Thursday, March 5, 2009


For anybody who doesn’t know – and if you don’t, what have you been doing – Robert E. Howard was and remains one of the key figures in the development of modern fantasy fiction. His most famous creation, Conan, can probably take his place with such literary figures as Dracula and Sherlock Holmes in that minor pantheon of fictional characters who have taken on a life of their own after the death of their creator.

Like Holmes and Dracula, Conan has gone on to appear in countless works by other hands – most notably L. Sprague De Camp, Lin Carter, Robert Jordan and Karl Edward Wager – as well as appearing in comics, video games and two feature films starring Arnold Schwartzenegger (three if you count Red Sonja where his character is Conan by another name).

Yet before Conan there was another barbarian who sprang from the fertile mind of Robert E. Howard – Kull, exile of Atlantis.

Often unfairly dismissed as little more than a prototype for the more famous Cimmerian, Kull is a fascinating character in his own right, the stories often philosophical in tone and touched with a macabre atmosphere that lends them further weight.

There are similarities, of course, between Kull and Conan, both are barbarians-in-exile (Conan from Cimmeria and Kull from Atlantis) who seize a kingdom, both are men of action who find themselves alienated from civilised society by both nature and nurture and, in more concrete literary terms, the King Kull story By This Axe I Rule became the basis for the first published Conan story The Phoenix On The Sword.

But to my mind, Kull is the more interesting of the two: less of an innocent abroad than Conan, more world-weary (uneasy lies the head that wears the crown), a man who is searching for answers and his place in the world rather than an adventurer who regards the world as his playground.

The majority of the Kull stories remained unpublished during Howard’s lifetime, perhaps because they were so out of step with the action-oriented style of the pulps (the Conan story ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ suffered a similar fate despite being one of the finest Conan tales) and only three –The Shadow Kingdom, Kings Of The Night and the Mirrors Of Tuzun Thune - saw the light of day prior to the rediscovery of Robert E. Howard in the 1960’s.

Yet the stories still remain largely unappreciated and undervalued, which is unfair on them. There is action aplenty in stories such as The Shadow Kingdom and By This Axe I Rule. But other Kull tales such as The Cat and the Skull (aka Delcardes’ Cat) The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and The Striking of the Gong show another side to Howard’s writing, one in which action is sublimated by introspection – in these stories Kull finds himself placed in danger as a result of his own intellect and curiosity rather by a simple physical threat, and it is this aspect of the character that sets him apart from the swarm of muscle-bound barbarian heroes that followed in Conan’s wake.

Another delight of the Kull stories is the rich supporting cast with which Howard surrounded his hero – Brule the Spearslayer, once an antagonist who becomes Kull’s boon companion, Ka-nu the wily Pictish statesman, Tu the Chief Counsellor who provides a stark, and sometimes comical, counterpart to Kull himself – there is a sense of cohesion and a hint of the epic in the saga of King Kull which the Conan stories sometimes lack. Added to this is Howard’s muscular, energetic prose which, certainly in terms of pulp fiction, was streets ahead of the majority of his contemporaries.

Kull with a single mighty leap hurled himself into the room. Tu spun, but the blinding, tigerish speed of the attack gave him no chance for defence or counterattack. Sword steel flashed in the dim light and grated on bone as Tu toppled backward, Kull's sword standing out between his shoulders. The Shadow Kingdom

Then came a day when Kull seemed to catch glimpses of strange lands; there flitted across his consciousness dim thoughts and recognitions. Day by day he had seemed to lose touch with the world; all things had seemed each succeeding day more ghostly and unreal; only the man in the mirror seemed like reality. Now Kull seemed to be close to the doors of some mightier worlds; giant vistas gleamed fleetingly; the fogs of unreality thinned; "form is shadow, substance is illusion; they are but shadows" sounded as if from some far country of his consciousness. He remembered the wizard's words and it seemed to him that now he almost understood--form and substance, could not he change himself at will, if he knew the master key that opened this door? What worlds within what worlds awaited the bold explorer? The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

Del Ray’s rather handsome 2006 edition of Kull, Exile of Atlantis, collects all the Kull stories including a number of unfinished drafts and fragments and some earlier scraps featuring Am Ra of the Ta-an (himself an earlier incarnation of both Kull and Conan) and features stunning interior artwork from Justin Sweet

Indispensable reading for those interested in the evolution of fantasy fiction, fascinating for those who wish to explore the literary origins of Conan and a bloody good read for anyone who likes their sword and sorcery with an intelligent and philosophical twist, the Kull stories deserve to be re-evaluated and rediscovered once more.

No comments:

Post a Comment