Friday 8 June 2012

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

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs - I was a man before I was a king.
 - The Road of Kings.

The Price of Treachery

A favourite pastime of mine when rereading the Conan stories is searching for some tiny detail that had initially eluded me, or at least, the significance was not clear at first. I came across quite a few when rereading "The Phoenix on the Sword" for this series, but this one in particular intrigued me:

    "Through Gromel I’ve corrupted a spendthrift officer of that guard, and bribed him to lead his men away from the king’s door at midnight..."
    They crowded back behind a cluster of carven pillars, and almost immediately ten giants in black armor swung by at a measured pace. Their faces showed doubt as they glanced at the officer who was leading them away from their post of duty. This officer was rather pale; as the guard passed the hiding-places of the conspirators, he was seen to wipe the sweat from his brow with a shaky hand. He was young, and this betrayal of a king did not come easy to him. He mentally cursed the vain-glorious extravagance which had put him in debt to the moneylenders and made him a pawn of scheming politicians.
    The Black Dragons were on hand, wild with rage, swearing and ruffling, with their hands on their hilts and foreign oaths in their teeth. Of the young officer of the door-guard nothing was seen, nor was he found then or later, though earnestly sought after.

We'd never hear from this young officer again, save for a quick reference towards the end of the tale, yet Howard concoted a tantalising glimpse of a world beyond the main characters in four sentences, making it effortless to extrapolate a full story: of a youthful officer of the Black Legion's Night Guard, the cynicism of veteran duty not having dulled his idealism yet, who nonetheless made poor decisions in life.

He was ill-equipped to handle the intricacies of his new income when he was promoted, and so spent his lunas plentifully and carelessly, his pride feeding his expenditure. When the reality of his financial indiscretions struck home, he sought the quick and easy way out, looking to moneylenders to ease his debts. His debts were settled, for a while, but new debts to his insincere benefactors started to mount. He looked everywhere for assistance, to no avail: in desperation, he started to listen in to the rumours scuttling along the grapevine among his fellow soldiers, eventually learning that the commander himself had a "special job" for someone willing not to ask questions. The officer soon found himself caught up in no less a conspiracy than the planned assassination of the king. This was beyond what he was willing to do, but he was in too deep: backing out now would make him a loose thread that must be cut.

So he did as he was ordered. He got many of his sentries drunk, and others removed from their patrols, tasking himself personally with leading the Black Dragons away from their post. But even his training was insufficient to hide his immense discomfort and terror, as he paled, sweating, with the realisation of his complicity in regicide. He knew the Black Dragons were suspicious from their subtle glances in his direction, so he fled as soon as the opportunity presented itself. It was too much for him: he did not wait for the assassination to succeed and for Gromel to pay him his due, for the price of infamy was too great even to settle his debts. Flight from Aquilonia was his only option, and he succeeded, for nowhere in the annals of history is the fate of that young officer recorded...

"Death to the Tyrant!"

As in "Axe," the barbarian king's heroic stance against a score of would-be assassins is absolutely exemplary for Howard's theme of tragic heroism - with the subversion that the hero triumphs, of course. It all comes to a head in a brief moment of still, the eye of the storm, with cutthroats and their quarry standing off, until that stinging taunt: "Who dies first?"

Robert Weinberg commented on dialogue in Howard's work:

    Now, do the same for Robert E. Howard. How about when Solomon Kane finds a dying girl and says, "Men shall die for this." Or when Kull is backed into the corner of his bedroom and takes a line from Pizarro, "Who dies first?"

While I've not had much luck finding the infamous quote in historical sources, the death of Pizarro sounds highly reminiscent of the assassination attempts on Kull and Conan. several Howard scholars and commentators - including L. Sprague de Camp in "Conan and Pizarro" (The Conan Reader, et al) and Dave Hardy in "Conquistadors of Doom" (The Cimmerian, v2n1) - have noted the same.

