Wednesday, 6 June 2012

80 Years of Conan: "The Phoenix on the Sword" - Chapter III

Under the caverned pyramids great Set coils asleep;
Among the shadows of the tombs his dusky people creep.
I speak the Word from the hidden gulfs that never knew the sun
Send me a servant for my hate, oh scaled and shining One!

Noble Blood... All Over The Floor

There's a beautiful element of poetic irony in the character of Dion: he is simultaneously the character of least and most consequence. His contributions to the Rebel Four's plot are financial and political: his copious coffers funded Ascalante's schemes, bribes and expenses, while his slim link to the previous ruling house's bloodline made him the only defensible "true heir" to the throne of Aquilonia. But aside from all that, Dion is a gibbering ignoramus, his mind and body softened from a lifetime of lazing on velvet cushions, imbibing the finest wines, clad in exquisite robes and jewels.

This noble heritage which would have seen him - briefly - crowned as king of Aquilonia if Ascalante's plan succeeded would end up thwarting Ascalante in an indirect manner. After slaying him, Thoth-Amon uses Dion's blood to summon the Demon of the Ring, which would go on to kill Ascalante and nearly Conan himself:

    “And Dion thinks that crown will be given to him?”
    “Yes. The fat fool claims it by reason of a trace of royal blood."

    When he shook himself from his revery and drew back his mind from the nighted abysses where it had been questing, the moon was rising, casting long shadows across the smooth marble back of the garden-seat, at the foot of which sprawled the darker shadow which had been the lord of Attalus.
    “No more, Ascalante, no more!” whispered the Stygian, and his eyes burned red as a vampire’s in the gloom. Stooping, he cupped a handful of congealing blood from the sluggish pool in which his victim sprawled, and rubbed it in the copper serpent’s eyes until the yellow sparks were covered by a crimson mask.

Dion's noble blood would be key to the fate of Aquilonia - even when spilled all over the ground of his luxury estate.

Another pleasing piece of irony is that Dion coming into possession of the Serpent Ring of Set was precisely a result of his fear of the supernatural:

    “Ring?” he repeated. “That makes me remember – my ring of good fortune. I had it from a Shemitish thief who swore he stole it from a wizard far to the south, and that it would bring me luck. I paid him enough, Mitra knows. By the gods, I need all the luck I can have, what with Volmana and Ascalante dragging me into their bloody plots – I’ll see to the ring.”

    Thoth sprang up, blood mounting darkly to his face, while his eyes flamed with the stunned fury of a man who suddenly realizes the full depths of a fool’s swinish stupidity. Dion never heeded him. Lifting a secret lid in the marble seat, he fumbled for a moment among a heap of gewgaws of various kinds – barbaric charms, bits of bones, pieces of tawdry jewelry – luck-pieces and conjures which the man’s superstitious nature had prompted him to collect.

In seeking to protect himself from evil spirits and ill fortune, Dion aquired one of the most dangerous and evil artefacts on the face of the earth, and paid dearly for it.

Finally, Dion is preoccupied with unseen shadows, of being discovered by enemies of Ascalante:

    “I do not trust Dion. I bade him ride to his country estate and remain there until the work tonight is done. The fat fool could never conceal his nervousness before the king today. Ride after him, and if you do not overtake him on the road, proceed to his estate and remain with him until we send for him. Don’t let him out of your sight. He is mazed with fear, and might bolt – might even rush to Conan in a panic, and reveal the whole plot, hoping thus to save his own hide.”

Little did Dion suspect that Ascalante's - and his own - greatest threat was a dusky slave whose very existence he barely acknowledged:

    Dion gave little thought to Thoth-amon. He vaguely knew that he was a slave in whom Ascalante reposed much trust, but like so many rich men, Dion paid scant heed to men below his own station in life...
    ...Thoth-amon’s eyes narrowed. For all his iron-self-control, he was near bursting with long pent-up shame, hate and rage, ready to take any sort of a desperate chance. What he did not reckon on was the fact that Dion saw him, not as a human being with a brain and a wit, but simply a slave, and as such, a creature beneath notice...
    ... “Ring? Ring?” Thoth had underestimated the man’s utter egoism. Dion had not even been listening to the slave’s words, so completely engrossed was he in his own thoughts, but the final word stirred a ripple in his self-centeredness...
    Steel glittered in the Stygian’s hand and with a heave of his great dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron’s fat body. Dion’s high thin squeal broke in a strangled gurgle and his whole flabby frame collapsed like melted butter. A fool to the end, he died in mad terror, not knowing why.

