Bobby Derie wrote a great essay on the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” for this Hither Came Conan series. Certainly, better than anything I could ever come up with. But I still wanted to do a post on this tale. Because:
A –I wanted to contribute more than just what is likely going to be a bottom-rung essay on my assignment (fans of “Rogues in the House” – sorry, you drew the short straw); and
B – I’m pretty sure “Phoenix” was the first Conan story I read. Now, it might have been “The Thing in the Crypt,” in the first Lancer/Ace collection, which I had bought and then stuck on a shelf for at least a decade or two. But I didn’t remember that story when I started going through the Ace books, AFTER exploring Conan via the Del Rey trilogy. So, I think it was “Phoenix.”
So, because I’m a wordy typer, what started out as just one-third of a post on the first three essays in our series, grew into a solo show.
The Phoenix on the Sword
It is well known that “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the first story of Conan the Cimmerian, was a rewrite of a previously unsold tale of an earlier Howard character, Kull, an exile from Atlantis.
Howard sold three Kull stories to Weird Tales, appearing in the August and September issues of 1929, and finally, in November of 1930. Howard also wrote nine more tales about the character, which were not published until after his death. So, only 25% of his Kull stories sold. Not exactly a money-maker.
However, “By This Axe I Rule!”, which had failed to sell to Argosy and Adventure, was dusted off to feature a less philosophical barbarian.
I struggled through the Kull Canon. I definitely prefer Conan, Solomon Kane, and El Borak. The Kull stories seem, to me, to be overly philosophical and full of metaphysical meanderings. “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” which actually appeared in Weird Tales, is one of my least favorite of Howard’s published work. Kull stares in mirrors all day, waxing thoughtful. It’s mind-numbingly dull.
The heart of “Axe!” and “Phoenix” is the same. A barbarian has taken the kingship of a civilized nation, by the sword. He is hailed as a liberator at first, but his status as an outsider and a savage undermines his rule. A coalition of malcontents, led by one Ascalante, plots to assassinate him in his rooms at night: both stories include a banished former noble now outlaw; a useless noble with a faint trace of royal blood in his veins; a dwarf noble with waning influence and declining wealth; an ambitious military commander; and a fool-headed minstrel. That part of the story is all but the same, even to a bribed officer of the guard leading away the royal bodyguard and disappearing forever (smart guy).
Where the “Phoenix” varies is that, in replacing Kull with Conan, Howard makes it a sword and sorcery story. The subplot in “By This Axe I Rule!” involves a young noble, Seno val Dor, who wants to marry Ala, a slave girl. However, such a union is forbidden by Valusian law. And law is inviolate. Even the king is helpless to change it. Seno and Ala cannot wed.
Kull fights off the almost two-dozen invaders, until only Ascalante remains. The rebel has the advantage, until Seno arrives and slays the would-be assassin with a thrown dagger. Ala had overheard the plot and gone to her beloved, who gathered up his men and rushed to the king’s aid.
Kull, wounded and weak, orders the tablet regarding the law of slaves to be brought to him. Once it is, he lets his thoughts be known:
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactors nor reward my friends because of law – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as name!”
He declares that Seno and Ala saved his life, and they may marry. This does not go over well with the traditionalists, as you can well imagine. The king is… unperturbed.
‘”I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging up his axe; it flashed downward and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.”
Thinking outside the box was not exactly encouraged in Valusia.
The speech continues as Kull drives his point home, tossing aside the royal scepter and brandishing the bloody axe. At the end of the story, it’s clear he will rule, enforcing those laws he declares just and discarding those he does not. It certainly seems like the blueprint for an unchallenged despot.
It’s actually a decent enough read and not a bad story.
But for “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard completely tosses out the noble-slave love story and the discourse on the suffocating effects of unalterable law. Instead, he brings in the fantastic, making it a sword and sorcery tale.
Now, Conan does wax eloquent on the duties of kingship, just as Kull did. This:
“The trouble with me, Brule – I did not dream far enough. I always visualized merely seizing the throne -I did not look beyond. When King Borna lay dead beneath my feet, and I tore the crown from his gory head, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. From there, it has been a maze of illusions and mistakes. I prepared myself to seize the throne – not to hold it.”
“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 days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now the path is straight and my sword is useless.”
But while the focus of the remainder of the Kull story is instead of fretting over his limitations as king, Howard has Conan dream.
Now, this little dream interlude matters, because Ascalante has a slave named Thoth-Amon. A Stygian, he was once a powerful sorcerer, but he had lost his magical Ring of Set, and was now weak, and in hiding. He is sent to accompany Dion, the totally useless noble, to make sure that the latter doesn’t expose the plot. Dion, who is beyond clueless, has the very ring Thoth Amon seeks. Quickly reclaiming it with a dagger, the sorcerer turns to revenge against Ascalante, using his once-lost dark arts. Unfortunately for Conan, he’s only a few feet away from the potential royal usurper. He’s definitely in the neighborhood of being collateral damage.
