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Hither Came Conan: Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_PhoenixDHSwordBobby 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).

Phoenix_DHThothThe fight, when the conspirators, with 16 nameless rogues to help, invade the royal bedchamber, is pretty much the same in both stories. Well, to a point…

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.”

Became this:

“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.”

Phoenix_DHArmPretty much the same thing. Though, the writing is a little bit better in the second version. Howard continually honed his skill.

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.”

Marvel_PhoenixMidnightMonsterHoward 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:

Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”


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.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IVV and VI.

And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.

7 Comments »

  1. So much has been said about this story – here’s what I think I can add. Don’t worry, nothing like the last story issue, rather might be a bit deep.

    On the surface this story is just a dusting off and re-write of a King Kull story. Lots of writers re-hash ideas or like Dr Frankenstein take bits of corpses of dead stories/failed experiments/other’s ideas… and make a new body. REH used his own works at least.

    BUT – this is one of the best ‘happy accidents’ in writing – one man’s opinion. It established a “law of cycles” in modern storytelling that is still used quite openly in many forms because yes it reflects life and history.

    The parallels, even the Minstrel having the same name, from the Antediluvian epic to Pre-Historic was in a way how Howard placed history itself. He loved historical fiction and often fantasized being in an earlier era. However, he was stuck in a backwater town with a limited library. Even if they had the internet back then (if Tesla had been dominant…) he’d still be stuck because even if he was a “Big City University Professor” he’d not have finished one “Perfectly researched historical novel” when someone discovered something else that turned everything upend.

    Howard was a storyteller first – but how to tell stories when your passion is so nebulous but strict? To invent other eras, the dim past or far future, time moving in cycles even as things change in some ways they remain the same in others.

    Now, again, Conan was a dusted off and sexed up “King Kull” to sell better. IMO REH wanted to return to Kull later so he just set him at a time far enough apart. IMO again if REH had lived he’d have dusted off the Kull stories then changed the minstral’s name, etc. This would be likely as head Editor/owner of “Weird Tales and Adventures” magazine with perhaps his wife Margaret Brundage also helping.

    But when the Marvel guys got it – well there were only so many Conan, Kull stories, etc. Not enough for monthly and for ever if possible. But “The show must go on!” “why?” “Well if it doesn’t we don’t get paid…” “The show MUST go on!” (Favorite Muppets quick joke) So Marvel made many plots that wove between epochs, lots dumb but some cool, “The horror out of time” in Savage Sword I liked though the art was sparse, for instance. Also with REH there was a cool “Cross-over” between Kull and Bran Mak Morn – “Kings of the Night” showing REH was all for this if done good.

    A particular thing I like from these stories, and one I use is people in epochs be they ancient into myth or far in the future have a sense of the now and can get distressed with “These Changing Times…” Both funny and absolutely true. Have one of my characters say it a lot.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - January 22, 2019 6:28 pm

  2. i find it highly interesting that the wonder of conan, though maybe not the first written but first published story, (little unsure if that is true or not) regardless is a stolen/rewritten story. his most popular or read creation started out as a lesser character story. makes me wonder what kind of editor he was towards his own work, or perhaps maybe a bit always thinking type of writer.

    i like this series because aas a fan but not a super fan, i had no clue. i have no interest in kull, so i like the insight into what was changed, and how similar but inherently different the same type of character could be in one mans writing.

    thanks for the series!

    Comment by silentdante - January 22, 2019 11:41 pm

  3. Silentdante – As I mentioned, I’m not crazy about the Kull stories. But, as with most things Howard, I do think they’re worth reading at least once. A few more than once.

    But working from the same ‘royal plot’- I finish ‘Axe’ and think, “That wasn’t bad. Kull, a barbarian, was going to be his own kind of king, tradition/law be damned. And the symbolism of using the axe was nice.”

    But I finish ‘Phoenix’ and I think, “THAT was cool!!”

    To me, it shows how good a storyteller (as Greengestalt mentioned above) and writer he was.

    Glad you’re on board for the series. Keep commenting. Jason M Waltz has some neat stuff on ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ next week. And that is definitely one of the most popular in the Conan Canon.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 23, 2019 7:39 am

  4. Green – I’m curious why you think he would have revisited Kull. I’ve heard several people say that when Howard moved on from a character, he was done with him. El Borak a notable exception.

    Just curious.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 23, 2019 1:37 pm

  5. Phoenix on the Sword checks a lot of boxes for me. Well written, interesting well developed characters, a believable back story, and great action.

    Starting Conan later in life gives him an interesting history. We know he took the throne by his own hand but what lead to that? We immediately want to know more.

