Tuesday 5 June 2012

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

When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horses feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.
                    — The Road of Kings.

Sword and Stylus

I never tire of pointing this out, but since this is a celebration of 80 years of Conan, what better time to fully examine the very first sight we see of Conan the Cimmerian, and how seemingly incongruous it is compared with the diluted popular culture conception of Howard's most famous creation?

    The room was large and ornate, with rich tapestries on the polished-panelled walls, deep rugs on the ivory floor, and with the lofty ceiling adorned with intricate carvings and silver scrollwork. Behind an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his actions. Either he was perfectly at rest – still as a bronze statue – or else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him.
    His garments were of rich fabric, but simply made. He wore no ring or ornaments, and his square-cut black mane was confined merely by a cloth-of-silver band about his head.
    Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Here's a little game: find someone who hasn't read the original Howard stories. A passing pedestrian, a family member, a young child, anyone who may have some knowledge of Conan the Pop Culture Icon, but not his roots. Ask them this: "In his first scene of the first story he appears in, what was Conan the Barbarian doing?" No doubt you'd get plenty of suppositions based on what happened in subsequent stories (or pastiches): stealing treasure from ancient ruins, carousing in a tavern, slaying a monster or sorcerer or fellow barbarian. How many would even guess that Conan was introduced to the public doing one of the least "barbaric" things imaginable - drawing a map?

Alternately, ask them this: "In his first scene of the first story he appears in, what was Conan the Barbarian holding in his hand?" A bloody sword? A priceless gem? A flagon of ale? A nubile lass? Who would guess the right answer - a golden stylus? The game could continue. "What was Conan wearing?" Not wolfskins, or a loincloth, or even armour, but richly-woven garments and a cloth-of-silver headband. "What were his first spoken words?" Not something about crushing and driving and lamentations, or an utterance of his chosen deity, nor a wry observation on civilization and barbarism, but grumbling about how statecraft is more exhausting to him than the thick of battle.

Hell of a way to introduce a barbarian, and Howard amply set up the audience for such a surprise in the first chapter. Once again, forget everything we know about Aquilonia and Conan, and look at these quotes with fresh eyes:

    “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.”

    "Conan makes a bad mistake in letting men live who still boast descent from the old dynasty, from which he tore the crown of Aquilonia..."

    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.”
    “Why does he hate Conan?”
    “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 future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism, rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.”

At this point, Conan is constantly presented as a usurper, a tyrant, an outsider who toppled an ancient regime, and historical records claim "tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet." No mention yet of the circumstances which led to Conan being accepted (at first) by the people, nor even that he ruled with the effective consent of the people. For all the Weird Tales audience knew, Conan may well have been "that black-hearted savage from the abyss."

Yet there is sufficient room for doubt: Conan may have torn the crown from the old dynasty, yet he lets those who claim descent live rather than hunt them down: why is that? Does he deem them to be no threat against his rule, or does he not wish to slaughter anyone whose only crime, thus far, was a whim of genetic circumstance? Rinaldo talks of Conan doing to death the previous king, yet he forgets the evils of that king's reign while denouncing Conan. Is this a case of political nostalgia clouding the previous king's wrongs, or was the last monarch truly a scoundrel who earned an inglorious death?

Even if it isn't fully subversive, expectations were certainly toyed with. Our first sight of this supposed barbarian, tyrant, and black-hearted savage is of him indulging in a bit of amateur cartography on a gold-inlaid writing table, clad in rich courtly garments, while jealously regarding his friend preparing to ride off into the east. Nary a sword, jewel, drink or girl in sight.

A Civilized Friendship

The change from Brule to Prospero goes beyond mere name replacement. Brule is Kull's fast friend and ally: when they unite against the inhuman menace of the Serpent Men, they bond as only warriors-in-arms can, their tribal hatreds and suspicions cast off like old garments which outlived their usefulness. As such, though Kull is a barbarian in a civilized land, he is not alone, for Brule too is a barbarian, as is his Lemurian captain Kelkor. Conan, on the other hand, is very alone in terms of cultural identity: though Prospero is also a strong and sympathetic friend, he is civilized, a man whose memories of the past are drenched in the southern sun and peopled with chivalrous knights and dainty damsels. He can never truly understand Conan, in the way the prince could never truly understand the pauper. Nonetheless, their shared love of wine, women and song, as well as unspecified past experiences - perhaps, like Kull and Brule, their bond is fire-forged - has made them great friends.

