The Brilliant Ambiguity of Conan the Barbarian’s “Riddle of Steel”

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An authentic and raw performance by a budding superstar. A rousing score. Bloody, emotional battle sequences. A terrifying but charismatic villain. A Valkyrie with a big heart. And a hero’s journey for the ages. These are a few of the reasons I give whenever I’m trying to convince someone to watch the classic Conan the Barbarian, which happens more often than I care to admit. Conan turns forty years old this spring, and its influence on my youth was so strong that its references formed a kind of dialect among the kids in my neighborhood. It was simply the coolest movie we could have hoped to see in the early 1980s.

In addition to being cool, the movie has a depth that might surprise viewers who know it only by its macho reputation. That depth derives mostly from a worldbuilding device that is rare among genre films—so rare, in fact, that I have struggled to find another example. When I pitched this essay to Tor.com, I asked the editors if they could recommend any comparisons, and they were equally stumped.

The worldbuilding device is The Riddle of Steel, which brings Conan’s culture to life, and provides a basis for his underlying motivation. Ask any fan of the movie what the riddle actually is, and you’ll get a different answer every time. Ask them how the riddle can be solved, and you’ll get an even wider array of possible answers…


[Spoilers to follow.]

We first hear of the riddle in the opening scene, when Conan, still a child, sits on a hill and listens as his father explains the mythology of his people.

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.

Riddles typically come in one of two forms. The first is a conundrum, a question that often relies on a pun or some other double entendre. The second is an enigma, which expresses some philosophical concept through metaphor and narrative. This second type more accurately describes Conan’s Riddle of Steel—at least in how Conan’s father frames it. In the most general terms, the riddle uses the story of Crom to ponder how people can achieve some kind of mastery over this world. It is a way for them to cultivate strength and bravery, virtues that are badly needed in a lawless and merciless land.

For the people of Conan’s village, the riddle may in fact be spelled out in conundrum form. But if it is, we never get to hear it. And this, I think, is the true genius of the screenplay (credited to Oliver Stone and director John Milius). The monologues, voiceovers, and title cards advance the plot, but they do not tell us what to think of the riddle. We must fill in those gaps ourselves, based on our own biases, fears, and personal experiences.

While the riddle itself is, well, a bit of a riddle, the solutions that Conan encounters are even more ambiguous. In that opening scene, Conan’s father offers a simple, and perhaps simplistic, answer: “No one, no one in this world, can you trust,” he says. “Not men, not women, not beasts.” Pointing to his sword, he concludes, “This you can trust.”

Here’s where the fun begins. What does he mean? One can argue that he believes that the sword itself, made from a metal he holds to be sacred, can be literally trusted in some sense. I think it’s more likely that he is giving Conan some overly macho advice: If you want to master this world, you must learn to fight, for the world is cruel.

It turns out that a perpetual warrior mentality produces uneven results. When the snake cult of Thulsa Doom attacks the village, Conan witnesses the murder of his parents before he is captured and enslaved. Clearly, trusting a sword was not enough to protect him. In the years that follow, Conan labors on a primitive mill called the Wheel of Pain. He also becomes a skilled gladiator, fighting for the glory of his master. Isolated and exploited, Conan’s only way to survive is to take his father’s solution to the riddle to its extreme conclusion. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Conan’s master asks a philosophical question: “What is best in life?” When the other nobles fail to give an answer that satisfies him, the master calls on Conan. His answer: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

After Conan wins his freedom, he slowly learns that the world may be too complicated for a simple gladiator. For a time, he finds wealth and companionship though thievery. Though aimless, this path brings Valeria into his life. The two fall in love, and she eventually tries to persuade him to abandon his roguish ways and settle down with her. But his quest for vengeance—and, I think, his commitment to his father’s solution to the riddle—keeps him on the path of violence and destruction. When the aging King Osric asks the band of thieves to steal his daughter back from the cult of Thulsa Doom, Conan cannot resist the chance to take revenge. However, his plan fails, and Doom’s minions capture and torture him.

Here we encounter the second “solution” to the riddle, and it’s even more ambiguous than the first. When Thulsa Doom demands to know why Conan would dare oppose him, Conan tells him about the fate of his village. “You killed my people!” he says. “You took my father’s sword!”

“Ah. It must have been when I was younger,” Doom muses. “There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.”

“The riddle…of steel,” Conan replies.

In the ensuing exchange, the characters have an opportunity to provide some expositional dialogue. But the screenplay trusts the audience to understand that a mere mention of the riddle will unlock decades of memories for these characters.

“Yes! You know what it is, don’t you, boy?” Doom asks. His knowing look reveals so much more than mere dialogue. Once again, the viewers can fill in the world from there. And they can interpret Doom’s evil answer to the riddle. “Shall I tell you?” he asks, grinning. “It’s the least I can do. Steel isn’t strong, boy. Flesh is stronger! Look around you.” He notes his sycophantic followers. “There, on the rocks. That beautiful girl.” He beckons a young woman to step off of a cliff edge where she stands. The woman obeys, plummeting to her death. Triumphant, Doom points at her corpse and shouts:

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.”

