Monday, 4 June 2012

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

    Over shadowy spires and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and silence that runs before dawn. Into a dim alley, one of a veritable labyrinth of mysterious winding ways, four masked figures came hurriedly from a door which a dusky hand furtively opened. They spoke not but went swiftly into the gloom, cloaks wrapped closely about them; as silently as the ghosts of murdered men they disappeared in the darkness. Behind them a sardonic countenance was framed in the partly opened door; a pair of evil eyes glittered malevolently in the gloom.
    “Go into the night, creatures of the night,” a voice mocked. “Oh, fools, your doom hounds your heels like a blind dog, and you know it not.”
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Chronicles of a Lost Age

Being the world's introduction to the Hyborian Age, the Nemedian Chronicles serves a dual function: both to inform the reader of the time and place of the setting, and to immerse the reader with a veneer of verisimilitude. Lovecraft had his Necronomicon, Burroughs with the diaries of John Carter, Tolkien The Red Book of Westmarch - and Howard the Nemedian Chronicles.

Let's imagine for a minute that we are first-time readers of "The Phoenix on the Sword" all the way back in 1932. Difficult as it may be, expel all knowledge of later Conan tales from your mind: if "Phoenix" happened to be your own introduction to Howard's Conan, cast your mind back to that first reading, where you had no inkling of what Aquilonia or the Pictish Wilderness or the Black Ring were. And now, let's look at that first stanza with fresh eyes:

    "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."

This text has all the hallmarks of not a modern Weird Tale, but an archaic historical record: it reads like it could be an extract from the English translation of a hitherto unknown account of a prehistoric age. We can then theorise, perhaps, that the Conan stories which appeared in Weird Tales are like Howard's historical adventures in Argosy and elsewhere - ripping yarns with a basis in factuality, tales of the distant past told in a hard-boiled '30s Texan style. It could be somewhat akin to using historical texts, poems or sagas at the beginning of a chapter, to promote the sense that while things may not have happened exactly in this way, these people were real, these places existed, and these events occured.

 Mark Schultz

Howard did not look down to his audience: if anything, he expected a great deal from them in terms of historical, mythological and cultural literacy. Each name Howard chose to represent the shining kingdoms has unmistakable resonance to a reader who knows his way around the history books. Nemedia, evocative of the Nemedians of Irish mythology; Ophir, a Biblical realm synonymous with opulence and plenty; Brythunia, clearly reminiscent of most ancient Britain and the Brythonic Celts; Hyperborea, land of the uttermost north known to Greeks and parahistorians alike; the Lands of Shem, another Biblical reference, suggesting an antediluvian origin behind the tales of the Old Testament; Stygia, "shadow-guarded" like the river Styx, from which the description "Stygian" originates; Hyrkania, the wolf-land of indomitable hill tribes which harried Rome and Persia; Aquilonia, a name weighted with civilized splendour, with the aquilo- part of the name being simultaneously "north wind" and "eagle" in Latin; Cimmerian, again a Greek word tied to darkness and terror, but barbaric rather than the cthonic Stygian. With those names are smattered less historical ones: Zamora and Zingara conjure old Spanish castles and Gypsy women, though we would later learn the two cultures are swapped (and later integrated in the late Hyborian Age); Koth, unique in not having a direct historical or mythic counterpart, serving perhaps as a fond tip-of-the-cap to Lovecraft, while vaguely reminiscent of ancient city-states of Mesopotamia.

Lovecraft gave Howard no small amount of criticism for what he perceived to be laziness. At most, he felt it to be a niggling concern which was surmounted by Howard's sheer writing skill:

    “The only thing to do is to accept the nomenclature as he gives it, wink at the weak spots, and be damned thankful that we can get such vivid artificial legendry.”
 - H.P. Lovecraft, Letter to Donald Wollheim, 1938

Yet Howard was clearly following the precedent set by the Thurian Age - only this time inspiration would come from history as well as myth and entirely original names. The Thurian Age world had its share of imaginary names like Zarfhaana, Farsun, Verulia, Grondar, and Kamelia, but also para-historical "lost lands" like Lemuria, Thule and Mu, with a smattering of mythological names like Atlantis, and some historical peoples like the Picts and Celts. The Hyborian Age, being closer to modern history, simply inverted the regularity: a few fantastically-named kingdoms like Koth, Atlaia, Xuthal and Xuchotl, some para-historical lost lands like Punt, but a much greater number of historical and mythical names. A clear progression from time immemorial to the dawn of the age of the Sons of Aryas. No doubt if Howard had written tales of the Elder Earth, there'd be far more fantastical names and practically nothing from human history.