    The embittered young Almagro and his associates plotted to assassinate Francisco after mass on June 16, 1541, but Pizarro got wind of their plan and stayed in the governor's palace. While Pizarro, his half-brother Francisco Mart n de Alc ntara, and about 20 others were having dinner, the conspirators invaded the palace. Most of Pizarro's guests fled, but a few fought the intruders, numbered variously between seven and 25. While Pizarro struggled to buckle on his breastplate, his defenders, including Alc ntara, were killed. For his part Pizarro killed two attackers and ran through a third. While trying to pull out his sword, he was stabbed in the throat, then fell to the floor where he was stabbed many times.
 - Mark Rose, Exploring the Inca Heartland
    Pedro de San Millan became a partizan of Almagro, and he was one of the thirteen assassins who, led by Juan de Rada, ran across the square of Lima to murder Pizarro, on Sunday, the 26th of June, 1641. They ran with their drawn swords, shouting, "Death to the tyrant!" Rushing up the stairs of Pizarro's house, they were met by Francisco de Chaves, who tried to stop them. He received a sword-thrust, and a cut which nearly severed his head, and the body was hurled down the steps. Dr. Velasquez and the servants, hearing the noise, escaped out of the windows into a garden. Pizarro was defended by his half-brother, Francisco Martin de Alcantara, and by two young pages, Juan de Vargas, a son of Gomez de Tordoya, and Alonzo Escandon. They had no time to put on armour ; but Pizarro and his brother defended the doorway with great bravery, for a long time. At last Alcantara was slain, and one of the pages took his place. Then Juan de Rada seized one of the other assassins, named Narvaez, and hurled him against Pizarro, who received him on his dagger, and killed him. But, in the scuffle, the others mahed into the room. The two young pages fell fighting bravely, after having severely wounded four of the assassins. Pizarro was thus left alone. The murderers attacked him on all sides, and at last he was stabbed in the throat. He fell to the ground, made the sign of the Cross on the floor with his right hand, kissed it, and expired. Four of the assassins were killed, and four wounded.
 - Francisco de Xerez, A True Account of the Province of Cuzco, called New Castille, Conquered by Francisco Pizarro, Captain to His Majesty the Emperor, Our Master

When it comes to specific historical sources, many suggest that Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru had several instances which are particularly close to "Phoenix," and so could be inspirational. The entire book is a thrilling and fascinating read, but several quotations stand out:

    For a moment they were kept at bay by the attendants of the slaughtered cavalier, but these, too, were quickly despatched; and Rada and his companions, entering the apartment, hurried across it, shouting out, "Where is the marquess? Death to the tyrant!"
    ... At length, Pizarro, unable, in the hurry of the moment, to adjust the fastenings of his cuirass, threw it away, and, enveloping one arm in his cloak, with the other seized his sword, and sprang to his brother's assistance. It was too late; for Alcantara was already staggering under the loss of blood, and soon fell to the ground. Pizarro threw himself on his invaders, like a lion roused in his lair, and dealt his blows with as much rapidity and force, as if age had no power to stiffen his limbs. "What ho!" he cried, "traitors! have you come to kill me in my own house?" The conspirators drew back for a moment, as two of their body fell under Pizarro's sword; but they quickly rallied, and, from their superior numbers, fought at great advantage by relieving one another in the assault. Still the passage was narrow, and the struggle lasted for some minutes, till both of Pizarro's pages were stretched by his side, when Rada, impatient of the delay, called out, "Why are we so long about it? Down with the tyrant!" and taking one of his companions, Narvaez, in his arms, he thrust him against the marquess. Pizarro, instantly grappling with his opponent, ran him through with his sword. But at that moment he received a wound in the throat, and reeling, he sank on the floor, while the swords of Rada and several of the conspirators were plunged into his body. "Jesu!" exclaimed the dying man, and, tracing a cross with his finger on the bloody floor, he bent down his head to kiss it, when a stroke, more friendly than the rest, put an end to his existence.
 - Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru, Chapter 28

