The Riddle of Steel | The Philosophy of Conan The Barbarian
One of my fondest memories as kid was going to the movies. I still enjoy it and truth be told its one of the simple pleasures I miss in the current state of the world.
My fondness cinema started with my father taking my brother, sister and me to the movies. It was always an adventure. He usually would just declare "We're going to the movies. Get in the car" And off we'd go on a Saturday afternoon.
Now mind you in the days before the internet movie schedules were harder to come by. You either had to have a newspaper, or the phone number of the theater. My father would not bother with either. So we'd go to the theater, he'd pick the movie, buy the tickets and we'd go in. Usually it was at some midway point so we'd watch the movie to the end, then stay in the theater for the next showing until we got to the point in the movie we came in then "Lets go" So we watched the whole movie. Just not necessarily in the order the filmmaker intended. We watched it in the order my father "chose". It wasnt until a few years later that I actually realized that movie times were scheduled and you could actually plan to start at the beginning. Its a funny anecdote now. A fond memory
Like most kids my father was in my mind not a human, but a larger than life figure. A mythical figure who could silence the room with the raising of an eyebrow. A hero. I consider the point, sometime in my early teens I think, when I was struck with the realization that he as well as my mother were mere mortals, my earliest red pill moment. Human. Just like me. Both strong and weak, brave and afraid, wise and foolish. My parents as "gods" evaporated. It was terrifying.
But it was also liberating. As the years went by I learned to appreciate what they were able to provide, respect and admire their their accomplishments. And forgive their shortcomings
So began my lifelong analysis of the nature of heroes. Of myths. Its no accident that Joseph Campbell has been part of my signature since the day I joined RVF. It was my "Hero's Journey" that was the foundational drive to start a company at 21 yo and be the stepping stone of creating the life I wanted. My script
Ona Saturday afternoon in 1982 my two friends and I rode our bikes to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN. We'd seen the commercials and planned it. That it made an impression is an understatement.
Ive referred to the movie numerous times on this forum. My original attraction to the movie as a kid seeing an action hero evolved to an appreciation of the character's singular obsession: revenge. But it wasnt really the idea of revenge that I grew to admire. It was really his resolve. His undeniable pursuit of a goal.
It was but one memorable fiber of the "filter" that first my father, and mother and then a few teachers helped me weave.
Ive watched the movie dozens of times over the years. Ive probably watched this scene hundreds of times.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Weak minds discuss people"- Socrates
Its easy for many people to dismiss Conan The Barbarian as a cheesy sword and sorcery fantasy. But if we analyze the scene and human condition through the lens of metaphorical we can learn a lot. We can learn the answer to the Riddle Of Steel. And that answer is more important than ever.
In my view the lesson Conan's father is incomplete. But what he does teach is that no matter what any man says or does he is still just a man. They / we are not gods, nor giants...just men
The film begins with Conan’s father telling him that steel was stolen from the gods by giants (a’la Prometheus), and after the battle of gods and giants it remained on earth for man to take. The story is concluded with this admonition to his young son:
This assertion is the philosophy that drives Conan’s actions in the first half of the film, it is also what allows him to become captured by Thulsa Doom later on. It is only later that he (and we) learn the rest of his father's lesson. But his father was not wrong nor intentionally withholding.
The truth his father knew was that he could only provide the riddle. The answer could only be learned NOT taught.
Within the story, we are presented with philosophical concepts and iconography. With literal presentations of an idea, we can extrapolate the meaning of these elements, culminating in the Riddle of Steel, the heart of Conan and his people.
The Wheel of Pain
The young Conan is taken into slavery after the massacre of his tribe and family, along with the other boys of the village.
They are all chained to a giant grinding wheel in the desert, known as The Wheel of Pain. They push, moving it forward, all the while toiling in the elements. Day by day, they push until the only one left to push is Conan.
Through pushing at the wheel, picking up the slack as fewer and fewer are there to push, Conan has grown strong and tough. He becomes tough enough to be sold as a gladiator and set off on a new adventure towards his destiny.
The Wheel of Pain is a direct allegory. We each, at some time or another find ourselves chained against our will to toil and push. The effort, the exertion and the pain seem endless. It is only us and the wheel.
No profit is seen for this labor, our suffering goes without reward. It is easy to fall into a self-pitying despair absent of any hope of escape or release.
If, like Conan, we can keep pushing, we’ll find a reward. Through the suffering, pushing and pain, we have developed a strength. Through the sheer act of survival we have been forced to develop our skills, character and mental toughness to endure what others could not.
The Wheel of Pain not only serves to strengthen our weakened limbs, it also represents growing up. When tied to the wheel, Conan is but a boy, young and untrained. By the time he finishes at the wheel, he is a man, grown to full height and power. Pain matures as much as it teaches, if we were not to mature we could not take heed of its lessons.
The Tree of Woe
When his first attack on Thulsa Doom is thwarted, Conan is captured and sentenced by his nemesis to be crucified upon the Tree of Woe.
Crucifixion carries powerful religious connotations, with most people readily associating it with Jesus of Nazareth and the idea of sacrifice. Within the Norse mythology, Odin crucifies himself upon Yiggdrasil, the tree of life, in order to attain the understanding of runes and poetry.
Both of these sacrifices are willing, one dying so that many may live, the other for knowledge. While Conan isn’t being willingly crucified, but there is a sacrifice at play.
The sacrifice of Conan represents not only his dying, but also the dying of his philosophy. Until this point in the narrative, Conan has remained confident that he alone is necessary to slay his enemy. His failed attack is a failure of his philosophy, and that is what is nailed to the tree along with him.
He now knows that he cant do it alone
There' old saying, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It sounds trite and fits on a bumper sticker, but there’s still truth to it. Eventually, we may find the beliefs and skills that earned our success won’t achieve our greater goals.
Conan’s single minded belief in his own strength allows him to survive the Wheel of Pain, but it doesn’t make it past the Tree of Woe. It is only by abandoning this philosophy that Conan can survive and achieve his final goal. This is amplified when the only way Conan escapes is by the help of his friends rescuing him from a certain death.
The Riddle of Steel
Everything that informs Conan’s attitude and actions is based around the Riddle of Steel, the legend of his people explaining the importance of steel to their barbarian culture.
Doom recognizes within Conan the belief in the strength of steel and mocks him, saying that he too once sought the Riddle of Steel, only to become disenchanted.
As any decent movie should, there’s a clear argument of philosophies, or worldview, between the hero and villain. Thulsa Doom doesn’t believe in the power of steel, he sees power as coming from the flesh. Taking credit for slaying Conan’s family, Thulsa insists that it is only because of the power within the flesh that the hero has made it even this far.
“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!…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!”
What then is the answer to the riddle? The only way Conan survives and eventually slays Thulsa doom is because of the aid of his friends. Is flesh then so much more powerful than forged steel?
The flesh is useful, it does take a hand to wield the sword against a foe, yet it will grow old and decay. Thulsa Doom, for all his power over people, couldn’t stop Conan from slaying him.
To answer the riddle, must see that while steel will grow brittle and the flesh will age, it is will and conviction that prevail. It is by will and belief that the flesh is motivated to wield the sword, to use that sword rightly and not against the weak and unfortunate.
Steel is not elevated only through brute force, detailed craftsmanship, or even strength of your hand. Its power comes from the clear belief and faith and conviction of the one who wields it
Now more than ever the will of the faithful is vital. The weak are many The strong are few.
"The tyranny of evil men" That is a story and lesson for others more qualified than I
A great post! You, or someone, should write a book about the philosophy behind the original Conan film. If the Simpsons received such a tome, so should this classic John Milius film.