Monday, February 14, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Phoenix on the Sword

While writing last week's entry in this series, I realized that I had somehow never written a post about "The Phoenix on the Sword," the very first published yarn of Conan the Cimmerian," and I resolved to rectify the matter as soon as possible. As is well-known, "The Phoenix on the Sword" is a reworking of another story, "By This Axe I Rule!," which Howard wrote for the character Kull of Atlantis in 1929. Twice rejected at the time of its writing, REH set the tale aside for several years before he turned it into the debut of Conan, resulting in its publication in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales.

Like its immediate sequel, "The Scarlet Citadel," "The Phoenix on the Sword" is a story of Conan after he has become king of Aquilonia. Indeed, there's a remarkable degree of similarity between the two stories, at least when it comes to their overall plots. In both, a conspiracy consisting of noblemen aided by a sorcerer works to overthrow Conan and place one of their own on the throne. There the resemblance ends. 

"The Phoenix on the Sword" is likely the most quoted tale of Conan, beginning as it does with the following:

"KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."—The Nemedian Chronicles

Whatever else one can say about the story – or indeed about Robert E. Howard's work in general – I don't think there can be any question that the excerpt above is a remarkably evocative bit of writing. With just a handful of sentences, Howard firmly establishes his setting, its mood, and his protagonist. It's an amazing bit of literary economy and I can't help but be envious of how much he did with so few words. 

After this, the reader is introduced first to the outlaw Ascalante and then to the Rebel Four who have "summoned [him] from the southern desert." The Four are

Volmana, the dwarfish count of Karaban; Gromel, the giant commander of the Black Legion; Dion, the fat baron of Attalus; Rinaldo, the hare-brained minstrel

Each of the Rebel Four has his own reasons for wanting to see Conan, "a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land," dethroned, but all are united in wanting to see it done by any means necessary. That's why they have turned Ascalante, a ruthless bandit with a reputation for achieving what he sets out to do. Unbeknownst to them, Ascalante has his own plans.

As for me – well, a few months ago I had lost all ambition but to raid the caravans for the rest of my life; now old dreams stir. Conan will die; Dion will mount the throne. Then he, too, will die. One by one, all who oppose me will die – by fire, or steel, or those deadly wines you know so well how to brew. Ascalante, king of Aquilonia! How do you like the sound of it?

The outlaw boasts of his plan to his slave, a Stygian who bemoans his own fate.

"There was a time," he said with unconcealed bitterness, "when I, too, had my ambitions, beside which yours seem tawdry and childish. To what a state I have fallen! My old-time peers and rivals would stare indeed could they see Thoth-amon of the Ring serving as the slave of an outlander and an outlaw at that; and aiding the petty ambitions of barons and kings!"

This is one and only direct appearance of the wizard Thoth-amon in the Howardian canon. Yet, so memorable is this appearance, that it left a lasting impression on the minds of many pasticheurs, like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who then concocted the idea that he was somehow Conan's arch-nemesis. The Marvel Conan comics of Roy Thomas perpetuated this notion, from which it passed into the imaginations of many others.

While Ascalante and the Rebel Four plot against him, Conan is unhappily reflecting on his current situation as a barbarian ruling a civilized kingdom.

"When I overthrew the old dynasty," he continued, speaking with the easy familiarity which existed only between the Poitainian and himself, "it was easy enough, though it seemed bitter hard at the time. Looking back now over the wild path I followed, all those days of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seem like a dream.

"I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.

Conan's last statement sums up well the plot of "The Phoenix on the Sword" and why it's so compelling. Conan is a good king; he rules Aquilonia and its people more fairly than his predecessor. Yet, he is a foreigner and a barbarian at that. Many of his subjects do not accept him as their ruler and now foolishly recall the tyrant Numedides with misplaced fondness. The conspiracy of the Rebel Four is built, at least in part, on Conan's lack of acceptance by a populace who do not fully understand how lucky they are to have this barbarian rule rather than one of their own. Conan knows this and laments it, just as he laments the way that his crown binds him and keeps him from the freedom he once enjoyed. This is powerful stuff and near-perfect grist for the pulp fantasy mill. It's not a perfect tale by any means, but it's well worth a read, if you've never had the chance to do so before. 


  1. This was the first Conan story I ever read and it had a lasting impact, one that I can still see in my own writing (but nowhere as good as REH). Both the prose and the poetry are striking: "When I was a fighting man, the kettle drums they beat.."

    As you say, well worth a read. Thanks for the post.

  2. I never tire of (re)reading this tale and your literary analysis makes it even better. Thanks James, well done.

  3. I found this story tedious due to the massive "as you know" infodump that makes up the entire first chapter (delivered to a character who should be well aware of the events described), the eye-rollingly miraculous coincidence of the nobleman being in posession of the very same ring lost by Thoth-amon, and the deus ex machina of Conan being saved by a dream ghost enchanting his sword somehow.

  4. For me, "Tower of the Elephant" will always be the most iconic Conan story, but as you say, that first paragraph is Robert E. Howard at the absolute height of his powers.

  5. I will resist the urge to say that it is more relevant now than when it was published, but there are "legs" to the idea that some people will look back fondly on "how it used to be" no matter how awful it used to be.

    See also: too many people of a specific gender and ethnicity