My take on Conan is just a little different than that of some others, as can be seen here. But I want to look a bit more closely at the actual stories of Conan to see why they are some of the most influential and popular works of the last 80+ years.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, 1932 was a very big year for Robert E. Howard. He wrote the first Weird West tale in the Spring of that year and in the fall he sold The Phoenix on the Sword, the very first Conan story and the birth of Swords & Sorcery.
Conan was popular immediately and has been a powerhouse ever since dominating everything from short stories and novels to movies and comics. The combination of the mystical/supernatural with swashbuckling has had a shockingly powerful impact on fiction and it is relatively easy to draw a straight line from Phoenix on the Sword to Star Wars. (We’ll discuss the straight line between the Horror in the Mound and Indiana Jones another time.)
The story is divided into 5 chapters, each of which flows smoothly.
Chapter 1 — We get a nice intro that builds the world and drops us into the setting. The rest of the chapter is a master example of how to do a proper info dump. Yes, writers should ‘show, not tell’, but this is a short story format, so exposition is a must. Howard drops a massive amount of interesting detail in only about 1,000 words.
What is most impressive is that within this very short chapter we can clearly grasp the motivation and morals of the antagonists in the story, and they aren’t pretty. The antagonists are range from weak-willed cowards with delusions of grandeur to vicious, amoral bandits lacking any human decency. Their motivations range from envy to greed. Most interesting is the ‘hare brained’ poet who is a member of the plot, and a tool of evil men, out of artistic arrogance. Howard drops this gem,
“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next.”
A rather stinging rebuke.
The entire evil plot involves treachery, deceit, bribery, and ambush with overwhelming odds to assassinate a king and put a dim-witted puppet on the throne.
Chapter 2 — After putting a rather sharp dig against poets in the previous chapter Howard starts this one off with a bit of doggerel. A rather bold bit of writing, in my opinion, and a pointed statement about writers and readers.
This chapter is longer than the first, but reads faster and lighter. In it we are finally introduced to Conan, and what an introduction! He is direct and to the point, he dislikes intrigue, and he has no fear. We also get a fair bit of background as to himself and his people, the Cimmerians.
We also see his intelligence. He is doing his own administrative work. He deduced that outside forces are at work from the facts he does have. This is very good, subtle writing showing that he is intelligent and insightful. We learn that the late king was a terrible tyrants known for torture, rape, and murder. And we learn that the people now revere their oppressor and hate their liberator because of Rinaldo’s songs and poems. And we start to see some of the themes that are constant throughout the Conan stories of Howard: the honesty and courage of ‘barbarians’ contrasted with the deceit and avoidance of the ‘civilized man’; how excess and luxury saps the strength and the will; the fickleness of crowds.
The contrast in the two bits of exposition is wonderful – the black-hearted antagonists view each other with mistrust or even hatred and are motivated by vice. Their tools are deceit, bribery, fear, and torture. The protagonists are friendly and warm with each other and are motivated by duty. Their tools are courage and skill. And as sharp as the differences are both the villain Ascalante and the hero Conan are portrayed as complex, nuanced figures.
The antagonists and protagonists are set up.
Chapter 3 — This is where Howard turned a typical Sword and Sandal story into the prototypical Sword & Sorcery tale – magic is real. Thoth-Amon is no alchemist using tricks, no charlatan, no stage-magician. He summons a real demon from beyond and sics it on Ascalante and everyone with him.
Pow! New sub-genre born.
But it wasn’t just the idea, it is the execution. Howard’s description of the summoning is amazing. A single paragraph is all Howard needs to let you know the monster is Other and from Beyond.
But the chapter is not mere atmosphere, there is real exposition here. Howard paints Dion as a fool of the worst sort and points to his frivolous nature with everything from small details to a sledgehammer. Thoth-Amon is given even more depth and even as he reveals himself to be a horrible, evil man in league with demons you feel true sympathy for a man brought so low and held in the grip of such terror.
Chapter 4 — Brief but well-written, chapter 4 keeps up the supernatural pace. In his dreams Conan interacts with the ancient sage that fought evil in the world and now protects the kingdom he has seized. Conan is warned and his sword enchanted. Upon waking he hears a stealthy noise and, barbarian that he is, he starts armoring up.
In just a hair over 900 words Howard gives us a ton: cosmology, mythology, prophecy, history, exposition, and more characterization of Conan. In just the build up of this short story Howard has fleshed out an entire world as background to an adventure yarn.
On to adventure!
Chapter 5 — Chapter 5 delivers the goods. Over a third of the story is in this last chapter, yet it reads almost the fastest. It is marked with vivid imagery and powerful descriptions of combat. It builds up to the moment the summoned demon attacks and is killed. The great thing is that rather than fade out on ‘everything is resolved and everyone is smiling at each other’, instead the end involves people shrieking in terror as they flee as others kneel in prayer for deliverance.
Howard goes all-in on letting you know the difference between types of men with lines like,
“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.”
“’Yes, yes!’ cried Publius, who was a man of plans rather than action.”
The ending was still as thrilling this time as it was when I read it in Conan the Usurper at the age of 9.
Overall — The Phoenix on the Sword is a classic for good reasons: excellent writing, tight pacing, subtle characterization, top-notch action, and interesting characters. The ‘world-building as background’ is detailed, compelling, and makes you want to read more. This is a great example of how good short stories can be.
But Howard was not the sort to only use the big, flashy stuff. There is a lot of nuance here. On the one hand, the protagonist’s motivation is dead simple – he wants to live. On the other, the reason he is in the position where he must defend his life is all about morality.
Ascalante is a former high noble who is now a bandit chief. While cunning, he is also brutal and evil. Any sympathy that might have been generated by his loss of position and such is wiped out by his willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and murder. Thoth-Amon is on the one hand a beaten, abused slave. On the other he is a foul sorcerer who brags of his use of black magic to kill and terrorize. Dion is a fool, a wastrel, a coward, and a snob. This goes on, painting each of the antagonists as a vice-ridden man after only selfish ends.
In contrast Conan is brave, forthright, and bold. He refuses to kill a man who is actively rousing his people to hate him because the man creates beauty. Later he essentially courts death before being forced to kill this man. In the end, we root for Conan because he is virtuous and despise the plotters for their vice.
This is compellingly done. As I have mentioned more than once Howard uses the writing elements designed to build empathy (lose of station and status; being a slave; being poor; etc.) to show that no matter how much you might wish to empathize with Thoth-Amon and Ascalante you can’t because they are unrepetantly evil. The unsophisticated (in the original meaning of the world), violent Conan is a figure of empathy because he is virtuous.
In short, you can’t side with the rebels just because they are underdogs, they have to be good underdogs or you’re just cooperating with evil.
Consider when this is written: in 1932 Mussolini had been running Italy for a decade; Hitler was just weeks away from being made Chancellor. And The Phoenix on the Sword is about propaganda, political assassinations, and the morality of rebellion. The villains are all devious cowards that use lies, bribery and threats while Conan is forthright and brave. While this may strike the jaded as simplistic, in reality the struggle between good and evil, between virtue and vice, is the most compelling motivation around!
The Phoenix on the Sword stands the test of time as a classic and I am sure it will be well-read and oft-imitated for decades to come.