria. It takes place in Asgard, but naturally follows the timeline of de Camp, and is thus well into Conan’s career according to its italicized prologue. Most of the time, however, the only thing placing one of these de Camp stories into any particular place in the timeline is the italicized prologue, with the story itself utterly devoid of any particular temporal markers. We’ll see if the Lair of the Ice Worm can’t be fit into a chronology that sets Conan’s northern adventures earlier in his career. The main question there is whether Conan actually leaves Asgard, which would conflict with his leaving Asgard via Hyperborea and then escaping Hyperborea during the Legion of the Dead and the Thing in the Crypt.

Chapter 1

Conan has come to an evil glacier, and scoffs at the idea that glaciers could be evil. Probably all the people who died up there just sucked at mountaineering. In fairness, a mountain is perfectly capable of murdering people without supernatural aid. On the other hand, Conan refers directly back to his recent encounters with the supernatural:

Conan was eager to descend the pass into the low hills of the Border Kingdom, for he had begun to find the simple life of his native Cimmerian village boring. His ill-fated adventure with a band of golden-haired AEsir on a raid into Vanaheim had brought him hard knocks and no profit. It had also left him with the haunting memory of the icy beauty of Atali, the frost giant’s daughter, who had nearly lured him to an icy death.

You just barely had a run-in with a frost giant. Why are you so skeptical that this glacier might be haunted? Or just, y’know, home to frost giants?

The story does firmly set itself after a time when Conan has been south of Cimmeria:

Altogether, he had had all he wanted of the bleak northlands. He burned to get back to the hot lands of the South, to taste again the joys of silken raiment, golden wine, fine victuals, and soft feminine flesh. Enough, he thought, of the dull round of village life and the Spartan austerities of camp and field!

You could make an argument that this fits as well for Conan having briefly raided Aquilonia post-Venarium as it could be referring to his thief years further south, but that’s kind of a stretch. It seems like it’s going to be an ongoing theme and not just a stray paragraph, too. I’m happy to assume Conan of Venarium’s last chapter just never happened and equally happy to ignore a stray paragraph of Lair of the Ice Worm, but in the first case only because that last chapter served no narrative purpose, it was just the final vignette in a series of disconnected vignettes, and in the latter case I’m only willing to discard that paragraph if it ends up being trivial to the story. If “I’m sick of the northlands and want to go back south, a place with which I have extensive experience” is meant to be an ongoing theme, then the whole story is set firmly later on in Conan’s career.

I’m writing a lot more about the timeline than I anticipated.

After musing about how much vikings suck, Conan stumbles across the plot.

A bowshot away to his left, where the glacier leveled off before beginning its final descent, a group of shaggy, hulking creatures ringed a dim girl in white furs. Even at this distance, in the clear mountain air, Conan could discern the warm, fresh-cheeked oval of her face and the mane of glossy brown hair that escaped from under her white hood. She was a real beauty.

Don’t be so judgmental, Conan. You don’t know the girl is dim. Maybe she had perfectly good reasons for getting herself into this situation.

As the startled beast reared a little in the haste with which it bounded forward, Conan opened his mouth to utter the weird and terrible Cimmerian war cryóthen [sic] shut it again with a snap. As a younger man he would have uttered this shout to hearten himself, but his years of Turanian service had taught him the rudiments of craftiness. There was no use in warning the girl’s attackers of his coming any sooner than he must

This story really likes reminding us that Conan’s been to the south, but it has yet to make a difference. It tries to paint Conan as being more cunning and crafty here than he was as a youth, but it also places this story as a direct sequel to the Frost Giant’s Daughter, in which Conan is an impulsive twit easily led by his dick into an ambush. Unless those years of Turanian service are meant to have happened between Frost Giant’s Daughter and Lair of the Ice Worm, this is just inconsistent characterization.

Chapter 2

Conan rides in and out amongst the hulking, brutish “mountain men.” Your stereotypical cave man types, caricatures of Neanderthals like racists from 40,000 BC made political cartoons. He’s able to use his greater speed and maneuverability of his mount to pick them off from the sides of their pack, but his horse is wounded in the fight. Though the surviving cavemen are already fleeing by the time Conan is grounded, both he and the woman he sought to rescue are stranded without a horse on the murder glacier. She’s from the Border Kingdoms, some Hyperborean emigrant who’ve since begun feuding with the cavemen of the glacier.

