Bêlit of Ramah En Ram
Each issue of Brian Wood’s Conan the Barbarian seems to function as an allegory. Readers are reading a story about Conan, but not really, there is something larger going on…like watching The Birds, or reading Moby Dick or some other well wrought piece of literature. Issue 13’s idea behind the McGuffin holds, if not a set of instructions, at least some considerations for responding to a loved one anchored in anguish.
The opening to “The Woman on the Wall” hits the reader with confusing crush of en media res. The situation is even more disconcerting since the last time the readers were shown Conan, he was aboard the Tigress, talking at Bêlit, and attempting to aid her. Wood provides readers enough information to clarify Conan’s presence in the large mercenary force besieging the city but it is not until later in the issue. This hesitancy in fully orienting the reader not only serves as an entertaining shift in narrative, but also serves as an apt allegory for Conan’s efforts to succor Bêlit.
The well-walled fortress of Ramah En Ram sits isolated upon a desert plain. The range of tans and yellows used by Dave Stewart in this issue add a layer of heat and oppression and dusty itchiness that leaks discomfort from the page, and makes a reader feel as if they’ve sweated and had it burned away and evaporated from the heat seeping out of the panels. The confusion at the opening of the issue and the dead solitary dry setting serves as a metaphor for the main point of the issue—the mindset of Bêlit.
Bêlit appears in seven panels in this comic, yet she doesn’t speak a single word throughout the issue. In fact, Bêlit spoke only one word in issue 12, “Conan.” These seven panels of silence in issue 13 are the allegorical axis about which the book revolves.
The first of Bêlit’s seven panels is set in the present time of the story. It depicts her standing silhouetted against a rising desert sun standing, alone, upon the ramparts of the fortress wall with her hair blowing in the dry desert wind. The text in the panel reads “As a ghost is wont to do.” No surprise, the “ghost” here is in reference to Bêlit. The image of Bêlit is ghost-like, a silhouette, all details obliterated as she stands in darkness…a cut-out from reality and the rest of life. Bêlit stands apart, alone, an outsider, removed from life, isolated, dead in a certain sense. Yet she’s dead only in a sense, certainly not she’s not bereft of mental or physical power.
The next panel maintains the same setting and provides a close-up of Bêlit with the viewer looking up at her, her right arm stretched forward and her gaze straight ahead, locked and confronting the reader. Pain and loss may exist here, but no weakness, no confusion about the situation which she is undergoing. The divine essence that accompanied Bêlit from when she first appeared in Conan’s dream, and masterfully depicted by Becky Cloonan, still accompanies her in this panel. Mirko Colak, in the positioning of Bêlit in the center of the panel and the orientation of the viewer’s gaze, captures the expression on her face that conveys both the sorrow and power of knowing some divine truth. The text written in this panel is “Every day at dawn, this rose of Ramah En Ram appears, the ghost of the fortress. Is she yearning to see my face, the Cimmerian wonders miserably, or merely scanning the field in hopes of seeing my corpse?” Wood gives the reader two points of view in this narrator’s box. The first sentence comes from the narrator and contains a mere statement of fact. Yet it compares Bêlit to both a rose and ghost, and it situates her appearances at dawn, a time of new beginnings, when the day is full of potential when anything can happen, growth, life, beauty (the rose) or endings, death, despair (ghost). The later half of the text shifts the point of view to Conan who instantly assumes that he is the cause Bêlit’s isolation and the cause of Bêlit’s joy or sorrow. A solipsistic young barbarian male, Conan assumes this situation is all about him and he can’t see, or perhaps doesn’t want to consider the possibility, that he is peripheral to Bêlit’s actions.
In later panels N’Yaga tells Conan “Crom would laugh at you right now. Again, leave her be.” “She is our Queen; we dare not question her. She does as she feels she needs to, and she has and likely always will.” N’Yaga recognizes and respects the power and choice and autonomy of Bêlit and as such lets her live her own life and honors her choices. Conan, for whatever reasons…selfishness, good intentions, most likely some odd tangle of the two, doesn’t or can’t accept this laissez faire approach and sets out on his own to exert his power upon Bêlit. Wood’s script raises the question of what action is best for responding to a loved one’s suffering. Does one step back and let them work it out on their own, or does one step forward and actively offer assistance? Who can know for sure? No wonder Crom laughs.
The third panel in which Bêlit appears shifts the setting to a time in the present story’s past. It shows the bare feet of Bêlit (and some of the best rendered toes every appearing in a comic book) walking away from the Tigress over the wooden pier in the port of Asgalun Shem. The text in the panel reads, “Above all else, Shem is rich, and men are ever fighting over it. This is the land of Bêlit’s birth.” These words, juxtaposed with Bêlit’s steps, show her leaving her crew and career for her home and land, yet violence and fighting still accompany her. The steps from an active roll of dolling out death and violence upon the seas to defending against the violence exerted upon her homeland.
Perhaps the invading army, or at least Conan’s part in the army, represents the good wishes of loved ones trying to reach out and aid those in the midst of suffering? Too often the desire to help and good-intentioned actions are perceived as an attack, a violent exertion of power and control over another person’s life…a control and theft of power for the individual to make her own choices…yet, what happens when the person isn’t in their right mind and isn’t capable of making decisions…and how is an outside party to know that this is the case for the individual? And in the context of our story, how can Conan know? Surely, Crom must be laughing again.
The fourth panel shows Bêlit from behind, wrapped in a faded red cloak with a hood, her hair blowing forward from the wind pushing her from behind. Seagulls soar in the sky on her left, she moves towards a walled city upon a hill which also has gulls hovering above it. Bêlit pauses here, on the threshold of the pier. The next panel (the fifth in which Bêlit appears) has the Pirate Queen turning her head to look back, her hair blowing about her sad eyes. The sixth panel of Bêlit continues the turn of her head to a 7/8’s gaze where she almost gazes full on at the reader. Wood provides no text, and the expression Colak draws for Bêlit’s face holds a host of possibilities: regret, sorrow, a final farewell, disbelief at her past life, a promise to return, a plea for help? The gaze would perplex even Crom. The lack of text in these three panels lets Bêlit serve as a mirror to the reader, letting readers determine what Bêlit shows and feels and how Conan, or any loved one, should respond to a suffering loved one who is walking away from their choices and returning home.
The final panel directs the reader’s gaze so that Bêlit is walking towards the viewer. Conan is silhouetted (just as Bêlit was in her first appearance…here he is the ghost). Two gulls in flight flank Bêlit on both sides and she raises her hood, her back to Conan and the Tigress, with her head tilted down and to the right (towards the direction of Conan). The text: “And so she returns to it. As Conan watches her walk away, he half expects her to fade from view, to be swallowed up into the city, as if she were a ghost. A dream, perhaps. That might be a relief to the Cimmerian. It might spare him a great deal of pain.” Again, Conan sees imagines, even hopes, Bêlit to be a fantasy, a ghost, a vivid dream now ending. He knows that Bêlit’s suffering will cause him anguish too. The final words in this panel, spoken by N’Yaga, offer advice to Conan, “Leave her be, barbarian.”
Conan, in fairness, tries, but he’s never been one for too much inaction. Like Oedipus, he jumps forward and prefers swinging a sword to sitting despite the added trouble and suffering that may accompany it. As for Bêlit and her motivations and intentions and the way in which she came to be in the fortress, they remain an enigma to both readers and Conan. The barbarian has made his choice though, and believes he is acting to the advantage of Bêlit. Whether such belief holds true, who can say? What action best fits how to respond to an anguished loved one? Surely Crom must be laughing still.