Thursday 7 June 2012

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

When the world was young and men were weak, and the fiends of the night walked free,
I strove with Set by fire and steel and the juice of the upas-tree;
Now that I sleep in the mount's black heart, and the ages take their toll,
Forget ye him who fought with the Snake to save the human soul? 

Take That, Snake!

    He came upon a wide stair carved in the solid rock, and the sides of the shaft were adorned with esoteric symbols so ancient and horrific that King Conan’s skin crawled. The steps were carven each with the abhorrent figure of the Old Serpent, Set, so that at each step he planted his heel on the head of the Snake, as it was intended from old times.

No analysis here, I just thought this was a lovely touch. Given Howard's immense dislike of his ophidian neighbours, there must be a little catharticm inherent here.

The Old Ones

In the fourth chapter, there's an oblique Lovecraftian reference - par for the course with Howard in his Weird Tales:

    He shuddered to see the vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones, and he knew somehow that mortal feet had not traversed the corridor for centuries.

In the very first (unsubmitted) draft of the story, that reference is quite a bit more tacit - Conan identified the shadowy outlines of “Cthulhu, Tsathogua, Yog-Sothoth, and the Nameless Old Ones." It isn't difficult to see the Lovecraftian allusions in this and other Conan stories, but this was a blatant case of what Lovecraft would call "Yog-Sothothery." Howard decided to omit direct references to ol' squidface, batfrog and bubblehead in subsequent drafts: perhaps he felt it too broad to openly cite several of the more famous Elder Gods, or invite too much comparison to the Lovecraft Mythos tales, or that he'd rather establish the Hyborian Age with its own mythology - of Mitra and Set and Crom, not Cthulhu and Tsathoggua and Yog-Sothoth.

I think it's for the best, personally: in addition to helping the Hyborian Age stand on its own rather than being just another cycle of the Cthulhu Mythos, Cthulhumania's been running riot in recent years. Cthulhu himself has been reduced to a joke through memetic mutation. We live in a world with "Hello Cthulhu," after all. Still, the three entities would return in a fashion in later Conan tales: a Cthu-look-alike of sorts menaced Livia in "The Vale of Lost Women," Thaug of "A Witch Shall Be Born" could be Tsathoggua's cousin; and Tsotha-Lanti of "The Scarlet Citadel" appears to be have been born in similar circumstances to Wilbur Whatley.

Howard also brought in the spectre of the mythos in his non-Conan yarns, linking them to entities of his own creation like Gol-Goroth of "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth":

    “Well,” he said presently, “suppose we admit the former existence of cults revolving about such nameless and ghastly gods and entities as Cthulhu, Yog Sothoth, Tsathoggua, Gol-goroth, and the like, I can not find it in my mind to believe that survivals of such cults lurk in the dark corners of the world today.”
 - "The Children of the Night"
    “As Xuthltan died,” continued the old Bedouin, “he cursed the stone whose magic had not saved him, and he shrieked aloud the fearful words which undid the spell he had put upon the demon in the cavern, and set the monster free. And crying out on the forgotten gods, Cthulhu and Koth and Yog-Sothoth, and all the pre-Adamite Dwellers in the black cities under the sea and the caverns of the earth, he called upon them to take back that which was theirs, and with his dying breath pronounced doom on the false king, and that doom was that the king should sit on his throne holding in his hand the Fire of Asshurbanipal until the thunder of Judgment Day.
 - "The Fire of Asshurbanipal"

    "Let them forget the false teachings of Confucius and Buddha, and the gods of Tibet, who had allowed their people to come under the yoke of the white-skinned devils. Let them rise under the leadership of the prophet the Old Ones had sent them and the great Cthulhu would sweep them all to victory."
 - "Black John's Vengeance"

The Mystery of Epemitreus

There's a notable dearth of good sorcerers in the Conan stories, most likely because magic in Conan is a corruptive, dangerous force which warps the mind. Epemitreus is therefore something of an enigma: by no means is he a shining beacon of Good like so many other wizards, he is still eternally opposed to the forces of darkness, and aids even a red-handed barbarian when his destiny is entwined with Aquilonia's.