Controversial as he was in his appraisals of Howard's literary merits, de Camp was very well-read in history and literature, and so I find the assertion that Pizarro may have influenced the attempt on the life of Conan in "Phoenix" to be very compelling - as did Weinberg and Hardy. Certainly there are enough divergences - obviously Conan lives where Pizarro dies, he fights alone rather than with his staunchest allies, and Rinaldo's fantasy of toppling a tyrant is rather less justifiable than Rada's usurpation of the infamous Pizarro - but several key quotations make a good case.

Aside from Pizarro, a few other possible inspirations - or at least kindred moments - for the attempted death of Conan remain. Brian Leno suggests a key scene in Jim Tully's Circus Parade:

    There is a scene in Tully’s Circus Parade that is reminiscent of this defiant stand of Conan’s. Slug Finnerty, a one-eyed quick-change artist, fleeces a man out of some penny-ante cash, and this angered character returns with some of his buddies to teach Finnerty a rough lesson.  Slug yells the famous “Hey Rube” and soon a battle ensues between the cheated customers and Finnerty and the circus hands.  It’s a tough match and at one point Finnerty rises off the floor and drops one of the battlers and then he stands and confronts the rest of his attackers.  “Finnerty stood,” Tully writes, “like a one-eyed immense gorilla about to spring and snarled between oaths, “Come on you goddamn rubes, and meet your master!””

An Ancient Battleax

Another fun detail is this:

    The rogues drew back momentarily, as their leader seized several and thrust them toward the single door, and in that brief respite Conan leaped to the wall and tore therefrom an ancient battle-ax which, untouched by time, had hung there for half a century.

You have to wonder if there's any significance to that axe's history beyond acting as flavourful background material. If "half a century" is accurate, then that axe had been on the wall only a few years before Conan: the fact that it is "ancient" confirms that it was old for a long time before being mounted in the palace. A reference to Conan using a "terrible back-handed return" to slay two foes in the space of seconds may or may not indicate that this axe was double-bitted. Such a weapon was not common in western armies outside of perhaps peasant levies bringing their forestry tools to war, but it was used in early cultures up to the Bronze Age, and a frequent sight in the armies of the East in Medieval and Renaissance times. Of course, the axe could also have borne a spike on the other end, too.

Axes also have much significance in antiquity and modern literature: they're sometimes thought of as a more "barbaric" weapon than the "civilized" sword - though civilized and barbarian used swords and axes alike, in history and in Howard. The axe was certainly an older weapon than the sword, requiring less advanced smithing techniques while being more developed than the spear or club. Even so, when one thinks of axes in history, their most famed wielders are frequently from cultures deemed barbaric: the dreaded bearded axes of the Norsemen and Varangian Guard, the Franciscas of the Franks, the Tomahawks of the Native Americans. The Scythians favoured the axe in melee. The most potent Greek association with the axe is the Labrys of Minos, from a more ancient and savage age before the time of what Howard called the "a dim impression of calm, serene white marble statues in a slumbering groves," while the symbolic power of the axe was utilized in the Roman fasces. Even in the east, the axe is tied with ancient heroics: Parashurama wielded one in the primordial past of Hindu myth.

There's also the link to executions: the sentence for treason in Aquilonia seems to be death, possibly by decapitation (“When I come to Aquilonia again he will be but a headless corpse rotting on Traitor’s Common,” Conan speaks of Arpello in "The Scarlet Citadel"). Conan, then, is judge, jury, and executioner to those twenty men who conspired in treason most high.

What was this axe? The spoils of conquest - a Nemedian king's weapon taken during one of the intermittent Aquilonian-Nemedian wars? A trophy from the conquest of Aquilonia's early kingdom? Or was it part of Aquilonia's legacy - the weapon of one of the ancient heroes whose figures were carven into the heart of Mount Golamira?

