The Neverending Wheel:
The Cyclical Nature of Politics
In The Book of Exodus and The Hour of the Dragon
In his book The David Story, Robert Alter describes the tale of King David as the Bible’s “most unflinching insight into the cruel processes of history and into human behavior warped by the pursuit of power.” However, the effect of politics on the individual is explored in-depth in an earlier section of the Bible: the Book of Exodus. Exodus is the famous tale of how Moses, an Israelite raised in the Egyptian court, is exiled from Egypt and enlisted by the Hebrew God to lead the Israelites out of slavery. While primarily know as a story of liberation, Moses’ quest is also a story of political maneuvering. In order to accomplish this emancipation, the neophyte prophet must learn how to attract followers, negotiate with other powerful figures, divide his responsibilities among subordinates and maintain the loyalty of his followers. As the story progresses, a narrative emerges about how, no matter who is wielding the power, political systems are endlessly replicated.
A novel that alludes to the Book of Exodus is Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon (1935), Howard’s only novel-length work about his most famous creation: Conan the Cimmerian. The story of Dragon is that Conan, once a wandering barbarian, has risen to the throne of Aquilonia, the most powerful kingdom in Howard’s fictional Hyborian Age. Conspirators overthrow Conan, using the aid of a resurrected sorcerer named Xaltotun. Conan goes on a quest to find the only artifact that can defeat Xaltotun, and in doing so regains the monarchy. Along the way, the barbarian king learns the political realities of holding a throne.
The Hour of the Dragon features several motifs which allude to Exodus: an army buried beneath an avalanche, staffs that become snakes, supernatural plagues, themes of religious persecution, a slave rebellion, and a journey into Egypt (as opposed to a journey from Egypt). Like Exodus, it tells the story of an aristocrat forced into exile, who then faces the reemergence of a great supernatural power, and discovers his purpose in life through liberating his people. None of Howard’s letters during the writing of Dragon express influence by the Exodus story, but the allusions are too frequent and exact to be coincidental. As an American southerner born in the first half of the 20th century, Howard undoubtedly knew Biblical scripture through its sheer cultural prevalence. Also, other writings of his from the time show the influence of Judeo-Christian mythology, the most obvious being “A Witch Shall Be Born” (1934), in which Conan is crucified on a tree. What distinguishes the allusions is that they are presented as the inverse of Exodus. His characters are presented as the moral/ethical antithesis of their Exodus counterparts. A cynical look at Biblical myth is understandable given Howard’s existentialist worldview (a view which serves as the common theme throughout the Conan story cycle), but these inversions also serve to shed light on Exodus as a political tale. The Book of Exodus is a story about the cyclical nature of politics, and how the structures of power are endlessly reinscribed. This is demonstrated by two Howardian parallels: Moses/Conan and God/Xaltotun.
In understanding how the Book of Exodus shows the repetition of political systems, it is first necessary to understand the character of Moses and the political climate he is raised in. The first example of a political entity in Exodus is the pharaohs of Egypt, an autocratic government that bases its rule on slavery, religious repression and murder (New International Version, Exodus 1.11-14). Although Moses, being the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter (2.10) is raised in this climate, his character is marked by compassion. Moses is exiled because he kills an Egyptian who he sees beating a Hebrew slave (2.11-12). However, he does not flee until the following day, when he tries to break up a fight between two Israelites. They assert that he is not “judge” over them (2.14). It is important to note that Moses does not argue or try to assert his authority; he has no desire to be “judge,” and his self-exile is not just in fear of Pharaoh’s reprisal but a rejection of the Egyptian power structure. Moses’ next act of compassion says more about his character: he sees the daughters of Jethro being driven from a well by a group of shepherds (2.16-17). Not only does Moses drive the shepherds away, but he also waters the daughters’ flock. This shows that his kindness extends not just to people of his immediate geographical tribe, which is a progressive stance when considering the prevalent feudalism in Biblical stories. Though the political milieu that Moses grew up in is one of persecution, he is shown to be a person who rejects that system. The fact that he will come to perpetuate it confirms the cyclical nature of politics.
