Short Take: "The Phoenix on the Sword," Robert E. Howard
This is a revised version of a review that was originally published at Pol Culture.
Conan the Barbarian, the most famous creation of pulp prose author Robert E. Howard, is the defining hero of the sword-and-sorcery adventure genre. He made his debut in the story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” first published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales (cover at left). In this first appearance, Conan is different than one expects. His days as a nomadic adventurer are behind him; he has conquered the kingdom of Aquilonia and now sits on its throne. The story is fairly straightforward adventure pulp. It concerns a scheme by a group of nobles and courtiers to assassinate Conan and usurp his crown. Things are complicated by intrigues among the conspirators, some supernatural elements are thrown into the mix, and the story climaxes with an expectedly bloody battle against Conan. Howard has a weakness for archly pompous sentence constructions, but overall his prose is clear, efficient, and fast-paced. However, his most compelling quality is not his talent for adventure plotting, nor his skill as a wordsmith. He shows a remarkable ability to tantalize the reader with hints about the narrative world in which the story takes place. There are several portentous references to Conan’s bygone adventures and ultimate destiny. Howard also teases with the ambitions of the sinister mystic Thoth-Amon, and the role of Earth as a stage for conflicts among supernatural forces. The reader is left satisfied by the adventure at hand, but what sticks in the memory are those unresolved, coyly discordant bits that point to an even greater story beyond. One cannot help but want to learn more about the characters, the setting, and that setting’s past and future. Hooking the reader is a major goal of any series-fiction author, and Howard achieves it.