The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Okay everybody, bear with me for a minute as I heap some love upon the 1982 movie, Conan the Barbarian.
Conan is a legitimately great movie. I could write a dissertation on that movie. Dammit, I should write a dissertation on that movie. But not now, not here. Suffice to say that the John Milius tale of a orphaned boy sold into slavery and his long, dark road to revenge is one of the most compelling tales of human will and the ironies of human suffering I’ve ever watched. This movie is, I feel, Schwatzenegger’s best performance of his career, and he mostly has Robert E Howard and John Milius to thank.
But enough of the gushing – let’s get into the details. What drives the original Conan movie (I didn’t see the remake; it looked terrible and, furthermore, it’s a movie that really didn’t warrant remaking, anyway) is one thing: The Riddle of Steel. The Riddle goes something like this:
Crom, the Mountain God, possessed the secret to make steel – a strong, silvery metal that is also flexible. A race of giants stole the secret from Crom and, in his wrath, the mountain god crushed them. He left the secret of steel, however, on the battlefield, for men to find. At the start of the movie, Conan’s Father says:
The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts…
[Points to sword]
This you can trust.
The very next day, Conan’s father, mother, and all his people are slaughtered in a raid. He and the other children are sold off to slavery. Conan himself is tied to a mill wheel for his entire childhood, until he becomes literally as strong as an ox. And so begins his story.
The Riddle of Steel is just that – a Riddle. Conan’s father does not know the answer. Conan lives most of his life under the illusion that the true ‘discipline’ of steel is a fine sword and a good suit of armor. It’s wealth, power, the trappings of glory, a fine horse and a full flagon of wine, all of which might be won by a good blade and the skill to wield it. He is, however, wrong.
There are two characters in the movie who know the answer, or at least guess at it. The first is King Osric:
There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.
Osric, once a powerful northern barbarian just like Conan, now sees what his steel has earned him: nothing. He is helpless against his daughter’s betrayal. His only hope is to use the wages of his steel – his wealth – to get Conan to somehow bring his daughter back. He is weak, and he doesn’t know how it can be done. Of course, Thulsa Doom is the one who truly understands the Riddle. When speaking with Conan, he says this:
Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]
That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste.
That is the ultimate trick to the riddle. Steel is nothing without flesh. Power over the flesh is power over steel, by definition.
Even when told, Conan cannot accept the answer to this riddle. When he finally gains his revenge, when he casts down Thulsa Doom and destroys his snake-cult, he is left brooding on the steps of the Mountain of Power, trying to consider the implications of his ‘victory.’ We do not exult in Conan’s revenge and neither does the barbarian. He has not really ‘won’ anything – all he can do is sit there and consider his loss. What does it mean, now that Doom is gone and Conan’s great revenge is completed? Is he better off? Has anything really changed? He, perhaps, can be seen to be ‘free’, but free to do what, exactly? Steal? Pillage? Conquer a kingdom like Osric’s? Indeed, later in Conan’s life, he does all these things. But so what?
One of the many, many reasons I love this movie is because it shows revenge for what it is: empty and cold. Those who would trade an eye for an eye do not understand the Riddle. The key to the world is not held in a blade, but it is held within yourself. The film is full of people who, on some level, are trying to answer this riddle for themselves - they try to find something external to themselves, something that will grant them power or safety or peace or wholeness. Osric and his riches, the snake cultists and their religion, Valeria and her search for love, Conan and his desire for revenge. None of them find the answer, because they are looking in the wrong place. As Conan sits and broods, does this dawn on him? I do not know.
This struggle is a universal one. All of us are seeking the answer to that great Riddle – how do we get what we want? How do we become great? The great majority of us are looking, ultimately, in the wrong place. We should look within for that power, for what else do we have more complete control over than ourselves? Conan’s struggle in life is an exaggerated mirror of our own struggles. We are shaped by our pains and our tragedies and our victories alike, and the realization of this is important. Even as we read this - even as I write this – we nod and say ‘yeah, totally, I get it.’ But we still don’t. We don’t really understand, just like Conan does not. We look around us and see bleakness and tragedy and emptiness, but we are missing those things that are truly fulfilling and which aren’t forged from steel but, instead, from our own flesh and blood. This is the Riddle of Steel; this is, ultimately, the Riddle of Technology itself.
I wrote this a few years ago, after reading an awful lot of Howard’s stuff. Given that a new movie’s being released about the big Cimmerian, I figure it’s appropriate to bring this one back:
ME: So, you are an evil wizard thinking of going toe-to-toe with Conan the Cimmerian, eh? Well, first off, let me say that I don’t recommend it.
WIZ: I care not for your paltry warnings, mortal! Tell me more of this ‘Conan.’
ME: Okay, if you are thinking of taking on the big C, there are three basic rules you must remember.
WIZ: Yes! Tell me these secrets!
ME: Rule the First: CONAN HAS A SWORD! If you are dealing with Conan, you have to remember that he is going to cut you apart with a sword. It is pretty much guaranteed.
WIZ: Bah! I shall simply deprive him of his foolish weapon, and…
ME: You misunderstood. Let me repeat the rule: CONAN HAS A SWORD! That’s it. He has a sword. He has one now, he’ll have one later, etc.. If you break his sword, he will kill you with the blunt end. If you steal his sword, he will get another one. Conan has a sword—accept it.
WIZ: Hmph! I fear no piece of steel. I have lived these thousands of years in slumber, only now to awake and rain my vengeance upon the world. This Conan may strike off my head, if it please him, and I shall not die.
ME: And just how effective a wizard will you be after Conan punts your head down the gullet of the nearest crocodile?
WIZ: Errrrr…touché. The next rule?
ME: Ah, yes—a very important one: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES! He stalks like a panther, he moves like a tiger, he runs like a cheetah, he fights like a lion, etc.
WIZ: I am unimpressed, but for now let us continue to the third rule.
ME: Rule the third: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: What the hell is that supposed to mean?
ME: It’s pretty self-explanatory. If you think you will kill Conan with a snake, it won’t work. The guy has out-wrestled pythons, struck faster than cobras, hell, he can even rattle better than a sidewinder.
WIZ: But I have no mere snake! This cursed beast hath spawned in my black dungeons for lo these…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES! I don’t care if you’ve got a snake the size of the Acella Train with the cunning of Irwin Rommel and venom that could kill the population of India in an afternoon, Conan will kill it. Remember: CONAN HAS A SWORD and will, therefore, cut it in half.
WIZ: What if I take away his swor…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Right, right—forgot. Well, what if he fell into a pit…
ME: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: Dammit. Well, say I teleported him into a room filled with asps and…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Fine, fine! I will simply cast bolts of unearthly destruction at him and…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: He can’t dodge them all day, your know. Sooner or later he will…
ME: HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Don’t follow.
ME: He’ll stab you.
WIZ: Right. But you forget that I have several swordsmen of my own.
ME: How many?
WIZ: Ten of the mightiest warriors ever to walk…
ME: Are their names Conan?
ME: Congratulations, you have earned yourself a whole ten seconds before Conan kills you.
WIZ: But these men are strong…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: There are ten of them, though, so…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: And then I make it rain poison snakes.
ME: IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Then I dash away with the princess.
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES
WIZ: Motherfucker! Well, what would you do?
ME: Obvious, really—don’t fuck with Conan.