Three levels of poetic irony.


One of the more controversial elements of "Phoenix" is Thoth-Amon's reunion with the Ring of Set. Thoth has been Ascalante's slave for years, ever since his ring was stolen from him and his downward spiral brought him to lowly thrall of an outlaw lord. And yet, just as he's at his lowest, playing babysitter to a pampered nobleman, he finds that which he lost, the treasure which would ensure the obliteration of his enemies and his reascension to power. In order for this to happen, the following remarkable events occur:

 - Thoth-Amon has his ring stolen by a Shemite thief, who later sells it to Dion;
 - Thoth escapes Stygia, only to have his caravan attacked by bandits led by Ascalante, and taken into servitude;
 - Years later, Thoth is ordered to watch over a nervous conspirator at his home to ensure he doesn't crack and confess;
 - Thoth spontaneously confides his past with Dion, a man he cannot stand, as he looks to escape servitude under Ascalante, making a brief mention of "his ring";
 - Dion absently, thoughtlessly deigns to show a little good-luck charm to this lowly slave of no consequence, one he'd all but forgotten until Thoth mentioned it;
 - Said trinket happening to be that very same ring.

Yes, it's totally unbelievable - if this was just a perfectly normal ring. But it isn't: this ring has a malevolent and unknowable power about it, and Thoth-Amon is a neophyte of Set. Reading into the hints, subtleties and implications permeating the story, I have to think that this is far from some contrived, unhappy coincidence: in fact, I believe this to be a manifestation of one of the central elements that mark the tale - of mortals caught in the wake of gigantic happenings. Not coincidence - synchronisation.

The actuality of gods as we conceive them in the Hyborian Age is ambiguous and, ultimately, unprovable: the evidence for forces beyond the ken of man of great power and dread, however, is clear. Let's work under the assumption that Mitra is, on some level, real, even if he's merely a manifestation of "the forces ever opposed to darkness" as alluded to in "The Cairn on the Headland"; likewise, let's say that Father Set, or at least an eldritch horror claiming to be that arch-demon - perhaps merely one head of a polycephalic One Black Master - is just as real. Consider, then, Epemitreus' words:

    “As a pebble cast into a dark lake sends ripples to the further shores, happenings in the Unseen World have broken like waves on my slumber. I have marked you well, Conan of Cimmeria, and the stamp of mighty happenings and great deeds is upon you. But dooms are loose in the land, against which your sword can not aid you.”

    “Your destiny is one with Aquilonia. Gigantic happenings are forming in the web and the womb of Fate, and a blood-mad sorcerer shall not stand in the path of imperial destiny. Ages ago Set coiled about the world like a python about its prey. All my life, which was as the lives of three common men, I fought him. I drove him into the shadows of the mysterious south, but in dark Stygia men still worship him who to us is the arch-demon. As I fought Set, I fight his worshippers and his votaries and his acolytes. Hold out your sword.”

Thoth-Amon's actions have awakened Epemitreus from his slumber. "Happenings in the unseen world have broken like waves," "as a pebble cast into a dark lake sends ripples to the further shores." The ripple effect: seemingly inconsequential things which converge far from the point of origin. Could it not be that this apparently remarkable coincidence is, in fact, emblematic of such ripples? Could similar happenings in the "unseen world" have set in motion these "gigantic happenings," causing them to culminate in no less an event than the attempted assassination of the most powerful man in the Western World?

