Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review of "The Phoenix on the Sword" by Robert E. Howard

For those that are fans of the original Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard, and those who may be interested in them, I will be writing reviews, critiques, editorials, and anything that happens to come into my mind based on the stories I?m reading.

This all came about when I picked up a new compilation of the classics, published in three books by Del Rey and titled ?The Coming of Conan?, ?The Conquering Sword of Conan? and ?The Bloody Crown of Conan?. The stories appear in order of publication and in some instances the synopsis or outline of the story written by Robert E. Howard is included. As a fan of the craft of writing this was of particular interest to me. So armed with the books I began re-reading the stories I enjoyed many years ago.

In becoming re-acquainted with these stories, and in some cases I am experiencing them for the first time, I am outfitted with a more aged outlook on life, perhaps a little less of the wonder I felt when I first read them years ago. But nonetheless as time passes by and one gets older, you can?t help but have a change in attitudes as life has a way of hardening your outlook on reality. However, if this first story is any indication, they still spark wonder and excitement; they cause you to hold your breath, and your heart to beat harder. This is the same exhilaration I felt when I first experienced these stories many years ago.

As you enter the Hyborian world for a brief escape of reality, it is a protected world, a world unlike the world of science fiction, it is a world that is not influenced by scientist saying ?it will never work?, it is a place where scientist are not allowed to tear down the place of dreams. It is a place where one can become Conan, and like Den said in the movie, Heavy Metal?
?On Earth I?m nobody, but here I?m Den.?
Through the words of Robert E. Howard we can all be more than what we are on Earth.

?The Phoenix on the Sword? by Robert E. Howard

I always wonder how it came to be that this was the first story Robert E. Howard published in the Conan saga, since it takes place in the later years of Conan?s life. Yet it has a depth such that it was the conclusion of a long career of writing and developing, the characters history through events written in the story of his life.

The setting of the story shows Conan as the king of Aquilonia, and attempting to settle into that role, instead of that of an adventurer. It is alluded to early on that Conan is much better suited to wielding a sword than politics, that he is more comfortable facing enemies, than the affairs of court, and that he is in essence a noble savage.

The story revolves around four conspirators who plan to kill Conan. However, two separate and unrelated events spell doom for the rebel gang, 1) Conan meets an ancient in a dream, and is warned of a serpent in the midst of his kingdom, the ancient aids Conan by placing a powerful symbol of a phoenix on his sword, 2) In another part of the city the enslaved wizard Thoth-Amon from stygia regains his ring of power and sends a conjured beast to kill his master, Ascalante, who is also one of the four conspirators.

The four conspirators along with a group of soldiers attack Conan. Conan is close to being defeated, when the conjured beast bursts into the room attacking Ascalante and killing him. The beast starts to attack Conan, but Conan uses the sword with the phoenix symbol on the beast and it dissolves into nothingness.

The story has an excellent mix of dialogue, narrative, and poetry. Everything goes to tell this story, to set the mood, place, and time. Although many aspects of Conan canon are missing from this story, nothing in this story requires the reader to know the history of Conan.

Very little is discussed of where Conan comes from, and it is only briefly mentioned of how he got to the position of king. For the most part this is the story about a group of rebels that try to kill him, Conan is still very much the main character, but this is not fully showcased until the end with the battle against the rebels and the conjured beast.

This is not one of the great stories from the Conan series but it is a very good one, and I enjoy it very much. It contains exciting, easy to read story telling and it gives only enough back story to move it along and make the reader want to know more.

In the story Conan appears to be almost super-human, but not quite. Physically he is superior to the men he encounters, but just barely, and with enough forces arrayed against him he can be, and is, brought down. It also implies that Conan is favored by godlike entities, as seen when Epemitreus a Sage who has been dead for fifteen hundred years appears to help Conan. But it doesn?t say that Conan is favored by the gods. All in all Conan appears to be an everyday guy that excels at what he does and asks nothing from anyone else.

After reading this story over again, and learning more about Robert E. Howard it amazes me that he wrote this when he was twenty-six, committed suicide four years later at age thirty, and in those four short years he produced twenty-one completed stories, four unfinished documents and a number of untitled synopses for Conan stories. In addition to this Howard wrote in numerous and diverse genres. Whatever demons haunted him, and kept him from finding peace in this world, he didn?t let that stop him from being a hugely prolific writer. The worlds he created are more alive today than when they first appeared within the pages of Weird Tales, and have given many people through out the world a place to escape.


Scott Sheaffer said...

I really enjoyed this review. Howard wrote the stories in random order instead of chronological order. For many years, the Lancer/Ace paperbacks presented them in chronological order in a heavily edited form and mixed with other writers' works. Starting out at the speciality publisher Wandering Star, the new Del Rey paperbacks use restored texts going back to what Howard intended and publishing stories in the order he wrote them. (Well, in most of the books. Reading the horror and the "best of" collections, I didn't notice whether they stuck to the order of composition or not.

Anyway, by going in the order Howard wrote the stories, you're going to get the stories in random order. I actually enjoyed reading the stories in this order a lot more because it showed Howard's development as a writer. It shows how some of his favorite ideas evolved.

As you probably know, prior to Conan, Howard wrote another series about a barbarian usurper named Kull. Howard rewrote a rejected Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!" into "The Phoenix on the Sword."In most of the Kull stories, Kull was King of Valusia. Hence, the first Conan story features him as a King. When you get to Del Rey's Kull of Atlantis, compare the stories.

Robert Evans said...

Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

When I first read the Conan stories, I knew nothing about Robert E. Howard, other than his name. Re-reading knowing more about him this go around has made reading them a much more personal experience.

Thanks for your insight regarding how most publishers handled his stories, and the orders they put them in. I'm looking forward to seeing how Howard developed as a writer, as I make my way through the stories.