Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Illustrated by Justin Sweet
Trade Paperback, 319 p., $15.95
It’s been a while since I read any of the Kull stories. I think the last time I read one was when I was an undergraduate, but I may have been in graduate school. (We’ve talked about that memory and age thing before. At least I think we have. I seem to recall we did.) Why it’s taken me so long to get back to these stories, I’m not entirely sure. Other demands on my reading time, mostly, including other Robert E. Howard works I hadn’t read.
Anyhoo, in the intervening years since I last read Kull, I’ve grown and (hopefully) matured. So I thought I’d take a fresh look at these tales. In some circles, Kull is often thought of as a prototype Conan, an opinion that’s only reinforced by the fact that the first Conan story was a rewrite of an unsold Kull tale. But is that really so? Howard, in spite of his critics, was quite adept at characterization. I’m not sure I buy that idea, even though I have to admit that when I was much younger, I did pick up on the similarities between the two characters more than their differences. It’s time to take a fresh look. Over the next half year or so, I’ll be examining them in some detail. I’m using the Del Rey edition with the story fragments and synopses, even though I own a copy of the Subterranean slipcased edition. That edition is out of print and probably beyond the budget of many people. The stories are the same in both volumes.
Oh, and these posts about Kull will contain spoilers. So if you haven’t read the story (or stories) under discussion, you might want to keep that in mind. You have been notified.
Howard began thirteen Kull stories between 1926 and 1930, and he completed ten of them before moving on to other characters. Of those ten, only three saw publication in his lifetime, and one of those is a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull is brought forward in time to play a major role. The first story in the book is an untitled story that was published under the title “Exile of Atlantis” in 1967 in the Lancer paperback King Kull. Not counting the full page illustration facing the first page of text, it’s only seven pages long, and that includes the illustrations on six pages.
The storyline is simple. Kull, Gor-na, and his son Am-ra are talking over dinner at their wilderness camp. What they’re doing in the wilderness, we’re never told. The whole discussion centers around Kull’s disdain for some of the tribal traditions. It seems he’s been adopted into Gor-na’s tribe, which is the Sea Mountain tribe. Kull doesn’t know who his tribe is. Rather he “was a hairless ape roaming in the woods” who “could not speak the language of men.” If that sounds a little like Mowgli from Kipling’s Jungle Books, it shouldn’t surprise you that Kipling was one of the writers who influenced Howard. We aren’t given any details of how Kull came to live with the Sea Mountain tribe or how he learned to speak.
The talk then turns to the troubles Atlantis has had with Valusia and the Seven Empires. Kull isn’t as impressed with them as Gor-na is. He even expresses a desire to one day see Valusia. Gor-na tells him if he does, it will be as a slave. There is also mention made of Lemurian pirates causing trouble. After some further discussion, the men get some sleep. During the night, Kull has a dream in which he is hailed as a king by a large crowd.
The next morning the men return to the tribe’s caves to discover a young woman is to be burned at the stake for the crime of marrying a Lemurian pirate. The only person who seems to show some sympathy is Am-ra, whose “strange blue eyes were sad and compassionate.” Even the girl’s mother screams for her death. Kull thinks this punishment is a bit much, but he isn’t in a position to rescue her. The best he can do is offer her a quick death rather than a slow painful one. He catches her eye and touches the hilt of his flint dagger. She gives him a small nod, and he throws the dagger, piercing her heart.
The enraged mob, cheated of their vengeance, turns on Kull, who has already begun to climb the cliff next to the village and escape. He is saved from being hit by an arrow when Am-ra bumps the archer’s arm.
And that’s all there is to this story. It might not look like a lot, but it seems to me the point here is to establish a little bit of Kull’s backstory and define his character. In this Howard is successful. Kull is a man who is not afraid, either of battle or of asking unpopular questions. He does the right thing as he sees it, even when he’s the only one willing to take a stand. In this story, doing so costs him his home. We know from the foreshadowing in the dream that Kull will one day see Valusia, not as a traveler but as its king.
While the action in the story is not at the level of what many readers expect from Howard, the noble barbarian is there. Remember, this was years before a certain Cimmerian made his way through the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age. Howard was beginning to develop the themes he would return to again and which would occupy a great deal of his thoughts. To return to certain themes over a period of time, developing and perfecting them, is not an uncommon thing for an author to do.
I don’t know when this story was written. I seem to recall someone (I want to say Rusty Burke) had put together a timeline of the known composition dates and best estimates of the rest of Howard’s work, but I can’t find it online. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. In his afterward “Atlantean Genesis”, Patrice Louinet states it was either between July 1925 and January 1926 or between August and September 1926. Whether the story was ever submitted for publication is unknown. This would make it one of the earliest stories Howard wrote in his career.
What I did find interesting is that Kull seems to have grown out of an abortive series of stories and poems about Am-ra of the Ta-an. These consist of two poems (one only five lines long) plus three fragments. All are included in this book. In a letter now lost, but quoted by Alvin Earl Perry in A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard (1935), Howard talks about a story in which a minor character takes over. “Exile of Atlantis” is the only story we know of that fits this description.
None of these things should be surprising. It has been well documented that Howard would sometimes reuse names from earlier stories, sometimes altering them slightly, sometimes not. Even a certain Cimmerian was known as Amra for a while in his wanderings. An interesting side note to this point, Amra of Akbitana appears in “The Frost King’s Daughter”, which was published in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan under the title “Gods of the North” and later rewritten as the Conan story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, the second in the Conan series.
Or to put it this way, what we are seeing with “Exile of Atlantis” is Howard stretching himself as a writer. The events of the story may be dismissed as minor by the casual reader, but to do so would be a mistake. I maintain that this is an important tale, especially if it was the first Kull story written, which it seems to be. “Exile of Atlantis” is an example of Howard beginning to stretch himself and warm up, to use an track analogy, before beginning to sprint and hit his stride with his later works.