This wasn't Barsoom, an alien world with no connection to modern earth. Nor was it Westeros, a pseudo-Medieval milieu which was nonetheless set on a distant planet. The Hyborian Age is the distillation of every myth, legend and idea given a tangible historical reality.

The Complexities of Villainy

Far from the moustache-twirling Vaudeville caricatures some would accuse Howard's villains of resembling, a closer analysis reveals that they are capable of surprising nuances. Especially notable is that, contrary to the many bogeymen of inferior Sword-and-Sorcery yarns, Howard's villains have clear goals. True, the Rebel Four's motivations aren't particularly sympathetic, but they are certainly understandable. Not every antagonist needs an explaination for their actions, but inclusion of one helps to form the character in the mind's eye.You would think a question as simple as "why does a villain do what he does" is the sort of thing drummed into every writer's head, but as with many snippets of common sense, they can be unusually scarce in published fiction.

"The Phoenix on the Sword" presents a whole troupe of villains, each with motivations which, while by no means identical, are all conducive to them banding together to achieve their goals, risking high treason and death in the process. The principal motivation for each of the villains is a bid for power, but what's most interesting is that Howard imbues each villain's history with varied and tantalising references. The result is that one can truly envision each of these very different characters banding together for a singular cause - even if they don't plan on sustaining that pact for long.

Ascalante is a fallen noble seeking something of a return to glory, and though he ostensibly pits himself against Conan, his aspirations are rather more than mere kingmaker; Volmana's standing among the nobility has suffered since Conan's reforms, leaving him in debt and powerless; Dion is a patsy whose only contribution is his royal coffers and royal blood, and seems to simply take what he believes is his; Rinaldo seeks to usurp a tyrant; Gromel wishes to take the office he believed was his, and saw that the only way to do so was through forcible removal of the competition - who happened to be a staunch ally of the king.

But this only explains why they want Conan dead: it doesn't explain why they band together and take such a monumental risk in conspiracy. For that, we'll have to dig further.

Though Ascalante was undoubtedly the planner of the operation, he was not the instigator: he was called from the desert by the other four. My interpretation is that the one who first conspired the coup was Volmana. Like Ascalante, he had seen his station fall from its lofty heights, but unlike Ascalante, this had happened following the beginning of Conan's reign: Volmana's estates were rich under Numedides, while under Conan they plunged into poverty. It's natural, then, that the desperate Volmana would go to extreme lengths to reinstate some measure of the old regime, and hope that gaining the favour of the new king would restore his house to its former glory. No doubt he would blame Conan for his ills, even if his newfound poverty was a result of debts as much as Conan's new legislation.Volmana seeks to remake the circumstances of the past rather than adapt to the present: like so many myopic, arrogant bluebloods who were faced with ruin when their exploitation of classism, they do not attempt to work with the new regime, but rather pine for the old days when they could treat their servants like chattel, lounging on velvet divans and quaffing expensive wine while the people who run his estate shrivel and break their backs.

Dion's heart is not in the conspiracy, to the point where he is a decided weak link (more on that in part III), but nonetheless is taken in with the romance of claiming the crown. Dion is an unfortunate individual, in that he truly does not seem cut out for such intrigue: he spends most of the story in a fit of blubbering terror, fearing discovery at every turn. Indeed, his place in the conspiracy seems to aid the others more than himself, since he seems particularly ill-suited for rule - undoubtedly something the three nobles are counting on, as an easily manipulated monarch would be most advantageous. Gromel and Volmana would seek to coerce him into enhancing their position, while Ascalante would have little trouble usurping such an incompetent coward. Ascalante considered him cunning "in his way," but he was the clear weak link in the group, to the point where he sent Thoth-Amon out to watch him. Thus, one wonders if Dion's supposed motivation to become king was truly what he wanted: if it was, he was experiencing profound second thoughts about the endeavour.

Gromel is somewhat enigmatic, but his goal - to lead the Black Dragons - is fair enough. Ascalante's appraisal in the draft of "The Phoenix on the Sword" is that he is fierce and brave, and has considerable influence in the military, but lacking the mind to put his talents to use for his own ends. Quite why he hates Pallantides is left unsaid: perhaps it's as simple as jealousy, or he feels slighted by Conan, or perhaps there is deeper history between the two. It isn't said, but the simplicity of Gromel's motivations befit the simplicity of the man. Even though Gromel only has a handful of lines and is effectively sword-fodder, he has a reason to strike against the king, a reason to be part of the conspiracy, and a place in the kingdom's power structure in the aftermath of regicide.