Moses receives his introduction to politics when he speaks to God through the burning bush (3.16-18). God promises to help the Israelites gain freedom from Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land, with Moses as liaison between him and the people. In doing so, he mentions Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, invoking the covenant with Abraham, which dictates that all of Abraham’s descendants will receive prosperity in the land of Canaan in return for their worship (Genesis 17.1-8). Later in the story, God mentions the word “covenant” specifically (Exodus 6.4). The covenant as a political arrangement will be discussed later in this essay. Swayed by the majesty of God, Moses accepts the position as God’s prophet to the Israelites. One of his first concerns is that he does not speak well (4.10-13), so God instructs him to enlist his brother Aaron to do the actual oratory to sway the people. Moses is now thinking in practical terms of gaining authority and how these responsibilities are allotted. He divides power with Aaron in order to better influence the masses, and in this way is introduced to politics.
In terms of courage, martial prowess, compassion and tribal loyalty, Conan is very much like Moses. While the conflict in Exodus is Israelites versus Egyptians, the conflict in Dragon is Aquilonians versus their age-old enemies, the Nemedians. Like Moses, Conan kills when he sees enemies attacking one of his people: “He had crossed the frontier an hour ago. He was standing on his own soil, watching the murder of one of his own subjects” (Howard 86). Though Conan is not a natural born Aquilonian, he shows a paternalistic attitude toward the subject, telling the foreigners: “Do Nemedian jackals set themselves up as executioners and hang my subjects at will? First you must take the head of their king” (87), and proceeds to kill them. Also like Moses, he rejects the current political system and its intrinsic values. When his army is routed by Xaltotun’s magic, he still wishes to fight to the death. His squire implores him to “yield with the dignity becoming one of royal blood,” (39), to which Conan replies “I have no royal blood . . . I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.” He is a warrior first, and a king second. Moses and Conan are both iconoclasts, rebels who physically and symbolically fight the structures of power. Where their paths diverge is their reaction to the supernatural element. As mentioned above, Moses readily accepts the aid of his deity. Xaltotun offers the deposed Conan a similar deal: “I wanted you alive and unhurt. You may fit into my scheme of things . . . You are a bad enemy, but might make a fine vassal” (49). Conan rejects his offer vehemently, and thus begins his rivalry with Xaltotun. This scene is a reversal of the burning bush scene, in which Moses accepts supernatural aid. A major facet of Conan’s character is self-determination, along with distrust of the supernatural, and because of this his quest is the inverse of Moses’. Moses embarks on a steady path of reinscribing the old systems of power, while Conan, in rejecting Xaltotun, appears on a path to create a new system that reflects his own personal views.
Although Moses begins as a character with no interest in power, his concern for Israel turns him onto a politician, and makes him complicit in the restoration of a system he once rebelled against. Over the course of the Exodus narrative, he serves as God’s liaison to the Israelites, and gains their supplication through a combination of Aaron’s words and God’s miracles (Exodus 4.29-31). He then serves as liaison to Pharaoh (5.1), and subsequently becomes the mortal hand through which God enacts the Ten Plagues. It is important to note that Pharaoh has no agency during this portion of the story: God states that he is the one making Pharaoh deny the Israelites freedom, in order to send the Plagues and provide an example to both the Egyptians and the Israelites of his majesty (10.1-2). Thus, God’s motives seem less altruistic than political. This is reaffirmed when God states that, through killing the firstborn of Egypt, he will show himself to be greater than Egypt’s gods (12.12). God is literally vying for authority against other faiths, using the Plagues as a tool to ascend to power within the regional pantheon. This gives a political air to Moses’ role. Moses is helping God reestablish his dominion after an absence of 430 years using “shock warfare” tactics. In return, God helps the Israelites. God’s final plague is the murder of the Egyptian firstborn (11.4-8), a direct parallel to the first Pharaoh’s actions to quell the Israelites (1.22), giving Moses a complicity in the reinscription of a particular political tactic: the murder of children.
In The Hour of the Dragon, Conan serves as Moses’ foil. At a similar point in his own story, after refusing the supernatural, it is established that he is creating his own political system. Conan seems as bent on a new style of government as much as Moses is not. He once more shows compassion by sneaking into Aquilonia’s capital city to rescue a supporter from execution: “I’m going into Tarantia after [Countess] Albiona tonight . . . I’ve failed all my other loyal subjects, it seems--if they take her head, they can have mine too” (Howard 110). Later in the novel, an ally offers to help him start a war of conquest, to which he says: “Let others dream imperial dreams . . . I have no desire to rule an empire welded together by blood . . . It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects . . . It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear” (145). Conan, though a hardened warrior, is decidedly anti-imperialist. He also believes that the will of the people should matter to a ruler. In reference to a religious sect that is unpopular with the dominant faith, Conan “refused to persecute the followers of Asura or to allow the people to do so on no better evidence than was presented against them” (125). In addition to religious tolerance, he also lowers taxes, and, after regaining his authority, does not punish the Aquilonians who, in their fear, welcomed a new king following reports of his death. This representation is intentional on the part of Howard, who goes to great lengths to make Conan’s aristocratic enemies seem cruel, greedy, insane, imperialist, classist, and, in Xaltotun’s case, demonic. The idea of a “just” ruler is not prevalent in his day and age; Conan is forging a new way. In this manner, his story acts as an alternate version of Moses’, showing how political systems can be altered. This further highlights the cyclical politics in Exodus.
