The Riddle of Steel

This is a comment on the justly famous Conan movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Someone asked me my opinion on the meaning of the movie.

The plot concerns two quests: Conan seeks revenge for the death of his family, and seeks the answer to the Riddle of Steel. One is a physical quest, the other is spiritual.

Some think the meaning is wrapped up in the most famous quote of the movie, where what is best in life is defined as driving one’s enemies before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women. 

But please note that the film is being deliberately ironic here. Conan is a slave with a chain around his neck when he says it. The line he utters is the philosophy of those who live by steel, the conquerors. If this were the point of the movie, the scenes where King Osric (Max von Sydow) laments the burden of kingship would have no point; nor the prologue where Conan is shown as a weary and unhappy king on a red-lit throne.

But the Riddle of Steel is that there is something stronger than steel.

Conan starts as a slave, and the steel is in the chain binding him to the wheel of pain. It does not conquer him.

Conan escapes, falls in love, and loses her. Conan finds Thulsa Doom, who slew his clan, in the middle of the film, not the climax. Doom mocks Conan after telling him the alleged answer to the Riddle. Doom tells an acolyte of his cult to kill herself pointlessly, and she immediately does so, whereupon Doom exults “THAT is power, boy, a power stronger than steel!”

I have heard two interpretations of this: one is that the film celebrates nihilism, since Conan discovers the answer to his life’s riddle is meaningless; the other is that the film celebrates Nietzschean indifference to the meaninglessness of life, where the superman makes his own meaning.

In my humble opinion, both are wrong. These interpretations assume that the bad guy is telling the truth. That is always a dangerous assumption when dealing with a wily author.

Thulsa Doom does not tell Conan the answer of the Riddle of Steel, because Thulsa Doom failed to understand it.

Thulsa Doom thought that mindless obedience was stronger than steel. His cultlike mind control over his followers was the answer. He thinks the riddle of steel is that man is weak and made of flesh and steel is strong — and yet somehow flesh is stronger than steel, the swordsman is stronger than the sword.

His followers are willing to destroy their bodies, sacrifice their flesh and blood, for him. Thulsa Doom says flesh and blood is the strongest. It clearly is not.

Doom has Conan crucified. The Tree of Woe is the sign of the strength of flesh and blood, for who can rebel when flesh is slain by torture? Crucifixion is the Roman symbol of how slaves die.

Then, in one of the most awesome scenes in all story-telling, when a vulture descends to peak out his eyes, Conan grabs the bird by the neck with his teeth and kills it. Flesh and blood does not conquer him.

Conan shows the real answer in the last battle. He is outnumbered, he prays to his god who will not help him, and curses his god, for he has no help but himself. His enemies have more swords, more steel, and also the mindless obedience of flesh and blood. The whole physical and magical universe is against him.

And then the ghost of his true love returns from the dead and parries his deathblow, sparing his life.

She asks him disparagingly if he wants to live forever? The answer is obviously no: those who fear dying die. Death is loss of flesh and blood. There is something stronger yet.

The answer to the riddle is that spirit is stronger than flesh and blood which is stronger steel. Love cannot be slain by steel.