Conan: Phoenix on the Sword

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

—The Nemedian Chronicles


With these words the most famed of the many famous creations of Robert E Howard, Conan the Barbarian, sprang to vivid life in the pages of WEIRD TALES magazine, 1933.

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

Recall the era.

1933 was in an uneasy period wedged between two World Wars. Trench warfare killed whole villages of their sons in a single hour. Notions of heroism and honor, the glamor and chivalry of war, were also killed. Science had been a benevolent genii, but now was famed for making weapons of indiscriminate and dispassionate mass-slaughter.

The economic boom of the 1920’s came to its inevitable bust and crack-up. The world was bellycrawling through a depression. Roosevelt had just been elected President. At this time, there was not even the foxfire of Keynesian economics to grant a glint of false hope to a bankrupt world. The General Theory of Employment, with its false promises, was not to be published for three years.

The Lone Ranger made his debut on the radio to the stirring strains of the William Tell Overture. The Shadow, with his eerie laugh and occult powers, was but three years old. The atmospheric film THE MUMMY, staring Boris Karloff, so akin to Howard’s writing in theme and mood, had debuted but a year before.

The academic world was infatuated with faddish notions about eugenics. Civilization failed to cull the weak, and so carried the seeds of its own degeneration — or so the theory ran. The political world was deeply bitter about failed promises of peace which, in the Victorian Era, but twenty years before, had seemed easily within reach. Scientifically-managed economies were all the rage, and a contempt for the common man.

In America, the Western Frontier was closing. Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and all the men of myth or history who brought civilization out of savage wilderness had apparently done their work too well.

Civilization was triumphant, but was grown gross, corrupt, vulgar, and small. Something was missing. The spirit of the age languished.

Civilization had lost faith in civilization.

During such a time, the imagination of readers and writers in the more imaginative genres are likely to meditate on what had been lost, and at what cost.

During such a time, men romanticize the savage. It is only natural.

There is no shame in romanticism. In fiction, the mood and theme and atmosphere of a fable conveys more clearly the spirit of what the soul is pondering than any dry and academic discussion. That is the whole point of stories, sublime stories as well as simple ones.

The tale puts before the mind’s eye an imaginative exaggeration or pristine example, often ornamented or disguised, of those things moving deep in the heart of the age in which the tale-teller lives or, if he is a true artist, of all ages. Some exaggerations or examples are more than this: they are archetypes.

That Robert E Howard with the invention of Conan the Barbarian created an archetype is difficult to deny.

Like Sherlock Holmes, like Ebenezer Scrooge, like Gandalf the Gray, certain characters, once finding a home in the imagination of a wide readership, become the by-word for their type, the standard against which other detectives or misers or wizards or barbarians are judged. If their stories never go out of print, if their yarns spread to all other mediums, if they are copied by countless epigones, that is a fair sign that the author touched some deep matter in the human spirit. The character is called archetypal when he is a lamp by which one sees in such depths what would otherwise be obscure.

A mere flat and insubstantial copy of an archetype is called a stereotype. Conan, like many another archetype, has been copied into countless stereotypes, from Thongor of Lemuria to Fafhrd of Newhon to He-Man of Eternia to Thundarr the Barbarian to the Dar the Beastmaster. Gary Gygax devoted the barbarian character class as an homage to Conan, even as the Ranger class is an homage to Aragorn son of Arathorn.

Sadly, sometimes such insubstantial cardboard copies of Conan have been perpetrated by authors purporting to write or finish a Conan story.  An archetype differs from a mere stereotype by having more than one aspect to him, usually paradoxical.

In this case, the brilliance of Robert E. Howard was to combine and cross-pollinate the ideas and tropes of four different ingredients of story telling.

First, the idea that civilizations inevitably decline and fall, only to be replaced by robust barbarians, was popularized by Oswald Spengler the in early 1920’s. This idea, with its oriental hopelessness of endless cycles, radically challenged both the soberly tragic Christian view of the Fall of Man, and the fatuously optimistic Victorian view of an endless Ascent of Man.

Second, Howard did not invent the weird tale, the historical novel, the picaresque novel or the action yarn. But he did combine them in a new form.

Third, the idea that the world was ancient, and formed by successive catastrophes was common to the speculations of geology in that day, and taken up with enthusiasm by the Theosophists.

Finally, the noble savage of Rousseau is a stock character in literature, and not original to Howard.

