There's a lot to appreciate in this story, which describes one of Conan's early adventures in an unnamed city in Zamora. That Conan is still relatively young and inexperienced is, in my opinion, among them. Conan's at his most interesting to me when he's young and impulsive, making mistakes in an effort to prove himself (and prove others wrong). That's exactly what happens at the beginning of "The Tower of the Elephant," when the Cimmerian suggests to a group of experienced thieves that "desire ... coupled with courage" is enough to penetrate the Elephant Tower where "Yara the priest dwells ... with the great jewel men call the Elephant's Heart, that is the secret of his magic." Conan slays a Kothian who mocks him for his youthful bravado and then rushes headlong into the night to attempt the very thing his betters claim is impossible.
The eponymous Tower is located in the temple district of the city, which gives Howard an opportunity to briefly reflect on Conan's early attitudes toward religion and the gods:
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight--snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora's myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora's religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyard of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.I love the image of the young Conan, listening at the feet of philosophers and theologians as they dispute with one another about the mysteries of the cosmos and finding them all crazy in his view. And yet Conan spent hours with these men he felt were "all touched in the head," suggesting that perhaps he didn't entirely accepted his own avowed judgment. Regardless, this short passage goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that even the young Conan was all brawn and no brains and gave no thought to what might lie beyond this world we inhabit.
His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian's mind, was all any god should be expected to do.
Another aspect of this tale I appreciate is Conan's adventuring companion, Taurus of Nemedia, "a prince of thieves," who's described as being as
tall as the Cimmerian, and heavier; he was big-bellied and fat, but his every movement betokened a subtle dynamic magnetism, which was reflected in the keen eyes that glinted vitally, even in the starlight. He was barefooted and carried a coil of what looked like a thin, strong rope, knotted at regular intervals.I can't quite explain why but I've always liked that description -- again, perhaps because it runs counter to the notion that all of Conan's comrades are prehistoric bodybuilders and supermodels. Taurus is a big man, a fat one even and yet he is one of the greatest thieves of the Hyborian Age, one of whose fame even a novice thief like Conan has heard. Howard said that he based many of his characters on people he knew; I can't shake the feeling that Taurus was one of them.
It's enjoyable too to watch the younger and older thief discuss their chosen profession. There's a section where Conan rebukes Taurus for having made a mistake in his eyes that's especially well done.
"You made one mistake," said Conan.That passage speaks volumes about both men and the stories of Conan's early days are filled with them -- when the impetuous Cimmerian errs and then learns from his misstep. Despite Conan's having "acted on a sudden impulse," Taurus tells him he likes "his grit" and suggests the two of them join forces to steal the Elephant's Heart, even though he has "never shared an adventure with anyone."
Taurus's eyes flashed angrily.
"I? I, a mistake? Impossible!"
"You should have dragged the body into the bushes."
"Said the novice to the master of the art. They will not change the guard until past midnight. Should any come searching for him now, and find his body, they would flee at once to Yara, bellowing the news, and give us time to escape. Were they not to find it, they'd go on beating up the bushes and catch us like rats in a trap."
"You are right," agreed Conan.
I'd love to speak more about what Conan and Taurus find within the Tower, but I'll refrain from doing so out of concern for those who might never have read this story. Suffice it to say that the Tower and its inhabitants are also among the many things I appreciate about "The Tower of the Elephant." When I first read the story years ago, I was genuinely surprised by what I read, both because it seemed so wrong and yet so right. Howard very effectively blends into his story elements that, taken out of context, shouldn't work and yet they do. More than that, he does so in such an effortless way that one is left wondering why more fantasy authors haven't followed his lead (or why those who have done so did it so poorly).
Harkening back to my opening comments, I won't say that "The Tower of the Elephant" is my favorite Conan story, let alone the best Conan story REH ever wrote. Neither is true, of course, but re-reading it for this post, I did find myself briefly thinking both thoughts. There's no question in my mind that it's a very good tale well told, filled with memorable situations and characters and situations. The young Conan and the experienced Taurus alone are worthy of remembrance and "The Tower of the Elephant" contains much more to recommend it than this pair of thieves. If you've never read it before, I highly recommend doing so. If you have, pick it up and read it again sometime. You might be surprised at how easily you can still enjoy it even when you already know how it ends.