Our Hither Came Conan series gets well and truly underway this week with Bobby Derie presenting the case for “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Grab your loin cloth and tulwar (or zhaibar knife, if you prefer…) and tread upon some jeweled thrones!
“Know, oh prince…”
The Texas pulpster sat at his typewriter, pounding away at the keys, talking the story out loud as he typed. The long novella of King Kull, “By This Axe I Rule!” written some years earlier remained unsold, rejected by Argosy and Adventure. Already the Texan was working over the history in his mind, weaving together bits of fact and legend of the “Age undreamed of.”
Thinking back to just months ago when he had been down south, in a dusty little border town of the Rio Grande valley, and a character had come into his mind…a raw conception with an old Celtic name, and…
“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 opening to “The Phoenix on the Sword” is the greatest incipit in pulp fiction, an invocation to the muse of artificial mythology, a sketch of a world and a character all at once. It ran as the banner across the Marvel Conan comics for decades, and an abbreviated version opened the 1982 film which introduced the Cimmerian to a whole new audience. It almost didn’t happen.
“But “The Phoenix on the Sword” has points of real excellence. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it. It is the first two chapters that do not click. The story opens rather uninterestingly, it seems to me, and the reader has difficulty in orienting himself. The first chapter ends well, and the second chapter begins superbly; but after King Conan’s personality is well established, the chapter sags from too much writing.”
—Farnsworth Wright to Robert E. Howard, 10 Mar 1932
The story behind “The Phoenix on the Sword” is almost as interesting as the tale itself. It is the first adventure of Conan the Cimmerian, but that is just the part of it. Robert E. Howard sold his first story to Farnsworth Wright in 1924, and Weird Tales, and once he started selling regularly, remained a steady, if occasionally fickle, market. He had tried repeatedly at establishing a series character for the magazine, and sold stories of Kull of Atlantis and Bran Mak Morn. Both failed after a few episodes; Solomon Kane lasted longer, with seven adventures spaced out over four years. Then, in 1932…Conan.
Howard would write to Clark Ashton Smith that:
“Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen”
But the truth is the character was the product of real toil. “By This Axe I Rule!” went through multiple drafts, all typed out by hand, and once re-written as “The Phoenix on the Sword” it went through the process again, not least because of Wright’s critical appraisal. While Howard sometimes posed as a spontaneous writer, the stories always represent real research on the Texan’s part, and the first rough gems always had to be polished by subsequent passes.
“The Phoenix on the Sword” is not the surprise effort of an uneducated prodigy; it is the masterpiece of a journeyman that has served their time honing his craft, and now after seven years apprenticeship showcases their skills.
The result is an abbreviated epic, with bold language and characters with a hint of Shakespeare and the legends of Bulfinch’s Mythology to them. The five chapters are short, but the action moves briskly, plot building steadily. At every turn, readers are reminded that this is not quite the world they know, or any world they knew; the setting is painted in vivid colors; the final sentence to the opening chapter is worthy of the Thousand and One Nights: “Over the jeweled spires was rising a dawn crimson as blood.” Yet the setting extends beyond the immediate scenes: characters are from and headed to other places, concerned with events along the border, reminisce about pasts in far-off lands.
It is worldbuilding—the hint and suggestion of something bigger, more coherent, more realistic than the average pulp tale, and something which Howard had become proficient in after the last couple of years, dabbling in the Cthulhu Mythos with stories like “The Black Stone” and “The Thing on the Roof.”
The opening of each chapter begins with a snippet from the Nemedian Chronicles or the epic poem The Road of Kings, hinting through these pseudo-texts at a larger, more developed world (though in fact Howard would not write his seminal background essay, “The Hyborian Age,” until a couple more stories of Conan had been written and sold). Readers wrote in asking for the complete verses, and like H. P. Lovecraft and his artificial Mythos, Howard was forced to admit: “I was sorry to have to tell them that it didn’t exist.”