Looking at the subtle differences in Brule's and Prospero's behaviour, and Howard's descriptions thereof, shows this divergence:

    Now this man rested his chin on his fists, his elbows on the writing table, and gloomily eyed the man who stood before him. This man was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was tightening the laces of his breast-plate. Moreover he was abstractedly whistling, a strange and unconventional performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.
 - "By This Axe, I Rule!"

    Now he laid down the golden stylus with which he had been laboriously scrawling on waxed papyrus, rested his chin on his fist, and fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously on the man who stood before him. This person was occupied in his own affairs at the moment, for he was taking up the laces of his gold-chased armor, and abstractedly whistling – a rather unconventional performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

    The Pict shrugged his shoulders. "As you like; you are still king, and the people cannot dislodge you. The Red Slayers are yours to a man, and you have all
Pictland behind you. We are barbarians together, even if we have spent most of our lives in this land. I go now. You have naught to fear save an attempt at assassination, which is no fear at all, considering the fact that you are guarded night and day by a squad of the Red Slayers."
 - "By This Axe, I Rule!"

    “Publius feared a plot to trap and slay you beyond the frontier,” replied Prospero, smoothing his silken surcoat over his shining mail, and admiring his tall lithe figure in a silver mirror. “That’s why he urged you to remain in the city. These doubts are born of your barbarian instincts. Let the people snarl! The mercenaries are ours, and the Black Dragons, and every rogue in Poitain swears by you. Your only danger is assassination, and that’s impossible, with men of the imperial troops guarding you day and night.”
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Brule is easy and relaxed in the company of Kull despite the latter's office, but he's a soldier first and foremost: he is practical-minded. Prospero, on the other hand, takes great pride and enjoyment in his noble splendour, admiring his form in the mirror, smoothing down his silk surcoat over his gold-chased armour. Prospero may not necessarily be conceited, but he certainly is given to distraction over the pleasures of civilization.

    Kull lifted his hand in a gesture of farewell, and the Pict clanked out of the room.
 - "By This Axe, I Rule!"

    “Little wonder men grow moody there,” quoth Prospero with a shrug of his shoulders, thinking of the smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy rivers of Poitain, Aquilonia’s southernmost province...
    “...Well,” grinned Prospero, “the dark hills of Cimmeria are far behind you. And now I go. I’ll quaff a goblet of white Nemedian wine for you at Numa’s court.”
    “Good,” grunted the king, “but kiss Numa’s dancing-girls for yourself only, lest you involve the states!”
    His gusty laughter followed Prospero out of the chamber.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Brule fares Kull well with no ceremony, and "clanked" out of the room. All business, no chit-chat about what Kull's doing delaying his departure, just focus on the situation at hand. Prospero, on the other hand, takes time to have a look at Conan's bit of mapmaking, commenting on the actuality of fabulous lands: when discussion drifts to the dismal, moody Cimmerians, his mind wanders south to "smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy rivers." He then dispels the dour memory of Cimmeria with the promise of a splash of wine in Conan's name, which works, since Conan then rejoinders with a warning to only enjoy the other voluptuaries of Numa's court for himself.

Exactly how Conan and Prospero came to be such close friends is a matter of speculation. In the notes for his never-written account of Conan's rise to kingship, The Day of the Lion, Karl Edward Wagner has Belesa hire Prospero to bust Conan out of a Zingaran jail: the two escape up Black River, fight off Picts, and eventually become embroiled in the political machinations of Namedides in the midst of the War of the Barons. Me? I had a fancy that the young mercenary soldier Conan nearly rots in jail for in "Queen of the Black Coast" was our Poitanian: when I learned of Wagner's idea, I couldn't help but include that in the two characters' history. But, again, everyone has their own idea of it.

Songs of a Mad Minstrel

Poets may always hate those in power, and the reverse is commonly true. Conan, on the other hand, respects and admires Rinaldo. And why shouldn't he? He's a barbarian.

