Saturday, October 24, 2015

Conan Meets an Extraterrestrial

Robert E. Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant (1933) is similar in some respects to his novel The People of the Black Circle (1934), though it is a shorter and much more focused tale.  Conan’s assault on the lair of a powerful wizard, which occurs in both stories, will remind video gamers of the levels of difficulty, special weaponry, and final confrontation with the evil entity at the heart of many games.  (Does anyone remember the video game Gauntlet Dark Legacy?)

In The Tower of the Elephant there are supernaturally quiet lions that must be defeated with a magic powder, and an agile, venomous monster that guards a doorway leading to magnificent jeweled wealth—or doom at the hand of a sorcerer-lich.  In both stories, lesser horrors must be circumvented first, often with ingenuity or special weapons, before the climactic battle.  (See also Conan and a Proto-Princess Leia.)

But there are interesting differences that make The Tower of the Elephant distinctive among Howard’s heroic fiction.  For one thing, there are some great quotations.  A popular one among Howard fans comes early in the story, when Conan is commenting on the differences between civilized and barbarian etiquette:

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.  

There is insightful comparison of Conan’s religious sensibilities as a Crom-worshipper with the incomprehensible, complex and decadent practices of the much older Zamoran polytheism.  The latter faith has lost its “pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals.”  Conan acknowledges that it is “useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings.”  However, Conan’s god is a reliable source of courage and willpower.  He is good in a fight, and offers his followers the prowess needed to kill enemies, “all any god should be expected to do.”

Later in the story are what amount to two short essays of interest to both Howard and Lovecraft fans.  One is a synopsis of the history of the ancient earth, tracing the emergence of the various civilizations that Conan encounters in his wanderings.  A few years later, Howard would elaborate on these ideas in a piece called The Hyborian Age (1936), published as a three part series in The Phantagraph.  (See also Hyborian Sketches.)

The other briefer passage is adjacent to this back story, and describes the arrival of extraterrestrials from “the green planet Yag” and their early struggles to prevail against “the strange and terrible forms of life” that thrived on earth eons ago.  This is surely an echo of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones”. Yag sounds suspiciously like “Yuggoth”.

There is also some cleverness, which is not uncommon in Howard’s writing.  In one moving scene, an ancient, elephant-like creature, blind and disabled, uses its prehensile trunk to gently touch, identify and understand the form of Conan.  It is a neat reversal of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, often told to show the limitations of partial or subjective experience when trying to obtain a comprehensive understanding of some truth.  If The Tower of the Elephant has a moral, it may be some version of this insight.

The Tower of the Elephant begins like a conventional sword-and-sorcery tale.  Conan teams up with Taurus of Nemedia, an arrogant but renowned thief.  There is interesting interplay between the men, who must rely on each other despite mutual distrust.  Taurus often expounds upon the obscure and preposterous origins of some of his equipment, while Conan sticks to the basics. The two hope to sneak into the fabulous “Tower of the Elephant” under cover of darkness to steal a legendary gemstone from Yara, an evil and all powerful sorcerer. 

But they wildly underestimate the dangers of this quest, despite some initial success.  The situation worsens markedly as they proceed from the outer walls to the interior of the strange tower.  The story has an unanticipated twist at the end, which will not be discussed much here. And readers may also be surprised to find, after several bloody deaths, a dangerous climb, and considerable suspense, a demonstration of—pity. 

This quality is unexpected in a barbarian like Conan, but so is theological insight and sociological astuteness.  These traits are also found in Howard’s brooding Puritan super hero, Solomon Kane, and give both characters surprising depth.  Besides all the action and mayhem in a typical Howard story, there is considerable nuance and philosophical rumination—but not too much.

M. Harold Page, in a humorous essay posted at Black Gate (see Understanding Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”) identifies some of the unheroic aspects of The Tower of the Elephant.  He asks why, if Conan is the protagonist of the story, does Taurus, the professional larcenist, do most of the heavy lifting.  Taurus is the one who bravely enters the room full of jewels ahead of Conan.  (The operative proverb here is ‘The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.’)

Why is Yara, the resident lich, the supposedly evil and all powerful sorcerer, uninvolved until the very end, and so easily dispatched?  Is The Tower of the Elephant merely an action tale about an adventurous theft, or did the author have something else in mind?  (Page makes an interesting comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit.)  Similar patterns can be observed in some of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, where the wandering hero is not always the most active force in the tale.  These observations recommend Howard as an author of some subtlety, more than he is given credit for.  

The Tower of the Elephant was originally published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. The story appeared with Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasy The Isle of the Torturers, a story in his Zothique cycle.  Sadly, the issue also contained an article memorializing Henry S. Whitehead, who had died the previous fall.  Whitehead wrote a series of unique horror tales incorporating elements of Vodou.

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