“If I die I have to go before him [the god Crom], and he will ask me what is the riddle of steel. And if I don’t know he will cast me out of Valhalla,” so says Conan in the 1982 movie Conan The Barbarian. Valhalla (Hall of the Slain), as you are probably aware, is the hall in Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods, according to Norse myth. From this statement alone it would seem that Conan The Barbarian deals with the metaphysical, and that we may be able to read the movie as an allegory of initiation and self-overcoming.
There are several stages in the cult movie. In the opening scene of Conan The Barbarian we see a sword being forged. We are reminded, again, of Norse myth, and, in particular, of the sword called Gram or Gramr (“Wrath”) used by the hero Sigurd to kill the dragon Fafnir.
There are strange symbols on it, and though they are difficult to make out the first symbol — which is clearly visible — is highly reminiscent of one the runes, symbols that were carved on swords and other weapons to ensure victory in battle. Hence in the Sigrdrifumol we read:
Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.
Heroism transcends the body. It is not purely about battling human beings who are corrupt and violent, but of battling against, and with, cosmic forces. And it means, also, battling with one’s self, taming and training the lower aspects — such as fear and trepidation — and forging oneself anew, as something greater, and more archetypal.
In the following scene, we see Conan’s father teaching the future barbarian (who is then still a young boy) the mythology of his religion. Crom is his god. Crom lives in the earth. Giants once lived there as well, says Conan’s father, but they tricked Crom and stole the secret of steel from him. The gods avenged themselves, and slaughtered the giants (reminiscent of the slaughter of Ymir, the primordial giant by Odin and his brothers), but blinded by rage, they left the secret of steel on the battlefield, where it was found by men.
Only steel (i.e., the sword) can be trusted, not gods, giants, or men, says Conan’s father. The modern cynic might interpret this to mean that we are atomized individuals. But, this is not so. Conan’s tribe is small and appears as if a large family. The father imparts wisdom to his son and gives him the memory or myths of his people. Steel, then, appears to connect man to the god Crom and to the higher morality of the tribe. Notably, Conan’s enemy — who will appear on the scene momentarily — comes in search of “the secret of steel,” we discover later. He does not possess it. Indeed, it appears, from the demonic and bloodthirsty nature of the invading enemy, that he is, instead, possessed and controlled by the force of steel.
This enemy appears through the woods (which we might associate with those character problems that lurk at “the back of the mind,” the dark “unconscious”), attacking Conan’s village, and slaughtering everyone its rank and file sees. Several things stand out:
They appear as marauders but are essentially an imperialist army.
Their appearance (especially the use of a giant hammer) seems to mock the gods and masculinity itself.
Having no sense of honor, they behead Conan’s mother — the prelude to which is a rather campy display of removing helmets, gazing at each other, and crowding around the helpless victims. The invaders do not seem to possess any high ideals. Unsurprisingly, Conan and the other children of his village are taken into slavery.
The enslaved children are forced to push the spokes of what is, in effect, a giant wheel.
At its most basic level, we can say that this represents “the daily grind” of modernity — the period in which man makes the rules, not the gods. It is a thing of total materialism. The children are near each other but are separated by the spokes that they push, and do not communicate (we can think of how modern technology, misused, separates us from one another). The wheel — which might remind us of the pumping of oil from the ground — appears to produce nothing of value — perhaps nothing at all. Whatever its exact function, it is a thing of pure commerce. This is the world that Conan is trapped in and cannot see beyond.
Yet, the wheel is paradoxical: viewed from different perspectives, it is both the instrument of slavery, materialism, and atomism, and yet it is that which ultimately links Conan to his destiny. There are two reasons:
One. Even if unintended, it is through the repetition of pushing the wheel that Conan not only survives but becomes strong. (We know that in martial arts, traditionally, students are taught to perform drills in which the same action is repeated over and over again, sometimes without the student knowing exactly what it is for, so that he will block in a certain way, or strike in a certain way, etc.) In this sense, through his Will, Conan transforms it into something akin to the Buddhist Dharmachakra, or “wheel of Dharma,” representing the way to enlightenment (Conan later wears a wheel highly reminiscent of the Dharmachakra as a pendant.)
