What Conan The Barbarian Reveals About The Origins Of Strength

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 , 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.

Conan poster

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 () 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

92 thoughts on “What Conan The Barbarian Reveals About The Origins Of Strength”

  1. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. – Friedrich Nietzsche
    Utter rubbish. try telling that to someone involved in a life limiting accident. Another banal, non article.

    1. Life limiting physically perhaps. But I bet there’s some strength, mental or otherwise a person can take from such an experience no matter how unpleasant. I’ve read that the best “self-help” experience can be derived from a near-death accident…..I remember the movie Fight Club even payed homage to the same principle in the car crash scene.
      Apart from that, grace us with your brilliance and submit an article for our edification or repudiation

      1. Exactly; people who lose their arms and legs get tougher, not weaker. You have to, or it ends up killing you anyway via suicide.

    2. Yes, I knew just by looking at the title that this would be filler content. They would do better to go for “quality over quantity”. Hell, I should write a vacuous, non-informative article on that last cliche and submit it to to RoK!

    3. Watch the film “murderball” and then try and tell me those sons of a bitches aren’t stronger than 90% of american males.
      For some, “life limiting” injuries kill them in mind just as surely as the sharpest arrows would have killed them in body, but the survivors emerge as hardened and sure as the truest steel.

    1. This is a quote from Ghengis Khan. The hack scriptwriter stole it and put it in the film. Sadly, everyone thinks the scriptwriter made it up. It appears nowhere in the works of Robert E. Howard.

      1. It is a great quote though, for me the best in the movie. Ol’ Chingis didn’t pull any punches. No wonder he has something like 2-5%[?] of the human race descended from him.

        1. And Subotai, of course, was the name of a famous Mongol general. Someone did their homework, at least.

      2. I’ll go with Cohen the Barbarian’s answer: “hot water,good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.”

      3. Hack? Did not including the stealing of horses and cattle. Maybe the theatrics should have been interrupted by the textual clarification splashed on the screen. That would be better. Spoon feed the weak men like they want to read history or philosophy. AA is the answer.

  2. Very nice analysis. Coincidentally I just watched Conan again last week after many years. Indeed the full meaning of the riddle of steel hits you when Thulsa Doom tells Conan “I made you who you are”. Strife is our call to greatness.
    Other classic moments in the film are the “what’s best in life” scene and the final prayer to Krom. 😀
    And the line “no one you can trust, not men, not women, not beasts” is a timeless truth.
    Oh, and Valeria’s never ending love and loyalty towards Conan, and how she fights the spirits of the night so they don’t take away Conan’s soul .. they don’t make women like that anymore, do they.

    1. “Not men, not women, not beasts. …This you can trust.”
      This line resonates with me. A man is ultimately alone, and must trust in his own abilities.

    2. The scene where she returns, fulfilling her final promise to Conan to save his life, always brings tears to my eyes.

  3. Oliver Stone, who still retains a writing credit for the film, submitted a cocaine driven 4 hour length script which was described by Millius as a “drug-fevered dream”…..would love to have seen THAT version. The film itself, is pretty naff and I’ve struggled many times to get through it, unsuccessfully.

  4. Wow, a whole column and not a word about Robert E. Howard. You know, the man who created Conan the Cimmerian? Wrote a whole bunch of books and short story collections? Nah, screw that…reading is for nerds. We’re going to refer to a 1982 movie as “the original” because screw that.

    1. This movie is awesome in it’s own right.
      The original Conan character is like a dictionary of alpha male traits at the highest possible level in a pre-modern enviroment. Howards main inspirations for the original stories was historical romance novels of the likes of Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great, the darwinian-nitzschean struggle of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, the cosmic horror-weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft, and a compilation of alpha-traits picked up from different men Howard had encountered during his lifetime.
      I think it might be a bit harder to distill spiritual lessons from the original, they are more like the adventure stories of an over the top outsider-sigma turning into an over the top alpha mixed with some supernatural elements.
      And the latest movie was a dissapointment. Those creators didn’t know shit.

      1. The original movie is something we’re likely never to get again. It’s not just that the screenwriters and directors have no idea what they’re doing, it’s that the culture is filled with so much estrogen.

    2. It’s because Conan was so right to be made into comic book form, so naturally they had to find a lead that the most like a comic book character. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man once described as “looking like a condom stuffed with walnuts”.
      I remember reading those books, didn’t he write the “Gor” series and “John Carter of Mars”?

