Monday, December 27, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tower of the Elephant

As any fan of Robert E. Howard will likely tell you, having to choose one's favorite Conan story is like having to choose a favorite among one's own children -- it can't be done. Moreover, any answer one gives to that question is inevitably the wrong one in some way, leaving aside a couple of real stinkers, like "Shadows in the Moonlight" and "Man-Eaters of Zamboula," a stated preference for which calls into question one's esthetic judgment. Consequently, I try not to use phrases like "my favorite Conan tale," even when, as in the case of March 1933's "The Tower of the Elephant," I really do enjoy it a great deal.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

18 comments:

  1. For those who want to read it, it is available online in a couple of places. For instance here in html, or here in pdf or some ebook formats.

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  2. Depending on my mood, my favorite Conan story is either "Beyond the Black River" or "Red Nails".

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  3. "Tower of the Elephant" is one of my favourites, but I agree that choosing one favourite among Howard's Conan tales is difficult, if not impossible.

    The stories mentioned by Geoffrey, "Beyond the Black River" and "Red Nails" are also excellent, as is "Hour of the Dragon" (and...).

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  4. Conan's observations in the courtyard of the philosophers could just as easily be applied to Dungeons and Dragons and elements of the OSR community.

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  5. That Taurus guy was totally overhyped.

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  6. Tower of the Elephant was the first Conan story I ever read. And it, of course, got me hooked. Pool of the Black One and Queen of the Black Coast are major doses of Howard goodness.

    As a bit of useless trivia...notice the writer who got the cover of the issue of Weird Tales in which TOE appeared? It's Seabury Quinn. If you can make out the blurb on the cover it says, "a powerful werewolf story by Seabury Quinn." Quinn garnered more Weird Tales covers than Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, or Lovecraft (Lovecraft had zero). And it was Quinn that was voted best of the Weird Tale authors among readers of the magazine. He certainly gets my vote as the most under appreciated (as of today) writer of the pulp era. You could do a lot worse than having Quinn as the inspiration for some of your rpg adventures.

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  7. >>leaving aside a couple of real stinkers, like "Shadows in the Moonlight" and "Man-Eaters of Zamboula,"

    Man-Eaters is considered a stinker? It's one of my favorites... but then it probably helps that my first exposure to the story was drawn by Neal Adams...

    Anyway, favorite Conan story is A Witch Shall Be Born.

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  8. Sweet, a story review on here from something I've actually read! I feel so learned now.

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  9. Yeesh! It's like asking what bite of that filet mignon did you like best.

    Off the top of my head, I would have to say "The Scarlet Citadel" and "Queen of the Black Coast".

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  10. radnoff: As a bit more useless trivia, the Seabury Quinn story is "The Thing in the Fog".

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  11. "Tower" is one of my favorite Conan stories. In fact, I think it's the one that introduced me to the character and the setting "way back when."

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  12. Nicely said.

    Another aspect is that the other characters - even the thieves - all seem to represent Civilisation. Conan wants what they have, even learns from them, but he isn't them. (More here: http://zornhau.livejournal.com/132818.html#cutid1)

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  13. Excellent review of an excellent story. And you didn't even have to mention the Elephant itself!

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  14. "There's a lot to appreciate in this story, which describes one of Conan's early adventures in an unnamed city in Zamora."

    Wow, never realised before that the city is never named in the story. De Camp says it's Arenjun, the City of Thieves in the 1967 Conan collection, but there's nothing in the text to corroborate this. Cool!

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  15. Judging from several instances in the REH Conan yarns and letters, the city is named "Zamora". Howard did the same thing with Valusia, the City of Wonders (and capital of the empire of Valusia), in the Kull tales.

    Deuce

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  16. That'd make sense because there's a few references to Zamorian royal guards and so on in the tale. Interesting!

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  17. Conan slays a Kothian who mocks him for his youthful bravado

    Just to clarify that Conan only draws his sword after the Kothian draws his and threatens to kill Conan: Conan didn't kill him for the crime of mocking him. Not saying that's what you were implying, just that someone might misread that sentence.

    I tend to think of Conan stories in tiers: the best, the great, and the mediocre. I think even the mediocre stories have some elements that elevates them: "Iron Shadows" has the fantastically written fight with the ape, the weird menace of the statues and Conan's incredible entrance; "Zamboula" has one of the iconic moments in the Baal-pteor confrontation. Even "The Vale of Lost Women" has some really nice moments.

    But the best Conan stories hang with the best Howard stories, and "Tower," in my opinion, is in the top tier. I wouldn't call any one story my favourite either, but if asked to choose - say - my five favourites, "Tower" would definitely be among them.

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