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At the time of The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is king. This was Robert E. Howard's first story featuring Conan, written in 1932 for a publication called Weird Tales. The editor of Weird Tales - Farnsworth Wright - was a scholar and Shakespearean elements in Phoenix (the apparition in Hamlet and the assassination of Caesar) were not lost on him. Robert E. Howard possibly included these parallel elements that resonated with Wright in order to sell his story. Robert E. Howard was not the first writer of Sword & Sorcery, but he was one of the earliest successes of the genre. The Phoenix on the Sword is not a fan favorite, but it kindled the Conan fire.
Phoenix opens with an extract from the Nemedian Chronicles (the fictional source of the history of the Hyborian Age) and Conan is described as a thief, reaver and slayer, alluding to a time removed from the current when Conan was far from a king. The reader is left to speculate on Conan's path to the throne, the author is permitted to fill in the wide berth he has given himself and fans were enthused to create and debate over possible timelines of Conan's career. The Phoenix on the Sword begins with a plot to assassinate the king.
Conan's recent ascension to the throne of Aquilonia is coming undone from within. Adding to the complete unsuitability of his nature to kingship and his Cimmerian blood, is the nostalgia Aquilonian citizens feel for their former king - the tyrannical King Numedides who was throttled on the throne by Conan.
Pillars of the Aquilonian community who approach a mercenary to kill Conan include a dwarf count, a giant commander, an obese baron and a poet admired by Conan himself. The mercenary Ascalante accepts the job but privately intends to claim the throne for himself. Adding to this plot are the misgivings of Ascalante's slave Thoth-Amon - a once mighty wizard who murders the baron, recovers his powerful ring and calls upon a supernatural demon to slay his master the mercenary Ascalante.
In the meanwhile Conan is brooding over his misfortune as king. He yearns to join his general Prospero in battle while Prospero hands him official documents in waxed papyrus to sign. Later he dreams of meeting an ancient, long dead Mitran deity - Epemitrius the sage in a crypt, and is forewarned about enemies within; as protection his sword is marked with a phoenix.
The story then follows with the attempt on Conan's life led by Ascalante. A debt-ridden soldier is bribed to distract the guard and the assassins make their way into king's chamber only to be confronted with a battle-ready Conan. As Conan fights off his assailants with his marked sword it breaks, he grabs an ancient ax and continues battle, and in a moment of misguided mercy towards Rinaldo the poet he is injured. As Ascalante moves in to kill the weakened king he is himself attacked by Thoth-Amon's demon - a Stygian mummy-baboon who terrifies everyone. A wounded Conan scrambles to save himself and manages to stab the demon with the broken sword. The demon disintegrates and Conan is left to be tended to by his courtiers and guard who arrive on the scene.
The reader is given few indications about Conan's journey to the throne; here is this adventurer obviously uncomfortable being a sedentary king and yet comfortable being a whatever he is, however incongruent with his current status. As Robert E. Howard develops Conan in later stories we learn of his warlike but primitive people the Cimmerians. The Cimmerians were infantry warriors who fought on foot and were eventually driven from their homeland by more sophisticated armies. Conan - the son of a blacksmith was born on the battlefield and clashes with society throughout his life - a nod to the authors belief in the ultimate victory of barbarianism over civilization. Conan's unease with civilization in general and his sedentary lifestyle in particular is alluded to at the beginning of every chapter of Phoenix, and he seems to look over his life as a barbarian, fighter, thief and pirate with longing.
Over the timeline of Robert E. Howards Conan stories Phoenix is close the end of Conan's saga. He is over forty at the time, most of his adventures are behind him and is now part of the establishment.
Conan's first appearance
Sword & sorcery