When it comes to matters of sorcery, of gods and arch-demons, there simply cannot be such a thing as mere coincidence. What is more compelling an idea: that Thoth-Amon just happened to find the ring which he lost years ago in the possession of a feeble-brained moron, who just happened to be so engrossed in his own paranoia that he ignored everything Thoth said except a cryptic reference to a ring, who just happened to remember buying a curious ring after years forgetting it existed, who just happened to pick that exact ring out of a box of trinkets... Or that Dion was meant to buy that ring precisely so that it could be brought back to Thoth-Amon at the time of gigantic happenings forming in the womb of fate?

I don't know about you, but given the great amount of talk of destiny, fate and prophesy in the story, I think Thoth reclaiming the ring from Dion "just because" is the least likely proposition of the two.

The Rise & Fall of Thoth-Amon

    “Listen, my lord. I was a great sorcerer in the south. Men spoke of Thoth-amon as they spoke of Rammon. King Ctesphon of Stygia gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me above them. They hated me, but they feared me, for I controlled beings from outside which came at my call and did my bidding. By Set, mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat! I did dark and terrible magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, which I found in a nighted tomb a league beneath the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea.
    “But a thief stole the Ring and my power was broken. The magicians rose up to slay me, and I fled. Disguised as a camel-driver, I was travelling in a caravan in the land of Koth, when Ascalante’s reavers fell upon us. All in the caravan were slain except myself; I saved my life by revealing my identity to Ascalante and swearing to serve him. Bitter has been that bondage!
    “To hold me fast, he wrote of me in a manuscript, and sealed it and gave it into the hands of a hermit who dwells on the southern borders of Koth. I dare not strike a dagger into him while he sleeps, or betray him to his enemies, for then the hermit would open the manuscript and read – thus Ascalante instructed him. And he would speak a word in Stygia –”
    Again Thoth shuddered and an ashen hue tinged his dusky skin.
    “Men knew me not in Aquilonia,” he said. “But should my enemies in Stygia learn my whereabouts, not the width of half a world between us would suffice to save me from such a doom as would blast the soul of a bronze statue. Only a king with castles and hosts of swordsmen could protect me. So I have told you my secret, and urge that you make a pact with me. I can aid you with my wisdom, and you can protect me. And some day I will find the Ring –”

The desire for power is enough motivation, but it could be that there's more to it. Perhaps Thoth-Amon's motivation is a desire for control over his environment. When you're initiated into the black arts and finally realise the horrible truth that man has little power or impact on the universe, and that there are legions of things just beyond a gossamer veil that would overwhelm us, a need for control and power to keep one safe would be practically inevitable. Thoth definitely fears the power of his Stygian enemies, and he seems to even fear the demons he summons himself. Could Thoth-Amon's rise to power be a result of his fear of powerlessness?

    "The arts studied by a Stygian scholar are not calculated to make him share the feelings of a normal human being.”
 - "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula"

There are a number of accounts depicting Thoth-Amon's early days, in Marvel Comics, and Dark Horse's The Book of Thoth. Neither are remotely satisfying to me, and so I feel just as I put together my own interpretation of Conan's early life, I do the same for Thoth. Based on clues sprinkled throughout the stories, this is my personal take on the Rise of Thoth-Amon:

