The Atlantean Sword

Music has never been a big part of my life. That may seem very weird to most people, but it’s true. I never owned any music CDs, and the total cumulative time I spent listening to music as a teenager may be best represented by the Arabic numeral that resembles a circle (namely 0). In later years I’ve tried to experiment a little, and perhaps one of the things that has best helped me to understand and appreciate the role of music have been film soundtracks. Coming across the Alan Smithee cut of Dune helped immensely, demonstrating that it was no use having extra scenes if the mood of the movie was mutilated by a mistimed and mangled soundtrack.

Which takes me onto today’s scene. It may not be a popular opinion, but I genuinely believe Conan the Barbarian is a work of art, something that stands far above the standard Sword and Sorcery film of the 80s (I enjoy many of those too, but they are guilty pleasures). That’s not to say it doesn’t have have silly and schlocky stuff in it, as well as several scenes that are perhaps best skipped over. But I do not think the film as a whole has received the critical reaction it has deserved. Its cinematography is amazing (and from what I understand actually rediscovered some lost camera techniques), the battle scenes are clear and exciting, and there are a number of good performances (including – at least some of the time – from Arnold himself).

But perhaps one of the reasons it has been so under-appreciated (but one of the reasons I love it) is that its approach to story telling is so different from that of most films made in the West. There’s very little dialogue. Rather the burden of the story telling falls on the occasional monologue by the really good actors (Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones and so on), and upon the soundtrack itself. Basil Poledouris created for this film what I think is the greatest film soundtrack of all time, not least because how well integrated it is to the story telling in the film itself.

But since it is better to show rather than tell (or in this case, show and tell), here’s one particular scene that stands out, coming shortly after Conan has been freed by his slave master:

There’s so much I could say about this scene. It starts off with some silly patented Arnie sounds as he falls down the hole, which I’m sure connoisseurs of “eeaaarrrggghhh” really appreciate. After that however, as Conan finds himself in this tomb of the ancient world, the scene becomes achingly beautiful. The ability of this scene to evoke such a particular atmosphere – one filled with awe and mystery – dwarfs what I’ve seen in any other comparable fantasy film. It’s common for youtube comments to make statements like “they don’t make films like this any more”, but the truth is that few people made any films like this at all. And underpinning the scene, creating the atmosphere and telling the story is Poledouris’ soundtrack, for only one word is actually spoken in the entire (“Crom!”).

It’s such a wonderfully evocative piece. The low notes seem to me as if they could be the actual voices of the dead kings, speaking low out of the dust. There is an air of long-forgotten, long-dead power and grandeur. Then Conan finds the sword, which seems fitting, considering the role of swords both in mythology generally, and especially the role of steel as a motif throughout this film.  As Conan attempts to uncover the sword, the skeleton of the ancient monarch moves. In a more generic Sword and Sorcery flick (indeed, possibly in the original short stories), the skeleton would attack. But here it does not: it slumps over, its helm falling to the ground, its head bowed. The movement is ambiguous: it could simply be coincidence, the result of disturbing the body. And yet at the same time it appears as if the ancient king is paying respect to Conan, passing on the sword to its new inheritor. The soundtrack shifts, almost to one of mourning and of lost glories. It is at this point Arnold says his one line, but “Crom!” here is not simply an exclamation. Conan is being reminded of what his father taught him before his village got wiped out: of Crom, deep in the earth, of the riddle of steel and how men learned its secret.

Up to this point, Conan has still been a slave. While he had been freed by his former master, he did not actually want to go, and had to be driven away. While instructed in many arts, his will has been forgotten, and so it is fitting that to this point his still has his shackles on him, for he still wears slavery’s shackles on his mind. But with this sequence, claiming the sword also seems to be a reclamation of his identity and will. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” asks the villain, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) later in the film, and here the sword appears to be a symbol of strength of will and character that Conan now reclaims. As the music moves to a triumphant note, it is fitting that as Conan now emerges from the tomb he uses the sword to strike the remaining shackles from his feet, a slave no longer. All this, in a sequence that has but one spoken word. One may almost not notice how the breaking of the shackles is perfectly choreographed with the soundtrack.

And rather hilariously, we see the wolves move to attack, Conan give a determined look… and then in the next scene (not shown above), we see him wearing wolf-skins… I honestly love this film.

Edit: And for a critical take that does engage with the film as more than it is often caricatured as, I’ve come across this article here: A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian by David C. Smith

Jacob 5

Everything I said about Jacob 4, in terms of being able to mention all sorts of things, applies even more to Jacob 5. Most of chapter four of my thesis is a detailed examination of Jacob 5, and I can confidently say after that exercise that there’s a lot to examine. I’ve also happened to post about Jacob 5 before in part, in commenting on an article that I felt was inadequate in its approach to the allegory. So there’s a lot that could be said, and a lot that I have said elsewhere.

What struck me reading through it this time though was the very first few verses (Jacob 5:1-3):

Behold, my brethren, do ye not remember to have read the words of the prophet Zenos, which he spake unto the house of Israel, saying:

Hearken, O ye house of Israel, and hear the words of me, a prophet of the Lord.

For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.

Aside from the incongruity of a olive tree in a vineyard (something I do happen to discuss in the thesis), this opening reminded of thoughts I had when I was first writing the chapter, and unravelling the vast number of ways in which Jacob 5 connects to biblical passages that use olive tree imagery. It’s one of those things where the more you dig down, the more complex the issue actually gets. Scholarship tends to be very focused on the issue of where such ideas came from, and Jacob 5 has attracted similar commentary. But who first used the Olive Tree to symbolise Israel? The deeper one digs the more it seems like a chicken and egg scenario where it’s not quite clear what influenced what (assuming direct contact at all). And of course, Zenos does not attribute this image to himself but directly to the Lord.

It’s while I was thinking of this chicken and egg issue that my mind turned to a couple of other scriptural passages:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

(2 Nephi 11:4)

And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.

(Moses 6:63)

From these verses we learn that all things given by God typify Christ, and that all things are created – both spiritual and temporal – to bear record of God, Christ and the plan of salvation (see Moses 6:62). With these verses in mind, I wondered if this whole thing went even further? Perhaps it’s not an issue of ascribing who first used the olive tree to represent Israel to any one author, even God? With the above verses in mind, is it not possible that the Olive Tree was purposely created and permitted to have the traits that it has, precisely so that it might serve as such a symbol (for God would know of the destiny of Israel)? In other words, is it the symbol that came first, before the actual tree and even the world itself was created?

2020 Edit:

Ah, Jacob 5 my old friend. I’ve written and published extensively on Jacob 5 elsewhere, so for a more exhaustive look at the chapter, I’d refer you to chapter four of The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible.

While reading over it the past couple of days, however, what stood out most in my mind was the perseverance the Lord of the vineyard (who symbolises variously the Father, or Christ; symbols in this allegory should not be taken as referring to one and only one thing) displays in his care for the trees of his vineyard. Facing the corruption of the initial tree he works diligently upon it, and when it becomes clear that main branches are continuing in their corruption, he implements the plan to remove the corrupt branches, plant the young and tender branches elsewhere, and to graft wild branches into the main tree.

When at a later stage – after lengthy labour on his part, and a period in which the main tree and the satellite trees have all borne good fruit – he finds all the trees have become corrupted, he expresses his lament, his frustration at their corruption despite all his labours evident:

And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?

Behold, I knew that all the fruit of the vineyard, save it were these, had become corrupted. And now these which have once brought forth good fruit have also become corrupted; and now all the trees of my vineyard are good for nothing save it be to be hewn down and cast into the fire.

And behold this last, whose branch hath withered away, I did plant in a good spot of ground; yea, even that which was choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard.

And thou beheldest that I also cut down that which cumbered this spot of ground, that I might plant this tree in the stead thereof.

And thou beheldest that a part thereof brought forth good fruit, and a part thereof brought forth wild fruit; and because I plucked not the branches thereof and cast them into the fire, behold, they have overcome the good branch that it hath withered away.

And now, behold, notwithstanding all the care which we have taken of my vineyard, the trees thereof have become corrupted, that they bring forth no good fruit; and these I had hoped to preserve, to have laid up fruit thereof against the season, unto mine own self. But, behold, they have become like unto the wild olive tree, and they are of no worth but to be hewn down and cast into the fire; and it grieveth me that I should lose them.

But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh. And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire that they should be burned. Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?

(Jacob 5:41-47)

Yet while he suggests there is now not much more to be done than to “hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire” (v. 49), and it is the servant who urges him to spare the trees a little longer (v. 50), it is the Lord of the vineyard who introduces the plan of another lengthy programme of labour to save all the trees (vv. 51-69): returning the natural branches to the mother tree; grafting branches from the mother tree onto the satellite trees; pruning, dunging and digging about the trees; and plucking off and burning the branches with the most bitter fruit in a careful fashion so as to not overwhelm the remaining branches.

I’m sure the Lord would be justified in being most frustrated with us, individually and collectively, for how despite his aid, blessing and invitations we continue to go astray and do wrong. And yet, again and again, he is prepared to perform a lengthy work in us, in order that we might be spared and might bear good fruit.

2 Nephi 19

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

… For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.

(2 Nephi 19:2, 6-7//Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

I’ve spent some time (okay, a lot of time) on this blog lamenting particular developments in the world. And I’m pessimistic about the current future of Western civilization. But the message of the gospel is ultimately one of hope, on both a personal and a collective level. Through Christ, each of us personally can be saved from sin and death, and He promises to “wipe away every tear” of his people (Revelations 21:4), and make right all our sorrows. Collectively, there will come a time when He will reign, and the Earth will be at rest, and governed in peace and justice. Bad stuff may happen in the meantime, but these too will pass; while the immediate future may sometimes be dim, God’s light will shine, and will shine forever. And if we are faithful, we will be blessed to walk in that light forevermore.

2020 edit:

As is true, really, for all of these chapters, 2 Nephi 19//Isaiah 9 shows the same trait that Isaiah displays of speaking in such a way that his words are applicable to multiple different situations, separated by thousands of years, at the same time. Thus on one hand he’s addressing the situation the nation of Judah faces there and then, with Israel (the Northern kingdom) and Syria allied against it, and promises deliverance for Judah and judgment on those that oppose it. His words about a forthcoming ruler can surely apply in part to the next king, Hezekiah, who would indeed be one of the greatest and most righteous kings that Judah would ever have. There have likewise presumably been many situations since affecting Israel to which these words can be applied. But of course the complete fulfilment of these verses, the antitype to the type, the one who would be a “great light” (beginning in the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – which includes Nazareth – and Galilee), who would be the one who would be rightfully called “the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”, is Christ, both on his mortal ministry and in his reappearance and forthcoming millennial rule yet to come.