The Grim and Brooding Stranger #2

A submission to REH-eAPA for publication

Autumnal Equinox 2005

By Kirk Jones

© 2005 All Rights Reserved


I want to take a look here at The Phoenix on the Sword as it would have been viewed by the readers of Weird Tales in December 1932. As it was not the first Robert E. Howard tale published there, regular readers would have been aware of Howard’s writing style and usual subject matter. They would not have had a clue as to the impact that the character of King Conan of Aquillonia would have. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at the story.

Compared to later Conan tales, or to some earlier Howard tales, the beginning is very low key. While there is not much action, per se, the mood is set quickly. The words of Thoth-amon in the second paragraph foretell the ending of the story and set the tone for what is to come. This immediately grabs the reader’s interest.

It is impressive to see how Howard uses the conversation between Thoth-amon and Ascalante to make real the other players in the conspiracy. By the end of Part I, we have a substantial impression of all of them, though we have only “seen” the four others as four masked figures. We also understand how these four are viewed by Ascalante and Thoth-amon. Also established is the enmity between the master and slave. This section displays the mark of a master storyteller. Nothing is wasted here. No long descriptions which break the narrative flow are used. All main descriptions are given in conversation.

Part II introduces us to King Conan. We see him dressed simply, if in rich fabric. He is at ease in his actions, even though he misses a formerly free lifestyle. At this point the reader can only imagine the adventures Conan had participated in based on the Nemedian Chronicles quotation at the introduction. There is no way the reader could have imagined the fantastic adventures awaiting in further tales. No, this is a man who wears the role of monarch well, if not altogether peacefully. With his trusted confidant, Prospero, he concerns himself with affairs of state, though in his heart he would rather be riding free. Even though he is an obvious man of action, Conan recognizes the need for restraint, as exemplified by his decision regarding Rinaldo, the poet. Wisely, Conan understands that the poet’s reach exceeds his own. Moreover, Conan’s keen senses tell him that his troubles lie deeper. Even if we lack knowledge of Conan’s history, we automatically respect him. This is not a man to be trifled with.


Part III is the recovery of the Serpent Ring of Set by Thoth-amon. Again, Howard manages to give history through dialogue. This section also demonstrates the existence of sorcery in a very real way. The reader is aware that this sorcerer is every bit as dangerous as he claims to be.

Dion is shown to be weak and ineffectual. He is the civilized man made weak of body and mind. For this weakness he pays the ultimate price. It is telling that Thoth-amon kills him directly, as the true strength of the sorcerer is not physical. Dion is so lacking that he is easily dispatched.  However, Thoth-amon lets loose a monster to take revenge on his stronger enemy. Howard’s philosophy of the true uncivilized state of man is clearly demonstrated here.


In Part IV Conan experiences what he thinks to be a dream. In this dream we see that his nature is to attack head on. He also isn’t easily shaken, as detailed as he walks up the steps on the head of Set, which is formed in the steps. He does listen to counsel, as demonstrated by the conversation with Epemitreus. He is questioning, but does hold out his sword to receive the Phoenix symbol. Returning to his chamber, he hears noise, after which he resorts to his barbarian nature. It is interesting to note that Conan is much like the Phoenix himself. He is reborn as the barbarian he once was, after wearing the crown and in many ways becoming a slave to its needs.

Part V is a celebration of all that is Conan. Backed into a corner, outnumbered, Conan decides to beat the odd through sheer force of will. The arrival for the monster changes the odds, eliminating many of his foes, but endangering the monarch even more. It is only through the use of the enchanted sword that he defeats the monster. Conan accepts the outcome as the result of the enchantment, but does not even pretend to understand all that has transpired.

This is indeed a fitting beginning for the tales of Conan, demonstrating at once who he was and who he would become. The quotations in the story serve that purpose well, while also adding a unifying feature. Readers are left wanting more to fill in details only hinted at. While this is a re-write of “By This Axe I Rule”, a tale of Kull, the elements in this new story are pure Conan.