Monday, June 21, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow Kingdom

August 1929 marked the first appearance of Robert E. Howard's original barbarian hero, Kull of Atlantis, when the story "The Shadow Kingdom" appeared in the pages of Weird Tales. Considered by some to be the first true swords-and-sorcery story as we now understand the genre, "The Shadow Kingdom" shows us Kull after he has already ascended the throne of decadent Valusia, the greatest of the Seven Empires of the pre-cataclysmic Thurian Age, which precedes Howard's more well known Hyborian Age.
Not on the Topaz Throne at the front of the regal Tower of Splendor sat Kull, but in the saddle, mounted on a great stallion, a true warrior king. His mighty arm swung up in reply to the salutes as the hosts passed. His fierce eyes passed the gorgeous trumpeters with a casual glance, rest longer on the following soldiery; they blazed with a ferocious light as the Red Slayers halted in front of him with a clang of arms and a rearing of steeds, and tendered him the crown salute.
Despite the exultant shouts that greet Kull and his soldiers as they return home from war victorious, not everyone in Valusia is pleased:
"Kull! Ha, accursed usurper from the pagan isles." -- "Aye, shame to Valusia that a barbarian sits on the Throne of Kings."

Little did Kull heed. Heavy-handed had he seized the decaying throne of ancient Valusia and with a heavier hand did he hold it, a man against a nation.
More worrisome than such sinister whispers against him is the news that Ka-nu, an advisor to the king of the Picts, the traditional enemies of Kull's own Atlantean people, has requested a private audience with Valusia's barbarian ruler. Though suspicious, Kull puts aside his prejudices against the Picts and agrees to this meeting, going alone to meet with Ka-nu, a "soft and paunchy" old man seemingly "fit for nothing except to guzzle wine and kiss wenches!" After the two men feel one another out, Ka-nu comes to the point:
I see a world of peace and prosperity -- man loving his fellow man -- the good supreme. All this can you accomplish -- if you live!"
Ka-nu warns Kull of a plot against his life, fomented with the help of Baron Kaanuub of Blaal, a former rival of Kull who still seeks the throne of Valusia for himself and his shadowy allies. To ensure that Kull does not die -- and a glorious future along with him -- Ka-nu promises to send along a bodyguard, a Pictish warrior named Brule the Spear-slayer, who will stand with Kull against the secret enemies who seek his death. As a show of good faith, he entrusts Kull with a green gem stolen from the Temple of the Serpent, possession of which means execution. If what he has said is untrue or if he in any way betrays him, Kull need only accuse Ka-nu of the theft of the gem and be rid of him. This gesture on the part of a Pict intrigues Kull and agrees to his plan, even though there is much the barbarian king still does not understand.

What follows is a superb fantasy tale that includes equal parts palace intrigue, feats of derring-do, and eldritch horror. It's a heady combination that, while sharing many similarities with Howard's later work on Conan, nevertheless strikes a different tone, one that is more melancholy and thoughtful about the inevitable decline of civilization than many might expect.
"You are young," said the palaces and the temples and the shrines, "but we are old. The world was wild with youth when we were reared. You and your tribe shall pass, but we are invincible, indestructible. We towered above a strange world, ere Atlantis and Lemuria rose from the sea; we still shall reign when the green waters sigh for many a restless fathom above the spires of Lemuria and the green hills of Atlantis and when the isles of the Western Men are the mountains of a strange land.

"How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, the bird of Creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"
Kull himself is similarly melancholy and thoughtful despite his rough heritage. He cares about Valusia and her people and acts accordingly. His willingness to believe Ka-nu and accept Brule as his companion is motivated as much by a desire to see that his kingdom does not fall into the hands of evil men -- or worse -- as by his desire to save his own life. Kull is thus a sympathetic figure and one with whom I found it easy to identify. He's also a subtle counterpoint to Conan, another barbarian turned king of a civilized but decadent people. Though both are unmatched warriors, Kull lacks Conan's bombast and bluster. Kull also seems less interested in the pleasures of this world, being more focused on ideals and a sense of duty to others. No one could mistake the two characters, despite some surface similarities between them.

