I said long ago that I would talk about Conan of Cimmeria (that guy Arnold played in those two old movies, remember?). Well, now is the time. And so is some time in the future. I’ve decided to do a handful of posts about ye olde barbarian, starting with the first Conan story published, “The Phoenix on the Sword.”
OK, open on, uh, not Conan. Open instead on Ascalante, some dick who is helping conspirators to overthrow Conan, who is king of Aquilonia. Save your questions for the end, you in the back. Ascalante laughs evilly to himself about how awesome he is, how stupid all his co-conspirators are, and how awesome it will be to see Conan dead and himself on the path toward kingship. There’s a fat fuck who’s distantly related to the old king, so that’s the figurehead of this conspiracy. There’s Rinaldo, the dumb-fuck stupid bard who hates Conan because, uh, Conan’s king now – he also really misses the old king, who was apparently a dictator-tyrant who killed people who objected to his rulings. So, that makes sense.
Ascalante has a black slave who was once a priest in Stygia, the local Egypt-analogue. He lost his super awesome magic ring, and somehow all his powers, even though in the exposition (we’re still in exposition, nothing’s happened yet, just so you know) we learn that he had powers before he found the ring himself. Ascalante found out who he really was, and had a security device in place so if his servant does anything to him, some guy somewhere will read a scroll that will instantly alert the priests of Set in Stygia of their former boss’s location, and he will immediately be killed. I guess. So he has to serve Ascalante.
Asshole-calante continues to exposit, talking about how he used to be a duke, then he was a bandit, and now he will be king.
Yes, this short story is broken into chapters.
Conan is watching his advisor and friend strap on armor, all jealous-like and not at all in a gay way. His friend is going off to the wars in Conan’s name, because the Picts (Howard didn’t even bother to change their names; fuck them I guess) are causing trouble on the border. We already know that’s because Ass-cal sent a bunch of booze their way, which obviously made them want to invade the nearby kingdom. Conan’s jealous; being a king is boring. You hardly get to cut off anyone’s head yourself.
Uh, that’s all.
Ass-cal’s demon-commanding slave dude goes off to the country estate of the fat fuck, to keep him from panicking and maybe admitting the whole plot to avoid execution. He proceeds to tell the fat fuck his life story (yes, we get to hear it again). Fat Fuck ignores him entirely, except that since he’d been ranting about a ring, he says, Oh yeah, my lucky ring. I should get that out. He pulls out – what do you think? – the ring Ass-cal’s slave had lost. So Fat Fuck gets stabbed, and a curse goes out to kill Ass-cal and everyone with him. Exit slave guy.
Conan has a dream that the ancient hero of Aquilonia, who is totally not Merlin, summons Conan to his burial chamber. They chatter at each other, Conan gets a phoenix mark on his sword from the old man, and then he wakes up.
Just in time to hear people outside his door! He puts on some of his armor, then we switch POV to the conspirators. Half of them are outside, with like a dozen guys, and they bust in the door only to see Conan staring at them, sword in his hand, angry as fuck.
I will admit this is a pretty cool moment.
Then everyone fights. In detail. Conan gets wounded several times, breaks his sword on a guy’s helmet, but kills half the dudes. The other half run away inexplicably. Ass-cal is captured by the demon thing that was sent after him, and dies. The creature grabs Conan, who stabs it with the broken stump of his sword. The thing dies.
All the people in the palace show up, after all the shit goes down, and no one believes Conan about his dream or the demon. He tells them what he saw in his dream, and the high priest freaks out, because he’s describing a hidden chamber only he and his order should know about. He looks at the sword, sees the mark, and helps find the bloodstains the demon left behind before it dissolved. The mark on the floor sends everyone into Lovecraftian existentialism. The end.
Yup. As a story, this is a little goofy. Half the things that happen do so because, why not? The other half are Conan killing the hell out of everybody. Howard was a good writer, but sometimes, when he was in a hurry, he would lay on the descriptions pretty thick. Conan is compared to a tiger several times, in and out of combat. At one point someone says “By Set, mine enemy knew not the hour when he might awake at midnight to feel the taloned fingers of a nameless horror at his throat!” Uh, dude, probably midnight. Right?
However, it sets up a lot of what Howard proceeded to do really well. Conan is a little bewildered when he encounters magic, but insists he can survive and generally does so. Other people freak out at the sight of magic and fail in the face of it, generally dying. Everyone knows Conan is an analogue for the quality of rural, strong, barbaric life in opposition to urban ease and (let’s face it, in these stories) feminization. Conan doesn’t bang any ladies in this story, but he, here, as usual, relies on a confidence in his own powers against the world itself, against its physics and metaphysics, that allows him to triumph again and again. It is his unwillingness to submit that makes him such a vital character still.
Yes, questions. Yes, I said he was a king. The Conan stories were written out of chronological order. This, the very first, is relatively near the end of his career. He’s become king, things are awesome, but several stories come after this one. Howard envisioned the barbarian surrounded by the civilization that hated and feared him. Later stories would put him back in time, basically flashing back, to when he was a thief, a soldier, and a renegade.