So Beholder is rereading the original Conan stories, and I thought we should both post our thoughts on them. We'll be going through the original Robert Howard stories from 1932-36 in published order, then the Sprauge de Camp/Lin Carter additions from the Lancer paperbacks of the '60s and '70s that popularized the character.
First up is "The Phoenix on the Sword". With this story, Conan the Cimmerian made his debut in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Remembered today mostly for these stories and many of H.P. Lovecraft's, this was a pulp anthology of supernatural and science fiction stories with a small stable of star writers whose cover stories promised nude or scantily-clad damsels in distress, often from other women. Lovecraft never got a cover. Howard soon would, but at this time he was still finding his legs as a commercial writer. "The Phoenix on the Sword" is actually an extensive revision of "By This Axe, I Rule!", a rejected tale of Howard's previous barbarian hero, Kull of Atlantis. But enough setup!
We begin with the Stygian (prehistoric Egyptian) sorcerer Thoth-Amon meeting the statesman-turned-outlaw Ascalante in the capital of Aquilonia. They've got a conspiracy to assassinate King Conan going with two noblemen, an army commander, and a minstrel named Rinaldo. They just need to get past Conan's bodyguards, because one army commander is in on the plot and the loyal one is being lured away with Conan's right-hand man Prospero to help King Numa of neighboring Nemedia...
... yeah, Howard's Hyborian Age was Anachronism Stew.
Next we meet Conan himself, discussing matters of state with Prospero before the rightful duke of Milan departs for Nemedia. Conan is wistful for his old days as a barbarian mercenary, before taking the previous king's crown "from his gory head." Only briefly did the people hail him as a liberator before the poetry of Rinaldo, an idealist who sees the hereditary dynasty Conan ended as a remnant of a lost Golden Age, turned them against him. Prospero recommends having him hanged, but Conan says "His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me." Then Conan does some cartography.
Man, what a softy. The primal bodybuilder image only comes later.
Back to Thoth-Amon. He's complaining too, confiding in one of those treacherous noblemen that he was once high priest of Stygia, where "King Ctesphon gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me..." This was all because he could do mighty magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, "found in a nighted tomb a league below the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea." Um, I don't think Thoth grasps evolutionary history. But that's understandable if he's from prehistoric Egypt. Anyway, one day a thief stole the ring and Thoth was no longer mightier than other magi. They ganged up on him and he barely escaped the country with his life, reduced to serving Ascalante. By coincidence, the nobleman he's talking to bought the ring from the thief, which when Thoth finds out makes him strangle the man to death while shrieking things like "My ring! My power!"
By the way, this story was published five years before The Hobbit and decades before The Lord of the Rings.
Now Thoth summons "the slave of the ring", a baboon-shaped djinn, and tells it to sniff out Ascalante and kill him. Meanwhile in Conan's bedroom, the king isn't sleeping well. He starts sleepwalking and meets a sage who's been dead 1500 years, who gives him a magic sword with a phoenix etched on the blade. As he comes to full consciousness, the conspirators are sneaking through the palace, and he barely has time to put on a cuirass before they burst in on him. Outnumbered and without helmet or shield, Conan expects that he'll die and hopes to leave a respectable pile of enemy corpses at his feet. What follows is a well-paced and complex fight scene where Conan slays several mooks with barbaric fury, then falters when Rinaldo attacks, not splitting the man's skull until wounded himself (et tu, minstrel?). The bleeding Conan looks doomed until Ascalante is distracted by an attacking baboon djinn. The surviving conspirators flee, but the baboon djinn is still hungry after killing Ascalante and pounces on Conan, who finds that it melts and disintegrates into slime if stabbed with a magic sword. By this time everyone in the palace has been roused and comes to tend the king's wounds, but no evidence of the plot or the supernatural remains except the dead bodies of Ascalante and Rinaldo. (spooky chord)
Next up: "The Scarlet Citadel".