Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Reading Conan 01: The Phoenix on the Sword review

Conan the Cimmerian is on the same level of recognition and popularity as other important figures of literature from the early 20th Century such as Tarzan and Batman. Because of this, his original adventures and an immense amount of derivative works have permeated the pop culture landscape for several decades. Until earlier this week, I had never read any of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories. Despite this fact, I’m pretty familiar with the character because I’ve seen both movies from the 80s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and I’ve read about 30 or so issues of the Marvel comic Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith. I even reviewed a few of those issues in their Saga of Conan reprints. You can find them here and here.

Needless to say, I’ve always felt like a bit of phoney because I knew of the original Conan stories and I also knew how easily accessible they are, but I never took the time to read them. I say no more! No more of this foolery. I have a lovely eBook collecting all of Howard’s stories, novellas, and novel in a single edition. It was also dirt cheap ($4). I’ll be reviewing these at the rate of one or two stories per week for the next few weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll need a break or not at some point, but for now I’m enjoying myself immensely so I might be able to review them all in relatively quick succession. Here we go, with the first ever published Conan story.

“The Phoenix on the Sword” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Dec. 1932)

I’m not entirely sure what my overall reaction to this story is. I have a lot of thoughts, a lot of small reactions, but I can’t really sum them up into something cohesive. Considering this is a review I don’t have much choice. Thing is, I’m not sure where to start so I’ll start with the obvious plot summary.

At the story’s beginning, Conan is the king of Aquilonia, a kingdom near his home country of Cimmeria. You can tell that he’s a little awkward in that role. He doesn’t seem particularly suited for ruling but he’s responsible enough to stay at the head of the state following his capture of the crown and throne of Aquilonia from the previous king. Unbeknownst to king Conan, he finds himself under the threat of a small group of powerful men from the capital who are planning on killing the king and replacing him with a new king. While the plan is getting ready to be put into action, one of the sorcerer slaves of Ascalante (the leader of the conspirers) murders a key member in the plot against Conan. He then summons a demon to kill his former master. Meanwhile, Conan dreams and he finds himself on another plane of existence (possibly?) where Epimetreus, an old sage, blesses the king’s sword with the symbol of the phoenix. Conan wakes just in time to meet his assassins in his bedchamber and fight them head on with a magically enhanced sword. He’ll need it, as the ape-like demon summoned by the sorcery also finds his way to Conan and the old king must face down the beast in order to survive the night.

My initial reaction is one of surprise. I didn’t expect the first published Conan story to be set during a time where Conan is a middle-aged king. I was expecting his first stories to be about him as a travelling barbarian, thief, or pirate to name some of his most noteworthy and easily classifiable roles. He’s still mightily strong as is evident during the battle in the last chapter. He’s also pretty bored with ruling and he clearly enjoyed this opportunity to fight with other men. He might be king, but he’s still pretty barbaric. He’s the odd man out in this story and he doesn’t fit with the rest of the setting.

Cover art by Andrew Robinson.

I was also pretty surprised at how well plotted this story is. The first two chapters introduce the setting and the characters, the second two complicate the plot, and the final chapter ties all the ends together into a satisfying finale.

Another thing that stood out is the story’s lack of unique details that would make this specifically a Conan story. I think there are three main reasons for this. The first is that “The Phoenix on the Sword” was rewritten from a Kull story that was rejected for publishing. I haven’t read any Kull stories before and I’m curious to know how closely he resembles Conan, if at all. I think this might be why Conan is a king rather than a wandering barbarian which I expect might be his typical role in these stories.

The second reason is that Conan specifically and other works by Robert E. Howard are key in the development of the Sword and Sorcery genre. It’s not uncommon to read old and influential books that have either spawned a new genre or were important in the development of a kind of story to be a little underwhelming. I’ve read a few Sword and Sorcery stories and novels in my time, and a lot of the elements in those stories were first presented and developed in Howard’s work. What makes this story noteworthy? Not much as far as basic building blocks for the story or the genre in which it belongs but a hell of a lot of stuff when compared to the type of fantasy written by Howard’s contemporaries.

The third reason is really simple. Maybe Howard just didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his Conan stories at this point. This first story could very well have been a test run. Howard scholars might say otherwise, and that’s fine, but I’d be really surprised if some of this didn’t contribute to the lack of distinctly Conan attributes.

Then again, maybe this story is 100% pure Conan by Howard and I have no clue because I haven’t read any of them before.

My general expectation for the story was that it would be similar to the movies and comics I’ve read. I was expecting it to be a little different, and it was, but not radically so. I was confident that however different the movie and comic adaptations were that they would retain some elements from Howard’s stories. I was right, but there are also some notable differences. I was impressed with how atmospheric Howard’s writing is. It’s more than I would have guessed. Howard’s skilled with his descriptions of strange and ancient creatures, both natural and supernatural.

The Conan of my youth.

The descriptions of the battles were nicely vibrant and energetic. They’re more violent than I would have guessed. Considering they were originally published in the 1930s I was expecting the violence to be a bit tamer. Instead, it’s pretty gruesome but enjoyably so.

In thinking a bit more about his descriptions I found that he uses them well to enhance the mood of the story rather than provide the reader with very specific and realistic depiction of the characters and their surroundings. There is an odd dichotomy being suitably vague while also being very descriptive in his narration. Don’t get me wrong, Howard doesn’t run away from the specifics, but things are just vague enough to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. It’s not purple prose either, or at least nothing too purple or flowery. I wonder if this style of narration is one of the reasons for Conan’s lasting success and popularity. It could be that the slightly vague descriptions, more suggestive than affirmative, gave fans the opportunity to develop their interpretation of the characters and the setting.

Rating: 3 Serpent Rings
It’s the first Conan story I read so I don’t know what to expect in comparison with later tales. I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to more Swords & Sorcery goodness. 

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