In two different places in this chapter, Carter and de Camp stop to remind us that this story definitely takes place later in Conan’s career despite both times requiring they explain away how that doesn’t actually fit. First they have to explain why Conan brought a prize steed from Zamora yet didn’t have it during the Frost Giant’s Daughter:

“Crom damn me for a meddling fool!” he growled to himself. Horses were scarce and costly in the northlands. He had ridden this steed all the way from far Zamora. He had stabled and fed and pampered it through the long winter. He had left it behind when he joined the AEsir in their raid, knowing that deep snow and treacherous ice would rob it of most of its usefulness.

This is a fairly reasonable explanation, but oddly enough the explanation that fits less is the one where Carter and de Camp need to explain away events not from Robert E. Howard’s stories, but from their own stories:

Conan grunted his sympathy; his profound dislike of Hyperboreans, based upon his sojourn in a Hyperborean slave pen, did not extend to their women.

But he was enslaved by a woman! It was an evil queen that abducted him. Sure, there’s no particular reason for Conan to despise a totally unrelated Hyperborean tribe because some Hyperborean sorceress captured him, but this explanation – only necessary because de Camp and Carter insisted on dropping another marker firmly placing this story in a specific spot in the timeline – doesn’t make sense with the circumstances of Conan’s capture. The Legion of the Dead hadn’t been written yet, but it was these two guys who wrote it.

Granted, I’m biased, because I have my own timeline project that the writers of this story seem actively opposed to, but it’s still weird how often they’re making callbacks to earlier stories only to immediately provide some justification for why those earlier stories will not actually impact the events of this one at all.

Chapter 3

Conan seeks out shelter.

Ilga had been reluctant to accompany Conan, although he made it plain that he meant the lass no harm. She had tugged away from his hand, crying out an unfamiliar word, which sounded something like yakhmar. At length, losing patience, he had given her a mild cuff on the side of the head and carried her unconscious to the dank haven of the cave.

Jesus, man, what do you care if she runs off and dies on the glacier? She wants to die a stupid death, let her. Plus, y’know, odds are fantastic that “yakhmar” means “we’re going to be eaten by an ice worm you dipshit.”

Conan hacks up his horse for dinner and then the two of them have sex for basically no reason except that Conan is fantasy Kirk and ends up having sex with basically every woman he meets. Conan falls asleep immediately afterwards, but Ilga remains awake long enough to be Pied Piper’d away, presumably by the titular ice worm:

Like one walking in a dream, Ilga rose, letting her side of the bearskin cloak slide to her feet. Naked, a slim white form against the dimness, she went forward into the darkness of the tunnel and vanished. The hellish piping faded and ceased; the cold green eyes wavered and disappeared. And Conan slept on.

Chapter 4

Ilga was apparently lured outside, onto the glacier, not deeper within it, because it’s after emerging from the glacier and following the worm tracks past the hacked up remains of his horse that he finds her dismembered body. So not only has Ilga’s warning about the ice worm proven completely accurate, but it was her, the one dragged against her will into its hunting grounds, that paid the price for it.

Her head was gone, and with it most of the flesh of her upper body, so that the white bones gleamed like ivory in the dimming moonlight. The protruding bones had been cleaned, as if the flesh had been sucked from them or rasped off by some many-toothed tongue.

Conan was a warrior, the hard song of a hard people, who had seen death in a thousand forms. But now a mighty rage shook him. A few hours before, this slim, warm girl had lain in the mighty circle of his arms, returning passion for passion. Now nothing was left of her but a sprawled, headless thing, like a doll broken and thrown away.

Really? Are you sure the reason you’re so angry isn’t because this is completely your fault? Dumbass.

Chapter 5

Then he grunted a coarse expletive. He knew now, with inward loathing and fury, what had borne the sleeping girl from his side. He remembered the half-forgotten legends told around the fire in his Cimmerian boyhood. One of these concerned the dread monster of the snows, the grim Remoraóthe [sic] vampiric ice worm whose name was an almost forgotten whisper of horror in Cimmerian myth.

The online version of this story I found has that weird accented o a lot. I think it replaces a – for some reason. In any case, this makes Conan’s failure to heed Ilga’s warning just that little bit more recklessly irresponsible on his part (particularly considering, again, he knocked her out cold and dragged her into danger out of the assumption that he knew better).

