I had an interesting and instructive discussion last night, on the Facebook group devoted to my friend Umberto Pignatelli’s Beasts & Barbarians roleplaying game, about John Milius’ 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian, and about the riddle of steel in particular.
The Conan movie has been an object of much debate ever since its first screenings, and Howard fans in particular tend to be often quite critical about it. For my part, I’m one of those guys that will tell you “the book is better”, but I do like John Milius’ film. I like its looks and its composition, I like Basil Poleduris’ score, I like Sandhal Bergman a lot (and the poor, late Valerie Quennessen!), I like the characters of Subotai and Mako’s wizard, and most of everything else I like the movie’s structure. The way you can split it scene by scene and see perfectly the story arcs, and the mirror-like pivot points that make the whole narration symmetrical.
And then there’s the quotes, and among these, Conan’s father’s lengthy monologue about the Riddle of Steel.
And be warned, because from this point on there are SPOILERS (but really you never saw Conan the Barbarian? What are you doing on my blog?)
The Riddle of Steel, we were saying…
Conan’s Father: Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the Earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. 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]
Conan’s Father: This you can trust.
A pity the old man is wrong – and I know it was not nice of me to point that out on Father’s Day, but he IS wrong. Or at least, his is a partial and simplistic view, that is almost instantly defused by Tulsa Doom killing him and all of his people, taking his sword and using it to kill Conan’s mom.
Doom, in fact, much later offers a somewhat worse for wear Conan his own take on the Riddle…
Conan: You killed my mother! You killed my father, you killed my people! You took my father’s sword… ah –
[Rexor twists his arm]
Thulsa Doom: Ah. It must have been when I was younger. There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.
Conan: The riddle… of steel.
Thulsa Doom: Yes! You know what it is, don’t you boy? Shall I tell you? It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
(coaxes girl to jump to her death)
Thulsa Doom: 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. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him!
But Thulsa Doom is also wrong (he’s the bad guy, he can’t be right – even if it would be a neat twist, finding out he was right in the end. But he’s not.)
And Conan does actually get a hint of the third solution to the Riddle of Steel while hanging on the tree of woe. He is saved by Subotai, and a few scenes later Valeria implicitly forfeits her life to save his, and foreshadows what’s to come.
Conan’s companions is not an act of nihilistic sacrifice like Doom’s followers do – it’s an act of loyalty. An act of love, on the part of Valeria.
Valeria: All the gods, they cannot sever us. If I were dead and you were still fighting for life, I’d come back from the darkness. Back from the pit of hell to fight at your side.
And in the final Battle of the Mounds things come full circle: Rexor is about to kill Conan while he’s on the ground but Valeria’s spirit intervenes, and then the sword of Conan’s father snaps (further undermining the literal interpretation of the Riddle of Steel as something to do with metallurgy), and Conan kills his adversary.
Does he have an answer to the Riddle of Steel, now?
The general interpretation is that what really counts, what you really can trust is the Will – there is this whole Nietschean vibe going in the movie, of course.
But I always thought there is a hint at something else, and Conan says it explicitly…
Conan: Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!
Valor, yes, but also two stood against many (well, three, in fact, but he doesn’t yet know Valeria’s coming back from the dead to help him).
I always found this flipping of the opening monologue – For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts – on its head, to be highly significant.
For in the end we are shown that nothing you can trust – not the steel, not the hand that wields it. Only the human spirit, a shared quality among peers.
Ore at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
This was the point I tried to make last night in my highly instructive discussion. Alas, I never got to the final bit, Crom’s prayer and the two against many and the spirit bit, because I was asked straight away whether I had ever seen the movie, and given a brief explanation of the fact that what connects Conan and Valeria is not love, but the steel-forged bond between warriors. Also, Conan uses a steel sword to kill Doom, so there.
This reply, and the attitude displayed by my counterpart (“Have you ever actually seen the movie?”) reminded me of Crom…
Conan: He is strong! If I die, I have to go before him, and he will ask me, “What is the riddle of steel?” If I don’t know it, he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me. That’s Crom, strong on his mountain!
… and therefore I acted first, and left the group for good before Crom cast me out of it.