And so we reach the end of our look at the Kull stories (almost; I’ll have some general comments in a separate post) and the first of the Conan posts. I’m looking at both of these because the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, is a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”.
“By This Axe” isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a particularly good one, certainly not be the standards Howard had set in some of the other Kull installments. There are two main aspects to the plot. First, a group of dissatisfied men, two noblemen, a guard captain, and a poet, have recruited a former diplomat turned bandit, Ascalante, to help them overthrow Kull. This portion of the story is the better half.
The second portion of the plot concerns a young nobleman who wishes to marry a young slave girl who happens to be owned by one of the conspirators. This type of situation seems to be a recurrent theme in the Kull series, mostly in stories not published in Howard’s lifetime. Kull’s Councilor Tu insists that for a nobleman to marry a slave is simply not done; it would violate a centuries old law.
Kull sneaks out of the palace to wander the woods for a few hours. He feels like a slave himself. There’s a great deal of discussion on Kull’s part at various places in the story about how holding a throne is much more difficult than taking it. During his walk in the woods, he encounters a young girl weeping. Not recognizing him, she tells him that she’s a slave in love with a nobleman, who went to the king to request permission to marry. Kull is sympathetic, but argues the king has to abide by the laws himself.
The rest of the story concerns the conspiracy attempting to assassinate Kull and failing. In the end, he uses his axe to smash the stone tablet on which is written the law forbidding slaves and nobility to marry. He declares that he is the law.
It’s easy to see why Farnsworth Wright rejected this story when Howard submitted it to Weird Tales
. The whole romance subplot basically ruins the story. The slave girl comes across as both childish and childlike. She speaks of being spanked as punishment by her master at one point. She’s weepy and clingy. And her dialogue reminds me of early Shirley Temple movies or child characters in Victorian novels, all sweetness and earnestness. There’s was no way I was buying that this girl and the nobleman were madly in love. That whole aspect of the story had an almost pedaeophilic tone to it. I’m sure Howard didn’t intend anything of the sort. It’s just a combination of his still developing skill as a writer and my twenty-first century cultural concerns coming together. Still, the whole thing gave me the creeps.
One thing did make me wonder just what Howard was dealing with in his own life when he wrote this story. At one point the girl deeclares: “Why should laws not change? Time never stands still! Why should people today be shackled by laws which were made for our barbarian ancestors thousands of years ago-” It sounds like Howard may have been feeling a little bit shackled and enslaved by the culture he was living in. I know from first-hand experience that small towns in that part of Texas can be extremely conformist in their outlook, and in the 1920s I’m sure it was much worse. Howard was in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I suspect was still feeling some of the natural rebellion of youth that questions why things have to be the same as they were. This is entirely speculation on my part, but it fits with what I know about Howard and my experiences in similar environments.
“The Phoenix on the Sword”, while not one of Howard’s best stories, and certainly not the best of the Conan tales, is clearly the work of a more mature writer. Howard drops the whole romance subplot, and instead introduces a villain whose hand would be felt in a couple of other stories, the Stygian sorceror Thoth-amon. He’s a slave to the bandit as the tale opens, having lost a ring by which he maintains his power. Of course he finds it, and uses it to wreack his revenge by sending a creature from the Outer Darkness against the bandit. This is the only thing that saves Conan. The creature attacks during the assassination attempt. In the Kull story, it’s the nobleman who saves the day.
There’s also a new scene in which Conan in a cream meets a wise man who died fifteen hundred years earlier. This man tells Conan that his fate and that of Aquilonia, the kingdom Conan rules, are entertwined. He places a phoenix emblem on Conan’s sword, which is what allows Conan to kill the supernatural creature.
The scenes retained from “By This Axe”, portions of the conspiracy, Conan complaining about the duties of ruling, and the assassination scence are to a large extent unchanged except for some of the names. Only when Howard made significant changes to the plot, such as the addition of the creature in the fianl fight, does he engage in any extensive rewriting. Since the parts he retained were by far the better passages, this doesn’t hurt the story any.
Unlike the Kull series, the Conan stories weren’t written in any kind of chronological order, but jumpmed about throughout the character’s life. Also, Kull has no interest in women. Conan has plenty. Even a casual reading of the two series will reveal that, while there are similarities, Kull isn’t simply Conan-lite.
So, we’ve looked at all the Kull stories mostly in the order they appear in the current edition from Del Rey. I’ll be jumping around more with the Conan stories, looking at whichever one I’m in the mood to read at a given time. I’ll also be giving fewer spoilers in the Conan posts. With the movie less than a month away, I suspect I’ll pick up one or two new readers. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun for those who haven’t read the originals.