        1. Ah! I’ve been trying to remember the name of those books. Thank you for reminding me. Which one should I start with?
          Also, the Conan books are excellent, but the character has become a trans-media franchise – books, comics, films, action figures, etc. I wanted to focus on the spiritual lesson contained in the film (original meaning first film, not the sequels/remakes), rather than the whole series. Exploring the full world of Conan would require a book in it’s own right.

        1. Yep, you’re right. Hard to find any of that stuff now, even with the movie out. I prefer books, not kendels.

  5. It’s funny, I was just reading Arnold’s “Total Recall” last night. In the end he as 10 rules for success. In this chapter he talks about the quote “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.” and how it is something he thinks of often. Great analysis, thanks for the post!

    1. is it worth getting? i am a big fan of arnie, but i heard that the book completely whitewashes his backstory and use of steroids to help him become Mr Olympia. Credit to him, few men could ever be a machine to succeed in 3 different disciplines [bodybuilding, movies, politics] but he doesn’t have any reason to hide his past and its disingenous to not mention just how helpful the roids were back in the golden era. my views are a bit similar to D&P: http://dangerandplay.com/2013/07/17/total-recall-my-unbelievably-true-life-story/
      [also anybody wanting a brief summary, read here: http://dangerandplay.com/2014/02/19/arnolds-tips-for-success/%5D
      finally, his education of a bodybuilder is a fucking amazing book

      1. I bought it a while back, since I already read “Education of a Bodybuilder” which is great, I was bored and just skipped to the back part of the book. I haven’t read the whole thing so I can’t really answer, since you already read “Education of a Bodybuilder” you already know the most interesting part of his life- the beginning.

      2. Apart from the odd funny anecdote here and there, it’s mostly rubbish. He really could have used his biography as the vehicle for the uber expression of his life’s philiosphy; yet it’s so heavily PC and apologetic, it borders on embarassing. Skip it and go instead for the earlier written work of Wendy Leigh’s, “Arnold -The Unauthorized Biography”. It delves heavily into the family’s nazi connections, lots of drug talk and early-days’ pussy smashing….needless to say the “Governator” tried for years to have this book smothered like an unwanted, illegitimate immigrant housekeeper’s baby.

  6. One of the best articles on the site! Excellent job!
    “Conan, what is greatest in life”
    Conan – “crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of the women”

    1. You beat me to it – the obligatory quote that must be repeated every time this movie is discussed.

  7. Self-improvement can only be possible after suffering. When one has failed alot and/or experienced massive pain, whether externally or internally, it forces you to change. To fight for a better future, to SURVIVE.
    Ask any successful businessman, scientist, writer, sportsman etc. They will tell you that they failed countless of times, they will tell you about their many business ventures, experiments(scientists), books(writers), and games(sportsman) that just hit a wall. One HAS to fail to succeed there is no other way. There is no such thing as luck. Even the winner of a lotto ticket has tried winning it thousands of times before.
    What is one thing that all of us have in common in taking the red pill? suffering. I’m sure everyone can tell a story of how they have been fucked in this world. Whether you were a beta loser, or an old timer that was taken to the cleaners by a predatory woman. We all searched for truth and we found it.
    TL; DR? You can only win by losing.

    1. Some just breeze right through though. An example. Sugar Ray Leonard. Olympic Champ->World Champ->Multimilionaire->Hall Of Fame

        1. Guess you missed his divorce back in 1990 – that brought out spousal abuse, alcohol & cocaine abuse.
          Leonard published an autobiography a few years ago, he was sexually abused by one of his amateur boxing coaches and a benefactor of USA boxing. He has stated that is why he delved into alcohol & cocaine.

    2. A famous writer once told me that “you have ta’ write a ‘shit mountain’ if you want ta’ eventually be able ta’ write.”
      People are too obsessed with failure; they need to welcome it as a necessary step towards proficiency or even greatness.

  8. Some random points:
    -Walter, from the Big Lebowski, was based largely on John Milius.
    -You should pick up one or more of the anthologies of Robert E Howard’s Conan pulp novels. They’re excellent.
    -The old Conan comics were pretty fantastic as well. I’m not a comics person, but they were always inspiring.
    -Conan the Destroyer (the movie) can’t hold a candle to the first movie. The reboot is not that great either.

  9. One of the greatest movies ever made.
    Every wanna-be alpha should watch it, several times and then ask yourself; “What can I do to be more like conan rather than this weak and cowardly something I see in the mirrior.”