    Thoth-Amon was born to the priestly caste, in Stygia. Higher in status than most, the priests are the true rulers of Stygia: Thoth could not have been born to a higher station in life. From birth, he was raised in the terrible ways of the Cult of Set. As a boy, he assisted in tending to the great Sons of Set. As a youth, he assisted in the gory sacrifices undertaken atop the black pyramids of Khemi, watching countless souls be sent to Father Set on a tide of blood. As a young man, he was inducted into the priesthood, where he aided the great sorcerers of the Black Ring. But this was not sufficient for him: he sought to become a sorcerer himself. Unfortunately for him, the Black Ring are a prideful and nepotistic lot, and though Thoth was of the priestly caste, he did not have the right connections to progress. His blossoming, almost progenic talents threatened their egos, and the audacious arrogance which arose from his success ensured that the jealous acolytes of the Black Ring took every opportunity to impede this precocious initiate.
    Thoth was impatient and easily frustrated. His aptitude for potion-making was unparalleled, and he felt he deserved better than to be browbeaten like a mongrel serf by his inferiors. He grew resentful, and began to go behind his teachers' backs: sneaking into black libraries, stealing formulae and scrolls, wringing every ounce of knowledge he could from his reluctant so-called tutors. He learned much he was not meant to know at such an early age: of the Elder Earth and its denizens, of the darkly angelic beings who the early Stygians met and fought deep to the south, of the worlds beyond worlds and the beings who sometimes drift from them into the shadowy places of the earth. One thing he learned is that for all the Black Ring's knowledge, it was but a grain of sand in a desert of knowledge that was yet to be discovered. He learned of the grand history of Old Stygia, of their time-lost empire which arose following the Cataclysm, and even deeper and more obscure glories of the past: this caused him to look with disgust and contempt for modern Stygia, an atrophied, withered ghost of its former self - a kingdom that deserved to be brought back to its old glory. But even the careful Thoth made mistakes: when the Black Ring discovered his impudence, they accused him of iconoclasm, and expelled him from the order.
    Any other exiled priest would not last long in the zealous theocratic nation that was Stygia, but Thoth's cunning and learning served him well. He escaped into the night, avoiding the wrathful populace and sadistic soldiers, fleeing into the hinterlands of Stygia. It was then, at what he previously thought to be the darkest point of his life, that he resolved to return to the Black Ring, and take what he felt was his right - rulership. Stygia was an ancient land, with pre-human ruins and sites lost in the burning sands, many of which had never felt the tread of the human sole. A resourceful and daring sorcerer may yet reap the rewards - if they are willing to brave the terrors that even the Stygians shun.
    Thoth searched these ruins for months, usually to no avail, often barely escaping with his life. But he persisted: he delved into the sunless caverns where dark things gnawed at the earth and shook their awful manes; he challenged the long-dead keepers of ancient tombs to gain their wisdom; he traversed into the very heart of the desert to find the merest fragment of lore. It was years before he found a nighted tomb deep in the earth, and found it: a ring in the shape of a snake, looped thrice, with the head biting the tail. Even the Black Ring had forgotten this ancient artifact, but Thoth toiled to unlock its secrets, until the full power of the Serpent Ring was at his disposal. He realised his folly in seeking to restore Stygia's former glory, and saw it for the petty ambition it was: why stoop to rule the world when one can rule the eternal night encircling it?
    Drunk with power, Thoth organised his return, and he did so in grand style. Nameless whispers rustled through the kingdom; a great plague from the desert rushed like a hot wind, killing hundreds in moments; most frightening of all, the mightiest sorcerers of the Black Ring were dying, torn apart or with their very bodies shrivelled like young corn, with tales of great hound-like shadows stealing into their towers at night. With Stygia gripped by dread, Thoth made his grand return, striding with breathtaking self-assurance through the streets. Those who dared to hinder his approach were brushed aside, where they fell dead, a black handprint on their chests. Thoth announced his return, and with an awesome display of his power, he commanded attention and fear from the populace, and hatred from the Black Ring. Not since Rammon had one individual so captured the awe and terror of Stygia.