Epemitreus is reminiscent of a number of similar characters in the Kull tales, notably Karon the Ferryman, and the representative of the Lake People: ancient, bearded individuals who are either linked to death (Karon the Ferryman obviously linked to Charon of the Styx, the psychopomp of Greek Mythology) or a cthonic otherworld (the Lake People being reminiscent of the Tuatha de Danaan, Alfar, and other "fair folk" who are found in the hidden places in the world), who impart wisdom and aid to the barbarian protagonist.

    An ancient man stood upon the bank and a large, flat boat floated on the sullen surface of the water. The man was aged, but mightily built, as huge as Kull himself. He was clad only in ragged garments, seemingly as ancient as himself, but there was something
kingly and awe-inspiring about the man. His snowy hair fell to his shoulders and his huge white beard, wild and unkempt, came almost to his waist. From beneath white, lowering brows, great luminous eyes blazed, undimmed by age.
 - The River Stagus Fragment

    Then the king saw that one of their number stood in front of the rest. This one was much like a man, and his bearded face was high and noble, but a frown hovered over his magnificent brows.
 - "The Cat and the Skull"
Epemitreus differs from these two in that he was, at least once, a man of flesh and blood - one who lived three times as long as the average man, true, but he is of human stock.*

As with Thoth-Amon's reunion with the Serpent Ring, one could accuse Howard of another remarkable coincidence in having Epemitreus just happen to give Conan the help he needs to protect himself against the Slave of the Ring... but, again, I'd say that in matters of the world beyond the world, there's no such thing as a coincidence. A greater question is why Epemitreus never returned to aid Conan against Tsotha-Lanti in "The Scarlet Citadel" and, most pertinently, Xaltotun in "The Hour of the Dragon": one could argue that Koth is outside his jurisdiction, so to speak, but surely he would be first to aid the king against Xaltotun? If Thoth-Amon was Set's neophyte, an "adder" in Aquilonia, then Xaltotun was nothing less than Set's dragon.

It's a mystery indeed.

A Serpent Coils The Earth

I'm going to get into a little Hyborian musing here, and defer to an excellent article by Keith Taylor on the long, twisting and fascinating history of Set, the Egyptian Deity. It's great reading, and naturally concludes that the Set of Stygia is very different from the Set of Egypt:

    Being a bit obsessive and inclined to prissy accuracy myself, I suggest that the people of REH’s dark prehistoric realm of proto-Egypt did perhaps refer to their dreadful serpent-god as Apep, not Set. But what about it? Richard the Third was neither grotesquely deformed nor an out-and-out villain, and in all probability never murdered his nephews. I’m not about to revise Shakespeare’s plays on that account.

I'm a smidgen obsessive and fond of prissy accuracy too, but I have a slightly different idea about the matter of Set and Apep, one that lets the Stygians call their patron Set - namely, that we assume the Egyptians are the ones who "got it wrong," or rather, that their religion mixed things up a little. It sounds blasphemous, and I'd hate to offend any latter-day Ancient Egyptians, but given Howard turned Odin into a Lovecraftian horror in "The Cairn on the Headland," I don't think it should be discounted. Here's my theory.

As the good Mr Taylor points out, monstrous serpents are depicted on predynastic pottery: might it be possible that the very earliest Egyptians may have had a resurgence of Hyborian-Set worship, which was crushed when the Vanirs established the first pharaohs? In the upheaval that happened, perhaps Set's very name was made tabboo, with a new name, Apep, being used euphemistically. As the years passed, the connection between Set and Apep was forgotten. Then one year, a new deity from the Libyans gained prominence, also called Set: not a serpent, but with the shape of a man. Was this Set one and the same with Apep, another head of the One Black Master; or was it simply coincidence, the name of the deity being taken from dimly-recalled legends of a mighty god of prehistory? Later, Set and Apep's history would be entwined, muddled and rewritten - or perhaps, the Hyborian origin was starting to leak into the legend.

