Saturday 2 June 2012

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

“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, "The Phoenix on the Sword"

So the legend began in December of 1932. The newspaper kiosks, magazine stands, and newsagent shelves carrying Weird Tales received the latest edition, Volume 20, Number 6, and a new cultural icon strode into the popular consciousness. Not yet the fantasy juggernaut of later decades, Conan the Cimmerian's first appearance in any medium was nonetheless auspicious indeed. Could anyone have any idea of how this issue would change the course of fantasy fiction forever?

While Howard didn't get the cover illustration - his name doesn't even appear on the front - the art by Burroughs master-illustrator J. Allen St. John for Otis Adelbert Kline's "Buccaneers of Venus" nonetheless augurs things to come. A muscular black-haired hero, sword in hand, clad in a scarlet cloak and loincloth, stands against inhuman horror: a toadlike monstrosity bearing a spear, and a great black snake dominating the scene, with a helpless woman trapped between all three. It's easy to casually equate the elements with "Phoenix" in a loose manner: the black snake with Thoth-Amon or Set ("There is a serpent in your house, oh king – an adder in your kingdom, come up from Stygia..."), the savage toad-thing with the ancient prehumans who forged the Ring of Set ("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..."), with the damsel perhaps representing the kingdom of Aquilonia herself, and of course the hero with Conan. I like to think that this happy coincidence was a sign that the coming of Conan would change the field of pulp fiction forever - that the Cimmerian's presence would be felt even from the start.

Since "The Phoenix on the Sword" is composed of five chapters, there will be five posts dedicated to each part of this bloody play.  Chapters one through two are largely expository, and for good reason: this is the world's introduction to not just Conan, but the Hyborian Age, and so a fair bit of explanation of the world and its inhabitants was in order; chapters three and four move the two plot threads along; chapter five brings the tale to an action-packed, blood-soaked conclusion.

Or, as Weird Tales would have it:

A soul-searing story of a fearsome monster spawned in darkness before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea


From Valusia to Aquilonia

Art by Justin Sweet

It's difficult to discuss "The Phoenix on the Sword" without also taking a look at its earlier iteration, "By This Axe, I Rule!" It's sometimes erroneously claimed that the two stories are essentially identical, with Howard performing the equivalent of a "Find & Replace" on the Thurian names. Kull became Conan, Valusia became Aquilonia, Brule became Prospero, and so on. Indeed, considering a goodly amount of text is almost identical in both stories, particularly dialogue, one wonders whether the two stories should be considered distinct at all, and not simply variations on the same tale. Yet "By This Axe, I Rule!" and "The Phoenix on the Sword" are very different, for all their surface similarities. Plot elements and a few character names remain, but Howard took "Phoenix" in a completely different direction from "Axe." A full list of comparisons between "By This Axe, I Rule!" and "The Phoenix on the Sword" would be redundant, and undoubtedly has been done before, but I believe analysis of how common elements are altered, in addition to those unique to the new adaptation, could be instructive.

First, the matter of names. Kull was changed to Conan, most obviously; Ridondo and Kanuub both appear in "Swords of the Purple Kingdom," and so Howard changed them to Rinaldo and Dion respectively. The Red Slayers feature heavily in "The Shadow Kingdom" and elsewhere, and thus are replaced with the Black Dragons. So too is Blaal changed to Thune, Tu to Publius, Ka-Nu to Trocero, and Brule to Prospero. Since Ascalante, Volmana and Gromel don't appear in any other Kull tale, Howard left them unchanged, though when "Axe" was published, de Camp changed them to Ardyon, Ducalon and Enaros respectively so as not to conflict with "Phoenix."

