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Literature / The Phoenix on the Sword

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Epemitreus at the top, Conan at the bottom.

The Phoenix on the Sword by Robert E. Howard is the very first Conan the Barbarian story, first published in December 1932, and can be read on Wikisource.

There is a conspiracy afoot to overthrow Conan, the new king of the prosperous nation of Aquilonia. The Rebel Four, disparate leaders who each want Conan dead for their own reasons, have been brought together by Ascalante, who seeks to use them as part of his own bid for the crown of Aquilonia. Ascalante's chiefest slave is Thoth-Amon, once a powerful sorcerer of Stygia who seeks his lost ring of power.

Meanwhile, Conan has been restless ever since taking the throne, yearning for the days when he was a warrior. When Thoth-Amon reclaims his ring and calls forth a powerful demon from the underworld to destroy his master, the dead sage Epemitreus calls Conan to him to protect his land from this evil foe, and places the mark of the phoenix on Conan's sword. Thus armed, Conan destroys both the demon and the conspirators that have come to his chambers to assassinate him.

The Tropes on the Sword:

  • Adaptation Name Change: More of the rewrite name change variation, as this was originally a Kull story. Kull was changed to Conan, Brule was changed to Prospero, Tu was changed to Publius, Kanuub was changed to Dion, Ridondo to Rinaldo, Valusia to Aquilonia...
  • After Action Patch Up: Conan's injuries are treated as he recounts his tale.
  • Animalistic Abomination: The creature Thoth-Amon summons is said to have an outline like a giant baboon.
  • Anti-Villain: Rinaldo. He is the only conspirator among the Rebel Four who does not have an ulterior motive behind wanting Conan dead. His idealism blinds him into taking any sides that wants a revolution even if unlike Numenides Conan ruled justly.
  • Armor-Piercing Attack: Conan shatters Gromel's helmet and skull with his greatsword. The greatsword also breaks from the impact and Conan has to get an axe which he uses to crush Volmana's armored flank.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: Conan attacks aggressively even when outnumbered.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Why Epemitreus aids Conan — it seems that his destiny is tied with that of Aquilonia itself.
  • Blood Knight: Conan, quite pointedly. He complains that ruling a kingdom tires him in a way fighting never did, and longs for a tangible enemy instead of the faceless unrest stirring in his subjects. When outnumbered twenty-to-one and only half armoured, he goes at his assassins with everything he has — not because he expects to survive, but because he refuses to die without giving them hell.
  • Blood Magic: After Thoth-Amon kills Dion to get back the Serpent Ring of Set, he rubs Dion's blood on the Ring to activate it to summon the demon.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: Late enough that they don't believe him.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Conan is introduced to us complaining about matters of statecraft that he can't just make go away by hitting them with a sword.
  • The Chessmaster: Ascalante put together one hell of a scheme to assassinate Conan and take the throne.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The fact that Dion just so happens to be in possession of the Serpent Ring that Thoth-Amon lost half a world away would be bad enough. That Thoth-Amon discovers this on the very night the conspiracy makes its move to assassinate Conan pushes this trope up to eleven.
  • Cool Sword: The sword, once the phoenix is on it.
  • Dark Is Evil: Invoked in Thoth-Amon's ritual to draw on the power of the Ring of Set to destroy his enemies.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Where Conan gets his warning.
  • Deadly Gaze: The demon of Set that Thoth-Amon calls upon Ascalante has the ability to stare into someone's eyes and blast their soul. This works on Ascalante, but not on Conan.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Thoth-Amon, wanting more than anything to make his former master Ascalante pay, sends a demon of Set after him and everyone with him at the time. Including, as it happens, Conan, whom Ascalante was trying to assassinate at the time.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Ascalante, who seeks nothing less than the throne of Aquilonia itself.
  • Drunk with Power: Thoth-Amon, once he reclaims his lost Ring of Power from Dion.
  • Evil Sorcerer: What Thoth-Amon was long ago, and which he becomes again upon reclaiming the Ring.
  • Famed In-Story: Opens with a history describing Conan, which was famously referred to in the opening of the movie.
  • The Fatalist: Conan's people — and why he left. Cimmeria is such a hostile land its people simply live and die in Crom's sunless world, Conan who claims having met Aesir who war at the borders of Cimmeria gave him aspiration to go and enjoy his life.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Ascalante's plans toward the conspirators.
    • Dion's self-importance due to his bloodline means Ascalante can make him finance the coup by making him believe he will be put back on the throne by dynasty, in truth Ascalante will kill him after Conan in a few days.
    • Volmana desires to come back in the grave of the king, being of the old regime and needing to raise his poverty-ridden estates to his former glory. He uses his connections as a noble to have Prospero and most of the guards leave on a diplomatic mission.
    • Gromel wants control over the army instead of serving under the commander of the Black Dragons. Ascalante uses him as The Brute but also as a link to corrupt an officer so at midnight the remaining guards are away.
    • Rinaldo has been radicalized into seeing Conan as a tyrant and has been slandering Conan's name while glotifying the old dynasty. Ascalante mentions that the poet simply hates those currently in power and tend to see either the past or future as perfect once he "liberates" his people.