    The floor, ceiling and walls were highly polished and gleamed dully, and they were carved with the figures of ancient heroes and half-forgotten gods.

It would be a lovely piece of synchronicity if one of those ancient heroes sported an axe just like the one Conan would use.

The Reluctant Slayer

For those who still think of Conan as an unreasoning, dull-witted brute, here's the ultimate subversion: Conan being reluctant to kill someone who's actively trying to kill him. When Conan realises that Rinaldo is among the conspirators, he does everything in his power to stop the minstrel short of slaying him:

    “Knaves!” screamed Rinaldo, dashing off his feathered cap, his wild eyes glaring. “Do ye shrink from the combat? Shall the despot live? Out on it!”
    He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open hand sent him reeling to the floor...
    ...He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back, lifting his ax.
    “Rinaldo!” his voice was strident with desperate urgency. “Back! I would not slay you –”
    “Die, tyrant!” screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.

Conan's deep reverence for Rinaldo and his songs almost cost him dearly: had Rinaldo's keen stylus bitten but a few inches higher, Conan may not have lived to battle Thoth-Amon's hound minutes later.

The Unconquerable Primordial

Many will probably cite Conan's definitive stand against his would-be assassins as the story's best example of Conan's iron strength, endurance and will:

    Conan put his back against the wall and lifted his ax. He stood like an image of the unconquerable primordial – legs braced far apart, head thrust forward, one hand clutching the wall for support, the other gripping the ax on high, with the great corded muscles standing out in iron ridges, and his features frozen in a death snarl of fury – his eyes blazing terribly through the mist of blood which veiled them. The men faltered – wild, criminal and dissolute though they were, yet they came of a breed men called civilized, with a civilized background; here was the barbarian – the natural killer. They shrank back – the dying tiger could still deal death.
    Conan sensed their uncertainty and grinned mirthlessly and ferociously.
    “Who dies first?” he mumbled through smashed and bloody lips.

Awesome and memorable as that is, I think it's when Conan's at his most vulnerable, at his closest to death, that he truly shines:

    With a cry that was like an echo of Ascalante’s death-shriek, he reeled away from the wall and met the leaping horror with a cast of his ax that had behind it all the desperate power of his electrified nerves. The flying weapon glanced singing from the slanting skull it should have crushed, and the king was hurled half-way across the chamber by the impact of the giant body.
    The slavering jaws closed on the arm Conan flung up to guard his throat, but the monster made no effort to secure a death-grip. Over his mangled arm it glared fiendishly into the king’s eyes, in which there began to be mirrored a likeness of the horror which stared from the dead eyes of Ascalante. Conan felt his soul shrivel and begin to be drawn out of his body, to drown in the yellow wells of cosmic horror which glimmered spectrally in the formless chaos that was growing about him and engulfing all life and sanity. Those eyes grew and became gigantic, and in them the Cimmerian glimpsed the reality of all the abysmal and blasphemous horrors that lurk in the outer darkness of formless voids and nighted gulfs. He opened his bloody lips to shriek his hate and loathing, but only a dry rattle burst from his throat.
    But the horror that paralyzed and destroyed Ascalante roused in the Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness. With a volcanic wrench of his whole body he plunged backward, heedless of the agony of his torn arm, dragging the monster bodily with him.

So, to review: Conan smites a demon in the skull with a huge ancient axe, only to be thrown back half the length of the chamber, the impact not even fazing the monster - but Conan resists. Then the creature chews and mangles the king's arm with a vice-lock that isn't even intended to be the killing grip - but Conan resists. The thing gazes into the king's eyes, aiming to draw forth Conan's very soul - but Conan resists. Finally, Conan resorts to dragging the huge beast across the floor with his free hand so as to close the distance to the broken sword.

Conan can slay as many bumbling assassins as you could number, but for me, his desperate triumph against a thing from the depths of night is exactly what makes him "the damnedest bastard who ever lived."

