Sunday, July 22, 2018

By the Phoenix on This Sword I Rule! By Karen Joan Kohoutek

“If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!”

When Robert E. Howard revised an unsold tale about King Kull, the gloomy ruler of Valusia, he replaced that character with Conan, a barbarian king in a similar position, who would later be fleshed out with a wide-ranging history, and a multiplicity of formative experiences. Along the way, the character turned from an Atlantean to a Cimmerian, and his eye color from gray to blue. His personality also changes in some significant ways, from the original “By This Axe I Rule!” to the available early draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and again to the version of that story published in Weird Tales in December 1932.

            As Patrice Louinet says in his appendix to the collected Kull stories, “by writing the first Conan tale on the ashes of an unsold Kull story, Howard was telling us that he now envisioned the Kull series a prehistoric one, which paved the way for the Conan stories” (289).

            The Conan who becomes the canonical version deals with court intrigue and attempts to usurp his power, in ways that are similar to the situation in “Axe.” There is a critical difference, in that Conan never declares “I am king!,” because he doesn’t have to. A line about his suffering from the tedious “matters of statecraft” line is taken almost word for word from the Kull story (11, 161), but Conan starts the story with a confidence that Kull had lacked. In “Axe,” Kull, already the king in name, comes into his full authority, an intriguing pivotal moment in a ruler’s career. Unlike Kull, Conan developed his full personal authority before he was in a position of recognized leadership, and even when other characters in the story reject his rule, it’s because of their own personal desire for power.

Kull of Atlantis
(art by Justin Sweet)
This isn’t a criticism of Kull’s character, but a reflection on the different, if related, themes their stories explore. The situation in “By This Axe” is, despite the presence of an Atlantean, fairly realistic, and something not often explored: a turning point in which a ruler comes into true confidence as a leader. The themes of the Kull story are still embedded in the Conan story  when does someone with authority in name really take on authority as a true leader? — but are expanded upon, dealing more with the longer-term consequences of taking on the crown, and the process by which a ruler’s authority becomes fully accepted by his subjects.

            In each story, the hero takes from the wall “an ancient battle-axe” (“ax” in the Conan version) which had hung there “for possibly a hundred years” (Kull 173), or at least “half a century” (Conan 21). The connotations of the axe, especially given the emphasis on its age, link it to the barbarian nature of the main characters. When Kull takes up the titular axe, he claims a personal authority that comes out of his past: who he is and where he came from. Since it belongs to Valusia’s history, the axe is associated with Kull’s formal authority, embedded in the royal structure and government, but it also reflects his primal essence, which he uses to cut through hierarchical, bureaucratic tangles. This satisfying moment hearkens back to a time before the society had become so complex, with a confusing maze of laws and traditions built up over the generations, some of them useful, but some of them unjust and no longer worth following.

            Where Kull’s axe appears in the title of the story, signaling its importance, the corresponding weapon in the Conan story is just a guest star, appearing in a battle sequence. Instead, the title of Conan’s story features a sword, a less primitive weapon, associated with more advanced civilization, and one which symbolically cements Conan’s place as the ruler of his kingdom.

            Unlike many fantasy heroes, Conan doesn’t have a weapon with a name, or even one that he characteristically carries. Unlike the film versions, he has no blade forged in his homeland, Cimmeria. Instead, he generally takes up whatever weapon he finds at the time he needs it. Most of the weapons that appear are not of a magical nature, so the one in “The Phoenix on the Sword” is unusual. Conan dreams that he meets a long-dead sage, whose touch on the sword’s blade marks it with the impression of a phoenix. Conan awakens to find the sword in his hand, with the phoenix carved onto it. 

            While Conan uses the sword in the course of the story, its importance lies in linking his fate and that of the kingdom of Aquilonia. As the sage tells him, “your destiny is one with Aquilonia” (18), intertwining them as Conan is fully established as its legitimate ruler. Howard will return to this storyline again in the later novel-length The Hour of the Dragon, which shows the direction this may be going, with Conan facing the frustrations of his position and truly choosing to settle down and rule Aquilonia despite them.

            In both stories, the king is introduced sitting at a writing-table. Conan “seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings,” his very being evoking “sun and winds and high places of the outlands” (11). With Kull, Howard instead stresses that he “would have stood out in a crowd of a million” (161). Conan stands out in this place, and it’s suggested that he’d seem more at home in the “outlands,” but Kull doesn’t seem at home anywhere. While it’s hard to quantify the affect this has on the stories, it does represent a difference in their personalities, which may be relevant to Conan’s sense of confidence, compared to Kull’s self-doubting nature.

            Kull has a face that is “immobile,” with eyes of “icy magnetism,” and he “gloomily” looks at his companion (161). These words all give a sort of heaviness to Kull’s personality. While Kull’s “steel spring muscles” are also an element, and even though some of the same phrases are used to describe both kings, Conan’s introduction stresses his physicality in a way that seems more dynamic. He’s “sun-browned,” and “a born fighting-man” (11). Where Kull “gloomily eyed” his companion (161), Conan “fixed his smoldering blue eyes enviously” on his (11), an edit that makes the character more active.

            When the kings commence their backstory, Kull again “continued with increasing gloom,” but “speaking with freedom,” showing the confidence between him and his companion, Brule (162). Conan, while also “speaking with the easy familiarity” of his relationship with Brule’s counterpart, Prospero (11), has no such “gloom” in his speech.

            Kull relates more of his history here than Conan does (including the details that he had been a slave and a gladiator, which, thanks to the John Milius movie, many people now associate with Conan). Both refer to “all those days of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation” behind them (Conan 11, Kull 162 – the Kull quote is the same except for dropping the word “intrigue”). But even here, Conan refers to “the wild path I followed” (11), and Kull to the “long hard path I followed” (162); the former’s word choice makes his path seem like more of an adventure, and Kull’s more of a slog.