It is also one of the most quotable tales of the Conan canon. “Poets always hate those in power.” “I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it.” “A great poet is greater than any king.” “They have no hope here or hereafter.” “Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.” “Who dies first?” “Slaying is cursed dry work.” The language is crisp, and at times poetic, yet often concise, pared down to essentials.
Howard is present in “The Phoenix in the Sword” in his own style, distinct yet equal to the best Weird Tales had to offer. Not the exotic prose poems of Clark Ashton Smith or the occasionally ultraviolet prose of H. P. Lovecraft. It communicates everything efficiently and quickly enough to please Farnsworth Wright, but never seems to rush; every scene takes its own pace, every character plays their part upon the stage, and then has their graceful exit when their bit is done.
Over the course of the story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” establishes many of the key elements of the canonical Conan: the character appears fully-formed, a cynical and brooding outsider who is yet determined and fair. His chief antagonists are a group of plotters to seize the throne by deceit and force of arms, a plot carried over from “By This Axe I Rule!,” and leading into the kind of hard-hitting action which Howard excelled at writing.
Yet this was a story for Weird Tales, not Argosy or Adventure, so Howard introduced a supernatural element in the form of the Stygian wizard Thoth-Amon, a character that has grown substantially greater in various adaptations and expansions of Howard’s work than he did in anything the Texan wrote…yet this would form only the first of many wizards he would face.
Though they do not face each other directly in this story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” is as much Thoth-Amon’s tale as Conan’s. His is a threat that builds up from a haunted slave and outlaw in the first chapter, to a supernatural threat and harbinger of the dark god Set in the fourth. Even Conan cannot defeat him directly, because he never faces Thoth-Amon; the best the Cimmerian can do is destroy his emissary, and that only with great courage, effort, and supernatural aid. Thoth-Amon is as victorious in this tale as Conan, and though they never meet directly in Howard’s work again, the Texan has set up two titans, distinct, opposite in character and nature, destined for a recurring conflict.
There are a lot of conflicts in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Conan is at conflict with himself, an uncivilized barbarian and soldier who struggles at being a king and statesman; he is in conflict with his environment, where the people see him as a foreigner and interloper; he is in conflict with his fellow men, violently so in the final blood-soaked chapter; and at that climax… he enters an even greater conflict: confronted by Thoth-Amon’s sending, a demon.
Man versus the supernatural, sword against sorcery. The triumph of Conan in this tale is not only about one blood-soaked barbarian overcoming his foes—though that absolutely happens—it is about the Cimmerian resolving his other internal and external conflicts. The appearance and aid of Epemitreus is the tacit acceptance and acknowledgement of his kingship: “Your destiny is one with Aquilonia.”
That Conan who faced the ghostly sage is a mature man at his full powers—not a callow youth or thief, pirate or soldier-of-fortune. He is a “barbarian” to the civilized Aquilonians, in a theme that would be reiterated more strongly in later stories; yet what a “barbarian” King Conan is! He holds poets in such high regard that he would spare the life of a traitor during a battle, who idles his time by drawing in the missing borders of maps, and knows of sages that were dead fifteen hundred years. Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” is not the often-parodied musclebound brute.
“The Phoenix on the Sword” rewards repeat reading. Little moments and details stand out to catch the imagination; things said and left unsaid. When Thoth-Amon draws Ascalante’s slipper from his girdle, it hints at both the character of the wizard, to carry such a token of hoped-for revenge, and at the limitations of magic in the setting.
Sorcery in the world of Conan is not pure make-believe; it exists side-by-side with superstition, which suggests it is something relatively rare, and it follows its own obscure rules. The reader never gets knows fully how it works—a course on black magic was not Robert E. Howard’s aim—only that it is limited, and that makes it somehow more real. If sorcery did exist, if the old grimoires held any truths in our own world, would it not look like that? Wouldn’t a man as consumed by fear, hate, betrayal, and deceit as Thoth-Amon use it?
