Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p., $17
In this post we’ll look at the last of the Kull fragments, with a close examination of the racial attitudes displayed in one of them. After that there are three lengthy and well known stories left to examine.
The first tale, although barely started (incomplete hardly comes close to describing this piece), has a title, “The Black City.” It takes place in the city Kamula, which seems from what few details are given to be something of a resort, to use modern terminology. It’s a place of art, music, and poetry.
Kull is in the throne room, wishing he could get some rest when Brule bursts in, vowing to tear the entire city apart. He and two other Picts, Grogar and Monaro, are hanging out when Grogar leans against a half column. The column shifts back into the wall, Grogar falls into the darkness behind it, and the column begins to shut. Monaro is able to get his sword in the crevice to prevent the hidden door from closing completely, but he and Brule are unable to open it again.
It’s at this point Brule goes for Kull. When they return, they find Monaro leaning against the wall in a listening posture. This doesn’t surprise Brule, because Monaro had sworn he could hear music.
Kull claps Monaro on the shoulder, and the man falls over, dead. There’s a look on his face that is both horror filled and indicative of listening. Kull looks at the blackness beyond the sword, which is still blocking the door, and thinks it’s almost something tangible. He can hear a ghostly piping.
And that’s where Howard stopped. It’s a shame, because while the opening and the trappings are fairly typical of what you find in sword and sorcery these days, and indeed they were becoming fairly stock in trade in Howard’s days, Howard uses them well. Sometimes it’s not so much how original an author’s trappings are, but how he uses them.
The second fragent has no title and is about the same length as “The Black City”. Kull and Brule are playing some type of game that seems to resemble chess, because Kull says his sorcerer threatens Brule’s warrior. A third man, a young noble named Ronaro.
In response to Kull’s gibe about his sorcerer threatening Brule’s warrior, Brule begins to tell a tale of his early youth when he faced a sorcerer. Unfortunately, we don’t get much more than a lead-in describing how the Picts organized their tribes.
What’s interesting here is how the men are described. Here’s what Howard said about them in the concluding sentence of his description: “about each of the three was that indefinable something which sets the superior man apart and shatters the delusion that all men were born equal.” Now Howard has taken a lot of flack, much of it misguided, over the years because how he presents race offends certain politically correct sensibilities. This is just the type of line some of those people like to take out of context. The preceding descriptions of the three individuals at the table emphasizes their accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of the ancestors of Brule and Ronaro. Kull knows nothing of his ancestry. The paragraph describing them begins thus: “But in the countenances of all three gleamed an equality beyond the shackles of birth and circumstance.”
This paragraph is about as far from racist as you can get. Especially when you take into account that Brule is described in both the fragments considered in this post as having skin that was noticeably darker than Kull’s and yet he’s Kull’s closest companion. It seems to me, at least as I read this fragment, that Howard is saying men are superior based on their achievements, not their race, and that when judged on the basis of achievement, men are not equal. He takes great pains to emphasize the differences in their backgrounds in the lengthy paragraph that precedes the one I’ve quoted from. In other words, the attitudes Howard displays here are quite egalitarian and much more advanced for his day than he is often given credit for.
There have been much better discussions of Howard’s racial views than what I’m presenting here. A thorough and complete examination of Howard’s view on race is well beyond the scope of this series, which focuses on Kull. I point out the passages here as evidence that Howard may have held more open racial views than he has been given credit for because this fragment isn’t well known and because it’s extremely well written.