In 1961, the great British fantasist Michael Moorcock published a letter in the fanzine Amra. He wanted to know why there was no formal term for a type of fantasy-adventure story popularized decades earlier by the American author Robert E. Howard, in which sword-wielding heroes would go on exciting and often violent adventures. Moorcock proposed “epic fantasy.” Fritz Leiber, a prominent author of such stories, replied in the journal Ancalagon that a better label would be “sword and sorcery.” The term stuck.
Unlike works of high fantasy, which feature epic storylines and world-endangering evils (think J. R. R. Tolkien and his endless imitators), sword and sorcery stories focus on individuals, often anti-heroes, engaging in personal battles. Fast-paced and set in exotic locales, these stories descend from the swashbuckling fiction of writers such as Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.). Sword and sorcery found its genesis in the magazine Weird Tales with the stories of the aforementioned Robert E. Howard, particularly those of his greatest creation: Conan the Cimmerian.
It’s hard to think of a hero from the pulp era more iconic than Conan. Even people who have never heard of Robert E. Howard know his creation. Howard wrote twenty-one Conan stories, seventeen of which were published during his lifetime. Since his death, more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories featuring the character have been written by other authors. Conan has appeared in comics, films, television shows (cartoon and live-action), video games, role-playing games, and all forms of other media. It seems as long as human beings have a taste for adventure there will be a place for Conan.
The Conan stories are set during the Hyborian Age (not to be confused with Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea), a period described by Howard as taking place between the sinking of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history. Most later editors place it at around 10,000 BC. Howard was a passionate student of history; however, he recognized that the research materials available to him in the tiny Texas towns where he lived were insufficient to write accurate historical fiction. He therefore devised a fictional equivalent to ancient Europe, with geography that closely resembled reality.
The first Conan story was “The Phoenix On The Sword,” published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. It was originally a feature for another of Howard’s heroes, Kull of Atlantis, and was called “By This Axe I Rule!” After being rejected by multiple magazines, Howard rewrote the story, adding elements of supernatural horror and substituting his old hero for a new one. He submitted it to Weird Tales, and after completing the requested polishing it was accepted for publication. Read it here.
Howard was terrified of aging and most of his heroes are vibrant youths. Surprisingly, that is not the case here: the world’s introduction to Conan is as a grizzled older man, a seasoned warrior who has recently seized the throne of the kingdom of Aquilonia (Howard’s equivalent to France and southern Britain). Having attained the crown, Conan now finds himself unsatisfied. He is bored attending to the day-to-day affairs of his kingdom and misses the adventure of his earlier days. Meanwhile, a scheming nobleman plans to overthrow Conan and take the throne for himself, unaware that the dark wizard in his employ has his own designs.
Reading the Conan stories today, one is struck by the unexpected complexities of Conan’s character. Following Howard’s death, the copyright for Conan passed through several hands, and many stories were reworked or rewritten by numerous editors for various reprints. As a result, the stories as Howard wrote them were out of print for nearly forty years. During that time, as he made his way to comics and other media, a perception of Conan coalesced in popular culture: that of a brutish muscle man in a loincloth who barely speaks and cuts down everyone in his way. John Milius’ 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, cemented this image for the modern era. The 2011 reboot, starring Jason Momoa, did little to change it.
This is not how Howard writes the character. His Conan is peerless with a sword, as you would expect, but also fiercely intelligent. He has an ear for languages, is a natural leader and strategist, and in later stories can even decipher code. He is possessed of a lively sense of humor, an element rarely preserved in adaptations, and will rescue those in danger at great personal cost. In short, despite his capacity for violence, Howard’s Conan is a fundamentally decent man. Even in such an early work as “The Phoenix On The Sword,” Conan betrays expectations, expressing a reverence for poetry and demonstrating skill at cartography.
The quality of Howard’s writing is a step above what you would expect from an author of pulp fiction, though he still indulges in florid dialogue and purple descriptions. At its most bombastic the reader rolls their eyes at the excess. Still, there is something appealing about his ornate style, and when he doesn’t overdo it his richly sensory descriptions are quite evocative. He is most gifted at writing action scenes. The majority of “The Phoenix On The Sword” is devoted to political intrigue, but it truly comes alive during the climactic fight between Conan and his would-be usurpers:
“As he sprang from the wall his ax dropped an outlaw with a severed shoulder, and the terrible back-hand return crushed the skull of another. Swords whined venomously about him, but death passed him by breathless margins. The Cimmerian moved in, a blur of blinding speed. He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun, offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of death about him.”
Howard was born in 1906 and spent his entire life in Texas. Ugly racial prejudices occasionally surface in his work, the Conan stories included; however, he was Irish in a time when the Irish were considered “undesirable,” and his status as a member of a minority group helped soften his views. He was also an unlikely feminist. Due to his fear of aging, he often spoke of a desire to die young. He got his wish. In 1936, upon learning his mother had fallen into a coma from which she would likely never wake, Howard went out to his car and shot himself in the head. He died eight hours later at the age of thirty.
Howard wrote in many other genres besides fantasy; he wrote boxing stories, detective fiction, and Westerns. In his treatise on fantastic literature, Danse Macabre, Stephen King is unimpressed with Howard’s overall body of work, but he has kind things to say about the Conan stories:
“Howard overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing and by his imagination, which was powerful beyond his hero Conan’s wildest dreams of power. In his best work, Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks. […] At his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out.”
“The Phoenix On The Sword” is not my favorite Conan story. It was written before Howard had worked out the details of the Hyborian Age and so the setting feels sketchier than in later stories. In addition, Howard leaves the fate of the wizard Thoth-Amon unsaid. While this doesn’t necessarily constitute a plot hole, it is nonetheless unsatisfying. I personally prefer the stories set in Conan’s youth, when he is a pirate and adventurer unmoored to any one place. That being said, “The Phoenix On The Sword” is a very entertaining introduction to the character and does feature some appropriately violent barbarianism.
The story has been reprinted many times over the decades, though Howard did not live to see his stories collected. Its first appearance outside of Weird Tales was in a volume of Howard’s fiction published by Arkham House in 1946 called Skull-Face & Others. From 1967 to 1994, it was available in an oft-reprinted collection called Conan the Usurper. For my money, the best Conan books available today are three volumes published by Del Rey which collect all of Howard’s stories as originally published. The first of these is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and collects thirteen of Howard’s stories, as well as a horde of extras – including the first draft of “The Phoenix On The Sword” that Howard submitted to Weird Tales.
Expect to see other Conan stories reviewed here in the future. “The Tower of the Elephant,” in particular, is a tremendously exciting tale that in its unexpected science-fiction elements approaches the cosmic weirdness of H. P. Lovecraft. In the meantime, I look forward to digging into another classic of sword and sorcery for my next entry, Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met In Lankhmar.” I hope you’ll join me!
NEXT TIME: “Ill Met In Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber!