When I was a teenager, my dad sat me down to watch one of the greatest fantasy films ever made: Conan the Barbarian, John Milius’ 1982 epic co-written by Oliver Stone, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role.
The movie is a masterpiece of pulp fantasy, and not of the typical variety. It’s packed with not just graphic violence but torture, patricide, and lots of skin. (For this reason, I was only permitted to watch the TV version.)
Naturally I loved it.
This is no surprise, because in many ways Conan is a coming-of-age film.
Like many heroes in epic stories, as a child Conan finds himself parentless and forced to find his own way in a dangerous world. After his family is brutally murdered by a vicious warlord named Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), young Conan is taken prisoner and sold into slavery. Strapped to the Wheel of Pain, he toils day after day and becomes stronger.
Film critics have theorized the Wheel is a metaphor for grade school, which is perhaps why legendary reviewer Roger Ebert called the movie a “perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent.” This might explain why Conan became one of my favorite movies. (I wasn’t an “alienated” teen, but some confusion and alienation comes with the territory, as any teen can tell you.) After watching the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984), I began devouring the Conan novels written by Robert E. Howard, the character’s creator.
Though I became somewhat of a Conan guru, one thing about Conan the Barbarian always puzzled me—and it concerned “the riddle of steel.”
The Riddle of Steel
Early in the film, Conan’s father shares a riddle with his son while telling him a story about their god, Crom. It’s one of the most memorable and poetic scenes in the movie.
“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.”
Conan’s father dies soon after he shares this riddle with Conan, taking with him its secret—or so we think.
Later in the movie, after killing a giant snake, meeting (in the Biblical sense) an attractive if terrifying witch, and stealing a massive ruby from a freaky temple, Conan is given a task by a king played by the late, great Max von Sydow.
“Steal my daughter back,” King Osric commands Conan and his two companions. If they do, the king will pay the thieves as much wealth as they can carry.
It turns out that King Osric’s daughter has fallen prey to a religious cult, and as it happens, this cult is led by Thulsa Doom. This gives Conan the perfect opportunity to not only rescue the king’s daughter, but to extol revenge on the murderous raiders who slayed his family.
Unfortunately, Conan’s attempt to penetrate the cult goes sideways, and he’s taken captive. After being beaten to a pulp, Conan is brought before Thulsa Doom, who doesn’t even remember destroying Conan’s village or killing his parents. But he does hold an answer to an important mystery: the riddle of steel.
Thulsa Doom: 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!
At this point, Thulsa Doom looks up at the cliffs that surround him and Conan. Several young women stand in flowing white robes on rocks, arms folded passively.
“Come to me, my child,” Thulsa Doom says in a gentle voice to a young woman.
Obediently, the woman steps away from the rocks above … and calmly plunges to her death.
“That is strength, boy! That is power!,” Thulsa Doom tells Conan. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”
The Riddle of Steel, Explained…by Mises?
For years, I never really understood this scene.
Thulsa Doom’s answer to the riddle didn’t jive with my teenage mind. Power is brainwashing soft-headed hippies and convincing them to jump off rocks? The answer seemed absurd, or at least incomplete.
It was not until many years later, while studying Ludwig von Mises’ text Human Action, that Thulsa Doom’s answer made complete sense to me. Mises, like Thulsa Doom, understood that power comes from action, and ideas are what drive human action.
“Ideologies have might over men,” Mises wrote. “Might is the faculty or power of directing actions.”
When Thulsa Doom, with a mere word, beckens a beautiful young woman to throw herself from a cliff, he’s showing Conan his power, or what Mises called “might.”
“Might is the power to direct,” Mises wrote. That power, Mises understood, stems not from swords or “steel,” but ideas.
“He who is mighty, owes his might to an ideology. Only ideologies can convey to a man the power to influence other people's choices and conduct. One can become a leader only if one is supported by an ideology which makes other people tractable and accommodating. Might is thus not a physical and tangible thing, but a moral and spiritual phenomenon.”
This is what Thulsa Doom meant when he says it’s not steel that’s strong, but flesh. The person who can use ideas to command people is a person who has true power, true might.
Unlike Thulsa Doom, Mises of course saw power as a dangerous and corrupting force, which is why he opposed concentrating might in the most powerful, and deadly institution in modern history: the state.
But that, as they say at the end of Conan the Barbarian, is another story.