Today's post will review Robert E. Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword as part of a greater series on the Howard anthology The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Though these stories have been around since the 1930s, those who have not read them and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
*Plot Material Ahead*
The Phoenix on the Sword introduced the world to Conan, that great hero of Sword and Sorcery. Oddly enough, it is an introduction that begins near the end, rather than beginning with the beginning. Howard claimed that he wrote the stories without any reference to chronological order so as to give the impression that they were "fireside tales" told as the occasion and recollection prompted. In our initial meeting with Conan, we see him as king and conqueror, soon to be a figure of legendary proportions. All the swashbuckling, pilfering, and roaming we find in the tales of Conan's early years is to be understood in this light: our hero is meant for something greater. In doing this, as Patrice Louinet notes in the introduction to the volume, Howard sets Conan up as a character who grows. Most of the adventures may run the same: Conan has lost everything from the previous adventure and rolls into town to make his fortune once more by dint of his strong arm. The character who takes part in each episode does not remain the same: and that's were Conan's story becomes compelling.
Even in the first story, we are immediately aware that Conan inhabits a richly imagined world. Robert E.Howard studied history and enjoyed writing historical fiction. We can see him in this first episode welding together elements from our world that strike just the right tone without feeling obtrusive. Quotes taken from various "documents" open each chapter offering us further hints. Without bogging down the story, Howard is careful to include strategic references to the history, politics, and culture of Conan's world in the conversation of the characters, thus avoiding lengthy explanations by the narrator. The overall effect is astounding: Conan's Hyborian Age comes alive right out of the gate and doesn't let up until the finish line is far behind.
The plot construction of The Phoenix on the Sword is also ingenious. The core story is an assassination attempt narrated from multiple viewpoints revealing the thoughts, motivations, and reactions of both the conspirators and the intended victim. Over this is layered a revenge story detailing Thoth-Ammon's over-throw, enslavement, and return to power seen chiefly from the point of view of the villain. The final layer is composed of legendary material in which the Marduk-like Epemitreus (note the older-sounding Greek name given to the founding hero of the Romanesque Aquilonian Empire that gives the whole myth a flavor of antquity) enlists Conan's aid in his eternal struggle against the Tiamat-like Set. Howard smoothly interlaces all three stories together to form a confident, swift whole that caries the reader along while keeping any one thread from getting stale or falling into mere cliche.
So, from the first Conan story Howard's genius for telling a "ripping good yarn" is already evident. He works as an established professional who knows exactly what he's doing, weaving history, myth, and fantasy together to create exactly the desired effect. Perhaps the real masterstroke of The Phoenix on the Sword is in giving us a character with a built-in teleology, a literary down-payment if you will, that guarantees the scale and interest of the stories yet to come.