But lest anyone think that Conan had an easy time of it against twenty armed and armoured assassins while he himself was only partially armoured, it's clear that even human foes dealt Conan many blows:

    ... A dagger point raked along his ribs between breastplate and backplate, a sword-edge flashed before his eyes...
    ... For a brief space the assassins crowded him fiercely, raining blows blindly and hampered by their own numbers; then they gave back suddenly – two corpses on the floor gave mute evidence of the king’s fury, though Conan himself was bleeding from wounds on arm, neck and legs...
    ... In the interim one of his comrades lifted a broadsword with both hands and hewed through the king’s left shoulder-plate, wounding the shoulder beneath. In an instant Conan’s cuirass was full of blood...
    ... Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation... Conan reeled back against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which gripped his wound...
    ...They shrank back – the dying tiger could still deal death...
    ...“Who dies first?” he mumbled through smashed and bloody lips...
    “Best stop your caterwauling and aid us to bind the king’s wounds. He’s like to bleed to death.”
    “Yes, yes!” cried Publius, who was a man of plans rather than action. “We must bind his wounds. Send for every leech of the court! Oh, my lord, what a black shame on the city! Are you entirely slain?”
    ... They had stanched the flow of blood, and the innate vitality of the barbarian was asserting itself.
    “See first to the dagger-wound in my side,” he bade the court physicians. “Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.”

Even though Conan took down a good number of his assassins, he was mauled. Blood flowing, gushing, even "spurting" from a score of wounds, his cuirass "full of blood," his lips mashed and bloody. Conan's endurance is at least as important as his strength, if not more so. It can be hard to sympathise with someone so adept at slaying that they can slaughter a small country's armed forces without breaking a sweat: you start to feel sorry for the poor mooks getting killed. But Conan took as good as he gave, be it against a demon spawned from pitch black terror, or mere men. He earned his victory in blood and toil.


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)

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

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

L. Sprague de Camp, "Conan and Pizarro,"

Robert Weinberg, "What He Wrote And How He Said It"

Dave Hardy, "Conquistadors of Doom" (The Cimmerian, v2n1)

Lee Breakiron, "A Lion Among Fanzines," The Nemedian Chroniclers 2

Brian Leno, "Jimmy Tully & Robert E. Howard: Beggars of Life"


  1. This and the previous posts have been amazing. Great workd and really enjoyed reading these.

  2. Really nice series.

    I realize this has little to do with Phoenix on the sword, but I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on "the Devil in iron"?

    I always thought of the Devil himself as a misunderstood character. At a glance he's a powerful and terrifying elder being who kidnapped the Girl conan was fancying. But upon reading the story over again I drew some interesting conclusions.

    For me it's difficult to call him a villain, after all, his main motivation in the story is to revive his fallen people. Most likely what he planned for Octavia was for her to mate with the undead citizens of Xapur and thus renew the population.

    The reason why he attacked the others on sight was certainly to keep the city's new life a secret.

    Finally, and in my mind, most importantly, the sage's was used by Conan to kill Khosatral. But why didn't the sage do it in the first place? If he was able to overpower the demon in such a way that he was able to make him sleep indefinately, surely he would have been able to kill him.

    I believe the sage did not kill Khosatral, because he knew that it wasn't a malevolent entity, and thus wished to spare it's life.

    What do you think? Do I have some points, or am I just rambling?

    1. "Devil in Iron" is a while away, but I appreciate the points.

      Personally, I think Khosatral Khel is not so much evil as amoral: like Cthulhu and the gang, his morality is alien and incomparable to human ideas. Yet at the same time, Khel's very different from other eldritch horrors in that he assumes human-like form(like Ollam-Onga and possibly the white god from "Iron Shadows"), and actually deigns to communicate with Conan. These "devils in human form" are very interesting figures in the Conan stories.

    2. Oh, and thanks, glad you're enjoying the posts!