Don't let the modern conceptualisation of the barbarian as brutish, uncultured and unsophisticated cloud your reaction to that statement. Howard's barbarians are red-handed plunderers with great love of battle, but just like their historical inspirations, they have a great love of art - indeed, the Picts' lack of art is noted in stark contrast to the Atlanteans and proto-Cimmerians, and indeed other barbarian peoples. It is a cruel irony that barbarian tribes such as the Vandals, Goths and Huns have had their names appropriated for wanton destruction of the arts - not least because the civilized are at least as responsible for such crimes against the humanities. After all, barbarians didn't burn the Library of Alexandria, or devastate the Low Countries, or - as Howard himself pointed out to Lovecraft - systematically destroy art and literature deemed "degenerate."

Barbarian art, in general, is visual and aural. Just look at the countless intricately-formed artefacts left by the Gauls, Britons, Dacians, and Germanics; behold the rich sagas and legends passed down by ear, with surviving written records representing a mere fraction of those tales; witness the enigmatic carven standing-stones of the Picts, or the grand chalk pictures hewn into the English hillside. As the Vikings had their skalds, the Gaels had their bards: being their ancestors, it stands to reason the Cimmerians did too. Who else would compose their "dismal dirges," or "the chants of old heroes" which sang in Conan's ears when "his barbaric soul was ablaze"?

Is it any wonder, then, that when Rinaldo sang for Conan, the Cimmerian's mighty soul was rent with emotion?

    “No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.”

Note that Conan did not decree, nor command, nor even invite Rinaldo to sing to him - Rinaldo chose to sing for Conan. The poet in jester's garb, not the king of the proudest realm, being the one to choose whether to perform? Even if one presumes that this episode took place earlier in Conan's life - his military service, as a thief exploring the civilized mysteries, as a border-runner - I can't imagine Conan wouldn't want him to sing for him again.

I wonder just what song Rinaldo sang which moved Conan so? Was it one of the rhyming stanzas which start each chapter in the story? Was it some tale which brought "the strange madness of futility" upon him? It's interesting to ponder.

Aside from his Thurian ancestor Ridondo, Rinaldo has several spiritual fathers. One Howardian one is Justin Geoffrey. In the realm of history, one can see parallels with Swinburne, Poe and Blake, too.

Living Deep

Perhaps the most interesting omission to me is the truncation of Conan's description of Cimmeria and his subsequent "black mood" episode:

    “Then I think you are more like them than you are like your own race,” laughed Prospero. “You laugh greatly, drink deep and bellow good songs, whereas I never saw another Cimmerian who drank aught but water, or who ever laughed, or ever sang save to chant dismal dirges.”
    “Perhaps it’s the land they live in,” answered Conan. “A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing. As far as a man may see his eye rests on the endless vistas of hills beyond hills, growing darker and darker in the distance. Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray. Winds blow sharp and cold, driving rain or sleet or snow before them, and moan drearily among the passes and down the valleys. There is little mirth in that land.”
    “Little wonder men grow moody there,” quoth Prospero with a shrug of his shoulders, thinking of the smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy rivers of Poitain, Aquilonia’s southern-most province.
    “Strange and moody, indeed,” answered Conan. “Life seems bitter and hard and futile. The men of those dark hills brood overmuch on unknown things. They dream monstrous dreams. Their gods are Crom and his dark race, and they believe the world of the dead is a cold, sunless place of everlasting mist, where wandering ghosts go wailing forevermore. They have no hope here or hereafter, and they brood too much on the emptiness of life. I have seen the strange madness of futility fall upon them when a little thing like a spinning dust-cloud, or the hollow crying of a bird, or the moan of the wind through bare branches brought to their gloomy minds the emptiness of life and the vainness of existence. Only in war are the Cimmerians happy. Mitra! The ways of the Æsir were more to my liking.”
    His gusty laughter followed Prospero out of the chamber. The carven door closed behind the Poitanian, and Conan turned back to his task. He paused a moment, idly listening to his friend’s retreating footsteps, which fell hollowly on the tiles. And as if the empty sound struck a kindred chord in his soul, a rush of revulsion swept over him. His mirth fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly old, his eyes worn. The unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him. Dropping his lion head in his mighty hands, he groaned aloud.
    Then lifting his head, as a man looks for escape, his eyes fell on a crystal jar of yellow wine. Quickly he rose and pouring a goblet full, quaffed it at a gulp. Again he filled and emptied the goblet, and again. When he set it down, a fine warmth stole through his veins. Things and happenings assumed new values. The dark Cimmerian hills faded far behind him. Life was good and real and vibrant after all – not the dream of an idiot god. He stretched himself lazily like a gigantic cat and seated himself at the table, conscious of the magnitude and vital importance of himself and his task. Contentedly, he nibbled his stylus and eyed his map.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword," first submitted draft

