Before I continue, I want you to understand that I'm not necessarily criticising Dale Rippke; largely the reason I use his name in my title is to draw attention. But the other reason why I use his name is because really what I'm doing is criticising the assumption made by practically every Hyborian cartographer who has mapped the south, and Dale Rippke – as I'm sure most would agree – is the paramount Hyborian cartographer, so by using his name, I am demonstrating that herein lies a question that had puzzled the highest echelons of Howard scholarship.
When others read of "the fires of the ultimate south", they make the assumption that this must refer to a volcanic mountain range. But I feel that this misinterpretation after having researched ancient and medieval cartography; research which, it appears, the history-obsessed and well-read Howard himself had done.
When I read of the "fires of the ultimate south", it reminds me of a number of superstitions believed by Greek geographers and Renaissance sailors alike. As such, I don't think of a small mountain chain at the ends of the African continent, I think of a world-encompassing wall of fire; not, of course, a real one, but one believe in and feared by sailors of the Hyborian Age.
Contrary to popular belief and the myth of Phaethon known to the common people of their time, the Greek geographers knew the world to be round. They also knew that the reason for the different biomes was their relative distances from the sun as a result of the Earth's curvature. They concluded, therefore, that the absolute equator, the closest possible place to the sun, must be so hot that a ring of fire must encircle the Earth, and they hypothesised an inaccessible "other Earth" beyond the equator peopled by other races.
This notion carried on into the Age of Sail, where sailors feared that sailing too far south would land them in the equator, a place so hot that the seas boiled and the lands burned. They were afraid of reaching the "ultimate south", beyond which no man can survive and into which no man can go.
This ring of fire didn't necessarily have to exist as a geological feature in Conan's time – indeed it didn't – nor does it have to be believed to exist in the vicinity of the actual equator, as the further south men sailed, they could simply have continued believing that the equator was even further on. It is sufficient enough that the superstitions held by the ancients and by Renaissance sailors were also held by the people of the Hyborian Age. Perhaps Belit sailed south and experienced the intense heat of the tropical sea, at which point the she and her superstitious sailors turned back, or perhaps she is merely using hyperbole. Like Rippke's theories about the African region of the Hyborian Age being effected by plate tectonics, I feel that alternate interpretations may arise from Howard scholars looking at Howard's creation using theories that didn't exist during Howard's time. Howard would surely have been prone to the popular scientific and historical theories of his time. I also feel, perhaps, that it is partly wishful thinking on the part of Hyborian Age cartographers attempting to extract as many mappable locations from Howard's writings as possible.
Some Hyborian maps put a volcano range at the bottom of Hyboria and name them after Belit's phrase, but even though these hypothetical mountains could mark the end of the Hyborian landmass, there's still a sea and multiple islands beyond, so there's very little that is ultimate about them.
I also don't feel that a volcanic range truly embodies "the ultimate". Ultimate means "absolute". The "ultimate" south, therefore, is the south beyond which no man can ever hope to go, courtesy of those "fires". "Ultimate", and specifically "the ultimate", implies something far more impenetrable and far more notable than just another volcano that could easily be sailed around, otherwise they would just be "the Southern Fires". "The fires of the ultimate south" feel more as if they are the absolute, ultimate limit of the sailable world.
On a similar theme, I'd like to mention that I'm frequently disappointed at how small and geologically out-of-place the Southern Desert is on most maps. Amalric mentions his belief that the Southern Desert goes on for thousands of miles, and the desert is described as "vast", yet no maps to date represent this; they show it to be tiny. Why would Amalric have this belief if the Southern Desert was observably only a couple of days' march across? I also don't feel that its positioning on most maps really grants it the title of "southern", when there's so much that is further south of it. And, of course, it's a desert in the middle of a very green land, which I find unfeasible. Rather than seem like a natural feature, it looks like an article tagged on just to make the story fit. It also doesn't make sense, to me, for Tombalku to be so mythical and isolated when all people have to do to find it is take a scoot around that tiny desert. A larger and more impassable desert makes much more sense. Nor does it make sense for somewhere so small to have so much culture – if the desert was that tiny, its denizens would just find somewhere greener, and there would be little need to find an oasis when the green lands are just a day east or west. It just looks completely out of place where it is, and would make far more sense, and be much larger, if it were located further south along the Tropic of Capricorn, like the Namib Desert, with the mythical Tombalku isolated from the rest of the world by the impassable, Ghanata-infested Southern Desert, which spans from the west to if the not the very east of the continent, at least nearly there, marking the southern limit of the Black Coast and contributing to the "fires of the ultimate south" that Belit believes she saw – a dead land roasted by the fires that encircle the Earth. And of course, mythical Tombalku hiding beyond it, in a land that most people would believe to be aflame.
That said, it's still perfectly possible for Tombalku to be so mythical to Hyborians at the edge of a small and more northerly desert if we consider that they believe the Southern Desert to be so vast and impenetrable, and perhaps Amalric was simply deluded and I'm buying into his delusions.
But if we do follow this logic, this would also place the Southern Isles, home of the Black Corsairs, more north than on Rippke's map. It also suggests an "African" region much larger than Rippke supposes, and considering that his justification for sinking the southern black lands uses the science of plate tectonics – which I'm not convinced was available to Howard at the time considering his usual tradition of catastrophism – it's not a justification that I can wholeheartedly accept.
In conclusion, my belief is that "the fires of the ultimate south" are not a physical location at all, just a superstitious myth to denote the very edge of the traversable world.
PS. On an unrelated note, check out the link below if you haven't already. The article talk about the prevailing geological and historical theories that affected Howard's writing. It also references Howard's Bran Mak Morn story "Men off the Shadows", which provides a history of the Thurian Celts who Rippke expresses confusion about in his "Mysteries of the Pre-Cataclysmic Age".
Edited by Dantai, 22 March 2013 - 02:41 PM.