Two. The wheel is also connected to notions of time and the gods. The modern conception of time is one mapped out as: past, present, and future — with the future representing infinite “progress,” an infinitely better and more modern society, etc., and the past representing an ever-darker and more barbaric, “patriarchal” un-civilizaion.
In contrast, pre-modern societies regarded time as cyclical. The heavens turned in cycles. (Notably, the wheel pushed by Conan lays horizontally, reflecting the turning of the heavens above.) Crops were planted, grew, and were reaped anew each year. Death was not the end since, after it, the individual went to another realm (e.g., Valhalla), where he carried on his life. And, moreover, each person lived in a way that reflected the lives of their parents, grandparents, and all of their ancestors. Birth was always, in a sense, rebirth — hence, even today, it is fairly common for children to be given the name of a grandparent.
Conan is the only one of the children who survives into adulthood, at which point — long-haired, primitive, animal-like and childlike in mind, but almost superhuman in strength — he is taken to a gambling den, to fight. He discovers brute force, and the love of violence and the love of the cheers of the crowd. Only later is he taught how to use weapons of skill, such s the sword, as well as to philosophy and poetry (there is only a fleeting reference to this).
Training means the refining of oneself, facing the ego or self, and letting the discipline mold it. One sacrifices oneself to the discipline in order to be forged anew, as something higher and more archetypal. From atomized individual, Conan eventually transforms himself into a radically independent being (independent, that is, from the world of commerce, etc.), the hero.
Having remained shackled all this time, despite presumably making his masters wealthy, Conan is finally freed by one of those put in charge of him. He flees — with a shackle still around his ankle, dragging behind him the chain that kept him bound for so long — and soon finds an underground cave where he discovers the skeletons of warriors and that of a king or leader.
The descent into the cave is interesting. Shamans were supposed to descend into the underworld to commune with spirits. Gnomes — believed to be masters of metallurgy — were also said to live in the earth. We might say, then, that Conan has descended in order to face his own demons, to fight them, and, as such, to realize both his own power and the power of Nature, or the supernatural power that supports existence itself.
Notably, the skeleton of the king is holding a sword, covered in rust and cobwebs. Conan takes it and smashes it on a rock, freeing the shining, steel sword within. (This is strikingly reminiscent of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.) Looking at the skeleton of the leader, Conan says only, “Crom,” identifying it with his god, and the sword he has taken with the sword, and power, of this god.
But the cave also reminds us of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the philosopher describes a group of prisoners, shackled and forced to face a wall inside a cave. In Plato’s allegory, there is a fire lit behind them, and the prisoners mistake shadows cast on the wall for real things. The philosopher — and the warrior, initiate, and so on — must come to see that the shadows are just that, and must, moreover, free themselves from the cave, from their own limited understanding and uncontrolled imagination. (Notably, Conan only breaks the shackles from his ankle after he steps out of the cave, as if freeing himself mentally.)
Continuing his journey, Conan soon comes across a thief called Subotai (who is also shackled and about to die), and, only slightly later, a blonde, female thief called Valeria. The three join forces to scale a high temple of a demonic serpent cult. (This cult is, only in a new guise, the enemy that invaded Conan’s village as a child, murdering his parents.)
The devotees are dressed in white, New Age-like robes. There is something fake about them — and at the end, when their overlord is killed, they abandon their temple, as if realizing the illusion has been broken.
The power of the cult is, in effect, to trap others in their own cave of limited knowledge and wild imagination.
Conan and the male thief go down into a pit below the ceremony, and steal a precious stone as a female devotee unrobes, preparing to jump down, to sacrifice herself to a giant snake that lives there. It attacks Conan, who kills it. Clearly, this is taken from such tales as Sigurd, or St. George, slaying the dragon.