    Thoth asserted himself as Master of the Black Ring, and effectively the most powerful man in Stygia, in short order. Thoth allowed King Ctesphon to rule his meagre human kingdom, and in return, the king exalted him above all others. What were mighty happenings to the great kingdoms of the world were little more than idle gossip to him. When a great sorcerer of Old Stygia was rumoured to have awakened, he noted with amusement that the combined might of his pathetic underlings were only barely sufficient in holding the border - no threat to the Master of the Ring. When Argos and Koth sent a mighty fleet to assail Stygia, he watched absently as a black plague his minions sent decimated half the invading army. Only Kalanthes of Hanumar gave Thoth much pause, and even then, he thought so little of his abilities that he toyed with him: he sent Kalanthes a "gift" in the form of a Child of Set.
   Yet Thoth grew complacent and arrogant in his station: he placed too much reliance on the power of the ring, and as is the way with evil things, the ring itself sapped much of his own energy. The ring drew strength from its owner as much as the reverse. With no need to exert himself with intense meditations, meticulous spellcraft or strenuous rituals, he forgot much: with the ring, he had no need of such lowly, mortal means of communing with the forces of darkness. In time, Thoth used the ring in all his sorceries - a fact which his enemies did not fail to notice. It did not even occur to Thoth that his downfall would come from a mundane theft.
    Kalanthes of Hanumar, priest of Ibis, was ever opposed to Set and his worshippers, and when he learned that Thoth's dependence on the Serpent Ring was all but absolute, he acted. He contracted a famed Shemitish thief, trained by the master-thieves of Zamora, to steal into Thoth's chambers and take the ring from his very presence. Kalanthes persuaded the jealous Priests of the Black Ring to aid in this scheme, disguising himself as an unknown benefactor sympathetic to Father Set: their pride and their envy of Thoth ensured their assistance. When Thoth discovered his ring was missing, he raced to flee before the Black Ring found and destroyed him. Luckily, he had not lost all his learning in his years of ring-given supremacy: it took all the allies, tricks and resources he had, but he escaped from Stygia with his life.
    He lay low in a trading caravan for a time before Ascalante's bandits fell upon him. Not daring to use too much of his inherent power for fear that his enemies in Stygia would detect it with their dark talents, he was reduced to flinging vials of acid and handfuls of tomb dust at his attackers. Ascalante held back: he could tell a Priest of Set when he saw one, but why would he not slay them all with the infamous Black Hand, or arts even more terrible? Something was staying his hand, but what? Ascalante parlayed with the desperate Stygian, and through his guile, persuaded Thoth into betraying his secret. Ascalante promised to aid Thoth in regaining his power - a promise he would naturally rescind, as he secretly prepared his contingency plan which would trap Thoth in servitude. Upon discovery of Ascalante's treachery, Thoth's simmering rage ever threatened to boil over, but the fear of what would happen should his enemies find him kept him in check.
    As for the ring: Kalanthes kept it secret and safe, where it could do no harm in the hands of Set's neophyte. But he did not count on the ring's eerie tendency to escape the clutches of those not loyal to his serpentine master. First, a thief stole it, selling it to a fence; that fence sold it to a noble; the noble sold it off to pay his debtors; the debtors were robbed by bandits; the bandits were slain by soldiers, who brought their spoils to their lord baron; the baron lost the ring when he was killed on a hunt; and so the ring passed through hands, bringing ruin in its wake, before it ended up in the hands of a Shemite trader, who sold it to a fat Aquilonian lord. But this time, it stayed in his hands for years, even as he forgot its existence...