            Also, both men say “I did not dream far enough,” and that in seizing the throne, “I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams” (Conan 11, Kull 162). This mutual recognition is clearly of interest to Howard, and again provides a touch of realism. Many people have found themselves in the same situation, even when their dreams are smaller.

            Much of their dialogue is the same in the equivalent scenes, but the emphasis differs. Expressing his frustration, Kull says that since becoming king, “it has been a maze of illusions and mistakes” (162), and the word “mistakes” suggests that he’s partly blaming himself for things he’s misjudged. Conan focuses on the change in his circumstances, saying “all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies,” at the same time recognizing that things aren’t so simple now that he’s the king (11).

            In the Kull version, the conversation cuts off after this point, and other matters come to his attention. The conversation continues in the Conan version, with the king expressing insight into what’s happening in his kingdom, reading the mood of the land, and interpreting reports from neighboring lands.  He also tells Prospero about the map he’s drawing up, adding to Aquilonia’s knowledge of the northern lands, and telling him briefly about Asgard and Vanaheim.

Conan the Cimmerian
(art by Mark Schultz)
Conan has had “a somber look” when contemplating current events (12), but Prospero’s description of his character is in contrast to Kull’s noted gloominess: “you laugh greatly, drink deep and bellow good songs” (12), and says this is different from most Cimmerians, who are more ascetic. They only drink water, and aren’t known to laugh, “or ever sang save to chant dismal dirges” (13). Conan says of Cimmeria that “a gloomier land never was,” and that “the ways of the AEsir were more to my liking,” then sends Prospero off with “gusty laughter” (ibid).

            While Conan’s reasons for leaving Cimmeria are never neatly defined, this passage seems to suggest that it wasn’t only a search for adventure that caused him to leave, but also a general sense of not feeling at home there.

            Kull’s gloominess sometimes makes him seem more thoughtful than Conan, but both are introspective about their situations, and Conan is more of a scholar. In addition to his map-making, other stories establish that he knows multiple languages and much world history, So it’s not that Conan isn’t intelligent, or is incapable of abstract thought, but with his “I love, I slay” view of life, he also seems to lack the self-consciousness we’re used to in modern life.

            In an earlier, later revised draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” where Kull had already been reworked into the new character, Conan is, if anything, even gloomier than Kull. He elaborates on life in Cimmeria, where “life seems bitter and hard and futile. The men of those dark hills brood overmuch on unknown things. They dream monstrous dreams” (360). He adds, “They have no hope here or hereafter, and they brood too much on the emptiness of life. I have seen the strange madness of futility fall upon them.” In that state, anything from a bird’s cry or the sound of the wind “brought to their gloomy minds the emptiness of life and the vainness of existence” (360).

            As in the finished version, his “gusty laughter” ends his conversation with Prospero. But in the draft, there is an extended sequence of what can be easily seen as existential despair. Once Prospero leaves, Conan’s “mirth fell away from him like a mask” (360).

Kull of Atlantis
(art by Justin Sweet)
            “The unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shriveled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him” (361). He turns to wine, “as a man looks for escape,” and a few goblets improve his spirits, making him feel that “life was good and real and vibrant after all – not the dream of an idiot god” (361).

            In contemporary terms, this sounds very like a man self-medicating for the symptoms of clinical depression, especially with that reference to numbness. If this passage had made its way into the finished text, the introduction to Conan would have given readers a very different impression of the kind of man he is. Instead, these gloomier qualities are, in the revision, abstracted onto other a Cimmerian society that Conan was happy to escape.

            The finished version of “Phoenix,” when viewed in contrast to the characterizations in “By This Axe” and the earlier draft of “Phoenix,” tends to support critic Frank Coffman’s conception of Conan as a “Bright Barbarian,” who is “not the perpetually somber or morose and benighted child of ultimate darkness, totally ignorant of the ways of civilization” (2). As published, Conan is far lighter and brighter than he was originally envisioned in the earlier transitional phases. The character is no stranger to violence and death, certainly, which renders him at least partly “dark,” but this opening introduction stresses his vibrant, life-loving qualities, all of which are additions that didn’t exist in the Kull version of the story. Instead, the Cimmerians who Conan left behind seem, as a rule, more Kull-like in their approach to life.

            Conan is well aware of the darker side of existence; while he will sometimes be grimmer and sometimes more mirthful, depending on the current circumstances, the entirety of his career shows that he partakes of both, neither habitually gloomy nor overly cheerful. He takes things as he finds them, and deals with them accordingly. Still, what we see in Conan’s official introduction is a man who enjoys the pleasures of existence, with an intrinsic confidence as a leader, all of which makes him an appealing archetypal figure. Despite its moments of tragedy and brutality, overall, Howard revised his earlier conceptions to give his fictional hero a life that was “good and real and vibrant,” one that was more than the “dream of an idiot god.”
Works Cited

Coffman, Frank. “Conan as Bright Barbarian: Or – Barbarism is Relative.” The Shadow Singer 19, Summer Solstice 12.

Howard, Robert E. “By This Axe I Rule!” Kull, Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 157 – 180.
-        “The Phoenix on the Sword.” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey, 2002. 7 – 27.

-        “The Phoenix on the Sword (first submitted draft). The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey, 2002. 353 – 374.
Louinet, Patrice. “Atlantean Genesis.” Kull, Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 287 – 303.


doublenoughtspy said...

Excellent analysis of the 3 versions and their differences.

Thank you!

Trishymouse said...

Conan has long been a beloved character for me. Howard's stories about him as adapted in the Barry-Windsor Smith comics, the Arnold Schwartzeneiger Conan films, and the original stories themselves - they have all formed my vision of the character. I really loved reading your insights about him!