I've seen it said, with some merit, that a writer's earliest works are often his best, even if they lack the polish and sophistication of his later efforts. I think this holds true for "The Shadow Kingdom," which I like a very great deal. The writing is a bit more stiff and formulaic in it than in, say, most of the Conan stories, but I think its characters and ideas are very strong and possess a kind of inchoate energy to them that I sometimes find lacking in the lesser Conan tales. Perhaps I'm biased because I find Kull more like myself than I find Conan, I don't know, but I genuinely love this story, which, regardless of its position in Howard's overall literary corpus, is a great story in its own right and well worth a read.

7 comments:

  1. I've just finished reading the collected stories in the "Kull, exile of Atlantis" book and liked them quite a bit. You're right, "The Shadow Kingdom" is a great tale and full of inspiration for games.

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  2. This is a superb story and has a dash of everything in it.

    I prefer Kull to Conan as the former comes across as human and the latter as a force of nature. Neither is dumb (as portrayed in their respective flims [sic]) but Kull does seem a bit more reserved and thinks things out. Maybe this is the reality of getting older. If you dive into everything, sometimes it is going to hurt. Bad.

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  3. I think its also important to mention that the story is the first "aliens amoung us" story that I can think of in modern literature.

    That idea gets used in tons of science fiction later on.

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  4. Rusty Burke saw fit to include "The Shadow Kingdom" in The Best of Robert E. Howard, so you clearly aren't alone in considering it one of the best Howard tales.

    That said, there are other differences to consider between Kull and Conan. One of the most interesting is that Kull is completely uninterested in women: a far cry from the usual perspective of all Howard's heroes being interested in sex (probably the single most infuriating thing about that damn film Kull the Conqueror), and it's all the more refreshing for it.

    That said, some people use this to suggest that Kull might be gay (what with his relationship with Brule perhaps being "more than just friends") but this neglects the possibility that Kull just isn't interested in sex in general.

    Personally, I like Kull and Conan about equally, and view both as human/force-of-nature as each other: both have elements that make them mythic, and also very human failings and quirks.

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  5. I think its also important to mention that the story is the first "aliens amoung us" story that I can think of in modern literature.

    That sense of paranoia is a central element of the story. Even a filthy Pict is better than a (insert Samuel L. Jackson style pejorative) snake.

    I also love the sense that humanity's mastery of the planet is so recently attained and so tenuous. My favorite passage in the story is:

    "They are gone," said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; "the bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-people, the demons, the goblins—all save such as this being that lies at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world

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  6. I love that passage too, Skald. It echoes another passage from "The Black Stone": "Man was not always master of the earth - and is he now?"

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  7. James, I really appreciate these pulp fantasy library segments. They have introduced so many authors that I've never read before, its because of these that I'm reading A. Merritt's Moon Pool (well this and the people of the pit module I bought on your recommendation). The only difficulty is finding these story collections (yes I know I know the internet...I just like finding things in person is all). Anyway i wanted to say thanks for these.
    Now on to Kull, as a youth I'm ashamed to admit that I would only read Conan stories; I think I was only interested in the Character as opposed to the authors work (I even absorbed many of the tales written by other writers), Looking back I can only kick myself for being so narrow minded. I recently read the Shadow Kingdom and thought just wow...I found it somehow more dark and desperate then the Conan stories; I didn't get the same sense of invulnerability that Conan seems to evoke. Kull came across as less perfect a warrior (I felt the same when I read the fist Solomon Kane story). I also found the setting just more primitive and primordial it conjured images of the fire kingdom from the old Bakshi film "Fire and Ice". Anyway great review of the Shadow Kingdom, keep up the great work.

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