  • Foreshadowing: The quote from the Nemedian Chronicles that opens the story mentions the "towers of spider-haunted mystery" of Zamora. This is a pretty accurate description of the main setting of The Tower of the Elephant.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: While Thoth-Amon was once a powerful sorcerer, at the beginning of the story he's simply Ascalante's slave — until he finds the Serpent Ring of Set once again.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: In the opening, Conan toward Prospero; he can just leave.
  • Holy Hand Grenade: Conan's sword receives demon-slaying powers as a result of the phoenix mark Epemitreus put on it.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Thoth-Amon, a mighty sorcerer, has become a slave.
  • Karmic Death: Dion has spent his whole life ignoring those below him so when Thoth-Amon goes on a rant about how he became a slave and is willing to pledge fealty to the fat baron for his aid until he recovers the ring that gives him horrible powers all Dion hear is the word ring. Then he decides to show the lucky charm ring he bought from a thief which is exactly Thoth-Amon's, who doesn't waste a second killing Dion.
  • Last-Second Chance: For Rinaldo. Sadly, he's too mad to take it, and Conan has to kill him.
  • Made a Slave: Thoth-Amon, a result of him spilling his darkest secret to the leader of the bandits that attacked his caravan, Ascalante, to save his life.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Had Thoth-Amon not sicced a demon on Ascalante, the conspirators might well have succeeded.
  • No Badass to His Valet: Prospero’s attitude toward Conan.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Rinaldo has a rather romanticized view of King Numedides, the last king of Aquilonia who Conan slew for the throne. He remembers only that he patronized the arts, but not any of the horrific abuses and atrocities which allowed Conan to gain enough popular support to overthrow him. In general this seems to be the attitude of the populace. Conan comments how people whose families were ravaged by Numedides have elevated him to the status of a saint.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: The high priest refers to Teth-Amon's Eldritch Abomination as a goblin at one point.
  • Ouroboros: The Serpent Ring of Set is forged in such a shape.
  • Pen-Pushing President: A downplayed example is found in Conan. He's introduced to the reader scrawling away with a stylus on waxed papyrus and then complaining about having to attend to matters of statecraft. The paperwork itself is not the biggest issue to him (in fact, it's later revealed that he was working on mapping the unmapped northern regions he hails from, rather than doing paperwork), even though he clearly doesn't enjoy it, but rather what it represents.
  • The Phoenix: The image of one is put on Conan's sword by Epemitreus to empower it against the demon summoned by Thoth-Amon.
  • Rebellious Rebel: Rinaldo is something of this.
    Ascalante: Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next.
  • Religion is Magic: The high priest identifies the White Magic put on Conan's sword by Epemitreus. It is one of the few instances of White Magic in the entire Conan saga.
  • Religion of Evil: The worship of Set is very much portrayed as one of these.
  • Scars Are Forever: Thoth-Amon is taunted with how the scars of Ascalante's whip will last.
  • Summoning Artifact: Thoth-Amon's ring has the power to call powerful demons to serve the summoner, with the help of the right Summoning Ritual.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: Where Conan gets his warning, from a long-dead soul who speaks of destiny and the aligning of dark forces.
  • The Time of Myths: Underscored by the excerpt that opens it, telling the reader these stories take place in a lost era of human history.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Dion, who made the deadly mistake of not only revealing that he had a "ring of good fortune" sold to him by a Shemitish thief who stole it from a sorcerer of Stygia, to a former Stygian sorcerer clearly obsessed with finding a lost Ring of Power that was stolen from him by a Shemitish thief, but actually showing him the goddamned ring, which promptly gets him stabinated. Granted, the narration makes it clear that Dion was barely paying attention to Thoth-Amon's story and only perked up near the end when Thoth mentioned the ring as an afterthought, and Thoth when he realizes Dion actually has the ring and doesn't even know it is almost beside himself in rage at the sheer swinish stupidity of the man before murdering him.
  • The Underworld: Conan describes one in his people's beliefs, a grim realm of ice and cloud. He prefers the Nordheimr's Valhalla.
  • Unknown Rival: As in all the other stories in which he appears, Thoth-Amon endangers Conan only as collateral damage. Conan has also zero idea who Ascalante is when he barges in with twenty men to kill him.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Conan's reaction to the Deadly Gaze.
  • The Usurper: Dion seeks to take the throne because he had a bloodline connection to Numedides. Ascalante is backing the plot in hopes of deposing Dion in turn and seizing the Aquilonian throne for himself. Conan is seen as one himself by the time the story begins, as the people have forgotten Numedides's atrocities and now only remember him as the rightful king deposed by a barbarian mercenary.
  • Villain Opening Scene: Starts with the conspiracy against Conan.
  • White Magic: Epemitreus is one of the few wielders of such in the Conan saga, and the mark he places upon Conan's sword is powerful enough to slay demons. About the only other magic users we ever see who can even be described as benevolent in the Conan canon (whether actual white magicians or otherwise) don't show up until “The Scarlet Citadel” (and this one's sort of ambiguous) and “The Hour of the Dragon”.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Rinaldo the poet. He's part of the plot against Conan not out of any personal ambition, but simply because he wants to strike a blow against tyranny.
  • Wrecked Weapon: Conan's sword breaks upon Gromel's helm during the battle with the conspirators. Even so, the part of it that is left is still enough to kill Thoth-Amon's demon.