Much of the Exodus story after the Israelites enter the desert is devoted to Moses acting as a politician, learning how to wield power. For instance, Moses judges all disputes between the Israelites, until his father-in-law suggests he divide this exhausting responsibility with trusted subordinates (Exodus 18.17-23). When the Israelites grow unsatisfied from hunger, he is the one to calm them (16.1-8). He takes on the responsibility of consecrating the priests, thus creating another branch of power (29.1). He even grows frustrated with his people when they ask for water, showing the mental effect this responsibility has on him (17.1-4). The story makes it clear that he is a student of politics, getting better at the art as he goes along. All throughout this period, Moses is still marked by compassion. Even when the Israelites stir against him, his natural impulse is to provide for their wellbeing. It is this very characterization that shows the futility of political change. Although Moses retains his defining character trait, and could possibly develop a society that is more progressive than the one he left, that cannot stop him from reestablishing political norms, especially given the conservative nature of God’s politics.
Two events show the complete reinscription of the system. One is God’s establishment of laws which subjugate women. From the outset, Exodus features strong female characters. It opens with Pharaoh’s decree that every male child born to the Israelites must be drowned in the Nile (1.22). However, the patriarchal nature of Egypt’s rulership is challenged by women. First, the Israelite midwives refuse to kill the male children (1.17-21). This is followed by the rebellion of Moses’ mother and sister, who send the newborn downriver in a basket so that he will not be killed (2.3-4). Women are also instrumental in the story of Passover (12.1-12). God orders the Israelites to eat a specific meal of lamb and unleavened bread while the plague passes through Egypt. Since the hearth was a woman’s responsibility, the women have just as strong a role in the ritual as the men who slaughter the lamb, and save their people from God’s plague by marking their homes as Hebrew homes. All of the agency that women gain during the emancipation is negated at Mount Sinai. The third law that God dictates on Sinai allows fathers to sell their daughters as slaves (21.7-8). Moses says nothing to oppose this misogyny, silently denying the role of women in the Exodus, as well as establishing a slave culture (21.2-4). Though the Israelites have recently been oppressed, this is not taken into consideration when they reinscribe the oppression within their own society.
The second moment is when Moses surrenders his own compassionate nature to maintain control, thus establishing a society exactly like that of Egypt. Fearing that their leader has abandoned them, the Israelites worship the golden calf while Moses is on Sinai, causing Moses to perform a political balancing act (Exodus 32.5-35). God tells Moses to leave him so that he may contemplate how he will “destroy” the idolaters. Moses begs for God not to strike down his people, evoking the covenant with Abraham. He uses diplomacy to quell the god’s wrath. After he has destroyed the calf, Moses sees that some idolaters are still behaving out of control. He subsequently enlists the Levites to slaughter three thousand of the idol worshippers. In light of his conversation with God, this is shown to be contrary to his nature. He massacres his own people, not to appease God, but to maintain his personal authority and the discipline of the camp. Moses maintains order through oppression, just as the Pharaoh who commanded the death of the Israelite sons. It can be argued that every political action Moses takes is in the best interest of the Israelites, and this is confirmed by the fact that he successfully leads them through the desert to Canaan. He is in a powerful position and has to make hard decisions. However, this does not change the fact that he establishes an identical political system to the one in Egypt. In the beginning, he kills out a sense of justice; in the end, he kills for political expedience. Through Moses’ actions, the Book of Exodus shows how political change is futile, no matter how well-intentioned the politician. The same systems are replicated by someone who once opposed them.
