The first stop on our journey through Conan the Barbarian starts, inscrutably enough, at the beginning, before the title appears on screen. The first words uttered in the film also happen to be the most tied to Robert E. Howard's work. Let's compare and contrast.
Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
The first part of the Wizard's narration is an abridged, heavily altered version of the first sentence in Howard's famous "Nemedian Chronicles" passage, the first paragraph of the first Conan story:
"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 Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Phoenix on the Sword," pg. 19
It's a shame to lose Howard's fantastically evocative prose, but I can understand, if not support, the choice to simplify and shorten it. It's what follows that is problematic for me.
And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.
"Destined" is a very loaded word. For Conan to be destined to become king gives the impression of a preordained resolution, that it wasn't a matter of choice on Conan's part, but a matter of eventuality. This undermines the unpredictable and independent nature of Conan's personality. Conan is one of those great men in history, a leader of men that showed rare charisma and intelligence, who could fundamentally alter the course of mankind through his actions: Sargon, Cyrus, Alexander, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and others being spiritual descendants. His actions define Hyborian Age politics throughout his reign, and pivotal events would have fundamentally altered time were it not for him. It's a remarkable achievement, and the implication of such a thing being predestined, even inevitable, subtracts substantially from it.
On its own, one could consider the Chronicler's words to be after-the-fact, and the use of "destined" after the event has taken place does remove such ambiguity in itself. However, the idea of Conan's kingship not only being a possibility, but practically preordained is strengthened later in the film, in the encounter with the Witch:
They said you'd come... From the north, a man of great strength... A conqueror. A man who would some day be king by his own hand. One who would crush the snakes of the earth.
This is fairly unambiguous. Conan, not long out of captivity and having just emerged from an antediluvian cave, is stated by a woman with clearly supernatural powers to be "a man who would some day be king by his own hand."
Now, Howard did foreshadow Conan's eventual kingship more than a few times:
"By Mitra," said he slowly, "I never expected to see you cased in coat-armor, but you do not put it to shame. By my finger-bones, Conan, I have seen kings who wore their harness less regally than you!"
Conan was silent. A vague shadow crossed his mind like a prophecy. In years to come he was to remember Amalric’s words, when the dream became the reality.
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "Black Colossus," pg 161-162
Here, we see that the idea of Conan becoming a king is a "vague shadow" like a prophecy: a simile.
"I've been mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general - hell, I've been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die." The fancy pleased him, and he grinned hardly.
- The Conquering Sword of Conan, "Beyond the Black River," pg. 77
As before, Conan's kingship is not an eventuality, but a possibility: he may be, not will be.
"I've never been king of an Hyborian kingdom," he grinned, taking an enormous mouthful of cactus. "But I've dreamed of being even that. I may be too, some day. Why shouldn't I?"
- The Conquering Sword of Conan, "Red Nails," pg. 221
Every indication of Conan's kingship is treated vaguely: simile, metaphor, possibilities. There is no certainty, as "destined" would suggest, and most certainly nothing like the definitive statement of the Witch. Most potently of all, as the stories progress, Conan becomes more and more confident, as if the idea of becoming king is growing in his mind naturally.
There's also the "troubled brow." This is, in fact, a strongly Howardian metaphor, since Conan the King faces struggles every bit as challenging as any battle he fought or treasure he pursued, but in ways he cannot immediately deal with:
"Prospero," said the man at the table, "these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting I have done never did."
"When I overthrew the old dynasty," he continued, speaking with the easy familiarity which existed only between the Poitainian and himself, "it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the time. Looking back now over the wild path I followed, all those days of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seem like a dream.
"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. 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.
"When I overthrew Numedides, then I was the Liberator – now they spit at my shadow. They have put a statue of that swine in the temple of Mitra, and people go and wail before it, hailing it as the holy effigy of a saintly monarch who was done to death by a red-handed barbarian. When I led her armies to victory as a mercenary, Aquilonia overlooked the fact that I was a foreigner, but now she can not forgive me."
"There is a nameless unrest throughout the kingdom. I am like a hunter who crouches by his small fire amid the forest, and hears stealthy feet padding in the darkness, and almost sees the glimmer of burning eyes. If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!"
- The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The Phoenix on the Sword," pgs 22-23
Conan may not be as contemplative as his spiritual ancestor Kull, but he certainly doesn't have an easy time of it as king, and the wizard's mention of this is an appreciated element.
It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
If the wizard is indeed Conan's chronicler, then how can he speak of the future? The Sons of Aryas are millennia away in the distant future. It's akin to Charlemagne's chronicler saying "Between the time when the flames swallowed Troy, and the rise of the Sons of Temujin, there was an age undreamed of." Is he speaking to a modern audience, regaling the 20th century disenchanted romantics with days of high adventure? Either this was a bizarre oversight, or it was a subtle hint that the wizard is a greater magician than he first appears. It's important to note that the authors of the Nemedian Chronicles were likely to have been the Nemedians of Irish Mythology, not the Hyborian Age Nemedians.
Yet if Conan was king, why is it only his chronicler who can tell of his saga? Surely there would have been scores of historians, scholars and scribes that would record the reign of Conan? However, this could support the "modern wizard" theory: since the Hyborian Age is now long lost to history, there really is no-one left to tell Conan's tale.
Nonetheless, it's something Howard never brought up, since the wizard is nowhere to be seen in the three stories set during Conan's reign over Aquilonia, or in any other tale, for that matter.