There's a definite pattern to the names which were changed: what were once fantastical names not directly derived or reminiscent of modern etymologies were replaced with names imbued with classical significance. First, Kull, a fairly simple single-syllabel name which could derive from any language in the world, is replaced with Conan, a singularly Celtic name. Exactly which Conan Howard was thinking of is uncertain, though given he wrote "The People of the Dark" starring a Gaelic hero with that name shortly beforehand, it could have been Irish - Saint Conan, one of the various Conans of Irish mythology, even Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Howard's favourite authors. Although the Celticness of Conan has been underrepresented for decades - just look at the various sites and discussions which decree some variation of "Koh-nin is the Irish name, Cone-ann is the barbarian," as if there's a difference, not to mention the crazy idea that Conan O'Brien somehow influenced the pronunciation in later years - when Howard was writing back in Weird Tales, it would have been unquestioned.

Brule is another name which seems, like Kull, to be antediluvian: Prospero, on the other hand, is about as Shakespearean a name as Miranda, Mercutio or Oberon. Prospero, of course, was the sorcerer of "The Tempest," but aside from the name, the two share little in common. Trocero is unusual in that it sounds like it could be from the same Shakespearean stock as Prospero. The Aquilonian names are from a variety of Greek, Medieval Italian, and Roman sources.

The most substantial change is the introduction of Thoth-Amon & the supernatural element: this replaces a romantic subplot where Kull's frustration at the archaic and, to his mind, worthless laws conflict with his desire to see a young couple be happy together. This dramatically changes the tone of the story: "Axe" is a tale of a king's compassion for a couple in true love over the obsolete traditions of a dead past, with an exultant finale in which Kull finally asserts his dominance, refusing to dance to the tune of long-dead lawmakers, and beginning his reign as true king. "Phoenix," on the other hand, is far more subdued: the small victory Conan has over his assassins is tempered by the realisation that a great and terrible evil has returned to power, where even though a long-dead sage awakens from his slumber to aid Aquilonia as he did in life, the "gigantic happenings" loom on the horizon like the darkness of a coming storm - and the only thing standing in its way is a red-handed conqueror and an undead priest.

Thoth-Amon, too, significantly alters the story: if "Axe" is the story of two equal opposing forces (the rebel four and Kull), then "Phoenix" is the story of three struggling and conspiring against each other, with two overwhelmed in the shadow of the third. Thoth affects the story by being a wild card: he hates Ascalante, but has no love or concern for Conan either, and so his striking against his hated master doesn't necessarily make him a friend of the king. Thus the finale, where the king of the mightiest kingdom of the western world is treated as a mere afterthought by a blood-mad sorcerer. After all, "the petty ambitions of barons and kings" are nothing to Thoth, and so he cared little whether Conan lived or died. Better for Conan he felt that way, for I get the distinct impression that if Thoth truly wanted Conan dead, we wouldn't be seeing "The Scarlet Citadel" or "The Hour of the Dragon." It was enough that Ascalante and his fellow conspirators were dead: kings and kingdoms are of no consequence to the Master of the Black Ring.

"Axe" began with the conspirators swearing by "the Oath of the Flame," with Ascalante recounting for the audience just who all these men are, and what they plan: as such, much of the dialogue from the original Rebel Four remains, with Thothamon (as he was then called, not yet aquiring the familiar hyphen) only coming to prominence later in the story. The third chapter is almost entirely different, being an account of a tryst between law-crossed lovers Seno Val Dor and Ala, who opportunely overhear Volmana and Kanuub plotting to take down the king. The fourth chapter of "Axe" is equivocal to the fifth of "Phoenix": Conan's visitation to Mount Golamira has no counterpart in the earlier story.

The Tale Grows in the Telling

In addition to changes between the Kull and Conan iterations, there are significant differences between the first draft of "Phoenix" sent into Weird Tales and its revised, final version. Many of the changes are due to Farnsworth Wright, the editor, suggesting some improvements:

“Dear Mr. Howard: I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it. But ‘The Phoenix of (sic) the Sword’ has points of real excellence. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it. It is the first two chapters that do not click. The story opens rather uninterestingly, it seems to me, and the reader has difficulty in orienting himself. The first chapter ends well, and the second chapter begins superbly; but after King Conan’s personality is well established, the chapter sags from too much writing. I think the very last page of the whole story might be re-written with advantage; because it seems a little weak after the stupendous events that precede it.”
 - Farnsworth Wright, Letter to Robert E. Howard, 10th March, 1932