Howard was the best prose writer I’ve discovered yet in the fantasy field. He just had a fantastic way with words:
“There was a movement about him, such a swirl as is made in water when some creature rises to the surface. A nameless, freezing wind blew on him briefly, as if from an opened Door. Thoth felt a presence at his back, but he did not look about. He kept his eyes fixed on the moonlit space of marble, on which a tenuous shadow hovered. As he continued his whispered incantations, this shadow grew in size and clarity, until it stood out distinct and horrific. Its outline was not unlike that of a gigantic baboon, but no such baboon ever walked the earth, not even in Stygia. Still, Thoth did not look, but drawing from his gridle, a sandal of his master – always carried in the dim hope that he might be able to put it to such use – he cast it behind him.”
From Thoth Amon staring at the ring he has longed for, through the beast passing by a stunned guard at the palace (which ends chapter three), this is a terrific sequence of writing.
Meanwhile, asleep in his chamber, Conan travels to a magnificent tomb. There he meets the long-dead sage, Epemitrius, who, during his life, fiercely battled the evil snake-god, Set. Epemitrius etches the symbol of a phoenix onto Conan’s sword. Then, Conan wakes in his room and hears stealthy footsteps in the corridor and begins to prepare himself for combat.
The battle scene is similar in both versions, with Kull and Conan trying to avoid harming the mad minstrel (I found that whole ‘a minstrel is greater than a king’ something more fitting for de Camp and Carter than Howard, myself).
With all the rogues either dead or fled (hey, that rhymed!), Ascalante gains the advantage and is about to kill Kull in the original version. Only to have Sena save the day. But there is no Sena and Ala in Conan’s version. And while I think it has been good up to this point, it is here that “The Phoenix on the Sword” really shines and we see Robert E. Howard’s emergence as one of the greatest fantasy writers.
Conan uses his axe-arm to wipe blood from his eyes at precisely the wrong moment. Ascalante, alone and with nothing to lose, rushes at him. The would-be assassin doesn’t quite make it there:
“But even as he began his charge, there was a strange rushing in the air and a heavy weight struck terrifically between his shoulders. He was dashed headlong and great talons sang agonizingly in his flesh. Writhing desperately beneath his attacker, he twisted his head about and started into the face of Nightmare and lunacy. Upon him crouched a great black thing which he knee was born in no sane or human world. Its slavering black fangs were near his throat and the glare of its yellow eyes shriveled his limbs as a killing wind shrivels young corn. The hideousness of its face transcended mere bestiality.”
“In those abhorrent features the outlaw’s dilated eyes seemed to see, like a shadow in the madness that enveloped him, a faint and terrible resemblance to the slave Thoth-Amon.”
I mean, WOW!!! (Yeah, I know. My keen analysis is breathtaking…)
Ascaltante dies of sheer terror: “Then, Ascalante’s cynical and all-sufficient philosophy deserted him, and with a ghastly cry he gave up the ghost before those slavering fangs touched him.”
Howard had developed Ascalante in this short story. He is not just a paper-thin supporting character. And he did a fantastic job of having the man, in the absolute horror of his final moments, get at least a flickering understanding that his slave had gotten his revenge. And then, he dies. It’s brilliant work.
Which leaves a ‘frozen’ Conan to face this new threat. And in just THREE paragraphs, Howard gives us a marvelous fight between the Cimmerian and the supernatural creature. At this point, I think that “Phoenix” is simply a much more interesting and entertaining story than “Axe!” was.
The creature would have killed Conan, if not for the phoenix etched on his sword by Epimetrius. That allowed the weapon, even though broken earlier in the fight, to fatally wound it.
I think that “By This Axe I Rule!” Is a good enough story. Though, it’s not one I would turn back to very often. Whereas, I’ve re-read “The Phoenix on the Sword” quite a few times. In large part, because I like the swords and sorcery aspect of it.
Thoth Amon was the catalyst, though not actually present, in “The God in the Bowl.” So, Howard had him in mind for two of the first three Conan tales. But he never again used the Stygian sorcerer. And since “Bowl” was rejected by Wright and not published until 1952, he was effectively a one-shot character in the authentic Conan Canon.
That changed, however, when L. Sprague de Camp decided to make him the main antagonist in the barbarian’s life, as he laid out the original and ‘new’ tales as a Conan Saga. The Marvel comics also utilized Thoth Amon, so that he is now generally considered ‘the’ Conan villain.
While it’s not the best Conan story written by Howard, I do think it’s the perfect introduction to Conan. He already has many exploits behind him and is now a king. It’s got a royal assassination plot: and sorcery. And it has the quality writing characteristic of much of Howard’s work.
Prior Posts in the Series:
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.