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My contention (once I got past my teenage years) was that the Wheel of Pain, in the original Conan the Barbarian (1982) movie, was supposed to be allegorical—a symbol of Conan's difficult upbringing as a slave. Most people, however, seem to view it as literal—that he had to push this wheel around for ~10 years, presumably as a grain mill.

Is there some kind of source, either in the movie or outside of the movie, that could explain this more definitively? Answers claiming "it's totally such-and-such" without supporting evidence are okay (though more than one answer of the same kind should be avoided in lieu of voting up a pre-existing one), and no answer without some kind of support will be marked as accepted. 

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  • 1
    I always think "man, this damn thing everyday for such a long time!". I actually never thought that it could be alegorical, as it is even depicted (if I remember correctly) and the whole movie is very straight to the point. But interresting question actually.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 9, 2011 at 23:06
  • After some research this seems indeed to be an everlasting discussion. It seems John Milius said he wrote it as a "symbol of the fruitless toil of life and at first did not designate a purpose for it". But then again, was it a real wheel that also symbolizes something or was it a symbolic wheel?
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 10, 2011 at 1:19
  • Hmm...seems they got that from the commentary. I should see if I can try that for a source...
    – Beska
    Dec 10, 2011 at 18:32
  • I thought it was meant to explain how he was so strong, as I recall there was a donkey/Ox helping him, at the start, but at the end he is by himself.
    – AidanO
    Jan 23, 2012 at 16:07
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    In the real world, there is a form of punishment/slavery that is almost an exact analog of the wheel of pain: galley slaves. It's not uncommon for galley slaves to spend more than 10 years (sometimes the rest of their lives) chained to an oar. So if such things really exist in the real world why should it be an allegory in Conan's universe?
    – slebetman
    Mar 9, 2016 at 4:26

5 Answers 5

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Ah, the Wheel Of Pain...

The Wheel Of Pain can be an allegory, if you wish. It can be a mill or a torture device or just a clever creation by a writer to explain how Conan got his Hanz and Franz on. But I believe the Wheel Of Pain is what it is. It is real. It is pain. I mean, never ending pain and mind numbing boredom and madness until the wheel itself, or the cold or the heat or some illness or injury, finally stops the hell you're living and you drop dead in your chains. Free at last. It is what it is, a wheel. With slaves to push it. Round and around and around, day after day, month after month, lifetime after lifetime, ad infinitum. It is what it is.

But why? To grind grain? Build muscles? Waste a lot of good slaves for no reason other than to waste them? No. The wheel is a brilliant device constructed by the War Masters in the East, where Conan is eventually taken to learn the "deepest secrets" of weapons and warfare.

The Riddle of Steel Every now and then, the Wheel of Pain reveals its terrible purpose for existing. On a very rare occasion, the Wheel of Pain does not destroy and grind a man to death. Instead, it creates one. Creates a man into something that is harder and stronger than any weapon of steel. A man of incredible strength in body and mind. Of the flesh. Most men chained to the wheel will go insane or die of exhaustion or from the elements. Or both. But the War Masters knew that a rare few would become the answer, become the truth to the Riddle: "steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger."
The Wheel, the War Master's wagered when they constructed it, would create a man who could master his flesh. Master body and mind and thus, master fear and pain. If that happened, the man would be ready to take the next step towards the "deepest secrets."

After the Wheel of Pain has fulfilled its purpose, the War Masters then order the raw material to be taken to the gladiator pit and set loose. There is never any doubt in the War Masters' beliefs that this newborn child of the Wheel will survive the pit. They know that no gladiator stands a chance against the child of the Wheel of Pain. The fights to the death are only meant to reawaken the emotions and instincts in the man, and to wake up the long subdued violence inside him. Only now, it is lightening in a bottle. The rage is controlled. The pain is controlled. The fear is controlled. Thought and body are chained to a mind of focused power that only the Wheel Of Pain could create. All the enemies of men who fight in combat, of the warrior, fear and doubt and pain, no longer threaten him. For they do not exist if he wishes it. He can bend his flesh to where there is no doubt or fear, or pain. There is only him. And in the pit, only he will remain. After waking the violence within by slaughtering countless gladiators in raw combat, the War Masters then order the man to be brought to them in the east. He is now ready to learn the "deepest secrets" of war and weaponry and fulfill the ultimate purpose of the Wheel of Pain. He has become the living answer to the Riddle of Steel. And now he will become a true warrior--a man, whose sole occupation, sole purpose and reason, is killing. Is war. Round and round. Day after day. Year after year. He will fight. No one can say if he is a good man or a bad one. No one will know why he fights or why he died. Not even the gods will know. He just is what he is. Real. Not a metaphor. Not an allegory. Just is. And that's all that matters and is important on the Wheel of Pain.