Conan grimly resolved to track the thing to its lair and slay it. His reasons for this decision were vague, even to himself. But, for all his youthful impulsiveness and his wild, lawless nature, he had his own rude code of honor. He liked to keep his word and to fulfill an obligation that he had freely undertaken. While he did not think of himself as a stainless, chivalrous hero, he treated women with a rough kindness that contrasted with the harshness and truculence with which he met those of his own sex. He refrained from forcing his lusts upon women if they were unwilling, and he tried to protect them when he found them dependent upon him.

On the one hand, this is a direct sequel to the Howard story in which Conan totally tried to rape a frost giant. On the other hand, it’s possible that this is not a continuity error but an intentional retcon, in which case it’s a good one, ’cause for all that a degree of moral ambiguity is a big part of Conan’s character, he does at least have to avoid being outright loathsome, elsewise there’s no particular reason to root for him over his enemies.

Now he had failed in his own eyes. In accepting his rough act of love, the girl Ilga had placed herself under his protection. Then, when she needed his strength, he had slumbered unaware like some besotted beast. Not knowing about the hypnotic piping sound by which the Remora paralyzed its victims and by which it had kept himóusually [sic] a light sleeperósound [sic] asleep, he cursed himself for a stupid, ignorant fool not to have paid more heed to her warnings. He ground his powerful teeth and bit his lips in rage, determined to wipe out this stain on his code of honor if it cost him his life.

The narrative is trying to save Conan by claiming that he couldn’t have known about the remora’s (not a proper noun! This may be the last one, but there used to be more!) hypnotic abilities (and he could not have), but it’s still completely ignoring the fact that he forcibly dragged Ilga into danger.

As the sky lightened in the east, Conan returned to the cave. He bundled together his belongings and laid his plans. A few years before, he might have rushed out on the ice worm’s trail, trusting to his immense strength and the keen edges of his weapons to see him through. But experience, if it had not yet tamed all his rash impulses, had taught him the beginnings of caution.

A few years before, or also last Tuesday, when he followed a frost giant into an obvious ambush because she double dog dared him.

Chapter 6

Conan tracks the ice worm back to its lair. Knowing from Ilga’s frozen body that the remora radiates an unnatural cold that would make engaging in melee unwise, he scoops a bunch of coals from his campfire into his helmet and leaves his axehead in there, then swings the helmet around his head by the reins salvaged from his horse to heat it up again. Once his axehead is nice and hot, he pulls it out by the shaft and chucks it at the remora, turning to flee without stopping to see if the blow struck home.

Chapter 7

The remora is not only dead, but is apparently a load bearing boss, and the glacier begins to collapse behind Conan. He staggers away, bruised and limping but without any permanent injuries.

Battered and weary, Conan limped down into the pass.

Lamed as he was, he must now walk all the way to far Nemedia or Ophir, unless he could buy, beg, borrow, or steal another horse. But he went with a high heart, turning his bruised face southwardóto [sic] the golden South, where shining cities lifted tall towers to a balmy sun, and where a strong man with courage and luck could win gold, wine, and soft, full-breasted women.

I quote these final two paragraphs together, because the first one is a perfectly good ending while the last one seems to exist solely to place this in a specific spot in the timeline.

Now, I went into this with the specific goal of hoping that I could displace this from de Camp and Carter’s original place in the timeline in order to cluster Conan’s earlier adventures up north, and that certainly motivates a lot of my griping about the timeline. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though – Conan’s having been to the south affects the story in only one way, in that he is allegedly older and more cunning and cautious than he was compared to earlier in his career. Not only does that contradict Michael A. Stackpole’s depiction of Conan having learned cunning from his grandfather from the age of about thirteen, something which de Camp and Carter can hardly be blamed for contradicting when they were writing over 40 years earlier, they also contradict Conan’s impulsive lust in the Frost Giant’s Daughter, something they take pains to assert this story is a direct sequel to.

Ultimately, this is a story which is carried by its concept, just like most Conan shorts: Conan saves a Hyperborean girl, ignores her dire warnings, and is confronted by the titular ice worm. Also, it’s completely his fault that the girl died and the narrative never acknowledged it. That’s the kind of issue that would’ve spoiled a lone chapter of a greater Conan novel, but the Lair of the Ice Worm is a short story, and has no time to outrun that failure. It does, at least, include Conan being moderately clever in using the remora’s elemental weaknesses to slay it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s