- "Crom is strong! If I die, I have to go before him, and he will ask me, 'What is the riddle of steel?' If I don't know it, he will cast me out of Valhalla and laugh at me." ~Conan the Barbarian
In the beginning, we see Conan's father explain the Cimmerian lore concerning the ancient Giant Kings of earth stealing the forging secrets from the god Crom. Conan's father tells him that he must learn by himself the riddle of steel. Giving him a hint, he tells him that you cannot trust anything in this world, except for one thing; and, showing him the sword of steel he just forged, he says: "This you can trust." What he does exactly mean by "this" is not clear. (That sword? All swords? All weapons? Only weapons of steel? Only things he made himself?) Conan's task is very complex: first, he must find a riddle, that is, a question; and then he must find the answer to that question. In many ways, this resembles the buddhist test of a koan.
Right after that, Conan's father and the people in Conan's village are all killed by an overwhelming force led by Thulsa Doom. Years later, Conan tracks down and confronts Doom and his raiders. Doom tells him that he has abandoned the pursuit of steel, because flesh is stronger. To prove his point, he beckons one of his cult followers on a cliff to come to him. Enthralled by her faith, she steps off the cliff and falls to her death. This, the ability to lead loyal followers who are willing to die for you, is real strength for Doom, and he reproaches Conan for not recognizing where his own strength is.
Conan is nailed to a dead tree in the desert for several days until rescued. As he heals, he reflects upon the riddle of steel. No longer does the barbarian limit himself to direct brute assault. Using covert methods and battlefield tactics, Conan and his friends inflict great damage to their enemy. His father's sword is broken in battle, but Conan doesn't discard it. Then, in his final confrontation with Doom, as he is subjugated by Doom's mind control, Conan looks at the damaged sword and somehow frees himself and kills his enemy with one thrust of the still sharp sword. It is implied that, in that instant, he figured the riddle and the true answer to the riddle. Which these are, however, we are never told
Fans have come up with several explanations over the years. One is the Nietzschean idea that will is indomitable and stronger than both steel and flesh. Another one is the very Howardian explanation that overcoming adversity makes you stronger just like steel becomes stronger under the hammer and in the fire. (That is: when Conan's father said "This you can trust" he meant "You can only trust the strength and abilities you gain through hardship and struggle.")
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