Reviews of “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932) and related work

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Read in 2016.

A rehash, but still an excellent outline of what was to come. The central idea that an uncivilized person—a barbarian—would be coarse but quick-witted and powerful is one of the oldest in civilization. In The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), Enkidu says: “one born in the wild is mighty, strength he possesses.” The image of King Conan in this story combines Enkidu with the young Gilgamesh, a likewise incompetent king. Howard’s monster, though more powerful than one of Tolkien’s orcs, can still be defeated with violence, like those in the epic.

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“Black Colossus” (1933)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

This crucial point in the career of Conan the Cimmerian gets him noticed in high circles and associated with Mitra, explicitly leading to his becoming king—and penetrating a mystery of Mitra’s cult—in the first story about the character. This upswing, together with the epic plot, provides a greater sense of societal momentum than is customary in Howard.

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“The Pool of the Black One” (1933)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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“The Slithering Shadow” (1933)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Interesting mainly for another relatively Lovecraftian monster and for Conan getting near death; alas he is saved by a health potion.

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“The Tower of the Elephant” (1933)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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‣‣ Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Jon and Al Kaplan’s musical version comes weirdly close to explaining why I like this film. The script went through many revisions, inspired by a series of the original short stories and other fantasy fiction. “The Tower of the Elephant” is merely the oldest story whose influence can clearly be seen in the version actually filmed. Alas, the crucifixion from “A Witch Shall Be Born” (1934) is also in here.

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‣‣‣ Conan the Destroyer (1984)

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“A Witch Shall Be Born” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

The crucifixion doesn’t seem to support the character. In the best stories he survives by his wariness, bravery, cunning and explosiveness, none of which are the qualities that get him safely off the cross. Here he’s just Christ, a superhero holding all the cards.

References here: Conan the Barbarian (1982).

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“Queen of the Black Coast” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

I wish Howard had written more stories like this: An adventuring party, albeit with a bunch of NPCs, on a doomed voyage of discovery, thick with atmosphere.

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“Rogues in the House” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

A D&D blueprint.

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“Shadows in the Moonlight” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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“The Devil in Iron” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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“The People of the Black Circle” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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“The Valley of the Worm” (1934)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

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“Shadows in Zamboula” (1935)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Weakly plotted.

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“The Hyborian Age” (1936)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Crude and ethnocentric, as expected of pre-Tolkien worldbuilding; it doesn’t even have the sophistication of The Histories (440 BCE), and that is intentional.

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“The God in the Bowl” (1952)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

I read the version published in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.

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“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (1953)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Possibly the first Conan story, diegetically, and interestingly light on action. Unfortunately it’s one long attempted rape. Howard’s grasp of mythological thinking wasn’t historically accurate.

References here: “The Ice Demon” (1933).

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“Drums of Tombalku” (1966)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

I read the draft published in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.

Conan’s barely in it. An example of the unfortunate tendency to emphasize the childlike mental and physical traits of the idealized, sexually objectified women of Conan’s universe. Appropriate to this, the last line implies a protective love, like moe.

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“The Vale of Lost Women” (1967)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

A strange one: A lurid sexual theme in lyrical language, focalized by the would-be victim, eventually punctured by the “barbarian” protagonist taking a clear stance against non-consensual sex and calling the whole thing off. The bat-like monster is a tiny bit more Lovecraftian than the norm for Howard, but aside from the “soulless joy” of its worshippers, it’s no more scary.

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“The Snout in the Dark” (1969)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Posthumous publication date. I read the draft published in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.

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“The Hall of the Dead” (1976)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

The date of publication is posthumous. I read the synopsis published in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.

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“The Hand of Nergal” (1976)

Robert E. Howard (writer).

Posthumous publication date. I read the fragment published in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.

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