When Howard did that was original, and brilliantly so, was place the stock character of Rousseau in the last place one would normally look for him: inside the weird tale with its uncanny moods and themes, and striding the lands of the cataclysmic, prehistoric world of the Theosophists, in the shadows of the fallen towers of Atlantis, amid the fall and rise of the empires and kingdoms ground by the merciless cycles of Spengler, treading jeweled thrones under his sandalled feet.

The plot of Phoenix on the Sword is straightforward, and at the risk of uttering spoilers, let us summarize its five acts thus:

In the first act we see overhear an ambitious courtier named Ascalante scheming with his slave to overthrow the throne of Aquilonia. The conspirators are stock characters from an historical novel: an ambitious count, a treasonous commander of the guard, a fat baron, an idealistic poet.

What takes the tale out of the tropes of an historical novel and into the world of fantasy is that the dark slave, Thoth-amon, is a necromancer of the south, a practitioner of the dark arts, who lost his power over the forces of the night world due to the loss of his magic ring.

Stock characters these conspirators may be, but in Howard’s hands, something more.  For example, when two of the conspirators discuss the poet Rinaldo, whose songs have set the hearts of the common man against the king, this wry observation is spoken:

“Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. … Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.”

The second act introduces Conan the King, and grants a hint of the Hyborian Age that sets the backdrop.

The King is introduced as a man fatigued of the burden of kingship. This is an odd introduction for our noble savage. His first words are a lament for the raw freedom of his barbarian days:

“… these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting I have done never did.[ … ] When I overthrew the old dynasty, it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the time. … When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.”

Like the USA in the 1930’s after the end of the roaring 20’s, he is in a depression following his years of good times.

Conan and his chancellor discuss the unrest in the city. Conan makes an observation about the poet, Rinaldo, whom the chancellor wants hanged. But Conan replies that “A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter… I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.”

Here is another subtlety of Howard’s. He has the civilized man, the chancellor, quite pragmatically call for the death of a political agitator. Conan, however, has something like the Viking’s instinctive reverence for bards. The uncivilized man, ironically, has the greater respect for the mystical vocation of the poet, that most civilized of professions.

The atmosphere created in these first two brief acts is redolent of Spengler, that is, a merciless cycle of history without beginning or end. The reader is not reading of ancient Rome, whose monuments stand to this day, but of kingdoms entirely destroyed by time. Nothing is described as stable. Aquilonia is named by the narrator as the greatest of these pre-Aryan post-Atlantis kingdoms, and it is in the hands of a barbarian reaver and rootless adventurer. The tension is between the primitive savage, who is hale if rough, and the overcivilized decadents, no less savage than he. The idea of glad progress leading to a utopian resting place, seen often in writings of the science fiction of the generation before Howard, is nowhere in evidence.

I note with some interest in this tale and those that follow that the arms and armor of the various nations of the Hyborian Age occupy all stages of ancient and medieval military technology. We have knights in plate, complete with cuirass and sallet, products equal to the later Middle Ages; with them are horse-archers and spearmen in byrnie and bascinet or adorned in the silks of Saracens, equal to the Dark Ages; charioteers in the panoply of a Homeric warlord with breastplate and greaves of gleaming bronze; soldiers in leather or linen armed with recurve bow or sling or truncheon; Neolithic fighters in grass skirts wielding tomahawks.

The admixture of periods not only lends local color to the tale, and lends delight to the military history buff or recreationist that tales like these did so much to create, it subtly emphasizes the unoptimistic atmosphere: there is no progress that stays, no civilization high enough to be immune from oblivion.

The nations mentioned on a map the King is drawing during this scene play no part in this story, but the mention is necessary to establish an essential element of the unforgettable atmosphere.

“Here is Cimmeria, where I was born. […] A gloomier land never was—all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys.

“[The men there] have no hope here or hereafter. Their gods are Crom and his dark race, who rule over a sunless place of everlasting mist, which is the world of the dead.”

Cimmeria is a name taken from Greek mythology. It is a land where no sun shines, at the edge of the world, and nigh the gates to Hell. Crom is a reference to Crom Cruach, a devil or dragon of the prechristian Irish, adored with human sacrifice. The word itself means crooked or stooped.

Conan then names the nations north of Cimmeria:

“Asgard and Vanaheim,” Prospero scanned the map. “By Mitra, I had almost believed those countries to have been fabulous.”

