Updated: Aug 23, 2022
To fuel effort, feel vigor, and awaken the barbarian inside, we need inspiration. And inspiration often comes through myth and history. So where better to start than Conan! When hammering through another week of digital work and responsibility, it's healthy to imagine ourselves as barbarians running through the wind towards the black iron left upon our own battlefield: the gym.
"Crom is your god and he lives in the earth. Once giants lived in the earth, Conan, and in the darkness of chaos they fooled Crom; they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered, and the earth shook, and fire and wind struck down these giants, and threw their bodies into the waters. But 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. And 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… This you can trust [points to his sword].”
– Screenwriter, John Milius, Conan the Barbarian
Imagine Conan the Barbarian running towards adventure across the Eurasian Steppe, sword sheathed behind his back and long black hair whipping in the wind. Inspiring, right?
When I picture this scene, I either want to join an outlaw biker gang or walk into my garage gym and jack steel like a Crom-loving barbarian. Thinking long-term, I choose the latter option. Weight training gives me what Conan had, what I want, and what every modern-day barbarian needs: Vigor!
In his Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger (ya know, Conan), advises us to visualize ourselves as “a mythic hero, a barbarian warrior, Conan!” In doing so, Arnold writes, you can “summon up energies from deep in your subconscious” to fuel your workouts. “No matter how mellow, laid back, or even timid a person you are,” he continues, “these forces are present within you and can be evoked to push you to superhuman feats.”
To harness the deep energies that ignite us to superhuman feats, we need inspiration. And inspiration is often in short supply as we drag ourselves through another week of digital work and responsibility. Which is why it’s healthy to imagine ourselves as barbarians running through lonesome winds across dusky hills towards the black iron awaiting us. When I allow my imagination to run wild and envision myself as a barbarian, I’m fired up to train like one.
So here's what matters: Though Conan isn’t real, he still inspires me to do real shit. When I see Conan swing his sword, I want to swing iron in the gym. And though he’s fantasy, Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, was inspired by actual warriors throughout history who trained and fought like Conan. Take the medieval Normans, who according to historian Tom Holland, were a race of predators forged from steel, descended from Vikings, and addicted to war.
Whether it’s the invented Conan or the actual Normans, both myth and history can motivate us towards real-life Vigor on our own battlefield: the gym.
So let’s take a deeper dive into the Normans and Conan. Why? Well let me ask you this dear barbarian: Why the hell not?!
Norman Warriors Lifted Weights and Conquered England
Norman boys and girls grew up swinging steel with callused grips. Historian Tom Holland describes their world as one of “sweat and iron” where they trained with weighted swords to gain strength for the mayhem of medieval combat. Growing up, young Normans also hunted wild beasts through dark forests and shivered though icy Gallic winds to toughen their bodies for war. In 1066 AD, that war came when these hard muscular men conquered England. Like Conan, the Normans had cracked “the secret of steel” with sheer determined effort.
Like Caesar’s legions one thousand years before, the wild-eyed Normans crossed the English Channel and landed on the south shores of Britain. Soon after, their leader William the Conqueror, led an uphill Norman charge against the defending Anglo-Saxons at one of the most consequential battles every fought: The Battle of Hastings. As they charged and fought, the burly Normans swung their iron for rep after rep after rep -- splitting skulls, hacking limbs, and gaining ground.
As the fields frothed with blood, Norman muscle, conditioned after years of swinging heavier practice swords won the day. Unlike the Romans, the Saxons, and the Danes before them, they conquered all of England. For the next 900-plus years since the Battle of Hastings, no one — not even the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or Hitler’s Third Reich — has conquered England. The muscular Normans did. And for my own reasons of inspiration, I choose to believe they conquered England because they trained like demons with heavy iron.
Conan Lifted Weights and Gained Purpose
Like the Normans, Conan also faced crucibles of iron and blood. In the beginning of John Milius’ grand epic, a young Conan is orphaned and enslaved after Thulsa Doom kills his parents. Sentenced to a lifetime of servitude, Conan is introduced to “the wheel of pain,” a large mill with protruding arms pushed by slaves around and around in a circle until they exhaust and die.
For twenty years, as every other slave presumably dies off, Conan keeps pushing the wheel of pain – and keeps growing in size. The anvil did not break him, it just made him stronger. And out of this crucible of pain and toil emerged a hulking man hammered with a tenacious will and unbreakable stamina.
When the red bearded man finally arrives on horseback, he notices Conan pushing the entire wheel of pain by himself. He buys Conan on the spot and over the horizon they go, Conan running beside his horse-mounted master towards far off lands to the north and east, where Conan will train and learn about the enigma of steel.
Slashing men open in the fighting pit, Conan the Gladiator begins to gain confidence as a warrior. With one pit fighting victory after the next, his chronicler tells us, “Conan began to gather his sense of worth. [That] he mattered.” Through a tenacious effort, Conan gained mastery with the iron. As a result, he began to value himself as a man and not as a slave.
Conan’s god was not Crom. Conan’s god was the Iron — the almighty and unforgiving iron. His form of prayer was effort. His reward was Vigor. As a result, he was a barbarian. Actually, let’s be honest, he was and is “the Barbarian.”
Through intense exercise at the wheel of pain and inside the fighting pit Conan solved the riddle of steel. He discovered that the steel didn’t care about his tough morning, lack of sleep, busy day, or any other excuse. The steel he learned does not forgive. The enigma of steel is that it’s only as good as the man who wields it. And a man is only as good as his effort.
It was only when Conan ignited his effort and moved the steel that he noticed a change in himself. Conan began to trust himself and love himself as a mighty and powerful being. For the first time, he felt in control of his life. It was only then, as the chronicler tells us, that “Conan became a king.”
The stories of Conan, Norman history, and other barbarian lore can inspire us, as Arnold notes, to summon our deepest energies and achieve superhuman feats. The iron is a tool to get us there. When we grip it, we feel its ancient power. When we move it, we feel our barbarian vigor.
So next time you leave the gym, feel free to mutter these three Latin words to yourself, something the mighty Caesar said so long ago: “Veni. Vidi. Vici.”
“I came. I saw. I conquered.”