This is an insight into the very darkest recesses of Conan's mind, something extremely rare in the Conan stories. The similarities to "Cimmeria" and consequently Dark Valley and Fredericksburg are obvious. And yet, when asked to tighten up the first two chapters, Howard removed much of it. Why? Was it simply time constraints, and thus deemed not of sufficient importance to make the cut, or was this part of Howard's evolution of Conan as a character distinct from Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane?

In all likelihood, Howard just cut it for the sake of time, like he did for the extended descriptions of the Hyborian kingdoms: that whole intriguing passage was condenced to a simple, yet perfect phrase: "gigantic melancholies, and gigantic mirth." Nonetheless, there is nothing in the final story which contradicts what happened after Prospero left the company of his king, and plenty to suggest that Conan does struggle with his melancholies at the low points of his life.

On the other hand, perhaps Howard felt that this was too candid a peek into Conan's psyche. With Kull, Howard delved deeply into the Atlantean's thoughts and musings on reality and existence, since Kull himself was prone to do the same. As we'd later learn in "Queen of the Black Coast," Conan viewed such things as interesting, but mostly of no consequence. Conan lives in the moment, and distinctly avoids brooding overmuch on such things. Perhaps Howard felt that offering an uncharacteristically insightful look into the inner workings of Conan's soul was simply too much, that Conan's life credo to live deep meant that he simply refused to let the dour ways of his Cimmerian kin cast a grey cloud over his life. He was no Kull, prone to letting his mind wander so far into the depths of philosophy that he risked drowning; nor was he Bran Mak Morn, who brooded darkly on the hopeless, bleak past and future of his people. Perhaps because Conan himself knew that he would fall into such black moods if he wasn't careful, and sought to dispel such melancholy with mirth.

Indeed, in both iterations of the story, the second chapter ends on a light-hearted, comic note:

    “South of Hyperborea lies Brythunia,” he murmured aloud. Selecting a broad blank space far enough out on the Hyrkanian desert to baffle inquisitive explorers, he wrote laboriously, “Here be dragons.” Then leaning back he surveyed his work with childish pride.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword," first submitted draft

    “Well,” grinned Prospero, “the dark hills of Cimmeria are far behind you. And now I go. I’ll quaff a goblet of white Nemedian wine for you at Numa’s court.”
    “Good,” grunted the king, “but kiss Numa’s dancing-girls for yourself only, lest you involve the states!”
    His gusty laughter followed Prospero out of the chamber.
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword," published version

We never do get to see into Conan's thoughts with such detail again, even in "Queen of the Black Coast." Howard mostly related Conan's feelings from a detached observational viewpoint, the description of Conan's actions and expressions explaining all: if Howard goes into the Cimmerian's mind, it is for but brief glimpses of immediate relevance to the situation. In fact, it is Thoth-Amon whose emotions and reactions are more closely examined in this story: we are told how he feels, what he is thinking, what he's about to do next. Subsequent stories continue this idea with co-protagonists presenting the emotional core of the tale. So it is with other tales, where the task of audience surrogate falls to Conan's companions, or even the villains.

As an aside, is it not curious that Conan seeks to drown his black mood by quaffing three goblet-fulls of wine, when Prospero's final words to Conan before leaving were a promise to drink a goblet of white Nemedian wine in his name? True, the mind-blending properties of alcohol can provide altered states of consciousness, but I think Prospero himself could be a factor. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, part of Conan's friendship with Prospero is exactly that mellow, cheerful attitude, which keeps Conan grounded, never letting waves of futility crash on his mind for long?


