Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kull’s Midlife Crisis

The short stories of Robert E. Howard are not known for philosophical depth or discussion.  Often he will elaborate on the very practical insight that it is best to preemptively kill those who would try to kill you.  But that is about as far as it goes.  No time for reflection; better unsheathe that sword or reload that pistol. This is what makes his The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune (1929) unique among his violent, action oriented tales. 

The story was published in Weird Tales in the same issue that featured H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound, Henry S. Whitehead’s The Lips, and part three of Edmond Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol.  Howard also had some of his poetry in this issue, (“The Moor Ghost”).

The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune is probably one of Howard’s more thoughtful works, and it is tempting to see in it some of the author’s philosophical speculations.  Other than staring into a mirror for long periods of time, there is almost no action in the story at all.  A requisite killing near the conclusion almost brings an end to the lead character’s ruminations.  What would a Howard story be without at least one stabbing, impaling, or fatal projectile wound?  And there is only one.  An accomplice is even shown mercy, which is not often typical.  One suspects that an increase of philosophy is inversely proportional to the body count in Howard’s work.

The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune is one of just three stories featuring his character of Kull that Howard published in his lifetime.  The author was 23 at the time.  Though they occupy very different time periods, Kull is a cousin—or at least an ancestor—of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane.  He is the more politically and philosophically inclined of the three.  In this story he is the reigning king of Valusia, though originally from Atlantis.

Kull is having an Ecclesiastes moment:

“All things are wearisome, more than one can say.  The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1: 8-9).

Though king, he is unimpressed with the riches he has acquired, uninterested in his friend’s offer of a sea voyage, bored with the affairs of court—he has done it all.  But he is still restless, wondering if there is more to life, if there is an escape from boredom and meaninglessness.  He consults a local wizard, the “Tuzun Thune” of the title, who engages him in a wide ranging philosophical discussion.

At first, Thune offers flip answers to Kull’s interview questions.  When the king asks the wizard if he can summon demons, he responds “Aye.  I can summon up a demon more savage than any in ghostland—by smiting you in the face.”  It seems the humor is lost on Kull.  When Kull asks Thune if he can do wonders, Thune stretches out his hand, opening and closing it.  “Is that not a wonder—that this blind flesh obeys the thoughts of my mind?”  And so forth.

But then Thune introduces Kull to his vast collection of mirrors, in particular, three: “the mirror of the past”, “of the future”, and “the mirror of deepest magic”.  The first two provide Kull with visions of primordial history and an unfamiliar future.  These visions allow the wizard to expound on the nature of time and the rise and fall of civilizations.  “The mirror of deepest magic”, which Kull returns to repeatedly, neglecting his more mundane duties, involves him staring intently at himself, and questioning the nature of reality on both sides of the reflective surface.  Idolatry and narcissism may be in view here, but so is metaphysics. Thune offers this remarkable insight, which he intones hypnotically to Kull as he gazes at his reflection:

“See and believe,” droned the wizard.  “Man must believe to accomplish.  Form is shadow, substance is illusion, materiality is dream; man is because he believes he is; what is man but a dream of the gods?  Yet man can be that which he wishes to be; form and substance, they are but shadows.  The mind, the ego, the essence of the god-dream—that is real, that is immortal.  See and believe, if you would accomplish, Kull.”

This is pretty heady stuff for a conqueror who is experiencing a mid-life crisis.  Many of us at the end of a long career—perhaps even at the beginning of one—would be susceptible to ideas like these.  Sadly, Tuzun Thune is involved in a plot to overthrow the king.  He is actually trying to lure Kull into another dimension by way of “the mirror of deepest magic”.  Yet there is ambivalence here:  Kull wants to go, wants a new start.  Though the plot is foiled, the king is left wondering “…was it his witchery that was changing me into thin mist, or had I stumbled on a secret?” 

Like his soul brother Ecclesiastes, thousands of years after Kull’s time, the king is left asking whether there is in fact a way out.  And thousands of years after Ecclesiastes, so are we.

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