Conan and Valeria become involved, romantically and sexually. They spend money (or jewels), get drunk, act unwisely, and draw attention to themselves, whence they are arrested. They are taken before a king, who is opposed to the serpent cult in his kingdom, and whose daughter (Yasimina) has become “as a slave” to the cult leader. He offers the three so much wealth that they could become “kings” themselves, on condition that they rescue his daughter.
We do not need to go into every detail of the remainder of the story, but, instead, will look at the main points. Conan sets out alone on the journey and, among the skeletons of an ancient civilization, comes across a wizard (Akiro) who befriends him. Conan continues his travels to the serpent cult and its leader, Thulsa Doom.
A male and a female priest of the cult appears and begins dishing out robes for ordinary devotees to anyone and everyone. It is a very modern act. Everyone can join. Everyone can feel a part of something. Great qualities are not encouraged, and not wanted.
Conan, seems to defy this, however, stealing the robe of a priest who tries to seduce him. “how do you expect to reach emptiness,” he asks the warrior. In a sense, here we see the force of modernity dressed up as archaic. The cult is structured hierarchically but possesses no timeless or archaic wisdom. It offers only emptiness.
Conan, in contrast, is constantly among ancient memories, in the shape of the remnants of ancient civilizations.
Death and Rebirth:
Conan is captured, tortured, and finally crucified on the Tree of Woe, reminiscent both of Christ’s crucifixion and Odin’s hanging on the World Tree. He hangs there for several days and nights. The male thief, Subotai, arrives just as Conan dies. His body is taken to the wizard and Valeria. Akiro covers his body with hieroglyphs. The spirits attempt to take Conan, but Valeria swears that she will pay the price the gods demand, and Conan is returned to life. Both have now sacrificed — Valerie to Conan, and Conan to the prospect of rescuing Yasimina and destroying the cult that slaughtered his people.
The three sneak into the mountain, through a kind of kitchen reminiscent of hell — it is red, and the soup being prepared is made of human meat. Passing through this, they come to an orgy, where the food is being distributed. Thulsa Doom sits on a throne, but turns himself into a snake, a symbol of evil or greed.
The three capture Yasimina, but as they make their escape Valeria is shot with an arrow made from a snake and dies, paying the price of the gods. Only later, in a battle (between Conan, the wizard and Subotai on the one side and Thulsa Doom and his minions on the other) will Valeria appear, then in the form of a ghostly Valkyrie (Chooser of the Slain), to save Conan. With his troops destroyed, Thulsa Doom tries to shoot Yasimina with an arrow, but she is saved by Akiro.
Conan returns to the serpent cult’s temple at night, appearing behind Thulsa Doom, who is high up, at the top of an enormous stone stairway. Seeing that the warrior wants to kill him, Thulsa Doom tells him to lay down his weapon. Calling Conan, “my son,” he claims that it is he who has given Conan purpose in life, and that if he dies then the warrior’s purpose will die too. Momentarily taken in by this, Conan then shakes off the mesmerizing appeal of the rhetoric and beheads the cult leader.
We all know how powerful such words can be. Atomized individuals are often drawn to, and become involved with, sexually unhealthy scenes, religious cults, and politically extremist movements (both fringe and mainstream), and other such groups, precisely because they offer a sense of belonging or an ersatz family.
Presumably Conan is able to resist because, although he has spent his freedom among the ruins of past civilizations, he has transformed himself from atomized individual on the wheel of commerce, and killer for entertainment, to hero, independent from the ways of the world but connected to the Mysteries. Among those things that have facilitated this transformation, we must note especially:
- Belief in the sacred and eternal (e.g., Crom), and belief that his life, and how he lives it, matters to his god.
- Persistence and the refusal to give up or bow down to evil or what is inferior.
- Self-development, learning the art of the sword, etc.
- The cultivating of strong bonds (with Subotai, Valeria, and Akiro).
But, regardless, like St. George or like Sigurd who kills the dragon Fafnir, Conan slaughters Thulsa Doom — the very thing that has driven him, and finally tempts him, if momentarily, to give in and to become a lesser man (which, of course, he could not allow).