Though interpretations vary, it is clear that Doom rejects the simplistic solution of becoming a warrior. The body can overcome mere weapons, and a person can compel others to use their bodies for a cause. To master this world, one must master the flesh, and master other people. Manipulation could come through genuine, inspiring leadership, or it could come in the form of a cult. In the end, both involve exerting power over others. Though it may be less noble than Conan’s father’s solution, the two answers to the riddle are rooted in a bitter cynicism toward human beings. Which leads to the third solution—at least, my interpretation of it.

Doom condemns Conan to crucifixion on the Tree of Woe (even worse than the Wheel of Pain!). Conan’s companions rescue him, at which point Valeria vows to stay with him through both life and death. “All the gods, they cannot sever us,” she says. “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.” After he recovers, Conan leads them back into Doom’s lair to rescue Osric’s daughter. This time, the attack is better planned, using subterfuge and distraction rather than brute force, illustrating how Conan’s understanding of the riddle has evolved. However, these new tactics are not enough. In the confrontation that ensues, Doom kills Valeria.

Conan and his remaining companions retreat to a hilltop, where they will make their last stand against Doom’s riders. There, Conan utters a prayer to Crom that hints at his ultimate solution to the Riddle of Steel. (Please watch it here, even if you have it memorized like I do. It might get you through a bad day.)

 

After demanding that Crom recognize his valor in standing against an army, Conan asks that Crom grant him revenge. But then he adds: “And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Conan thus vows to find strength from within, the true source of his strength all along.

Using a set of ancient ruins for cover, Conan manages to defeat the riders. In the process, the spirit of Valeria intervenes to save his life, and Conan recovers his father’s sword, though the blade is now broken. He takes the shattered weapon to the snake temple, where he confronts Doom one last time. There, the cult leader once again puts his own solution to the riddle into practice by trying to manipulate Conan. He appeals to the sense of meaning and purpose that the barbarian has cultivated over his many years of struggle. “Who gave you the will to live?” Doom asks. “What will your world be without me?” It’s a good question. Conan has sacrificed everything to get here. There will be nothing left after he kills his enemy.

Conan takes his revenge anyway, killing Doom in front of his followers and dropping the remains before them. What it all means is open to interpretation, just like the other solutions to the riddle. Conan may be embracing a nihilistic approach to life, moving beyond traditional notions of morality. He may also be announcing, in the grimmest way possible, that whatever power Thulsa Doom gave him is now Conan’s to use as he pleases. He has created meaning and purpose through his own strength, willpower, and refusal to surrender, and he will continue to do so.

Thanks to the nebulous riddle and its ambiguous answers, the overarching themes of Conan are up for debate. Not surprisingly, that debate tends to take on different political and ideological overtones, with some viewers gravitating toward the film’s macho glorification of individualism, while others have pointed out a surprising range of (often conflicting) tropes, reading the movie in terms of Christianity, as a celebration of paganism, and/or as embracing the fascist fantasy of the übermensch. This is, after all, a film that opens with a title card that quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

My interpretation is that the story, intentionally or not, moves beyond mere existentialism, though of course that element is present. Conan’s individualism compels him to solve the riddle in ways that could be seen as egalitarian, maybe even compassionate. For example, he places trust in others early in the film, violating his father’s cynical warning. He listens to Osric’s pleading, when the old king tells him that all his riches cannot compare to his love for his daughter. It is Valeria’s love that raises Conan from the dead, and later saves him from certain death. And, in the end, Conan liberates Doom’s followers from their lemming death cult. In one of the most underrated scenes, the rescued princess kneels before Conan, a gesture suggesting that he is her new master. In response, he silently takes her hand and leads her away from the temple as it burns to the ground.

Of course, those are just two of many, many interpretations, which shows what a gift this film has become. While there are undeniably a few things about Conan that have not aged well, the coyness of the riddle is something I would like to see more in the future. Many writers prefer to be more explicit with their major themes, sometimes shoving the movie’s Big Message into an overwrought bit of dialogue, or some soulless voiceover or title cards. I say this as an admission rather than a judgment, for I’ve done plenty of heavy-handed exposition in my own writing.

Granted, our uniquely divided times might call for more clarity than what Conan offers, but I think it’s possible to tell stories that embrace ambiguity and uncertainty in a way that leads people to think critically and question their own preconceptions. In this sense, I hope that there is room for some experimentation similar to the Riddle of Steel. Letting go of the viewer’s hand, and offering them a glimpse—and only a glimpse—into how the characters think could allow them to build entire worlds on their own, creating a work of art that stands the test of time.

Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press, and occasionally teaches for the Gotham Writers Workshop. Repino is the author of the middle grade novel Spark and the League of Ursus (Quirk Books), as well as the War With No Name series (Soho Press), which includes Mort(e), Culdesac, D’Arc, and Malefactor.

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