For all that Conan is the antithesis of Moses, his ultimate fate reinforces the cyclical nature of government. Howard repeatedly emphasizes that Conan’s reign is tenuous because he has no heir. As one of his allies says: “The barons who followed you loyally would not follow one of their own number . . . You were the cord that held the fagots together . . . If you had had a son, the barons would have rallied loyally to him” (Howard 103). Xaltotun’s ally, Valerius, easily takes the throne because the people “cried out that any king was better than none, even Valerius, who was at least of . . . the old dynasty” (103). In the span of Howard’s Conan cycle, this is the third uprising against Conan, and the second time he has been dethroned. Despite all of his physical and moral strength, his monarchy is fragile. Thus, Conan’s final victory is not accomplished on the battlefield, but in the marriage bed. At the end of the novel, the defeated Nemedian king, Tarascus, asks Conan what ransom he desires for his life. Conan speaks of Zenobia, the Nemedian harem girl who freed him from Tarascus’ dungeon: “[Zenobia] shall be your ransom, and naught else. I will come . . . for her as I promised. She was a slave in Nemedia, but I will make her queen of Aquilonia!” (274). Conan, who strikes the more rebellious path than Moses, ultimately gives into political expectations by creating a dynasty. The fact that Howard’s Moses figure succumbs further demonstrates the Exodus tale as one of repetition. Even in the antithetical version, established systems win.
The character of Moses establishes a political system in which the Israelites replicate the oppression of the Egyptians. The character of God also demonstrates the cyclical nature of politics, but in a different manner: he is restoring a political system with himself as the authority, and, in fact, uses the Exodus as a means to increase his political power. The villain of The Hour of the Dragon, Xaltotun, provides a thread with which to view God’s actions politically.
Through Xaltotun, Howard makes his most explicit Biblical allusions. Xaltotun’s first act is to help his co-conspirator Tarascus become king of Nemedia. In this passage, Howard evokes The Plague of the Firstborn ( Exodus 11.1-8):
The Year of the Dragon had birth in war and pestilence and unrest. The black plague stalked through the streets of Belverus, striking down the merchant in his stall, the serf in his kennel, the knight at his banquet board . . . A hot, roaring wind blew incessantly from the south, and the crops withered in the fields, the cattle sank and died in their tracks.
Men cried out on [the god] Mitra, and muttered against the king; for somehow, throughout the kingdom, the word was whispered that the king was secretly addicted to loathsome practices . . . In one night the king died with his three sons, and the drums that thundered their dirge drowned the grim and ominous bells that rang from the carts that lumbered through the streets gathering up the rotting dead. (Howard 21-22)
The reference to “the merchant in his stall, the serf in his kennel, the knight at his banquet board” is very close to the Biblical language, and the death of the king’s sons reflects that of Pharaoh’s firstborn. The references to crops and cattle allude to other of the Ten Plagues. Where Howard differs from the authors of Exodus is that there is no sense of beneficence to this plague. Xaltotun is not attempting to liberate anyone; the plague is an entirely political move thought up by the priest Orastes to “set Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia . . . in such a way that no suspicion will rest on Tarascus” (19). Tarascus’ coronation precipitates more politics: “Men said the gods were satisfied because the evil king and his spawn were slain . . . Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is frequently the signal for a war of conquest” (22). Even though God goes to extremes, it can still be argued that the Plagues were reciprocity for the Israelites’ long and harsh enslavement. Xaltotun uses plague to manipulate the populace and make them favorable towards a war with Aquilonia. By making his God-like character’s actions explicitly political, Howard sheds light on God’s own intentions in the Exodus.
To further the allusion, Howard has Xaltotun do another skewed version of a miracle from Exodus. To defeat Conan’s army, Xaltotun drops the sides of a mountain defile on them. According to the squire who witnesses this: “The cliffs have crumbled! . . . They have thundered down into the defile and crushed every living creature in it!” (37). This alludes to the Parting of the Red Sea. During that famous passage, God tells Moses that he will “harden the hearts” of the Egyptians to make them pursue the Israelites into the supernaturally created channel (Exodus 14.17). God uses his powers to lure the Egyptians to their destruction by drowning (14.26-28). Howard furthers his allusion in that Xaltotun tells Conan he used hypnosis to lead Aquilonians to their doom: “Hypnotic suggestions would not have invaded your mind . . . to make you mad, and rush blindly into the trap laid for you, as it did the lesser man who masqueraded [in your armor]” (Howard 49). Through Xaltotun, Howard casts a sinister aspect to this miracle. Xaltotun is the antagonist of the piece, a despot who uses black magic to replicate miracles from Exodus. Essentially, The Hour of the Dragon is a version of Exodus with God cast as the villain, where the Moses figure fights against God.
