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‘Doom Hounds Your Heels’
The Phoenix on the Sword by Robert E. Howard
© 2013 James LaFond
December 1932, Weird Tales, novelette
Almost two years ago I wrote a novelette titled By This Axe!, which was largely a tribute to the Conan story Phoenix on the Sword. Having read this story many times, in different collections and comics, I could have sworn that I recalled reading the scene where Conan, the barbarian usurper King of Aquilonia, is backed against a wall, and answers charges of tyranny leveled by his would be assassins with an answer that his right to rule was ‘By This Axe!’
Alas, as Conan would say, I found no such line, or even paragraph, in the story as reprinted in The Coming of Conan The Cimmerian, based on Howard’s original manuscript.
Was my mind playing tricks on me?
Was I remembering an overwritten comic or paperback collection?
Am I the transmigrant soul of Robert E. Howard editing my work from beyond the grave twice removed?
As much as I would like to believe the second option, or have the third option be true, it might well be the first. For that reason I am rereading, for my own personal reasons, every Conan story, in the order that they were written. Now, having read Phoenix on the Sword at least five times, in as many versions, what do I think of it, having read it today as a toiling writer as obscure as Howard was in his day?
Okay, the five stars above might have tipped my hand.
First, the Phoenix on the Sword is a five chapter novelette, which was Howard’s best length. The story is headed by the long entry from the Nemedian chronicles that has headed the various comic series and the first film, with the voice over by Mako. This kind of heading is clutch for off-the-cuff world building, of which Howard was an early innovator.
In the first chapter he establishes this tale as a story of political intrigue and sorcery, with a conspiratorial meeting between the rogue Ascalante and the Stygian sorcerer Toth-Amon.
The succeeding chapters are headed with poetry, which is a nice touch of Howard’s. His stories that feature poetic chapter headers develop atmosphere immediately in the reader’s mind.
Chapter 2 introduces Conan at his desk with a stylus in hand! The famous barbarian’s first appearance in fiction is as a reluctant desk jockey! Conan admits defeat at the hands of a rabble-rousing poet who curses his name and lionizes his predecessor in calls for his downfall. He scoffs at the suggestion that he take action against the poet, assuring his advisor that he will be long forgotten while the poet was yet famous. This is a humane portrait of a mature though brutal warrior, who has seen more of life than most, and has fatalistically come to terms with the realization that he is but a bloody cipher in the march of history—king though he may be.
Chapter 3 confirms that Phoenix on the Sword is more of a supernatural horror story than an adventure, with the meeting between Toth-Amon and a fat pig of a politician, named Dion. This scene is well-crafted in the extreme, establishing Toth-Amon as a most effective villain in plot terms, without being overwrought like so many cinematic versions of the diabolical.
Chapter 4 is a dream, in which Conan meets an ancient philosopher, who anoints Conan—barbarian though he be—as the torch-bearer of civilized empire.
Chapter 5 is a scene of elemental human strife in which Conan, betrayed in his sleep, fights maniacally against twenty assassins, even as all 21 of them are targeted by a supernatural horror. The physical action is really well done. Although Howard is not big on biomechanical combat details, he gets the emotion and dynamics of combat. This is probably a legacy of his amateur boxing experience. The axe was there. And the author handled it as masterfully as his antagonist. That line though, that I had long carried in my mind, was absent.
What a story; the beginning and end of a fictional hero's storied career in about 20 pages. The impression I step away from Phoenix on the Sword with, is that it would make a great 50-minute film. Conan should not be done in movies, or as a TV series, but as a mini-series, in three seasons, according to the scheme of the Del Rey three-volume collection I am reading from.
Above all, The Phoenix on the Sword is a tale of Man awakening to the past; of a man of a young tribe awakening to the storied ghost of an elder tribe and discovering a unifying human theme, in that they both faced the same timeless enemy—the moral rot of civilization that saps the vital spirit from us all.
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