    Howard’s stories give just enough information to get the job done and leaves us, the readers, to fill in the details as we see fit. Yet even with this paired down prose the Hyborian world is vivid and clearly understood.

    Phoenix is, as you say Bob, an excellent introduction to Conan.

    Comment by V. Russell Waciuk - January 23, 2019 2:18 pm

  6. I’ve recently re-read all of the Kull stories in order to write an article on the character for Perilous Worlds. I think I can say with 99% certainty that REH was done with Kull when he did the rewrite of “By This Axe I Rule!” There is a significant gap between compositions: 1929 and 1932. Howard wrote the last Kull stories in 1929, “By This Axe I Rule” and “Swords of the Purple Kingdom,” and hadn’t touched the character afterwards. And those two stories are already significant shifts away from the earlier Kull stories, which are dream-state and philosophical, while the last two contained no fantasy elements aside from the setting and were geared toward historical adventure. REH was already looking toward the character of Brule the Spear-Slayer rather than Kull. REH even said in a letter ca. 1932 that he couldn’t imagine writing another Kull story. He had moved on at that point, the same way he had moved on from Solomon Kane.

    For what’s it worth, I prefer “By This Axe I Rule!” to “The Phoenix on the Sword” purely because I enjoy the political philosophy angle of the original.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - January 23, 2019 2:22 pm

  7. Bob – a good question.

    Versus all the “REH Scholars” far more well read than me on it I can only answer how the story rang and the different epoch thing.

    The first thing is – it seemed like a very deep, very personal story with lots of REH’s best thoughts and philosophy wove in. That’s just how the Kull stories impressed on me. Another thing, reading them to a relative who didn’t really know/care about REH I got an impression that whoever wrote Kull was an “Older, more intelligent writer”. To argue the “Deep” part – well again Kull had a Crossover with Bran Mak Morn – though the latter was meant to be a descendant of Brule I think while Conan would have been mmmaybe a descendant of Kull…

    The second part is the epoch.
    REH did a bunch of worldbuilding and used the Theosophist/hidden history background so popular at the time to make his epochs ring better where he could write ‘historical fiction’ without being either an ignorant country bumpkin with the College professor himself de-bunked by the latest dig.

    He made a separate epoch similar but different than the one Kull was in. Now, going to even traditional sources quite amusing how the world AFTER the flood quickly became as wicked as the one before it – just less Giants, angels, high magic… But that rings true with reality, no? (I mean the myths/legends/alleged history)

    So, yeah, I got the feeling he went like Opus got MAD and made something full of sex and violence and less thoughtful brooding – though he did that writing himself versus Opus T. Penguin who trusted Milo Bloom….

    REH – in my crude one man’s opinion thing – “…ugg… sex… these hacks just put ladies tied naked and menaced by cultists, that Brundage lady does a cover and they get the big bucks… I’m writing for Weird Tales not Spicy Tales, right? Well, they want SEX, I’ll just SEX the thing up. Sex and sex and sex… Uh, wait, I don’t want to degrade poor Kull he has enough problems with plots, brooding and the evil serpent race plotting….has a harem, got bored after a few months, only visits when they whine too loud…What DO I do…?”

    So, yes, I do think he was going to go back to Kull and did Conan as a sexed up less intellectual moneymaker to get the Brundage bucks. I’m not ‘bashing’ Conan, I love Conan, but that’s what I think.

    How about in RL Stephen King did “The Dark Tower”? More or less he was the only person who liked the story though any other day he could (has he?) hammer out a rambling 1000 page story of Radioactive Twinkies that eat Pittsburg and there’d be a movie made of it.

    Again, I can imagine if there was a world without tragedy and the need for tragedy – so we had a very old Van Gogh who at least had food and near endless art supplies and was respected later in life – AND REH became “The Second American Hemingway” – probably married Brundage (and made many “Up yours, racists!” articles and stories helping to advance social progress in a good way) and became eventual head of Weird Tales (and Adventures) – yeah again I dare say he’d late in life publish “The Chronicles of King Kull” and some fans would go “We just want to see the 100th adventure of the Evil Erlik Khan, the American FuManchu!!!” but some would see it was a “Magnum Opus” truly. Imagine how incredible Kull would have been re-written by a 50, 60 year old REH after truly travelling the world and decades more of life?

    Now – Kull left a big battleaxe size gaping hole since only a few stories – Marvel did a good job filling it in the 80s. They did a bi-monthly comic – Kull the Conqueror – that went over Kull stories and filled in/added. Real good at keeping the themes REH set and had some fantastic covers. “A Plauge Unending” had a cover/monster right out of something from Dark Souls.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - January 23, 2019 5:30 pm


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