To understand how this relates to the political cycle, it is important to understand the context of Xaltotun’s character. The mortal villains of the novel resurrect the long-dead sorcerer “to aid [them] to rule [the Hyborian] kingdoms” (18). In other words, he is enlisted for political alliance. Xaltotun spends the majority of the novel double-crossing his allies like Valerius and Tarascus, and has his own agenda based around political restoration. Orastes establishes early in the novel that the land in which most of the story takes place once belonged to Xaltotun. “The barbarians who overthrew Acheron set up new kingdoms . . . Where the empire had stretched now rose realms called Aquilonia, and Nemedia . . . The older kingdoms of Ophir, Corinthia and western Koth . . . regained their independence . . .” (17). Xaltotun was the main political faction in ancient Acheron, being the “high priest of Set in [the capital] Python” (14). Later on, a fearful Orastes tells his allies that Xaltotun’s ultimate goal is the resurrection of his evil homeland: “He plots the return of Acheron, with its towers and wizards and kings . . . It is the blood and bodies of the people . . . today that will furnish the mortar and the stones for the rebuilding” (236). The revival of Acheron is itself a sinister rendition of God’s covenant with the Israelites. At the beginning of Exodus, God has been absent from the Israelites’ lives for 430 years (Exodus 12.30). He has not spoken directly to the Hebrew people since the time of Jacob. Both God and Xaltotun are seeking a second domination over land and peoples that they once controlled. God succeeds; Xaltotun does not. In Dragon, Xaltotun is just one of many characters seeking different agendas (Orastes, Tarascus, Baron Amalric, Valerius, the priest Hadrathus, Count Trocero, General Pallantides, Conan, the wizards Thoth-Amon and Tuthothmes). It is Howard’s most politically-minded work, and explicit in the double-crossings that occur in politics. By representing God as simply another player in a game of thrones, Howard shines light on God’s covenant as the reestablishment of a political entity.
As mentioned above, the purpose of the Ten Plagues was to reestablish God’s dominion as the one deity in a polytheistic region. However, also mentioned above, the horrors of the plagues were as much to frighten the Israelites as the Egyptians. It is within this frame that God reestablishes the covenant with the Israelites on Mount Sinai. In aiding them, he successfully gains a political advantage over them. The resulting covenant has far more laws than the pact with Abraham, and is heavily skewed in God’s favor; he has a law to dictate practically every aspect of their lives. On Sinai, he establishes laws for the treatment of slaves and punishment for personal injury (Exodus 21), personal property and social responsibility (22), justice and the celebrations with which to honor him (23). These are the first of many laws that God establishes, and a large number of them specifically relate to how he wants to be worshipped. While God is a deity, and from a mythological standpoint higher in the hierarchy than any monarch, he is still an autocratic figure. While Moses seems most interested in aiding the Israelites, God is primarily invested in the minute details of governance. Thus, on Mount Sinai, a government is born. God is also favorable towards slavery, property, and the subjugation of women, which makes him not only politically conservative, but reflective of the Egyptians. In the reestablishment of God’s dominion, by way of the covenant, Exodus shows the repetition of political structures. God is a force who, unlike his parallel in The Hour of the Dragon, succeeds in his restoration.
Much of God’s character reflects someone with a personal agenda. For instance, when talking of his plans for the Egyptians, he implores the Israelites to “plunder” them (3.22). This is very strong word choice, reflecting a level of partiality that enhances his monarchical portrayal. At the start of Exodus, he has not contacted the Israelites for generations. During the intervening period, they acquired much political agency through Joseph, although that was stripped from them by the Egyptians. While there is no evidence to support that God purposefully delivered them into the hands of Egypt, as he would later deliver them to the Philistines when they disappointed him, he does ignore his people for 430 years, and takes the opportunity presented in Exodus to increase his agency. This is in keeping with his portrayal as a politically-minded individual. In evoking the covenant, God allows himself to create laws which vastly deplete the Hebrews’ agency at a time when they are politically weak, and in doing so goes beyond the more vague parameters he set with Abraham. Thus, the Abrahamic covenant as God’s political system is not only reestablished, but strengthened. As a politician, God’s authority is increased through the Exodus. The cycle is completed.
Through The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard takes a cynical look at the Book of Exodus. However, in setting up Conan and Xaltotun as foils for Moses and God, his own politically-minded characters help illustrate the perpetuation of establishments in Exodus. Exodus is not a story of conventional morality or easy choices. The reinscriptions of authority within it tell a compelling story about the nature of politics, and how it affects nations and individuals.