As does the reader. Asgard is the Norse home of their gods, and Vanaheim of their titans, called Vanir. Mitra is a Vedic god of the Aryan invaders of India, originally the guardian of divine order,  later the god of dawn.

Conan describes the northerners as “Tall and fair and blue-eyed. Their god is Ymir, the frost-giant, and each tribe has its own king.” Elsewhere we are told the southern nation of Stygia –– another Greek word –– a land of magicians with a distinctly Egyptian flavor, worships the snake god Set.

Ymir is the foe of Odin and his brothers in Norse myth. Set is the treasonous and fratricidal brother of the Egyptian god Osiris. Later still, Conan swears by the goddesses of his people: “By Badb, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain!” These are all proper pagan Celtic divinities, murderous and warlike as pagan goddesses are wont to be.

The selection of names is not random. Howard is here indulging in two theories. The first is called Euhemerism, which holds that myths are based on forgotten historical persons and places. To create the atmosphere of a world lying in the twilight just beyond the reach of the lamp of history, Howard has any place names remembered in myths of the survivors we know from history be the last relic of lost prehistory.

A similar theory holds that the devils of any mythology are the gods of the conquered natives. Examples abound. The Baal of the Canaanites becomes a devil to the conquering Israelites. Chronos worshipped by the Mycenaeans becomes a kinslaying baby-eating cannibal to the conquering Hellenes, whose great god Pan, goat-headed and armed the Neptune’s trident, in turn, becomes the Lucifer of the Christians. The Asura worshipped by Iranians become devils for the Indians while the Deva worshipped by Indians become devils for Iranians.

Hence for Howard, working backward, Crom becomes the god of some nation the forgotten ancestors of the Irish conquered, Ymir of those conquered and forgotten in the far north, Set of those in the far south.

It is a clever writing’s trick to use names half-familiar to the reader, rich with dark connotations. Such names not only sound properly pagan, savage, and ancient to average reader’s ear, but to readers catching the reference, these also create an impression of appalling spans of history that have overturned all other memory of those times.

In the third act, via unexplained Dickensian coincidence, Thoth-amon recovers his magic ring, and our historical drama steps fully into the world of HP Lovecraft.

There was a movement in the air about him, such a swirl as is made in water when some creature rises to the surface. A nameless, freezing wind blew on him briefly, as if from an opened Door. Thoth felt a presence at his back, but he did not look about. He kept his eyes fixed on the moonlit space of marble, on which a tenuous shadow hovered. As he continued his whispered incantations, this shadow grew in size and clarity, until it stood out distinct and horrific. Its outline was not unlike that of a gigantic baboon, but no such baboon ever walked the earth, not even in Stygia. Still Thoth did not look, but drawing from his girdle a sandal of his master—always carried in the dim hope that he might be able to put it to such use—he cast it behind him.

“Know it well, slave of the Ring!” he exclaimed. “Find him who wore it and destroy him! Look into his eyes and blast his soul, before you tear out his throat! Kill him! Aye,” in a blind burst of passion, “and all with him!”

Likewise in the fourth act Conan in a dream is summoned across space and time into a black crypt carved with the Nameless Old Ones. The shade of Epemitreus the Sage, dead fifteen hundred years, places on the sword of Conan, the mystic mark of the phoenix for which the story is named, to allow his mighty blade to bite the black shadow summoned by the slave of Set.

(It is a pleasure and an act of poetry just to type those words: to allow his mighty blade to bite the black shadow summoned by the slave of Set. This is a true tale of uncanny adventure, weird menace and derring-do.)

These two scenes reveal that the reader is being carried unawares into a new genre, one largely if not wholly of Howard’s invention, the crossbreed son of the historical romance, the action yarn, and the weird tale.

A word of explanation is in order because this last genre has largely fallen out of fashion.

The weird tale is a rare genre even in its own day, and even more rare now. It is not horror, albeit it follows certain horror protocols and overlaps with it, because it is not meant to produce a reaction of pity, fear and terror. A vampire or a devil can raise gooseflesh, as can a scene of serial killer in a hockey mask or an Islamic terrorist torturing a child to death.

Nor is the weird tale genre, strictly speaking, science fiction or fantasy, even if follow these protocols in placing scene in worlds other than our own, severed from us by deep time. The point of a weird tale, as the point of a ghost story, is to create a sensation in the reader of numinous disquiet.

The essential element of the weird tale is the sense of the uncanny and preternatural.