  10. a bit of freudian psychology in there about wanting to kill your father, or at least only feeling like a true man when your father is dead…..

  11. The way Conan interacts with his lady friend is also an awesome lesson in non-verbal communication….

  12. Good points here, but strength is a means to an end. If you get all of the strength in the world after something tragic happens, but you get nothing out of it, and do not use this strength for vengeance or some other end, then you just went through a tragedy for nothing. It’s like the Black guy that goes to Asia and can’t get laid. He might become stronger mentally and maybe even physically, but does he ever get the Asian poontang that he is looking for? No.

    1. Black guys are much in demand with Ukrainian and Russian girls – if not with Asian girls.
      No kidding. Many Russian and Ukrainian girls specifically want to be with Black guys for FWB and STFs – especially on sites like mamba.ru and vk.ru. A lot of blacks in Ukraine will tell you that. That’s a good thing with Russian and Ukrainian girls – they like to experience different kinds of men before “settling” down.

      1. It’s NE Asian girls that i want though. I’m not interested in EE girls. Also, I’d get beaten by skinheads if i went there even if i wanted such women.
        Life is about getting what you want, not taking what you can get (unless you can take what you want). However, if you know that you can’t get what you want, you should just give up. Hard work only pays off when it is a means to an end that you desire, otherwise, it is wasted effort.

  13. Conan, as presented in the books, is truely a man’s man. The author based his personality off of all the strong men he had known. He represented, simply, masculinity. In the books you see his broader skill set. He speaks many languages, has street smarts, and has dabbled in all sorts of martial trades. He eventually becomes a king because of his tactical mind.

  14. I had read self improvement and game books for years. None of the information I had consumed for years took hold until I lost my job, got friend-zoned by a girl I really liked, and being broke all in a span of one year. Sometimes lots of bullshit has to hit a man all at once for the Red Pill to take hold.

  15. Solid analysis of a towering achievement of 80’s cinema, a vastly underrated movie that deserves more accolades than it received. Conan the Barbarian is one of my top ten films, which always astonishes the people I tell, but that is only because they fail to discern or grasp the strong undercurrent of a unified philosophy that underlines every scene and augments the film with a power that ennables it to transcend its genre, which even in the early 80’s was rather tired and hackneyed. For decades I have mulled over the profound insights that it offers, and appreciated its proposed method of confronting the challenges of life. And for years I have been eagerly awaiting Herr Schwarzenegger’s return to the role, even though I am well aware we could be in for something more like the sequel, which was lightweight in comparison. We’ll see. But whatever the new movie will be, I don’t think it will be cut of the same cloth as the rest of today’s fare, which is invariably saddled with pointless CGI, weak characterization, empty plots devoid of significance and scenes designed more as marketing for tie-in video grames than as well-crafted components of an all-around work of Art.

  16. “Conan realizes that everything he is and has become is the result of Thulsa taking his family at a young age.”
    Good article. as it stands in opposition to everything wrong in this aesthetically damaged and weakened society. Bring Conan into the modern age and he would be in counselling for PTSD and suing James Earl Jones for x million dollars. As soon as you seek compensation, redress or restitution through any kind of victimhood, your narrative dies, and with it your soul.
    Victimhood kills. One thing though we need to guard against this in our own response to adversity, including with regard to the pussification of the ether around us. That’s to say, don’t seek compensation for wrongs, just do battle, destroy your enemy and / or what they represent.

  17. When people go through life without adversity, self-destruction usually follows. People have to feel like their achievements come with equal parts struggle, or the whole enterprise is rendered hollow, and you wind up like Justin Bieber or anyone else who has had their road paved for them. People like that are forced to fabricate adversity out of thin air, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. Western culture is filled with people who do the same, because life is relatively easy, and so every day you can find ten or twenty new maladies or looming oppressors (the patriarchy!!!) to assign yourself so you too can feel some hardship, which is convenient because actual hard-work, the potential for failure, and overcoming obstacles aren’t things people believe in or teach anymore.

  18. Flipping that switch from “embarrassed by our former hardships” to “seeking out new hardships to overcome” is the most important lesson the manosphere has taught me. Beautiful article.

  19. Basil P’s score is awesome too.
    So many good lines in that movie:
    “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!’
    Black Lotus Street Peddler: Hey… black lotus… Stygian… the best!
    Subotai: This had better not be Haga!
    Black Lotus Street Peddler: I would sell Haga to a slayer such as you?