And then there's Rinaldo, and by Crom, entire essays can - and have - been written about the Mad Minstrel. Rinaldo is the strangest of the group: he is not a noble or a solder, but a minstrel, and he has no personal ambitions of his own save to depose a tyrant. Yet Rinaldo's popularity with the common people, especially in turning them against the man they hailed as The Liberator not too long ago, proves him a valuable member of the conspirators. Being frequently referred to with terms like "mad" and "hare-brained," Rinaldo's motivations could be brushed off as being the rantings of a maniac, but there's uncanny logic in Ascalante's words, especially the expanded version in the draft:

    “Because he is a poet. 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 the future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight – which after all he is! – rising to overthrow the tyrant and liberate the people.”

One could easily imagine Rinaldo deluding himself into thinking Conan would usher in a new golden age, just to find only fault in the king's rule. Without getting too political, one sees this in great evidence whenever a popular, charismatic leader comes into power: the wave of enthusiasm subsides, and gives way to bitterness and criticism. I don't doubt that Rinaldo was just as viciously opposed to Numedides and supportive of Conan in the old regime - and that he was equally as earnest. As Ascalante himself states:

    Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they openly sing The Lament for the King in which Rinaldo lauds the sainted villain and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but the people snarl.”

Rinaldo is no black-hearted scoundrel, decadent noble, pretentious heir, or brutish bully: he is an idealistic folk hero whose romantic nostalgia for the previous dynasty has created a wild patriotic delusion and instilled in him a misguided heroic cause. His Don Quixote casts Conan as a grotesque caricature, a distillation of every civilized fear of barbarian conquerors - though unlike those quixotic windmill-giants, the reality of Conan is every bit as dangerous as the fantasy. Rinaldo is no villain, but a hero in the wrong story.

And of Ascalante himself? Ascalante clearly has something of a chip on his shoulder, and though we don't know whether it was the old dynasty which exiled him or Conan, it would stand to reason that part of his decision to claim the throne for himself could be a vendetta against the old house. Ascalante is the true antagonist of the story, and as such his ultimate motivations are the most concise: to become king. He was exiled from the country for unnamed crimes, and dwelled in the southern deserts as a bandit lord for some years. Living the life of a vagrant after such luxury would naturally be enough motivation to inspire him to such dangerous lengths as a coup, but it's interesting that he did not make any effort to reclaim his old position - and more - until the opportunity arose:

    “Poets are dangerous because they believe what they sing – while they sing it. Well, I believe what I think, and I think Dion will not long press the throne. A few months ago I had lost all ambitions save to raid the caravans as long as I lived. Now – well, we’ll see.”

This idea of a group of conspirators being betrayed by the very individual brought into the fold to aid them would be expanded in "The Hour of the Dragon."

Enemy Mine?

The notorious Thoth-Amon would be alternatively called antagonist, Conan's nemesis, or even the grand arch-villain of the Hyborian Age in subsequent pastichery and development of the Conan franchise. Yet that isn't really sufficient to describe the very unusual role of Thoth-Amon in the one story in which he makes a personal appearance - in fact, one could almost consider him a deuteragonist. The chapters of the story alternate between Thoth and Conan before the final (which is largely split between the Rebel Four and Conan), so this could be considered Thoth's story as much as Conan's.

Thoth-Amon is something of an enigma: he has all the makings of a regular antagonist, and yet he never appeared again save as offstage player in "The God in the Bowl" and "The Hour of the Dragon," in addition to the latter-day horror "The Haunter of the Ring." A draft of "Marchers of Valhalla" even made mention of Thoth-Amon's complicity in the exile of Aluna. Yet we only see him once, and in a position of great humiliation, far from the terrible dark master whose name is spoken in hushed, frightened tones throughout the world. Why did Howard never revisit him?