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 Federation5 June 2012 at 10:37


  2. Without falling into the trap of "airmchair psychoanalysis" the first thought I had about that excised passage was that Howard may have inadvertently revealed too much about his own psyche. Perhaps between the submitted draft and the final version Howard decided that this new character was not going to be a mirror for his own soul. He obviously decided to turn Conan "outwards" rather than inwards as he had tried to do with Kull.

    And how insightful was Howard having Conan try to fight his depression with alcohol. Today that's practically a cliche. In Howard's time, a time before Zoloft or Paxil, he might have unknowingly hit upon an uncomfortable truth about depression.

    1. Armchair psychoanalysis is alright, as long as you don't give anyone the impression that it anything other than just a layman's opinion: it's only when one becomes a charlatan that it gets problematic.

      I will say the same thought occurred to me, but the fact Howard submitted the draft suggests that he was fine with this. All things considered, I think the excision was due to a) Wright's suggestion that the chapter needed tightening, and b) to further distance Conan from Kull, be it subconscious or deliberate on REH's part.

      Another thing to consider about the alcohol-as-medication is that Conan could be considered to have an addictive personality (more on that in future posts), and considering alcohol's qualities as a depressive, your suggestion about the uncomfortable truth has merit.

  3. It's nice to see you doing what you do best: sigging into these stories and providing objective insights to them without imposing.A small observation too, With this story we have an older conan ( I think Hour of the dragon is Howards conan at his oldest not scarlet citadel)and is a little more reflective and stressed and needs that drink a little more now.
    I think Conan ,at this point in his life having lived and learned and failed and won,andthough he would never give in to them, he also isnt as dismissive of his black moods and the glum makeup of his people as he seems ( or at least could be read into)to be in queen of the black coast where when relating to them(cimmerians and crom) to belit he has a younger, seemingly almost "'f 'em, I left that place, those people suck ,I want to live life "kind of attitude.A fast life and heavy responsibility has caught up with him in this scene here, and considering he pulls himself out with a few drinks to relax, he handles it well, I think better than Kull could. Part of it is because unlike Kull, Conan did learn to party with the 'city folk' and enjoy women as well as fight.I believe conan is almost an'anti noble savage' in this respect in that while he didnt really understand somethings, he still managed to enjoy it and profit. Noble savages historically in fiction , dont adapt too well and are too hung up in there upbringing. Conans main hang up seems to be he wants to forget and get away from it.
    And youre right Kull bran mak morn solomon kane couldnt do this because they were more of a men on a mission type, conan was more cavalier. And forget turlogh, that guy may have been the bleakest of all.Cormac mac art (havent gotten to fitzgeoffry yet, soon)may be from what I remember a bit of a psychological middle ground of this sort of spectrum of Howards moody characters. enjoying these articles , keep up the good work!

    1. Great points, Mario, I agree with all of them, especially "Conan the anti-Noble Savage." I may have to steal that! I'm going to deal with many of the issues regarding Conan's developing worldview between "Phoenix" and "Queen" when I get to the later story, so I'm glad you brought it up here.

      Cormac Mac is interesting in that he seems to have a greater interest in the preservation of human life than the others, which marks him as unusual as a pirate, and in comparison to other Howard heroes. Cormac Fitz is perhaps the most rage-dominated of all the characters. It'd be fun going through the sword-heroes to see where they'd fit in a graph.

    2. That anti noble savage theory of mine is essay gold if you give it a turn, man by all means use it !Al, I throw those gems out just so you can take em,lol!( remember my 'cataclysm theory mythologized' of conan 82,lol?)Seriously though when my brain does work right I do try to share them.
      I have sword woman now, so I think there are fitz stories in them I will get to ( i can reread lion of tiberias 1000 times it may be one of my fave Howard stories).
      I also remember really liking the cormac mac art series, too bad Howard didnt do more. There were unseen commercial opportunites with him and his partner wulfere.cheers bud.

    3. "Hawks of Outremer" is one of my favourite Howards in terms of what I liked to call "Holy Cow, did he just DO that!?!" quotient. Some of the stuff Cormac does in this story is, in a word, badass. You can definitely see wher the "big scenes" in the Conan stories come from.

  4. Man, this is thorough! Such a profound analysis. I look forward to reading the rest of it!

    1. Cheers! Well, many of the analysis has been done before, I'm just giving my take on it. I'm glad you're all enjoying it.