    1. there’s a story about genghis khans burial site, when he died, the funeral group killed everyone who knew of its location. then those people in turn were killed.
      there’s another story that a family for generations stood guard at the site, to keep it clear of any potential pilgrims/thieves etc. which promptly got bombed during some soviet exercises in the 30s
      then there’s the story about a she camel that was slaughtered in front of its infant camel child at khans funeral site. Camels have long memories and the baby camel was the only thing capable of leading people back to the grave site.
      there are so many damn interesting mongolian legends floating about.
      it still amazes me that a pathetic band of goat herders, with inferior everything, but good bow skills could take over most of the earth in a short period of time.
      And now where does mongolia stand in the grand scheme of things? as a nothing, a footnote in history.
      rome? gone too
      british empire? still lasting..ish

  20. This is a fantastic article; the bridge between a great movie and truths that we have come to understand through exposure to the sphere is well connected here.
    And as others have mentioned, Basil Poledorious’ music really made that movie what it was. I had heard that the producers wanted to use rock music, but were eventually persuaded to drop that idea.

  21. Another great article. ROK keeps delivering!
    That movie is one of my all time favorites. The sequel with grace jones wasn’t as good but still worth a watch. The newer version with jason mamoa is ok but nothing like arnold in this one! I felt that Mamoa playing Khal Drogo in game of thrones was a much more conan esque role. A pity they killed him off by some old bitch sorceress. Thats what happens when you listen to a stupid fucking broad!
    Great summary of the message in this movie too and I totally agree. Obviously the creator of this film had the intent to deliver such a message and we men these days are sorely lacking in these kind of tales which invigorate our souls with masculine energy.
    Personally I never would have taken the red pill had I not suffered humiliation and rejection from women at an early age. I never would have taken to lifting weights and eventually training in mma and becoming a professional fighter had I not got the shit kicked out of me one night at a party where I was totally wasted.
    All those painful moments served to fill me with glorious rage and well deserved hatred. A fuel that stoked my fire and motivated me like nothing else in this world.
    I think that even when you have reached the top of a mountain you still need to hear this message again or you will become soft and lazy. People don’t really remember or know about your past deeds anyway.
    Its time to climb another mountain, lay down the cock law on some whores and blast some chumps in the face again.
    What is the meaning of life?
    To crush your enemies
    Burn their villages
    And hear the lamentation of their women

  22. There’s a typo.
    “They are drawn to healthy eating because they used be fat.”
    ‘They used to be fat’ is how it should read, ‘to’ is missing. Otherwise a great article, the best I’ve read on ROK.

  23. Fantastic post!
    Even if it wasn´t as good, I would have complimented you just for having Conan as the central topic.

  24. A must have movie in any man’s movie library. Conan the Destroyer…? Eh, you can pass on that one.
    My favorite scene, aside from the dramatic finale, is when Conan and his party (valeria & subotai) raid the inner temple of the Serpent. They’re all covered in what appears to be camouflage paint to sneak inside. But when they reach the interior of the temple, we can see their camouflage in anything but.
    The black paint on Conan’s skin is in stark contrast to itself. It looks downright fearsome. It foreshadows Conan’s state of mind. He is between death (black) and life (white). He is there to kill or, if necessary, die in the process. His path is before him and there is no going back. The vision of the fearless warrior on a mission without hesitation or doubt –> Alpha to the second power.
    You really can’t discount the psychological effect war-paint has on an adversary either. Like a cat who arches its back and raises its hair while bearing its fangs. With this fellow, you would not want to mess:

  25. Brothers of the power, true metal of the kings
    Ride the king of metal, true power of the brothers
    We’re the power of the steel, to fight for the battle
    The battle of the power, of the steel of the fight!!!
    Kings of southern coasts of the true metal of the world
    Power’s still with us, we’ll never fall!!
    True metal of the world! Metal! Nickel! Iron!
    Fire And Steel
    Zinc! Uranium! Titanium!
    Metal’s their will, Other bands play, Nanowar gay!
    It’s made up of steel, but it’s not a motorcycle
    It’s made up of wheels, but it’s not a motorcycle
    It’s made up of kings, but it’s not a motorcycle
    It’s made of True Metal, it is a fucking tricycle!!
    Kings metal power true steel Oh yeah!
    Nanowar’ll always be there!
    Into gay pride we shall ride!

  26. Great post! I had never made the connection between suffering and eustress in the Riddle of Steel.

  27. crush their enemies, crush their enemies, and hear the lamentations of their women! – Robot Chicken sketch

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