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.
In December of 1932, Farnsworth “Plato” Wright, the editor of the seminal pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales ran a story by a virtually unknown West Texas writer named Robert E. Howard called “The Phoenix On The Sword.”
Set in the mythical Hyborian Age, it introduces a brooding, middle aged barbarian ruler called Conan of Cimmeria who has recently usurped the crown of the kingdom of Aquilonia, having led a revolt against the previous tyrant Numedides and strangling him to death as he sat on the throne. Conan is a dark giant of a man with scores of hard won victories behind him, but as we first find him, he’s confounded by the fickle nature of civilized men. His own people, once grateful to him for rescuing them from the cruelties of Numedides, have now built a statue to the modern king in the temple of the patron god Mitra, and denounce King Conan as a bloody minded foreignor and heathen (he pays nominal honor to a grim northern god called Crom, usually in the form of curses and oaths).
The rest of the story concerns the plan of four would-be conspirators, each with their own personal agendas, to assassinate Conan and retake the throne, and the plotting of a fifth character, a deposed sorcerror turned slave, seeking to regain his former powers, lost when a magic ring was stolen from him. Conan is forewarned of the attempt on his life by a long dead Merlin-like Aquilonian sage, who marks his sword with a phoenix sigil.
This is the first of seventeen stories Weird Tales published featuring the character most know as Conan The Barbarian.
Like a lot of people my age, I came to Conan through John Milius’ marvelous 80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, justly famous for kickstarting (and in my opinion, forever dominating) the sword and sorcery genre in cinema. From the first thundering drumbeats of its unmatched Basil Poledouris score, to its savage crucifixion scene, Conan The Barbarian grabbed a hold of my 14 year old mind, just arrested my adolescent self, left me wanting more.
Having seen Robert E. Howard’s name in the opening titles, I sought out the original material at my local used bookstore, grabbing as many of the Lancer paperbacks with the incredible Frank Frazetta covers as I could find. This was in the days before the unadulterated Conan, when compiler and editor L. Sprague De Camp altered or finished a lot of Howard’s original stories to fit them into a chronology that included his own and other authors’ pastiches.
I was totally hooked, but even my inexperienced mind (this was before the internet, and I didn’t know a thing about Howard except what DeCamp told me in his forewards) could detect the difference between pure Howardian Conan and the imitators. I started looking for more stories with just Howard’s name, and that led me to Solomon Kane, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, and Breckenridge Elkins.
But always, even to this day, I return to Conan, and Howard’s writing probably influences me more than anybody else I’ve ever read.
He’s like a prehistoric James Bond, but better than that. The character is an embodiment of what is primal in man, or in most men, anyway. I would say if you get a knot in your stomach when you think about politics, or the underhanded ways in which people deal with each other, if you dislike the shiftless infidelities modern society tends to deify on a daily basis, then Conan is for you. But I won’t bore you with my own why’s, they’re probably not much different from anyone else’s (or, as in all worthwhile art, your interpretation could be entirely different from mine and your appreciations different from my own, in which case I won’t color your opinions with my own).
I don’t need to tell you why I appreciate Conan. I’ll leave it to Howard’s writing.
My favorite Conan stories remain Black Colossus and The Hour of The Dragon, with The Frost Giant’s Daughter a close third.
Although Howard wrote the Conan stories out of chronological order (likening his process as relating the stories of the adventurer as he chose to recall them, not necessarily in the order they occured), in Black Colossus, I would say we see Conan in a period of transition. In his life he has been a savage barbarian, a worldly thief and bandit, a pirate, a soldier, and a mercenary. In this story we first see him in command of men as a general. This is his last step before becoming the king we will see in Phoenix On The Sword.
The gods have a hand in Conan’s destiny once again, when Princess Yasmela, the ruler of the kingdom of Khoraja, faced with the oncoming assault of a horde of desert warriors and monstrous creatures led by an ambitious three thousand year old wizard called Natohk, is instructed by the god Mitra (through the statue of Mitra in a temple as she prays in desperation) to place her armies in the command of the first man she meets on the street. Of course it turns out to be a drunken Conan, actually a paid soldier in the Khorajan army, who comically mistakes the princess’ intentions as the lewd advances of a wanton noblewoman.
But soon he is convinced, and finds himself for the first time in command of an army, to his own secret delight and the utter disdain of his former superior officers, noblemen all.
Commanding the defense of a mountain pass as Natohk’s horde advances, Conan is faced first with the mutiny of a subordinate count and his knights, and deals with it it classic Conan fashion.
Conan sprang up with a curse. Thespides had swept in beside his men. They could hear his impassioned voice faintly, but his gesture toward the approaching horde was significant enough. In another instant five hundred lances dipped and the steel-clad company was thundering down the valley.
A young page came running from Yasmela’s pavilion, crying to Conan in a shrill, eager voice. “My lord, the princess asks why you do not follow and support Count Thespides?”
“Because I am not so great a fool as he,” grunted Conan, reseating himself on the boulder and beginning to gnaw a huge beef bone.
“You grow sober with authority,” quoth Amalric. “Such madness as that was always your particular joy.”
“Aye, when I had only my own life to consider,” answered Conan. “Now–what in hell–“
The horde had halted. From the extreme wing rushed a chariot, the naked charioteer lashing the steeds like a madman; the other occupant was a tall figure whose robe floated spectrally on the wind. He held in his arms a great vessel of gold and from it poured a thin stream that sparkled in the sunlight. Across the whole front of the desert horde the chariot swept, and behind its thundering wheels was left, like the wake behind a ship, a long thin powdery line that glittered in the sands like the phosphorescent track of a serpent.
