The Phoenix on the Sword

Conan the Barbarian

blog review

I'm a big fan of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series. Along with the Tarzan series, I used to read Conan stories while visiting my grandparents, because my grandfather had a vast collection of dime novels stashed away in his workshop.

Today, I think many people associate Conan, or indeed the very term barbarian, with big dumb muscle-headed actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it turns out that if you go back and read the actual Conan source material, you find a very different character than the pop culture abomination bearing the same name. I have no such view of Conan, because I read the original stories well before knowing that there were movies and comics and TV shows and games and posthumous books, but recently I reread the original Conan stories in order of publication, in hopes of getting perspective on how the character was presented.

We all start somewhere

In 1932, the first story featuring Conan the Barbarian was published. If you had read the very first Conan story, Phoenix on the Sword, back then, you would have been introduced to a middle-aged king of a mythical land called Aquilonia. This king, Conan by name, had slaughtered his way to the throne, literally strangling the former king on his throne. As a ruler of the Aquilonian kingdom, he has less time for bureaucracy than for adventuring, and this makes sense, because hints of his exciting past are sprinkled throughout the tale.

Conan comes from the north of the prehistoric world, in a time called the Hyborian Age. His homeland is known as Cimmeria, adjacent to the kingdoms of Asgard and Vanaheim (which are not, as far as I can tell, the same spiritual realms of Norse mythology, but are obviously references to them). Conan is a "barbarian" because the land in which he spent his youth were barbaric. He is Conan the Ruthless, Conan the Cunning, Conan the Persistent.

In this book specifically, he is also Conan the Hunted. Due to his newfound political power, he finds himself the target of assassins who want to see a king of actual noble blood on the throne rather than an obvious usurper. That takes up the bulk of the short story: Conan dealing, in a very physical way, with those who want him dead.

As introductions to characters go, this is an abrupt and maybe a surprising one. This is the same Conan we see in later stories (later in realtime, but usually earlier in Conan's chronology). It's probably safe to assume that Robert E. Howard, the creator and author of Conan, didn't realise that Conan would become wildly popular, and so this story was likely just another story sent in to a magazine. From what I've read online, it wasn't even originally a Conan story, but one intended for a different Howard character, Kull. This wasn't a big reveal, or a big setup for the Conan universe that would be explored in subsequent stories both during and well after Howard's lifetime. This was just another story, with just another hero who was both thoughtful, capable, cunning, and strong.

As Conan stories go, this tale is pretty straight and to the point. There isn't much intrigue or mystery to it. You know exactly what is happening, why, and by whom. The plot progresses exactly as you'd expect. There's not much to borrow from here, in terms of plot points.

It's all about the lore

The lore this story presents, however, is rich. There are casual mentions of people and places and legends that make you want to know more. Who is Thoth Amon? what's with this ring from which he derives his power? just how much a threat is black magic in this strange world? What did Conan do before he happened upon a throne needing to be filled?

If you read the first Conan story and leave with those same questions, or questions like them, then you're experiencing the same emotion as many of its original readership. It's the same spark of imagination that the original Star Wars left so many people spellbound, and I think it's the same spark that drives "geek" culture: the desire to unravel. There's an insistence, to the geek mind, that all of this hidden back story actually has a story, that the author has everything mapped out and actually knows the histories of each element in a story. It's a search for continuity, the desire to not just wander aimlessly through the dungeon but also to map it with precision. (Which is, by the way, precisely what we attempt to do here on the Mixed Signals podcast Chronicles & Commons, so if you're keen to know more about Conan and many other geek universes, go subscribe post haste!)

Yes, you should read it

If you've never read a Conan story, or if you've never read one by Robert E. Howard himself, then you should read this story. I don't think many Conan fans would consider this the quintessential Conan tale, but it is the first. It's the one that started it all, and it introduces many elements of the Hyborian Age that any Conan reader eventually takes for granted. Read this introductory story, get to know Conan the middle-aged, and then delve into his history in the next exciting installment, The Scarlet Citadel!

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