Or, as an alternative, perhaps Apep, or at least his name, has a Hyborian antescedent, and the two were swapped in the confusion following the final cataclysm. It's happened before: the Iberianesque kingdom of Zingara has a very Gypsy name, while the Romany-like kingdom of Zamora has a Spanish name. So is it not possible that the names of the great terrible serpent and the hero who battled him constantly were switched? Who, in the Hyborian Age, was known for battling the Old Serpent, who "strove with Set by fire and steel and the juice of the upas-tree," to prevent the cosmic snake from engulfing the world in darkness? Apep sounds a bit like it could be a contraction and corruption of Epemitreus, if you squint...

Who knows: that's part of the fun. Regarding the One Black Master: Howard seemed to equate Set with Satan not just in terms of their roles, but because they were one and the same.

    "There is but one Black Master though men call hym Sathanas & Beelzebub & Apolleon & Ahriman & Malik Tous..."
 - "Dig Me No Grave"

Also in that story, the phrase "Old Serpent" is used in reference to Satan:

    “Conrad, this is madness heaped on madness! Malik Tous... Muhammadans, who hate his demon-worshipping devotees, say he is the essence of the evil of all the universes–the Prince of Darkness – Ahriman – the old Serpent – the veritable Satan!”

In "The Valley of the Worm," James Allison recalls:

    "...the Stygians first worshipped, and then, when they became Egyptians, abhorred him under the name of Set, the Old Serpent, while to the Semites he became Leviathan and Satan."

It's easy to imagine all the terrible serpentine beings of mythologies throughout the world being cultural memories of that most monstrous arch-demon of the Hyborians. Could the final battle between Thor and the Midgard Serpent fated at Ragnarok be inspired by the battles between Epemitreus and Set?

King Hereafter?

    "I have marked you well, Conan of Cimmeria, and the stamp of mighty happenings and great deeds is upon you."

Destiny is something of a troubling element in regards to the Conan stories: by making Conan fated, prophesised, or even outright foreseen to be the king of Aquilonia by his own hand, there's a danger that Conan's agency is destroyed. Conan becoming king may start to look less a result of his own roving foot and iron will, and more because "history," "fate," or "destiny" has ordained that it would be so - thus, one starts to wonder if Conan had any choice in the matter. This is obviously most prevalent in the three King Conan stories, which are also among the most mythic of the tales.

What to make of all this? Well, one thing to remember is that the stories are written with the benefit of hindsight: the literary agent hypothesis of the Nemedian Chronicles. The stories seem to be written in the manner that Howard wrote his historicals: taking real events from historical documents, and rewriting them in his inimitable hard-boiled passionate style. As such, it's easy to see a few remarks, actions, or circumstances having great relevance to later events when one has the benefit of the big picture.

So all these isolated moments when Conan idly fancies becoming king start to have new significance when the reader knows his future - and Howard was well aware of that.

    “By Mitra,” said he slowly, “I never expected to see you cased in coat-armor, but you do not put it to shame. By my finger-bones, Conan, I have seen kings who wore their harness less regally than you!”
    Conan was silent. A vague shadow crossed his mind like a prophecy. In years to come he was to remember Amalric’s words, when the dream became the reality.
 - “Black Colossus”
    For an instant the future fate of kingdoms that hinged on this gay-clad barbarian hung in the balance.
 - “The Devil in Iron”
    “What king has roamed the countries, fought the battles, loved the women, and won the plunder that I have?”
 - “The People of the Black Circle”
    “I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell,  I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.” The fancy pleased him, and he grinned hugely.
 - “Beyond the Black River”
    “I’ve never been king of an Hyborian kingdom,” he grinned, taking an enormous mouthful of cactus. “But I’ve dreamed of being even that. I may be too, some day. Why shouldn’t I?”
 - “Red Nails”

