Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Phoenix on the Axe

The other night I decided to reread Robert E. Howard's very first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword. Not sure when the last time I read it was, but it was before the Wandering Star/Del Rey Conan books were released, so I probably read it in the L. Sprague Decamp edited Lancer/ACE paperback. Anyway, I sat down and gave it a read and not surprisingly, really enjoyed it. Now it seems whenever anyone reviews Phoenix, they can't get the words out quick enough that it was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, By This Axe I Rule and in many of these reviews it's almost as if the reviewer is implying that Howard merely changed the name Kull to Conan, and Shazam, instant success.
That's not really the case.
After I finished up Phoenix I decided to read By This Axe too and compare the two. This is the great thing about the Del-Reys. You can snatch em up and check stuff like this in the closest thing to REH's original typescripts you're likely to find. (And they remain in print. I smile every time I walk through the SF/Fantasy section at Barnes & Noble and see Robert E. Howard's name on the spines of those books.)
Anyway, the major plot remains the same in both stories, a group of rebels plot to kill King Kull/Conan and get him off the throne of Valusia/Aquilonia. The first few pages of Phoenix though, are considerably different from Axe, and I think stronger. Howard had learned a lot about setting mood and tone for his stories by then. Much of the dialogue among the plotters is the same but a lot of it has been moved around and reworked.
The main difference between Phoenix and Axe can be summed up in two words (Or possibly one. My Stygian is a bit rusty.). Thoth Amon. Not the arch enemy that the comics would have you believe, but rather a Stygian sorcerer who has fallen on hard times. Robbed of a ring which gave him great powers, he is trapped as the servant of the man who wields the real power among the plotters, Ascalante. Thoth Amon is involved in the plot, but not out of any real animosity toward Conan the Cimmerian.
In By This Axe I Rule, the secondary plot is a star-crossed romance between a young soldier and a slave girl. They can't marry because of Valusian laws and customs. In the end the soldier helps Kull and Kull abolishes what he considers the unfair laws. Nice, but it fails to stir the blood. There's also no supernatural element to Axe. REH originally submitted it to Argosy and Adventure magazines, two pulps that published historical adventure.
In The Phoenix on the Sword, this plot is replaced by the vengeance of Thoth Amon on Ascalante and there is sorcery aplenty. There's a demon from the outer dark and a dream journey and some other Weird Tales style goings on, including mentions of Elder Gods. Howard was beginning to show his interest in the work of pen pal H.P. Lovecraft. What struck me as kind of funny is that Thoth Amon is never terribly interested in Conan. Ascalante has led a group of assassins against the big Cimmerian and in the middle of a pitched battle Thoth Amon's demon shows up to kill Ascalante and anyone with him. This same battle occurs in By This Axe I Rule, but it's the young soldier who pops up to help Kull.
To me, and this is of course entirely subjective, Phoenix is by far the stronger of the two stories. The middle of Axe is a bit slow with Kull doing the old 'king in disguise' bit to walk among his people. The narrative drive of Phoenix seems much stronger and the story just plows through to its bloody conclusion. Thoth Amon is an interesting character and I kind of wish Howard had done more with him. Both stories are enjoyable though, so read them and make your own comparisons.

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