That which does not kill us makes us stronger. – Friedrich Nietzsche
The original Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one of the most important spiritual parables of our time, and reveals the wellspring from which strength flows.
Although at first glance merely a simple action film, the original Conan the Barbarian was written and directed by John Milius, the screenwriter of Apocalypse Now,who was part of the same wave of film school graduates that produced George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
“Conan is a movie that has definitely got a singular vision in it,” Milius states. “Directors don’t do that today. They just shoot the movie. It’s all how slick it can look, as opposed to whether you like this movie or not. It does have it’s own morality. It does have it’s own code of behavior.”
In the commentary track director John Milius says, “it’s really not just a simple story. It’s about what makes us what we are.” Conan is a movie about transformation and how pain, wounding, and trauma can fuel personal growth and ultimately create a stronger version of man.
Spoilers follow. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to watch it, bookmark this article and come back to it after watching the film, because I’m going to be breaking down key scenes, including the finale.
The Riddle of Steel
In the first scene of the film, Conan’s father implores young Conan to learn “the riddle of steel,” establishing the theme of the film and setting him on the quest of his life.
Conan’s Father: The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.
[Points to sword]
Conan’s Father: This you can trust.
Immediately afterward, Conan’s village is raided by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and Conan’s family is killed before his eyes. The scene is staged brilliantly. By showing his mother’s beheading in a shot on young Conan, Milius captures the feeling of loss and abandonment that will drive Conan for the rest of his life. Her hand slips out of Conan’s. He turns and she is gone.
A modern more gore-obsessed director might focus on the sword impacting his mother’s neck and blood spurting out, but this film understands that the true impact of this scene is on Conan’s emotional world.
“I always like it that he doesn’t look at her. He looks at his hand, because that’s all that’s left,” says Milius. “And he (Thulsa Doom) looks at the blade, because steel is true.” Thulsa understands the Riddle of Steel. Conan is yet to learn.
Once Conan looks from his sense of loss to Thulsa his path is set for life. This one trauma will cause all the other events of the film, sending Conan on a lifelong quest to avenge his family and kill Thulsa Doom.
From here, Conan sets off on a series of adventures. He is sold into slavery, fights in a Coliseum, experiences women for the first time, and is tempted by a witch – each adventure building his strength and preparing him for his final confrontation.
Thulsa Explains Steel
When Conan meets Thulsa again in the third act, after slaying his pet snake, Thulsa explains the Riddle of Steel to Conan.
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! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[he coaxes the girl to jump to her death]
Thulsa Doom: 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. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him!
What Thulsa reveals is that strength is not an external power, but an internal one that Conan received in his early life trauma. The loss of his parents fueled something in Conan that allowed him to overcome all the trials of his life and drove him to build himself into a great warrior. He was wounded, but he has healed stronger.
This principle of healing stronger is at the core of strength training. When you lift heavy weights, you actually tear your muscles. Your body heals the damage by filling in the tear with new tissue, making the muscle bigger and stronger. It’s thematically fitting that Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the lead in this film, since he not only embodies the physique of Conan, but as a person lives this principle of strength.
It’s also fitting that Conan is crucified in the next scene. Crucifixion was actually a common punishment in the ancient world, but most modern audiences associate it with Christ. Although Christ’s crucifixion involved intense suffering, most Christians understand this suffering was necessary for His transformation, and ultimately lead something greater.
Similarly, only after confronting suffering for the first time did Buddha began meditating under the Bodhi tree. Before he saw death firsthand, Buddha was content to live as a Prince. Although not a necessity, suffering can be the catalyst for transformation.
Conan Becomes Steel
It’s fitting that the final confrontation between Conan and Thulsa takes place at the top of a temple, surrounded by religious followers. Only during this confrontation does Conan come to understand the riddle of steel.
Thulsa Doom: My child, you have come to me my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? I am the wellspring, from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be, without me? My son.
In this moment, Conan realizes that everything he is and has become is the result of Thulsa taking his family at a young age. Notice the language Thulsa uses – “I am the wellspring from which you flow.” Film dialogue is often short and functional. It’s rare to see a film willing to indulge this kind of poetry, but the film Conan the Barbarian does so frequently.
Later film versions of Conan have assumed the character is just about bad-ass fantasy action. While this adds to the appeal, in Milius’s version Conan’s strength comes from his emotional wounding. Doing the character of Conan without this would be like trying to write a Batman movie where his parents never died, or a Spider-man film where Uncle Ben never tells him that with great power comes with great responsibility.
Most of the popular superhero films dominating the box office follow the central theme of Conan’s Riddle of Steel, with emotional trauma causing the hero to transform into a more powerful version of himself. However, unlike those characters Conan moves beyond his emotional wounding, to reach what Joseph Campbell calls in his classic work on myth the “freedom to live.” Conan knows killing Thulsa will end his quest, but he no longer needs the pain Thulsa caused to transform.
When Conan lifts Thulsa’s severed head over the crowd, rather than emphasizing the moment with the film’s powerful score, there is silence. We hear only the foley of Thulsa’s head rolling down the steps. Thulsa’s followers quietly disperse, extinguishing their flames in the water below Conan’s throne, a powerful visual metaphor for the end of Conan’s quest.
Conan rides off into the sunset. An image of Conan as a king teases a sequel, but at this point, he is a king within. Conan does not need trauma or wounding anymore, but he could never have reached his full power without it – without the riddle of steel.
The Spiritual Lesson Of Conan
People who discover self-development, the red pill, spirituality, bodybuilding, entrepreneurship, or any of the other paths of personal growth discussed on this site often began their journey due to suffering.
Many men take the red pill because their previous approach to women failed. They are drawn to weightlifting because they used to feel small. They are drawn to healthy eating because they used to be fat. They are drawn to meditation because their minds were chaotic. They are drawn to building a business because they used to be a wage slave. They are drawn to self-development because their lives used to be a mess.
What Conan implies is that without that suffering, we might never have been put on the path the to let go of it, and that rather than being embarrassed by our former hardships, we can be grateful for what they really were – an opportunity to transform into stronger versions of ourselves. Had we never been weak, we might not have become strong. This is the Riddle of Steel.
View More: Conan The Barbarian (1982) on Amazon