Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p. $17
There are three stories left in the Kull series, and they are “By This Axe I Rule!”, “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, and “Kings of the Night”. I’m going to skip “By This Axe I Rule!” for reasons I’ll explain at the end of the post. Instead, let’s turn our attention to “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, shall we?
In his afterward to this volume, “Hyborian Genesis”, Patrice Louinet says that this story was probably written sometime around June of 1929. That makes perfect sense, considering the opening paragraph. Here are a few lines describing conditions in the city of Valusia:
“The heat waves danced from roof to shining roof and shimmered against the smooth marble walls. The purple towers and golden spires were softened in the faint haze. No ringing hoofs on the wide paved streets broke the frowsy silence and the few pedestrians who appeared walking, did what they had to do hastily and vanished indoors again.”
I don’t know how many of you have ever dealt with a Texas summer, but that’s a pretty good description of what it’s like. A high pressure dome typically forms over the state, what winds happen to blow are hot, and the air is hazy. This passage strikes me as Howard incorporating what he knew (and may have been living at the time) into his fiction. The description is perfect.
The city is a powder keg waiting to explode. The people have prospered under Kull’s rule, and consequently they have forgotten how they suffered under the tyranny of his predecessor and how they welcomed him when he took the throne.
Add to this, our old friend Delcartes is still around pestering Kull to command her father the Count to allow her to marry the commoner of her choice. (It’s a different person than in the earlier story. Young love is so fickle.) Kull of course refuses, in part because he doesn’t want to interfere in a family matter on general principles, but also because Delcartes’ father is one of Kull’s closest friends and strongest supporters.
There’s a conspiracy against Kull, of course. Betrayals and intrigues. And an intense combat scene where Kull defends Delcartes against a small company of soldiers at the top a stair in an abandoned ruin.
One thing the story doesn’t have, that many of the other Kull tales do, is a lot of existential philosophy. Not that Howard didn’t include some philosophizing. He does, but it deals more with the weight of the crown Kull wears. In the opening scene, before Delcartes enters the audience chamber, Kull and Brule are talking. Kull laments the fickleness of the people he rules. Here we see Howard’s fascination with the cycles of empire, where the established empire becomes soft and weak, only to be overthrown by the barbarians, and the cycle starts over again.
Consider Kull’s words to Brule: “The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me. That is the price a nation must pay for decaying – the strong young people come in and take possession, one way or another.”
Later after Delcarrtes leaves (not before her father arrives), Kull shows extreme sensitivity to the man, who is expecting Kull to order him to allow the marriage. “Not for half my kingdom would I interfere with your family affairs, nor force you into a course unpleasant to you.”
Two things I want to comment on. First, we can see Howard’s philosophy of individual freedom at work here. Kull sympathizes with Delcartes, and if it were up to him, he would allow her to marry. He believes a person should be free to marry whomever he or she wishes. The point is made in more than one story. However, if Kull were to interfere and order the Count to allow his daughter to marry the man she loves, he would be in greater violation of this principle than her father in that he would deny the Count the freedom to manage his household as he wished without interference.
Second, Howard’s detractors often accuse him of writing hack-and-slash fantasy without any depth to his characters. They need to read Howard more closely. In “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, Howard shows Kull having more depth and sensitivity to his subjects needs and positions than he does in any of the stories we’ve considered to date. (I’m exempting “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of the Night” since we haven’t looked at them yet.) He does this again with Brule at the end of the tale, when Kull and Brule decide not to tell one of the recurring characters in the series that a relative of his has turned traitor because of what the news will do the man.
Lest you think this story is a touchy-feel-good piece of fluff, there’s plenty of action later in the tale. Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this particular piece by developing the characters and their backgrounds. By 1929 he was hitting his stride as a writer. While the Kull series may contain a number of fragments and false starts, they represent an important phase in his development.
Now, as to why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!” There are two stories left in the Del Rey edition. Both of them are significant, albeit in different ways. “By This Axe I Rule!” was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime. He would rewrite it a few years later as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the story that introduced the world to his most famous character, Conan of Cimmeria.
The other story, “Kings of the Night” is really a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a guest appearance. That story will be the launching point for a series of posts about Bran, and it will be the next post in this series.
I’m also going to do the same thing with Conan. The final Kull post will be a comparison of “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of the Night”. That will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories. The reason I’m doing this is because of the Conan movie that will be released in August. The movie will generate some, hopefully a great deal of, interest in Conan. My desire is that people doing a search for Conan will find these posts, read them, and then go read the original stories rather than the pastiches. (If they want to read the pastiches later, that’s fine with me, so long as they understand that Conan has Howard wrote him isn’t the same Conan as others wrote him.)
I’m not gong to do the Conan stories in order, or even look at all of them. I’ve already discussed “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” at length and see no need to repeat myself on that one. What I’m going to do is pick and choose among my favorites (which will be most of them), although I don’t know if I’ll look at Hour of the Dragon simply because of its length. I’ll start the posts sometime in July, when interest in the movie should be picking up and do a post every two weeks or so, shifting to at least a post once a week near the movie’s release, and continuing until I burn out, interest in the movie drops off, or I cover all of the Conan stories.
The Bran Mak Morn posts should start up by the first of July. They’ll run concurrently with the Conan series, although not as frequently.
And that’s why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”