He could've been a powerful enough sorcerer beforehand, but just not in the upper echelons of the Black Ring. Being a low-powered sorcerer in Stygia must be frightening when you think of the horrors that are being dealt with: frequent bloody sacrifices, watching you don't get eaten by gigantic temple snakes, to say nothing of the . When Thoth got the ring, he achieved a level of power and control that he didn't have previously - alone, no one man could stand against the combined might of the Black Ring to assert their dominance. But with such a powerful artifact as the Serpent Ring of Set...

The Slave of the Ring

Chronologically speaking, the demon of the ring is the first truly supernatural horror Conan faces in the series: not an ancient holdover from the Elder Earth, nor an abomination of evolution shunned by the living world, but a thing from unknown and unknowable gulfs beyond Space or Time.

    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.

At first, it seems as though Howard is describing a rippling portal between dimensions, akin to the many doors to other planets in Lovecraft and Smith. But then, something Epemitreus says suggests that there's something even more unnatural taking place:

    "It is not against men I must shield you. There are dark worlds barely guessed by man, wherein formless monsters stalk – fiends which may be drawn from the Outer Voids to take material shape and rend and devour at the bidding of evil magicians."

    The broken blade sank deep and Conan’s arm was released as the abhorrent mouth gaped as in agony. The king was hurled violently aside, and lifting himself on one hand he saw, as one mazed, the terrible convulsions of the monster from which thick blood was gushing through the great wound his broken blade had torn. And as he watched, its struggles ceased and it lay jerking spasmodically, staring upward with its grisly dead eyes. Conan blinked and shook the blood from his own eyes; it seemed to him that the thing was melting and disintegrating into a slimy unstable mass.

Rather than a baboon-demon simply entering a portal like a door, it seems that the Slave of the Ring was originally a formless thing - the "shadow" growing in size and clarity, eventually standing out "distinct and horrific" - becoming the indirect representation of an incorporeal horror, taking on the aspect and tangibility of flesh, or at least something like it, in this world.

Why this shape in particular? The slave of the ring takes on the features of a baboon, a great hound, and a Stygian mummy, but tellingly, there is also the faintest glimmer of Thoth-Amon himself:

    Etched on the moonlit wall Thoth saw the horror lower its misshapen head and take the scent like some hideous hound.

    The hideousness of its face transcended mere bestiality. It might have been the face of an ancient, evil mummy, quickened with demoniac life. In those abhorrent features the outlaw’s dilated eyes seemed to see, like a shadow in the madness that enveloped him, a faint and terrible resemblance to the slave Thoth-amon.

    At first he thought it was a great black hound which stood above Ascalante’s distorted body; then as his sight cleared he saw that it was neither a hound nor a baboon.

    “It was like a cross between a Stygian mummy and a baboon.”

My theory is that the Slave of the Ring assumes a form wrought from the thoughts, conscious or unconscious, of the ring's current owner. Thoth-Amon was evoking imagery of hounds tracking their foes right on the first page, which is carried on in descriptions of the creature as noted above:

    “Oh, fools, your doom hounds your heels like a blind dog, and you know it not.”

Mummies are obviously linked to Stygian funerary rites, and it would be natural for such a potent symbol of death be incorporated into this agent. Especially notable is that mummification is part of the preparation for the Egyptian soul to move into the afterlife - travel between worlds. And where else are mummies found, but tombs?

    Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs...

    ... his voice sank still lower as he whispered dark names and grisly incantations forgotten the world over save in the grim hinterlands of dark Stygia, where monstrous shapes move in the dusk of the tombs.

The correlation with baboons would seem to be simply flavourful, to further emphasise the monstrous nature of the beast. However, there's also an interesting turn of phrase, where Howard equates Conan dealing death among the hapless assassins like, well:

    The Cimmerian moved in a blur of blinding speed. He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun, offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of death about him.

But then, there's the stinger, the final paragraph of the story:

    There on the floor where the monster had died, there lay, like a tangible shadow, a broad dark stain that could not be washed out; the thing had left its outline clearly etched in its blood, and that outline was of no being of a sane and normal world. Grim and horrific it brooded there, like the shadow cast by one of the apish gods that squat on the shadowy altars of dim temples in the dark land of Stygia.

There's the final piece of the puzzle, then: the baboon aspect of the Slave of the Ring was drawn from one of the simian gods of Stygia.

So, to summarise: the Slave of the Ring was a formless thing which took on shape when summoned. That shape may be crafted from images drawn from the mind of the summoner. So, when Thoth-Amon brought forth one of Set's servants, it took on various aspects: the Hound, drawn from Thoth's desire to hunt down his tormentor and all with him; the Baboon, an animal from which certain Stygian deities took their image; the Mummy, a symbol of death and transition between worlds. Finally, barely perceptible beyond the horrendous vision born of nightmare and lunacy, the merest hint, the slightest glimmer, of the original conjurer can be discerned in the baleful eyes of the beast.

Howard would return to this well in future, memorably in "The Devil in Iron," but I feel here is the most powerful and successful implementation of a being not fit for this fragile, sane world taking on a form suited to the depths of nightmare.