Some might say that this ruins any sense of drama or urgency: after all, if we know Conan's going to live to become king, why would we have any investment in the stories where he's a thief, pirate, mercenary or bandit? The element of danger and death is inherent to the adventure story, and half of the excitement is knowing that the protagonist may not survive. To this hypothetical reader, I respond: have you actually read any adventure stories? When you're writing a stand-alone story, be it short or novel, you can kill off the protagonist at the end if you see fit. Howard did it plenty of times in his Sword-and-Sorcery stories - in fact, the James Allison tales are practically based around the protagonist's past deaths. If you're writing an anthology series about a world with an ensemble cast, then you can certainly go wild with the falling bodies. But when you're writing a series centered around one character... well, you can only kill them off once, and even then, a sufficiently popular character might escape the grave if the audience rejects their demise. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle.

On some level, every reader may have it in the back of their head that Conan won't die in this adventure, but the skill of Howard as a writer might make them forget: the heat and passion of his prose will suspend the reader's disbelief. So in reading the stories with the knowledge this is set earlier in Conan's life, the tension comes not from whether Conan is going to survive, but how Conan survives. Will he emerge unscathed, or by the skin of his teeth? Will his companions ride off with him into the sunset, or will they die before the story ends?  Will Conan be triumphant, or merely escape with his life?

Steve Tompkins wrote best on this subject:

    It is to Wandering Star’s credit that this contradiction was allowed into the book’s preamble, and Conan himself bestrides the contradiction, as he does so much else, like a Colossus. Purists have long had every reason to charge that the Conan saga as it has been presented to us in paperback has a beginning, a meddle, and an end.  But an extreme position (chronoloclasm as opposed to chronololatry?) that reduces the stories to random, Groo-some wanderings, haphazardous happenstance with no cumulative biographical momentum, is as misleading as the old rags-to-Aquilonian-riches, boy-from-the-wrong side-of-the-civilizational-tracks-makes-good twaddle that researchers like Louinet and Burke have finally induced to, well, decamp. There is some ulteriority to this series; even if we consider "The Hour of the Dragon" to be a special case, the fact remains that Howard sprinkled the stories after “The Scarlet Citadel” with regal reminders.


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)

Javier Martín Lalanda, "Hidden Sources in Robert E. Howard," La canción de las espadas: fantasía heroica en Robert E. Howard

Steve Tompkins, "The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing In Our Ears"

Jeffrey D. Elmquist, "Robert E. Howard and the Cthulhu Mythos," Exedrae v1n2

*There's much to say on Epemitreus, but unfortunately a number of essays and books I want to mull over are back home in Scotland, so for now, I'll leave the mystery of Mitra's sword as it is.


  1. Hero of the Federation7 June 2012 at 08:03

    Warm it all up ! Everything you got !

  2. Great post as are the others.

    First thing that came instantly in to my head when reading why Epemitreus wasn't helping Conan against Xaltotun was that it had something to do with the Heart of Ahriman for some reason. :)

    1. I have a few theories as to why Epemitreus was absent, and the Heart is indeed central to it:

      “Those same thieves – or rather those of them who still lived after their frightful quest – stole the Heart of Ahriman from its haunted cavern below the temple of Mitra, and all the skill of men and the spells of sorcerers nearly failed. One man of them lived long enough to reach me and give the jewel into my hands, before he died slavering and gibbering of what he had seen in that accursed crypt. The thieves of Zamora are the most faithful of men to their trust. Even with my conjurements, none but them could have stolen the Heart from where it has lain in demon-guarded darkness since the fall of Acheron, three thousand years ago.”

      “You thrust your head into the dragon’s jaws. Best seek refuge abroad. The heart is gone from your kingdom.”

      More on that when I get to HotD...