In many fantasy stories, there is a dream-like quality to it all. In the light of day, wide awake, the things that happened may seem foolish, or leave no trace behind. In “The Dunwich Horror,” Wilbur Whateley dies, and his remains dissolve without a trace; Dorothy wakes up after the events of The Wizard of Oz and it seems like all of it was just a dream; Ebenezer Scrooge taunts the Spirit that it is just “a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” The fantastic is left an open question, a hesitant possibility, easy to deny…but not in the Hyborian Age. Not in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” where the slain demon leaves a shadowy outline etched clearly in its own blood.
“Know, oh prince…” the pulpster says out loud in his Texas drawl, his voice probably echoing through the thin walls to where his mother lays. He wrote for the promise of a check, for badly-needed money that would put food on the table and medical treatment for his mother during the depths of the Great Depression. Yet many pulpsters wrote for a check, thousands of words a day, from places like New York City and Chicago where they could drop in and see the editors for lunch. Not many from rural Texas, where a man who chose to write for a living was an oddity. He would write to Lovecraft:
“I took up writing simply because it seemed to promise an easier mode of work, more money, and more freedom than any other job I’d tried. I wouldn’t write otherwise. If it was in my power to pen the grandest masterpiece the world has ever seen, I wouldn’t hit the first key, or dip the pen in the ink, unless I knew there was a chance for me to get some money out of it, or publicity that would lead to money.”
“It is hard to describe precisely what made his stories stand out so—but the real secret is that he was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-seeking policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to the mammon-guided editors & commercial critics he had an internal force & sincerity which broke through the surface & put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom or never did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation & leave it as such. Before he got through with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality & reality in spite of editorial orders—always drew something from his own experience & knowledge of life instead of from the herbarium of sterile & desiccated pulpish standbys.”
‘The Phoenix on the Sword” is more than just a potboiler. That, beyond any of its other attributes, is what stands out to me as why it is the best of the Conan canon. This was the story from a writer that wouldn’t quit, despite rejection after rejection; who would write his best when he could have written puerile pap and gotten the same money, as so many other pulp writers did. Who struggled to create a series character that would resonate with editors and readers alike. When Wright turned it down, he doubled down and rewrote it again; and this time, he succeeded. Whatever else a reader might experience of the favorite barbarian—the books, the movies, the comics, the pastiches and parodies and all the rest—it started here.
From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)
The next two stories after “The Phoenix on the Sword” (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl”) were rejected by Wright.
“By This Axe I Rule!” can be found in Del Rey’s Kull: Exile of Atlantis. It was first published in Lancer Books’ 1967, King Kull.
The “Know, oh Prince,…” opening to this story may be the most famous lines in the Conan Canon. And it’s the result of editorial input. As mentioned above, Wright told Howard that chapter two sagged “from too much writing.” That referred to about a thousand words in which Conan discussed the map of the Hyborian world with Prospero. Howard excised all that and inserted the prologue at the beginning ot the story. It was a brilliant move.
Roy Thomas adapted “Phoenix on the Sword” for 1976′ Conan the Barbarian: Annual #2 (Attack of the Midnight Monster!), from Marvel Comics. It was a 52 page annual. Most single issues were only 36 pages.
In 2012, Dark Horse Comics did a four-part adaptation of “The Phoenix on the Sword” as part of the King Conan line.
I had the order askew in last week’s post. I think I’ve got it right now. And we’ve added Woelf Dietrich’s look at Howard’s partially completed story, “Wolves Beyond the Border.” So next week, see what Fletcher Vredenburgh has to say about “Frost Giant’s Daughter.”
Prior Posts in the Series:
Up next week: Fellow Black Gater Fletcher Vredenburgh takes on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.”
Bobby Derie is the author of the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard – Index and Addenda (2015, Robert E. Howard Foundation Press) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press). He is a multiple Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards winner.
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.