HP Lovecraft is sometime alleged to be a poor writer of horror or science fiction by those who mistake his genre. The eldritch and elder beings that people his dark and vast cosmos are not necessarily extra-terrestrials rather than unearthly. The point is to unnerve the reader on an intellectual rather than a visceral level, but showing him an immense vista, a vision, of a universe indifferent to man, to which his mind is not suited.

In science fiction, particularly in early science fiction, HG Wells in THE TIME MACHINE or Olaf Stabledon in LAST AND FIRST MEN, captured a sense of geologic ages and astronomical distances that forms the staple of the weird tale, because such vast things are uncanny. Yet Wells and Stabledon in their tales were making a comment about the future evolution of the human race, and primarily stayed within the bounds of a universe science can understand.

The difference is this: when the figure in the lab coat stands staring in awe at the glowing beast seen dimly on the misty moor at midnight, and says “there must be a rational explanation for this!”, in the science fiction story, as in an episode of SCOOBY DOO, he is always right. The creature is a man in a mask. In the weird tale, he is never right. In a weird tale, the man turns out to be a creature in a mask, perhaps a Mi-Go from Pluto.

Having the sinister figure last seen perched on the peak of a sinking iceberg while howling and superstitious Eskimos worship it with grisly rites turn out to be Frankenstein’s Monster or Count Dracula might be a perfectly sound plot twist in a horror story, but these figures are from stories we know. Even a supernatural creature like Count Dracula is somewhat familiar: we know his home is Transylvania, and his weakness is to the Crucifix. He comes from the fields we know. But should the sinister figure worshipped by Eskimos be from Pluto, over four billion miles away, or reincarnated from primordial Lemuria over two million years ago, he is from beyond the fields we know, and the aura of the weird and uncanny clings to him.

So, here. The thing summoned by the art and sent by the hate of Thoth-Amon is never clearly seen, never even given a name.

A soldier on guard without the walls yelled in startled horror as a great loping black shadow with flaming eyes cleared the wall and swept by him with a swirling rush of wind. But it was gone so swiftly that the bewildered warrior was left wondering whether it had been a dream or a hallucination.

The brief mentions of the deeps of time by the dream sequence brings up another point: It is not just cities and nations that rise and fall in the world of the Thurian and Hyborian Age, but continents. Howard linked his Conan tales together with those of Kull of Atlantis and Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane to create a vast tapestry. Here we see but the first threads of it.

Permit me to digress on this point, since it is one I did not notice when I first read such tales as a schoolboy. Perhaps I was too green, or too inattentive to the tale, to understand the significance of the setting.

The sole mention of Atlantis in the opening paragraph, above, is significant. Howard was much influenced in building his fictional world by the writings of the Theosophists, who, unlike him, did not admit they were inventing fiction. Their theory ran that five races of man ruled earth in times past: the long forgotten Polarians and Hyperboreans in antediluvian eons; then Lemurians, who are ancestors of the Picts; then Atlanteans; then modern man.

This was before the theory of Continental Drift was known, and so the speculation that the continents rose and sank only by cataclysmic upheavals was far from farfetched.

Between and within each of these periods, Howard liberally invented continents flooded until only their mountainpeaks remained as islands, volcanic overthrows of vast islands, and elsewhere lands rising suddenly out of the ocean, ringed by tidal waves and global earthquakes. So the Atlantis of Kull, another character of Howard’s shared background, broke and sank, leaving behind islands that lasted another melancholy age; so the lands known to Conan rose up where now Eurasia and Africa stand, but with the Mediterranean not yet opened, and a sea where now the dry Sahara gasps not yet closed.

Whether a world of successive cataclysms is a properly science fictional setting or not is open to debate, depending on how one judges the theories no longer held as plausible, or how much rigor one insists a story have to be shelved next to works by Wells and Verne. It is not a debate I here address.

Instead I submit that a theory with slight scientific backing, or none, when used as the premise or setting for an uncanny tale, better serves its purpose than a widely regarded theory. To hold that men are evolved from apes by the intervention of mysterious aliens, as in Clarke’s 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, provokes no sense of the unnatural or the uncanny needed for a wield tale. Holding that men were devised as empty slave-bodies and carrying vessels for the energy-based Original Masters of Alpha Draconis, whence all tales of demonic possession or mystic prophecy arise, on the other hand, has that gloomy atmosphere of creepy almost-making-sense which crackpot theories provoke. This is apt for a mood of weirdness.

But even if this were not so, the world of successive cataclysms captures the grim mood of the Hindu mystic, where a Kali Yuga routinely wipes out all life in the universe, only to have it start again. The Ecpyrosis of the Roman Stoics was the same idea, and said the whole cosmos periodically burned to ash and was reborn. And the successive destructions whispered in Aztec legends, where different generations of man and god alike are obliterated, all these and others capture the pagan spirit and atmosphere needed for the Hyborian Age of Conan.

The Theosophists are merely the most recent intrusion of pagan and oriental ideas into the West, the home of that unique idea of history as a story never seen elsewhere: the story of the Fall of Man on the one hand, with its promise of salvation, and its weak counter story of an Ascent of Man, with its boast of man saving himself. In the endless cycles of the pagan view, the snake eats its own tail, and no final victory ever comes, no salvation. Hence the Theosophists exactly capture both the pagan melancholy and the weird tales weirdness needed for a Conan story. Howard’s use of their material is masterful.

Let us return to the plot.

In the final act, all the threads come together, and we have our battle scene:

Conan put his back against the wall and lifted his ax. He stood like an image of the unconquerable primordial—legs braced far apart, head thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other gripping the ax on high, with the great corded muscles standing out in iron ridges, and his features frozen in a death snarl of fury—his eyes blazing terribly through the mist of blood which veiled them. The men faltered—wild, criminal and dissolute though they were, yet they came of a breed men called civilized, with a civilized background; here was the barbarian—the natural killer. They shrank back—the dying tiger could still deal death.

Conan sensed their uncertainty and grinned mirthlessly and ferociously. “Who dies first?” he mumbled through smashed and bloody lips.

This is not a story about a schoolgirl remembering a stolen kiss from an older boy and contemplating her delicate pastel emotions.  This is a tale of bloodshed, of eldritch shadows, of rough men ready to die but full of roaring life. Such savagery seems bright only against a sufficiently dark background.

The barbarian of gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth here is set against the shadow haunted cosmos of Lovecraftian weirdness, striding continents overturned by the cataclysms of Theosophists, and conquering cities doomed by Spenglerian cycles of history. Such a figure has a strange but clear appeal to it. Here is the old idea of Achille’s bargain, who accepts a short life as the price for a glorious one.

The tale is romance. Barbarism is romanticized here just as we also see in A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and just as we also see in pirate stories or yarns of the Old West, where the Sioux or Apache are portrayed as savage but honorable warriors, graced with a rough chivalry surpassing the utilitarian cunning Spanish or British colonists. Again and again, Conan is said to have a vitality and strength civilized men have forgotten how to find.

The cruel reality of savage life is, of course, is passed by without mention. Such injected realism would defeat the story’s purpose and cheat the reader, who is looking for the cold shock of excitement that comes from the mingle hope and nostalgia of glamorizing the past.

These works are for boys and men who have not lost the enthusiasm of boys. These works are for readers who are justifiably weary of the cobwebby regulations, courtesies, and falsehoods of polite society, nannying, nagging, and the dreary minutia of a corrupt civilization.

Such boys, spirits untested, stare at the wild expanse of untamed nature, and wonder if they are equal to the task of conquest; such men, spirits unbowed, see the corruption of overfed cities, dirty with centuries of ill-gotten wealth, and yearn for fires from heaven to overturn them in acts of unearthly cleansing.

At such times, man and boy alike is wont to call on the spirit of barbarism to refresh his soul, to remind him of the simple and manly truths of strength and steel, of straight talk and plain passion, and how men must fight if the horrors of night are to be kept at bay.

The world on the eve of World War Two, caught as it was in the deep corruption of socialism in Europe, the nightmare horrors of Stalinism in Russia, and the fatuous economic mismanagement of Hoover and Roosevelt at home, was ripe for this refreshing dream of barbarism.

Melancholy as this savage Conan may be, he still was upright, unbowed, uncowed, and, more to the point, unafraid of the uncanny mysteries hovering thick and black about his toppling throne.

He is heathen through and through, even to the solemn resignation to fate and death, but he thereby retains the gloomy grandeur of those ancient and stoic pagans, so merely opposite to the cowardly bullies and whiners that dominate our headlines.

There are times when the corruption of civilization grows too great, and the hands itch for a battleaxe and a straight path to the skulls of the enemy. Howard lived in such an age. As do we.