“That’s Natohk!” swore Amalric. “What hellish seed is he sowing?”
The charging knights had not checked their headlong pace. Another fifty paces and they would crash into the uneven Kushite ranks, which stood motionless, spears lifted. Now the foremost knights had reached the thin line that glittered across the sands. They did not heed that crawling menace. But as the steel-shod hoofs of the horses struck it, it was as when steel strikes flint–but with more terrible result. A terrific explosion rocked the desert, which seemed to split apart along the strewn line with an awful burst of white flame.
In that instant the whole foremost line of the knights was seen enveloped in that flame, horses and steel-clad riders withering in the glare like insects in an open blaze. The next instant the rear ranks were piling up on their charred bodies. Unable to check their headlong velocity, rank after rank crashed into the ruins. With appalling suddenness the charge had turned into a shambles where armored figures died amid screaming, mangled horses.
Now the illusion of confusion vanished as the horde settled into orderly lines. The wild Kushites rushed into the shambles, spearing the wounded, bursting the helmets of the knights with stones and iron hammers. It was all over so quickly that the watchers on the slopes stood dazed; and again the horde moved forward, splitting to avoid the charred waste of corpses. From the hills went up a cry: “We fight not men but devils!”
On either ridge the hillmen wavered. One rushed toward the plateau, froth dripping from his beard.
“Flee, flee!” he slobbered. “Who can fight Natohk’s magic?”
With a snarl Conan bounded from his boulder and smote him with the beef bone; he dropped, blood starting from nose and mouth. Conan drew his sword, his eyes slits of blue bale-fire.
“Back to your posts!” he yelled. “Let another take a backward step and I’ll shear off his head! Fight, damn you!”
It contains one of my favorite passages. Having been prevented from leading his men into battle by sorcery, the Aquilonian army is smashed and the enemy closes on King Conan’s tent, where he has just risen groggily from his cot…
“Here comes the king of Nemedia with four companions and his squire,” quoth he. “He will accept your surrender, my fair lord–“
“Surrender the devil’s heart!” gritted the king.
He had forced himself up to a sitting posture. He swung his legs painfully off the dais, and staggered upright, reeling drunkenly. The squire ran to assist him, but Conan pushed him away.
“Give me that bow!” he gritted, indicating a longbow and quiver that hung from a tent-pole.
“But Your Majesty!” cried the squire in great perturbation. “The battle is lost! It were the part of majesty to yield with the dignity
becoming one of royal blood!”
“I have no royal blood,” ground Conan. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.”
Wrenching away the bow and an arrow, he staggered toward the opening of the pavilion. So formidable was his appearance, naked but for short leather breeks and sleeveless shirt, open to reveal his great, hairy chest, with his huge limbs and his blue eyes blazing under his tangled
black mane, that the squire shrank back, more afraid of his king than of the whole Nemedian host.
Reeling on wide-braced legs Conan drunkenly tore the door-flap open and staggered out under the canopy. The king of Nemedia and his
companions had dismounted, and they halted short, staring in wonder at the apparition confronting them.
“Here I am, you jackals!” roared the Cimmerian. “I am the king! Death to you, dog-brothers!”
He jerked the arrow to its head and loosed, and the shaft feathered itself in the breast of the knight who stood beside Tarascus. Conan
hurled the bow at the king of Nemedia.
“Curse my shaky hand! Come in and take me if you dare!”
Reeling backward on unsteady legs, he fell with his shoulders against a tent-pole, and propped upright, he lifted his great sword with both
“By Mitra, it is the king!” swore Tarascus. He cast a swift look about him, and laughed. “That other was a jackal in his harness! In, dogs,
and take his head!”
The three soldiers–men-at-arms wearing the emblem of the royal guards– rushed at the king, and one felled the squire with a blow of a mace.
The other two fared less well. As the first rushed in, lifting his sword, Conan met him with a sweeping stroke that severed mail-links
like cloth, and sheared the Nemedian’s arm and shoulder clean from his body. His corpse, pitching backward, fell across his companion’s legs.
The man stumbled, and before he could recover, the great sword was through him.
Conan wrenched out his steel with a racking gasp, and staggered back against the tent-pole. His great limbs trembled, his chest heaved, and
sweat poured down his face and neck. But his eyes flamed with exultant savagery and he panted: “Why do you stand afar off, dog of Belverus? I can’t reach you; come in and die!”
And finally, in The Frost Giant’s Daughter, a very young Conan walks away, the last survivor of a bloody battle on a frozen northern plain between yellow haired Aesir and fierce Vanir tribesmen, and pursues a naked nymph across the blowing snow. It has one of the most memorable openings I’ve ever read (and is a piece of poetry when taken as a whole).
The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow-covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in the death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior race.
Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face.
Both were tall men, built like tigers. Their shields were gone, their corselets battered and dinted. Blood dried on their mail; their swords were stained red. Their horned helmets showed the marks of fierce strokes. One was beardless and black-maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.
“Man,” said he, “tell me your name, so that my brothers in Vanaheim may know who was the last of Wulfhere’s band to fall before the sword of Heimdul.”
“Not in Vanaheim,” growled the black-haired warrior, “but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria.”
Happy birthday, Conan.