The three metamorphoses of Conan

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Conan the Barbarian (c1982) is a masterpiece of cinema narrative that manages to convey complex philosophy of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” into two short hours. Though the film begins with Friedrich Nietzsche’s line “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” from his “Twilight of Idols,” the film itself is an exposition of the first discourse of Zarathustra: the three metamorphoses.

The three metamorphoses describes the transformation, or evolution, of the spirit. In the first stage, the spirit changes into a camel, a beast of burden, upon which rules, values, traditions, and customs are laid. The camel’s purpose is to bear the burden to the limits of its strength. The first and foremost character of the spirit in its journey across time, is humility, obedience, and reverence. Next the camel transforms into a lion in the wilderness of solitude. The lion seeks to slay the ancient dragon of “thou-shalt.” Upon the scales of the mighty dragon glitters the morals and values of a thousand years. The lion rejects all these values, all the burdens of the past, and replies “I will.” The spirit will no longer be bound by the created values, inherited morals, or arbitrary ethics of the past. The purpose of the lion is to kill the dragon and destroy all the created morals of the past thousand years. Once the dragon has been destroyed, then the spirit undergoes its final transformation into that of a child. From hence forth, the child will live out his life by its own will and create his own world. The spirit affirms life by killing past values and cultural traditions.

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The film opens with a blacksmith forging a sword. The blacksmith is Conan’s father, who teaches his son of his people’s myths and values. Conan must master the “riddle of the steel,” so he counsels his obedient son. Conan is advised not to trust in men, women, or beasts, but only the steel of the sword. The folly of his father’s “wisdom” is quickly demonstrated, when Thulsa Doom razes his village, using loyal men and trained dogs. Conan is taken to be sold as a slave, where his real training, the real metamorphosis of spirit begins. For years, he obediently pushes the wheel of pain, until he is sold to another slave-master, who trains him in the art of combat. Conan is obedient to the point of faithfully parroting his masters’ values without any understanding: the greatest good in life, Conan claims, is to crush his enemies before him and hear the laminations of their women, yet he is a mere slave who does not even own his life.

Conan is set free by his master to wander the wilderness, until he finds an ancient sword, with which he begins to formulate a plan for revenge. Along his journey, he rescues Subotai, who joins his search for Thulsa Doom. He meets another companion, Valeria, while stealing gems from Thulsa Doom’s temple. Conan’s party is summoned to King Osric’s presence, where the king buys their services to rescue his wayward daughter. The king is shown to be a weak man, whose power seems to only derive from his limitless wealth. He is shown to be a king in name only, as his throne room is his prison, his subjects revere Thulsa Doom’s cult over the king’s authority, and his own daughter prefers the sorcerer over her own father. He is a man who have mastered the riddle of gold, but nothing else.

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Conan rejects Valeria’s plea to create his own life, driven by the demands of his past for revenge, and unwisely faces Thulsa Doom alone. He is discovered, tortured, and finally educated by Thulsa Doom. The riddle of steel is a folly, for the sword is nothing without the hand that wields it. The sorcerer has founded a universal church, proclaiming a universal truth that transcends all regional boundaries. Under his benevolent guidance, men have “beat their swords into ploughshares” and seek emptiness of their soul. Thulsa Doom rules by the command of “thou shalt,” and against this seemingly infinite weight of morality, Conan’s will is broken. For without the dragon, what is the lion? Without his vengeance, with what purpose does Conan exist? Conan is crucified, but is eventually rescued by Subotai, who discharges the blood-debt owed. As he had been already paid, Conan and company discharges their debt by rescuing the wayward daughter of the merchant king Osric.

Yet, rather than fleeing with his captive, Conan and Subotai choose to battle Thulsa Doom and his army, having signaled their position with Valeria’s funeral pyre. Conan suggests that Subotai escape and live a life of peace and comfort. Subotai indicates that the battle against the dragon can not be averted, merely postponed. Life of comfort and leisure is not for those destined to become the uebermensch. Prior to battle, Conan “prays” to his god to grant him vengeance. Yet, at his hour of need, it is not god, but Valeria’s will that assist Conan, conforming with the theme of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” that it is with God that men ultimately seek victory. It is the will of men, not magic of the divine, that brings meaning to the earth. It fighting the tools of Thulsa Doom, Conan breaks his father’s sword, symbolizing his recognition of his father’s folly. With his vision of ascended Valeria, Conan realizes that the gods are dead, truth exists not, and morality is a fiction; the only reality is the will of men.

Conan dispatches Thulsa Doom at the center of his power. He discards Doom’s head and his father’s broken sword, indicating that he is no longer bound by the claims of universal morality, nor by the claims of particular truths. Having killed the dragon and burned down his temple, Conan becomes the child uebermensch, living life on his own will, creator of his own truth.

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“Companions, the creator seeketh, not corpses—and not herds or believers either. Fellow-creators the creator seeketh—those who grave new values on new tables.”