In a letter to Robert E. Howard from H.P. Lovecraft, written in March of 1933, Lovecraft makes these comments about life in an imaginary heroic age, long past:
I can understand perfectly a person’s vaguely romantic feeling of kinship with some colourful barbarous age, and his dreamy, half-serious wish that he might escape from reality into some distant glittering world corresponding to his idyllic conception of that age. With that I could surely have no quarrel—for have I not said that I would like to be a Roman consul of Scipio Aemilianus’ time, [the Roman general who destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C.] or a rural squire of the middle 18th century…ages which, in all details, I know were not essentially superior to ours?
Except for a couple of humorous pieces—A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917), Ibid (1938)—and perhaps The Very Old Folk (1940)—Lovecraft was unable or unwilling to imagine a glorious or heroic human past, much less a present or future involving a bold adventurer and his struggles against formidable, villainous foes. This was Robert E. Howard’s realm. The younger author readily produced a variety of heroic types who displayed prodigious physical strength, a fondness for extreme violence, and a perennial concern for justice. These included Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and of course Conan the Barbarian, among others, both human and superhuman.
A few months before Lovecraft’s letter arrived, Howard published The Phoenix on the Sword, one of his earliest Conan stories. He was 26 years old at the time and had been writing professionally for only a few years. The Phoenix on the Sword originally appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Howard’s classic Worms of the Earth, featuring his Pictish hero Bran Mak Morn, had appeared in Weird Tales the previous month.
Conan first appears as “Conan the Reaver”—sort of an apprentice barbarian—in a slightly earlier story, People of the Dark, published in June of that year. People of the Dark is interesting to Howard enthusiasts because of the introduction of Conan, and also because it contains elements from other work by the author, in particular his fight stories, and his preoccupation with subterranean, serpentine horrors. (See also A Subterranean Déjà vu.)
The opening pages of The Phoenix on the Sword finds King Conan uncomfortably enthroned as the king of Aquilonia, having overthrown its brutal despot several years before. Howard contrasts the barbarian’s simple dress and gruff manner with the overly ornate decorations of the palace; the scene opens with Conan sitting morosely at a desk, reminiscing about the battlefields he longs to return to. The job of monarch has long since lost its novelty, if ever it had any for Conan. “In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies,” he says. “Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.”
Those of us with desk jobs can probably relate to this. Being able to brandish a sword or double bladed ax would certainly enliven the office routine, though HR would need to step up its recruitment efforts to replenish vanquished staff, (mostly administrators).
However, as Conan and his allies suspect, the people of Aquilonia are growing restless under the barbarian’s rule, and there is a conspiracy in progress involving several displaced nobles, a popular musician and…a Stygian sorcerer. Howard, an excellent story-teller, is skillful in creating motivation in his characters—typically an unresolved grievance of some kind—which foreshadows a future conflict or complication. Contrast this with the typical Lovecraft character, who experiences growing awareness and anxiety that ratchets up to terror, but takes little action against the growing evil or the shattering revelation—not even to run away.
In The Phoenix on the Sword, the leader of the conspiracy against Conan has enslaved and abused “Thoth-amon of the Ring” the Stygian sorcerer, who is forced to do his bidding. Thoth-amon has lost his powerful talisman, a ring “made in the form of a scaled serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth.” But only temporarily. When sorcerer and ring are reunited, a conventional coup d’ état over at the palace is made supernaturally complex with the arrival of “a great black thing which he knew was born in no sane or human world.”
(This ring survives the Hyperborean era and appears again in Howard’s 1934 story The Haunter of the Ring, set in contemporary America circa the 1930s. The evil ring possesses the wife of one of the characters, who makes several attempts to murder him. See With Friends Like These…)
Although the monster is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s writings, Howard has made its appearance in The Phoenix on the Sword distinctively his own. Howard also cleverly incorporates traditional elements of occult “magickal” ritual practices throughout the story. Thoth activates his recovered ring by smearing on it the blood of a man he has just murdered, a kind of profane consecration of the item. He then begins chanting in order to summon a vengeful spirit, all the while employing “a peculiar circular motion of his fingers…”
In a parallel scene, Conan, while dreaming, encounters the wise and ancient spirit of Epemitreus, who marks his sword with the image of a phoenix, essentially giving the weapon a magical upgrade. (It is interesting, to me at least, that this notion of magically improving the efficacy of a weapon is so prevalent in many popular video games these days—it seems to be some kind of archetypal idea.) Epemitreus alerts Conan to the likelihood of a battle with the evil sorcerer.
Historically, the components of a typical occult ritual include a specialized language of “barbarous words”, distinctive gestures or postures, a set of symbolic objects—often a wand, chalice, sword and various sigils or magical objects—and a “place of working”. Invocation of some supernatural or extraterrestrial entity can occur through a kind of psychic possession of the participant, through specialized dream experience, or through ritual magic. Most of these elements are present in The Phoenix on the Sword, almost in textbook fashion, suggesting that Howard was well acquainted with them.
A very helpful overview of ritual magic and its history can be found in the opening sections of John L. Steadman’s H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition (2015). Steadman’s goal is to show how H.P. Lovecraft’s work influenced contemporary occultists, despite the author’s avowed materialism and rejection—official at least—of supernaturalism. It seems likely that the influence of horror writers and occult practitioners goes both ways, insofar as both are trafficking in the same source material. Steadman’s interesting book will be the subject of a future post.