Perhaps he realised what the innumerable pastiches and comics failed to grasp: that credulity slips with every subsequent meeting of two nemeses. The hero begins to look weak by failing to conquer him, while the villain looks a fool by failing to dispose of the thorn in his side. This dynamic can be, and has been, done well, but considering Conan's other foes rarely last to the end of the story and Thoth-Amon's sorcery should mean he could swat Conan like a Cimmerian midgie, it's difficult to imagine how they could apparently be mortal foes, yet allow each other to exist. When Conan faces truly mighty sorcerers, it is frequently mere luck, or even the black magician's good graces which allow Conan to live past their initial encounter: Tsotha-Lanti and Xaltotun seek to use him as a pawn in their political maneuvering, Thugra Khotan's power was clearly spent after his battlefield pyrotechnics and the desertion of his monstrous ally, and Conan was lucky enough to encounter Yogah before Yara. Despite the "Conan kills wizards" meme, Conan is just as frequently trounced by magic users, whose arrogance - what could a mere barbarian do to one who commands the hosts of hell? - is usually their downfall. But they only make that mistake once: they never live to make it again.

Or maybe Howard did have something planned for him, only to abandon it as the series progressed. Several Howard stories have a plot centred around a "black colossus" - a terrible ancient evil consolidating his power, where Conan must rally his hosts to defeat the menace before it becomes insurmountable. Obviously this was the central plot of "Black Colossus," but also "A Witch Shall Be Born" and "The Hour of the Dragon," and it could be argued "The Devil in Iron" has elements of this. The one character trait most prominent in Thoth-Amon is ambition, and his shadow is formidable in every Conan story he appears in - and in every story, he is mentioned in the same breath as power-play. "Phoenix" shows him regaining his power: "The God in the Bowl" has all the characters cast as mere collateral in his feud with Kalanthes; "The Hour of the Dragon" presents an attempted usurpation of his rule over the Black Ring. Their lives had crossed so often at pivotal moments in each, but they either obliquely snarled at each other as it transpired they shared a common foe, or they weren't even aware of each other's presence.

But imagine if Thoth ever found out that Conan was responsible for ruining his surprise gift for Kalanthes - or that he was partially to thank for thwarting a conspiracy against his dominion. Conan has thus aided and hindered Thoth - and Thoth did the same in this story. What we have here isn't truly a feud, but something more akin to a curious rivalry. Thoth and Conan represent two diametric opposites: sorcerer and warrior, civilized scholar and uneducated barbarian, slave and free man, one who forfeits his humanity for power and one whose humanity ensures his reign. They should be depicted at loggerheads, and yet...

Thoth's presence in the mythos is far more subtle than playing Skeletor to Conan's He-Man, his plans constantly thwarted, yet somehow always managing to escape Cimmerian steel at the end. It would have been so easy for Howard to have Conan and Thoth finally meet, for the groundwork for such a glorious and terrible confrontation had been laid down since the beginning of the saga. Like "Black Colossus" writ large, Howard could have pit Cimmerian and Stygian against each other one final time. After all, Epemitreus said that "gigantic happenings" were in motion: who's to say that, at some point, Howard may have wanted to elaborate?


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. Great article! I especially liked your assessment of Toth Amon. I assume an upcoming post will mention one of the rare good wizards (by whatevr title) in Conan and REH - - Epemitreus?

    1. Epemitreus is very hard to get a handle on, and I'd love to give him more attention to detail, but I didn't have access to several journals and books I wanted to check before I wrote it, so it'll be a bit later.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    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. Cheers, elegos!

      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.

      Very true, but I view this as an example of how far Thoth feels he has descended, that he would be forced into seeking aid from a mere nobleman:

      “There was a time... when I, too, had my ambitions, beside which yours seem tawdry and childish. To what a state I have fallen! My old-time peers and rivals would stare indeed could they see Thoth-amon of the Ring serving as the slave of an outlander, and an outlaw at that; and aiding in the petty ambitions of barons and kings!”

      As for Dion being unlikely to protect Thoth from his enemies, well, they probably wouldn't - but Thoth was desperate, and looked for every advantage he could:

      "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."

      A host of swordsmen and castles may not have protected him for long against his enemies, but it'd be better than being an outlaw's lowly slave, and the funds available to a king may buy him some time.

  3. One minor detail: I'm pretty sure that Howard based Koth on the ancient Hittite empire, given his interest in the ancient Near East. The ancient Egyptians referred to the Hittites as the Kheta, and the Old Testament & Assyrian records called them the Heti/Hatti. Also note that the capital of the Hittite empire was Kargamish (compare to Koth's Khorshemish) Koth seems to correspond geographically with modern day Turkey too, also strengthening the connection.

    1. Very good point, Alric, and something I'll be getting into with "The Scarlet Citadel." However, all we know of Koth in this story is its name, and the Hittite/Kargamish (the latter's rendering as "Carchemish" is even closer) connection wasn't clear at this point, so I didn't feel it should be included in the discussion - yet.