It has been over five years since I started reading Sword & Sorcery with Conan and then expanding into Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Kane. Since I started actually working on my own stories this year, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and read them again, this time with an eye on how they are written and what makes them tick. I also recently noticed that most of the old reviews of various Sword & Sorcery books were pretty negative and I am actually a bit surprised about what I said about them, compared to what I remember of them.
So I don’t just want to read my old books again, and finally get around to read those I had been missing yet, but also to re-review each story again and see how my opinions about them might have changed. My plan is to reread all of Robert Howard’s Conan stories, two or three of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser collections, Michael Moorcock’s Elric (from Fantasy Masterworks), Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, all five of Karl Wagner’s Kane books, and the recent anthologies Swords & Dark Magic, The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, and Swords & Mythos. And maybe also get Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher in somewhere. While that’s a lot of books, most of them are really not very long. I think this might be perfectly doable in a year or two.
The Phoenix on the Sword is not the first story set in the ancient prehistoric past written by Robert Howard, (Kull was written before it) but it was the first one that was published. Which quite justifiably could be regarded as the moment when Sword & Sorcery appeared in the world of fantasy literature.
The first thing I noticed about the story is that the first half of it is nothing but really heavy handed info-dumping. You have three scenes of characters telling a long monolog about their past histories that led up to the current events. Two of which are told to characters who already know all of it. It jumps straight at you right on the second page and should make everyone cringe. But somehow, it’s still entertaining. It obviously is blatant info-dumping, but the stories that are being retold are actually quite intriguing.
First we start with the mastermind of a conspiracy telling his enslaved sorcerer the whole plan and background of their conspiracy. We are getting a lot of exposition on politics and power in Aquilonia, but the information is about a conspiracy and the other conspirators have just left the house to make the final preparations for their assassination. That makes the information much more interesting and relevant to the reader. I think it also helps that the mastermind reveals right at the start of his monolog that the other conspirators think he’s just one of their peons and that they are in charge of everything. So we get a conspiracy within a conspiracy. That’s interesting and we want to know more.
Then we have Conan retelling telling the story of how he became king of Aquilonia to his Aquilonian advisor. It’s also a pretty interesting story because we only get to read parts of it and the spaces that are left blank sound intriguing. Most of what Conan says also relates to why there is dissent against his reign, which connects directly to the conspirators we just heard about in the scene before. It’s info-dumping, but since the information is about things the characters in the story were recently doing, it’s also very much flashbacks. It’s not like we’re being told things with no context and told “trust me, this will be important later”. I think that’s what makes the story still entertaining to read.
One could probably write full papers about Conan’s words about the poet Rinaldo who is stirring up resentment against Conan with his songs, calling for an uprising, and eventually taking part in the assassination attempt. Conan gives two reasons why he doesn’t want to have Rinaldo arrested and executed before his agitation will cause him problems. The first is that Conan believes that as a poet, Rinaldo is untouchable and above him in power. He could have him killed, but it might make the people even more angry, and history will judge him by the songs of the bards. There is no winning for Conan in such a fight. The other reason is that Conan has heard Rinaldo sing his songs and unwilling to lay hand on such a gifted artist. When he sees Rinaldo among the assassins, he begs him not to force his hand and kill him. But Rinaldo strikes him anyway and lands the wound that almost leads to Conan’s death. I am not entirely sure what Howard seems to be saying here about the importance of public opinion in government, but I certainly feel that here he tries to make a cause to place the gifted poet above the powerful ruler, and thereby elevating his own profession.
The third scene is in my opinion the weakest, because nothing about it really feels believable. Everything about it feels massively contrived. Thoth-Amon tells the nobleman about how he was an extremely powerful Stygian sorcerer until a thief stole his magic ring, he had to escape from his enemy, and is now being blackmailed by his current master who will make his true identity public if he tries anything funny. And he goes on about how one day he will find his magic ring again and then there will be terrible revenge. There really wasn’t any reason to tell that to the nobleman. But then the noble says “Well, isn’t that the funniest coincidence. I happen to have a ring that I got from a Stygian thief, who told me he stole it from a powerful sorcerer.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. This scene is stupid.
However, the description of what happens when Thoth-Amon sees the ring is super interesting:
The slave’s eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge dusky hands outstretched like talons.
“The Ring! By Set! The Ring!” he shrieked. “My Ring—stolen from me—” Steel glittered in the Stygian’s hand and with a heave of his great dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron’s fat body. […] Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidness.
“My Ring!” he whispered in terrible exultation. “My power!” How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian knew.
Was this the typical depiction of magic ring ownership in traditional myths? I know the One Ring of Tolkien has precedents in the Niebelungenlied, but here Thoth-Amon is just a hair’s breadth away from saying “My precious!” Interesting find.
Once the assassins get to Conan, the whole scene is almost entirely one big fight. And I found it quite interesting how Howard describes the fighting. He was a huge history and martial arts nerd, and you can see that in the amount of detail he gives about what everyone is doing in the fight. But 90 years ago, decent information about actual sword fighting and armor certainly would have been much more sparse and more difficult to find, and this shows as well. Today we have people actually making historically accurate replicas of weapons and armor, and other people training with them, which has revealed huge amounts of lost knowledge over the recent decades.
What I really liked is how the story gives emphasis to the fact that Conan starts putting on his armor on the first sign that something seems off, and then later has the attackers point out that he’s at a big disadvantage because he’s not wearing a helmet and couldn’t get to his shield in time. But then we also get Conan swinging his weapons like a baseball bat and several mentions of blades cutting through armor. One of the attacks that wounds Conan is described as going through a gap in his incomplete armor, which is great. But then he’s cutting through metal plates, which is simply impossible. But that’s really just whining from a modern history and martial arts nerd. The important thing is that Conan is getting hit badly a lot and close to death at the end. Yes, he was fighting twenty men all at once by himself, but he didn’t simply brush them aside like nothing. So yay, a nod towards realism.
This story really has it all: Fighting, monsters, sorcery, conspiracy, ghost helpers, magic weapons, traitors. It really is no wonder that the editor wanted to get more stuff like this to publish. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but I really shows huge potential. And as we all know, the rest is history.