The Riddle of Steel

In the 1982 action-adventure adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp series Conan the Barbarian, director John Milius pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against James Earl Jones in a conflict that spans part of a continent, decades of life, and the dialectic between slavery and freedom.  It turned out to be a moderate financial success, reaping impressive profits in the home video market for years after its distribution, and it continues to be something of a mainstay in the popular culture to this day.  It’s not exactly Star Wars-tier in terms of recognition, but Star Wars has had the benefit of a major series of feature film revivals pumped out once every fifteen years.  The most Conan can say is that it got the predictable stripped-down remake a couple years back that everyone has conveniently forgotten about.

The movie’s success could be attributed, rather blandly, to its blood and gore, its sexual imagery, and the general screen-charisma of Schwarzenegger as he was coming into his prime.  That seems unlikely, given that Schwarzenegger’s charisma as an action star wouldn’t start to hit his peak until five or six years later, and meanwhile, if all it took to gain a cult following was reptile-brain excess, then the movie wouldn’t have bothered with piling on the somewhat weighty themes involving freedom, slavery, fellowship, and in particular, fear and love.

The engine for all this is the riddle of steel, as explained at the beginning of the film.  Conan’s father, a blacksmith, asserts steel’s strength over flesh, which is easily wounded by even a poorly made blade.  Well-made swords can survive for eons, as Conan discovers later in life, and need only a bit of maintenance to keep their edge.  People need so much more than a mere sharpening once in a while in order to keep their edge, and meanwhile, it takes only a single stroke from a weapon to destroy families, homes, villages, and lives forever.

This argument is met, halfway through the movie, by its opposite.  Thulsa Doom, a violent and eerie cult leader, responds to the riddle of steel with a simple question: What is steel compared to the flesh that wields it?  It is flesh that gives steel its utility, its shape, its power.  The power of steel that Conan’s father glorified must come not from a weapon’s edge, but from the hand that gave it the edge and the hands that maintain the edge.

Naturally, like any cult leader, the kernel of truth from which he argues ends up buried under layers of lies and hypocrisy.  Whereas Conan’s father respected the steel that he glorified, Doom gave no respect to the flesh that he sought to control, and meanwhile keeps around himself dozens of loyal guards adorned with swords and armor.  Conan’s father recognized that steel’s strength does not come from the hand which hones a blade into sharpness; its strength is innate in the material and requires human hands only to bring it out.  He recognized, furthermore, man’s general smallness in respect to the grand scope of all creation: man lived in the presence of incomprehensible powers which, in general, were willing to leave him alone.  Doom, on the other hand, treated the flesh as merely another version of steel, comparable within the same category of material; both are strong, but were of different utility.  Doom still used swords to defend his palace, but their strength was limited in comparison to the strength of a legion of brainwashed followers who could worship him as a god.  The truth is, despite Thulsa Doom’s statements on the power of the flesh, he did not in fact believe in it; he simply found a way to adapt the riddle of steel to a different composite material.  It was Conan, who decapitated Doom, that ultimately found the power of the flesh.  Virtue is what is strongest, and virtue values power only itself as a means toward greater virtue.  When power is divorced from that path, it becomes vulnerable to itself.

Doom’s Luciferian impulse is echoed today—especially today, after the catastrophic shooting in Las Vegas two nights ago.  The riddle of steel is not just some high-minded fantasy concept that belongs in pulp fictions and children’s RPGs.  It’s the exact same question being asked over the debate on guns.  To what degree does an over-engineered collection of springs and steel plates hold power over the flesh it was designed to sever?  Where is strength actually to be found: in the weapon, or in the person holding it?  How can one still respect both the weapon and the person without doing ideological violence to either?

As it has stripped the world of meaning and glorified Man’s achievements, the Modern age will eventually fall in the same manner as Thulsa Doom: decapitated from within by its own tactical blunders.  It has not afforded room for any respect of flesh beyond mere pretense.   Virtue has been cordoned off into the private realms of opinion.  Power has been quietly recognized as the ruling principle of social life.  It is an age increasingly shaped by the same image that cast Doom’s character, which is probably why he was so compelling in the film.  We could recognize him as evil, even though it took James Earl Jones’ charisma and a few decapitations to make it obvious.  But it’s harder to recognize that same evil when it’s lacking a singular visible face.  But make no mistake; the signs are all still there.  And they aren’t going anywhere.

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