Personally, I agree with some of what Wright concludes, and profoundly disagree with others. I agree that the original ending is rather too comforting and optimistic given the nightmarish happenings immediately beforehand, and Howard's revision is markedly superior, providing a dark and sombre finale far more fitting to the general tone. I also agree that, though I liked the development of the characters of the Rebel Four, the revised first chapter is much tighter and more enthralling in its relative brevity. That said, I think Wright was far off base in regards to the latter half of the second chapter: true, the exposition of the kingdoms unnecessarily dragged things down a notch - Howard's method of moving exposition of the Hyborian Kingdoms to what would become the Nemedian Chronicles is nothing short of ingenious - but how could he dismiss the grim, bleak, almost hellish account of Cimmeria and Conan's subsequent descent into melancholy as "sagging from too much writing?" He claims King Conan's personality is "well established," yet this utter change in his personality shows that there is indeed much more than what was previously presented?

Though Wright was a generally excellent and light-fingered editor, sometimes it seemed like he was tone deaf to the song of creativity. Just look at the ridiculous titles he concocted for some of the other Conan stories. Thankfully, we still have the original submitted draft - with paper being a valuable resource and Wright having a horrendous habit of destroying manuscripts, such documents are by no means easy to come by - and can enjoy it as Howard originally wrote it, as well as compare it to the final published form.

The changes in chapter I between the first and final drafts of "Phoenix" are far more substantial than between "Axe" and the first draft. The first draft, like "Axe," began with the conspirators swearing by "the Oath of the Flame," with Ascalante recounting for the audience just who all these men are, and what they plan: as such, much of the dialogue from the original Rebel Four remains, with Thothamon (as he was then called) only coming to prominence later in the story. By the final draft, however, none of the Rebel Four have any dialogue at all: it is all rewritten as exposition from Ascalante to Thoth-Amon. Both iterations have their strengths and weaknesses: the first draft introduces and fleshes out the Rebel Four, and the more minor role Thothamon plays makes his eventual significance something of a surprise - unfortunately, that means less prominence is paid to Thothamon in the beginning. By the same token, the second draft strongly enhances Thoth-Amon's role and is altogether tighter, but it loses the greater detail and characterisation of the Rebel Four.

The second chapter loses a bit of scene-setting for the Hyborian Age, much of which would be distilled into the beautiful Nemedian Chronicles stanza, though they would naturally be revisited in later Hyborian adventures:

    “The maps of the court show well the countries of the south, east and west, but in the north they are vague and faulty. I have copied my map from the best of the lot, and am adding the northern countries myself.”
    “By Mitra,” said Prospero, “those lands are known to few. All know that east of Aquilonia lies Nemedia, then Brythunia, then Zamora; south lies Koth and the lands of Shem; west, beyond the Bossonian marches stretches the Pictish wilderness; beyond the northern Bossonian marches lies Cimmeria. Who knows what lies beyond that country?”
    “I know,” answered the king, “and am setting down my knowledge on this map. Here is Cimmeria, where I was born. Here –”
    “Asgard and Vanaheim,” Prospero scanned the map. “By Mitra, I had almost believed those lands to be fabulous.”
    Conan grinned and involuntarily touched the various scars on his dark face. “By Mitra, had you spent your youth on the northern frontier of Cimmeria, you had known otherwise! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the borders. The western part of Vanaheim lies along the shores of the western sea, and east of Asgard is the country of the Hyperboreans, who are civilized and dwell in cities. East beyond their country are the deserts of the Hyrkanians.”
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword," first submitted draft

Chapters three and four are largely identical from first submitted draft to final published form, save a few words here and there. Chapter Five's ending is decidedly more hopeful than the final iteration. These will be later explored in subsequent posts.

And, of course, there's the new introduction...


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. Hero of the Federation2 June 2012 at 23:09


  2. Thanks for the detailed write-up!

  3. Not only is Red Fury a lucky man, he's also a super nice guy. I was hanging out with him briefly at Wizard World Philly last week. He has a sweet comic and pulp collection.