That my friends, is my Wheel Of Pain. No allegory in my opinion. No allegory can match it's simple but very real and terrible purpose. It is what it is...

When Conan rips the wheel necklace off his neck and replaces it with the eye of the serpent, he begins to diminish. Emotion has him once again. The lessons of the Wheel are then, over time, slowly forgotten until he loses control of his inner peace for good and spends the rest of his life restless and empty with the jeweled crown of Aquilonia resting "upon a troubled brow."

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  • "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."
    – Hitchmo
    Dec 24, 2016 at 23:25
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I always took this to be literal. Kind of like The Three Stooges meet Hercules, where he was chained to the galley and built up his muscles. Although in this case it was much more realistic as the made him switch sides so as to develop on both sides of his body.

Conan may have pushed the wheel the other way, although they didn't show that in the movie.

From Wikipedia:

Conan is chained to a large mill, the Wheel of Pain. Years of pushing the huge grindstone build up his muscles.

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I have been contemplating the fact that the pendant Conan wears around his neck is a smaller version of the Wheel. The same motif is seen in the banner of his gladiator master. As such, the wheel clearly resembles the dharmachakra of the buddhists. So, it is also an allegory, and a very rich one.

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The 'Wheel of Pain' is a literal (corn) flour mill.

You can see the flour in the video footage from the film. When the stone turns it's clearly coated in a white powder.

It's described in the original film script thusly;

THE WHEEL OF PAIN - EXT MOUNTAIN TOP

A great wheel of wood, forming a kind of primitive mill on a frozen plain of rock and Ice. The spokes of the wheel are heavy, weather-polished trunks of trees about thirty feet long. They are festooned with ice-clotted iron chains and manacles.

You can see a local farmer bringing a bag of grain to be milled in the bottom left of Ron Cobb's amazing concept art;

enter image description here

This is all backed up by the film's official novelisation which confirms that the wheel is a mill, grinding grain into cornflour for making bread.

Whenever the harvest proved lean, disputes arose among the Vanir. Some wished to reduce the slaves’ rations; others argued that, if the slaves starved, they could not work the mill wheel, and the whole town would lack for bread. These debates often took place among the townsfolk who brought their corn to be ground; and no one thought to spare the wretched slaves the furious arguments, since they were deemed too dull or ignorant to understand the spoken word.

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  • I haven't seen it in years, but in the movie (only?) isn't the wheel extracting water so that a small plant can be kept alive? (IIRC a camel will even eat it at one point?). Or am I mistaking?
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 16 at 17:05
  • @OldPadawan - It is not; youtube.com/watch?v=MCd-t3a0CVc
    – Valorum
    Mar 16 at 17:28
  • might be somewhere else (or the 2nd movie maybe...) or my memory fails me :) (not my DV btw)
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 17 at 7:13
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    @OldPadawan - Ask it as an ID question :-)
    – Valorum
    Mar 17 at 9:37
  • This, to me, is an argument that if it is allegory, it is a "realistic" one, rather than abstract.
    – Beska
    Mar 17 at 14:10
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I was recently reminded of this question, and it occurred to me I should at least answer why I believe it to be allegorical.

  • As time passes, people disappear from the wheel; eventually, only Conan is left, and we see that he has grown incredibly strong from the ordeal. This is a direct call-back to opening sequence that presents the famous statement "that which does not kill you makes you stronger". The weak have died over the long, hard years, while the only survivor is now the epitome of strength. (This "strength through adversity" motif is repeated throughout the film.)
  • After he is visibly removed from the wheel, it continues to be a symbol for him...worn around his neck, raised above the arena he is forced to fight in as a slave.
  • Even after he is "freed" from his overt slavery, he is bound by his need for vengeance; his joys are brief, and even the promise of a life of comfort and ease with his friends is rejected by him.
  • Finally, with the death of Valaria, when he is pushed beyond his limits, he forcibly rips the wheel symbol from his neck, replacing it with the necklace that he had previously given to her, symbolizing his putting the remnants of his slave past behind him, and focusing himself anew.

(I also think that this is mirrored in the philosophical conflict that Conan must face; the false dilemma of choosing between his father's Riddle of Steel, and Thulsa Doom's creed reflecting the power of singular focus of mind.)

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  • It's not allegorical. It's milling flour.
    – Valorum
    Mar 15 at 23:50
  • How would it having a specific overt purpose prevent it from being used as an allegory?
    – Beska
    Mar 17 at 12:53
  • I was responding to "The wheel seems to serve no specific purpose; slaves are simply bound to it and forced to push it. - Which is straight up incorrect.
    – Valorum
    Mar 17 at 13:23
  • Ahh. Hmm...I would think if the purpose was the important part, it would be made more obvious, but that's just opinion. Will remove.
    – Beska
    Mar 17 at 14:07

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