The Riddle of Steel

The Riddle of Steel

One of the greatest 80's movies and also one of the greatest comic book to film adaptations is Conan the Barbarian featuring the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The storyline is simple and satisfying: 

Bad guy kills family

Sent to toil on the Wheel of Pain 

Thrown into fighting pits 

Sent to great teachers to learn the arts of war

Freed by his master

Hooks up with a demon in exchange for information for the people who killed his parents

Becomes a thief

Gets high on black lotus, punches a camel

Steals a gem

Gives it to a girl who asks, "do you wanna live forever?"

Falls in love

He leaves her to avenge his family

Befriends a wizard

Gets killed

Girl comes back and exchanges her life for his

James Earl Jones says he is his father

Ghost of the girl comes back and saves him again

Defeats his sworn enemy

Becomes King


There's a very interesting theme that pops up throughout the movie, The Riddle of Steel. After having a few drinks with a friend and comparing gods, we learn this about Crom, the god of Conan's people:

If I die I will 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.


In fact, the very first scene in the movie shows his father, a blacksmith, forging a sword and then explaining it's importance: 

...In their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield.

We who found it are just men- not gods, not giants-  just men.

The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery.

You must learn it's riddle Conan, you must learn it's discipline.

For no one, no one in this world can you trust;

Not men, not women, not beasts...

This you can trust (points to sword)


After confronting the villain who killed his people, Thusla Doom, we are given his take on the riddle:

Steel isn't strong boy, flesh is stronger...

(Beckons one of his followers to jump off a cliff)

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 in your body, the desire in your heart. 


We learn Thusla gave up his search for steel and to concentrate on flesh. He found using an internal power to control and manipulate the mind's of others was far greater than physically overpowering them with an external tool.

Of course, *spoiler alert* Conan chopped off with a sword in the end.

The answer to the riddle is never explained in the movie but some take Conan's father's words as a more literal answer- that the steel never lies and it holds the power while others take Thulsa Doom's view that the power lies in flesh, the wielding hand. Many fans believe the answer to be the idea Nietzsche proposed that the will is indomitable and stronger than both flesh and steel. 

Here are my thoughts on The Riddle of Steel:

The tools placed before us and the power of will are both important

The external is but a reflection of the internal, and vice versa.

This "you" is an infinite ever changing feedback loop like a video camera facing the tv screen, constantly refreshing itself, feeding on itself, giving rebirth to itself.*

It's from our interaction with the external world we have any chance to form a sense of ourselves.

What would we be without the external circumstances we are forced to overcome?

At first we attempt to conquer the outside world.

Then we attempt to conquer ourselves

Finally we thank the world for providing us the tension through which we needed to grow.

They are inseparable.

We are the sword, our character the stuff of steel.

It is us who is being molded by the struggles we face.

Are we not the ones forged through the challenges of life, folded over and over through failures, tempered by hardships?

Is not the discipline of steel, the discipline of placing ones self in the fire?

To enter the fire with purpose, mold ourselves through desire, sharpen ourselves with the clarity of intention..

Goals give us a target to orient ourselves toward

The quest itself is the teacher in real time, demanding effort and commitment before unlocking its secrets

This is alchemy

This is changing who we are in order to become who we need to be

So that we may strike with purposeful action

This is The Riddle of Steel

-            -              -             

Here are 3 lessons the Riddle of Steel can teach us:

1) Reframe Adversity  

From the massacre of his tribe, to toiling on the wheel of death, to persevering in the fighting pits, each struggle is a catalyst that propels Conan toward his destiny. These trials provide the medium through which he can grow and the pressure needed to rise. Even the most deathly ordeal, when he is crucified by Thulsa Doom, he seems to be reborn into an upgraded version of himself. We tend to compartmentalize movement into training and other. We usually don't enjoy physical activity associated with work, labour, chores, or physical tasks done for a purpose outside of physical betterment. Instead, try looking at these activities as a chance to grow, or even compete. I myself, get a bit too excited when it's time to bring the groceries in the house- can I make a one trip PR? A friend needs help moving? Good! While life constantly provides us these opportunities can we construct our own? Do we have the discipline to willingly place ourselves under the necessary pressure and conditions to be molded into the weapon we strive towards?

2) The Quest itself is the Teacher

If Conan simply accepted someone else's answer for The Riddle of Steel, he would have never became a king and if the film simply handed us the answer, it would not be as worthy a riddle. The information we receive from the quest of searching for the answer is sometimes more valuable than the answer itself. A fun way to infuse meaningful quests into your training, is by using Task Oriented Training. By setting up your environment, adding constraints, and establishing a target, we give our bodies a movement quest to embark on. There will be many paths to the destination and you have the chance to carve out your own. Typical implementation of exercise gives you the path first and expects you to memorize it, but by providing a riddle of strength, you are given the opportunity to authentically embody your own answer. Training that is task-oriented grounds you in the moment, in your present environment with which you are interacting, and provides you instant feedback like a compass on your journey. Instead of accepting a path, wouldn't you rather draw your own map?

3) The Exercise vs The Flesh that Wields It

An exercise is but an empty shell until animated by the spirit. One person's 5x5 workout can be vastly different than another's. There are variable which can be hard to measure but make all the difference in a program- intent, conviction, belief, passion, desire. As the old saying goes, the best program done half-assed will not get you as much results as a half-assed program done... well.. full-assed? Okay, I may have taken some liberties on that saying but you get the idea. Coaches know this heart element is a hard thing to teach someone but they've also found a time-tested way of instilling it. That special ingredient is the culture and environment you create around training. When you have training partners or simply a training space where there is a shared goal and work ethic, then a certain magic is created. Some gyms transcend rooms designated to exercise and transform into sacred temples of strength. Although it seems to be a dying business model, some training facilities still cultivate a sense of pride and honor. What do you expect out of your training? What do the people around you expect? These things make a difference.


Train with Meaning,


The Task Oriented Training Program

*I am Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 

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