The Riddle of Steel: what's strongest - flesh or steel?

A reflection on the "Riddle of Steel" from Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Part 1

Written by Urfan Ul Hassan
January 2022

The movie opens with Nietzsche's famous quote: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." The story in the movie attempts to cast light on a deeper aspect of this quote.

The movie opens with a young Conan being taught by his father about the riddle of steel. Conan's father is a barbarian, and he believes he has answered the riddle. Thus, his father explains to Conan that all men, women and beasts of this world cannot be trusted; his father points to his sword and concludes that steel is the only reliable friend that you have. In my opinion, steel is a metaphor for brute force. The idea that you can only trust steel is thus planted in Conan from a young age, and ultimately directs his character development.

One day, the psychopathic character Thulsa Doom arrives at their village. With his army, Doom conquers Conan's village by killing every adult in the village, including Conan's father and mother. He personally takes over the sword of Conan's father. The children of the village are taken as slaves and put into physical labor.

Conan and the other children are forced to push the arms of a giant mill. The mill has several wooden arms and moves as a wheel. The mill is called "The Wheel of Pain". The Wheel of Pain could be a metaphor for struggle and adversity in life. The movie shows a timelapse of Conan and the other children working behind the mill over several years. The movie indicates that most of the children behind the mill die one by one over time; they are not able to survive the adversity. However, Conan is able to fight adversity and pressure year after year. This is Conan's station, a life of struggle.

Finally, the movie demonstrates the results of adversity over many years: Conan is now an adult with enormous physical strength. Conan looks like a bodybuilder with fearless intensity. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a professional bodybuilder, played the role of Conan in adulthood. It is easy to conclude that physical work strengthens the body with muscles; however, the movie attempts to demonstrate that the same is true for the mind. Adversity, stress and loss can cause the mind to become stronger over time; thus, these are elements in life that are necessary for personal development.

Conan becomes a gladiator and is released from slavery in the end. Conan befriends different characters he encounters in the movie. However, Conan seeks revenge on Thulsa Doom and travels alone for this quest of vengeance.

Conan arrives at the temple of Doom by the name Mountain of Power. Conan is quickly discovered and overpowered by the guards. Conan is thus captured once again. The guards throw Conan in front of Doom so he can explain himself. Conan is now in the midst of the temple and the entire cult is observing the exchange between Doom and Conan.

Conan informs Doom that he is of those seeking revenge on him, as Doom is the one who murdered his family and village. Doom expresses that he is unable to remember this event specifically. However, if it is true, then indeed it must have been when Doom himself was a younger man; Doom explains that as a young man he was blind as to what power really meant; he was of those ignorant thinking that brute force and steel was the strongest ally in this world.

Conan commentates: "The riddle... of steel."
Doom answers: "Yes, you know what it is don't you boy? Shall I tell you? It is the least I can do. Steel isn't strong boy - flesh is stronger. Look around you... there, on the rocks; that beautiful girl..."

Doom points toward one of his brainwashed disciples standing on a higher platform. He asks her to sacrifice herself by jumping from the platform. The cult-member jumps without any hesitation and commits suicide.

Doom concludes: "That is strength, boy. That is power. The strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength of your body, the desire in your heart- I gave you this! Such a waste."

Dooms informs Conan that the cult will crucify him, but that he should philosophize on what he has learned from Doom. Conan is thus crucified, but manages to survive for several days. Vultures fly in circles above him and try to eat off him. However, Conan bites them back. Conan is ultimately rescued by the characters he previously befriended.

Conan rests for several days to gather his strength. Conan is still determined to take revenge and goes after Doom once again. However, this time, he brings his friends with him. One of his friends dies in a battle against the soldiers of Doom. Conan thus prays to his God: "Help me in my quest for revenge. And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!" 

Afterwards, Conan wins a battle against Doom's soldiers and regains his father's sword, but the sword is broken. During the battle, Conan sees a ghost; a ghost that asks him a question: "Do you want to live forever?"

Ending of the movie:

Conan arrives at the temple of Doom with his father's broken sword in hand. Doom is preaching to his cult, standing on a high platform. Doom is further brainwashing the cult through powerful speech. Doom, without looking, feels that someone is behind him. He turns around and sees Conan approaching him with a broken sword. Everything becomes quiet. Face to face, Doom gazes into Conan's eyes and attempts to brainwash him:

Doom: "My child. You have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? Who gave you the will to live? I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What will your world be, without me? My son."

Doom continues to stare into Conan's eyes. Conan enters a trancelike state, thinking over the wise sayings of Doom; there is much truth in what Doom is saying.

Conan suddenly manages to shake off the trance, and attacks Doom with the broken sword. In my opinion, this scene demonstrates that Conan's barbaric instinct was activated as he remembered what his father taught him as a child: "Do not trust men, women or beasts - trust only the steel."

Conan beheads Doom in front of the entire cult. The movie ends with Conan holding the head of Doom in one hand, and his father's broken sword in the other. The movie wants the viewer to reflect and answer the Riddle of Steel themselves: What's strongest - flesh or steel?
What's your answer?

An answer for reflection:
(Part 2 with analysis will be written later)

Steel could be a metaphor for physical power, violence, muscles and force. The body and flesh could be a metaphor for intellect. Thulsa Doom, regardless of his intelligence and manipulation skills, died by being beheaded. Death by beheading could symbolize intelligence ultimately losing to force. However, the sword also broke in the movie. Conan's muscles also failed him several times in the movie.

Doom was ultimately correct in saying that Conan became the man he was because of the tragedy Doom brought upon him when he was a child. The answer to the riddle of steel, in my opinion, is that character in humans is the strongest force. The only thing that never failed in the movie was Conan's will, spirit and character; they became stronger and stronger by mastering adversity. Thus, both intellect and muscles are just tools; what really matters is the development of inner character.

Recall Nietzsche's quote from the beginning of the movie and attempt to re-interpret it:

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Warning: the clips below contain violence