Precious Power

This isn't much of a commentary on the story itself, but I find the similarities betwixt Thoth-Amon's obsession with the Serpent Ring of Set, and Sauron/Gollum's relationship with the Ring of Power, to be very fascinating - all the more so because it's exceedingly unlikely that either influenced the other. By 1932, Tolkien had already created much of the legendarium which would become The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit was only a few years away.


    Thoth-amon cried out as if he had been struck, and Dion wheeled and gaped, his face suddenly bloodless. The slave’s eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge dusky hands outstretched like talons.
    “The Ring! By Set! The Ring!” he shrieked. “My Ring – stolen from me –”  
    ...Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidness.
    “My Ring!” he whispered in terrible exultation. “My power!”
    How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian knew. When he shook himself from his revery and drew back his mind from the nighted abysses where it had been questing, the moon was rising, casting long shadows across the smooth marble back of the garden-seat, at the foot of which sprawled the darker shadow which had been the lord of Attalus.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Yet though Thoth acts a little Smeagolesque in his enthusiasm to be reunited with "his power," he seems to have greater mastery of the ring - and does not truly treasure it as a precious thing, but as a mighty weapon. Without the ring, after all, he is significantly diminished, though not quite powerless: it is circumstance and blackmail which prevents him from doing away with Ascalante and striking back against his foes in Stygia. So is he not closer to the Lord of the Rings, Sauron himself? Given my belief that there are no coincidences when it comes to wizards...


Further Reading

Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis,”The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 

Paul Herman, The Neverending Hunt

Mark Finn, "Conan the Commercial: Seeking Robert E. Howard in His Most Famous Creation"

Keith Taylor, "The Ring of... Set?"

Christian Lindke, "What's So Special About Conan?"

Elwin Cotman, "In Which I Discuss Comic Books and Archenemies"

doc-lemming's scene analysis: "The Phoenix on the Sword"

REH Story of the Month: "The Phoenix on the Sword" Discussion (Robert E. Howard Forums)

Thoth-Amon: Conan's Arch-Nemesis? (Robert E. Howard Forums)


  1. There is one element of the story that I always found unconvincing. "The petty ambitions of barons and kings" indeed seem to be nothing to Thoth, yet he asks Dion protection from his Stygian enemies.
    “But should my enemies in Stygia learn my whereabouts, not the width of half a world between us would suffice to save me from such a doom as would blast the soul of a bronze statue. Only a king with castles and hosts of swordsmen could protect me. So I have told you my secret, and urge that you make a pact with me. I can aid you with my wisdom, and you can protect me. And some day I will find the Ring –”
    Sorcerers in Conan stories always seem to be much more powerful than mere kings. It seems to me highly unlikely that Dion as a king could have protected Thoth from his enemies if they really wanted to kill him.


    1. I addressed this back in the first post, but thanks for reminding me!

  2. Hero of the Federation6 June 2012 at 20:13

    Ooh Rah!!!

  3. These are becoming essential reading ! Thank you !

  4. Al, Blogger seems to have eaten parts of this post.

    The most obvious instance is the end of it...

    "Given my belief that there are no circumstances when it comes to wizards, one could argue that whatever dark forces "

    And there it ends.

    (let's hear it for high technology, eh?)

    1. Bother, so it did. I did have some trouble posting it, but the blasted thing has eaten it. ARGH. I'll have to finish it properly when I get the time, and remember what I said!

  5. Humm.

    I would think that with all the references to fate and destiny, that Thoth-Amon should at least have thought something about how it's not coincidence about the ring.

    Or a reference to how Set or some such has drawn things together in the land or something.

    It's explicable as it is, but it could have been better.

    1. Entirely true: for all we know, none of this occurred to Howard, and this really was just a coincidence in his mind. That said, I just find it more satisfying utilizing rationalisation to make a story better than just applying Occam's razor. The latter is better for facts and theory, but a bit disappointing for creative discussion.

  6. I didn't actually mind book of thoth. The idea that he came from nothing to become the biggest monster in the hyborian age was quite intriguing, and I felt that his rivalry with Kalanthes had weight because they were once friends