Monday, January 18, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

Robert E. Howard's character Kull of Atlantis is not as well known as Conan, even among fans of fantasy, and understandably so. For one, Kull appeared in only three published stories between August 1929 and November 1930. For another, Kull is a much more "restrained" character than the Cimmerian, being much more conventionally chivalrous and, I'd wager, less compelling than the hotblooded barbarian to readers of the pulps. Consequently, the stories of Kull, both those published during Howard's lifetime and those published later (mostly in the 1960s and '70s), to the extent that they're remembered at all, are conflated with those of Conan. This situation is only made worse by the fact that REH himself re-purposed at least one Kull story as a tale of Conan, which established a precedent followed by others, such as Marvel's Roy Thomas. 

I think this is a shame, not just from a historical perspective, but also because I think that Kull is an intriguing protagonist in his own right, one whose differences from Conan demonstrate well Howard's range as a writer. This comes through clearly in the second published Kull story, "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane," which appeared in the September 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The yarn begins with with one of my favorite passages in all of Howard, as Kull struggles with a dark mood.

There comes, even to kings, a the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

Kull sat upon the throne of Valusia and the hour of weariness was upon him. They moved before him in an endless, meaningless panorama, men, women, priests, events and shadows of events; things seen and things to be attained. But like shadows they came and went, leaving no trace upon his consciousness, save that of a great mental fatigue. Yet Kull was not tired. There was a longing in him for things beyond himself and beyond the Valusian court. An unrest stirred in him and strange, luminous dreams roamed his soul.

Kull is so immersed in his thoughts that even his boon companion, the Pictish warrior, Brule, can rouse him from them. Then, "a girl of the court" with golden hair and violet eyes whispers to the king of the wizard Tuzun Thune, who, she says, possesses "the secrets of life and death." Kull asks the girl to tell him more of the wizard, which she does, explaining that he is

"A wizard of the Elder Race. He lives here, in Valusia, by the Lake of Visions in the House of a Thousand Mirrors. All things are known to him … he speaks with the dead and holds converse with the demons of the Lost Lands."

Intrigued, Kull sets off to meet Tuzun Thune alone, hoping that "this mummer" might be able to cure him of his melancholy. 

Upon meeting him, Kull interrogates the wizard, asking him, "Can you do wonders?" What follows is memorable and another example of the ways in which the tales of Kull differ from those of Conan.

The wizard stretched forth his hand; his fingers opened and closed like a bird's claws.

"Is that not a wonder – that this blind flesh obeys the thoughts of the mind? I walk, I breathe, I speak – are they not all wonders?

Kull meditated a while, then spoke. "Can you summon up demons?"

"Aye. I can summon up a demon more savage than any in ghostland – by smiting you in the face."

Kull started, then nodded. "But the dead, can you talk to the dead?"

"I talk with the dead always – as I am talking now. Death begins with birth and each man begins to die when he is born; even now you are dead, King Kull, because you were born.

Kull is unimpressed by these clever responses and declares the wizard to be "no more than an ordinary man." It's at this point that Tuzun Thune suggests that Kull "look into my mirrors" and reveals that the walls and ceiling of his home consisted almost entirely of perfectly jointed mirrors. The king does so and, in so doing, sees first scenes from the past and then the future before being directed into another mirror "of the deepest magic," in which Kull sees only himself – or does he? 

Fascinated by his reflection, the king begins to wonder "Am I the man or is he? Which of us is the ghost of the other?" This thought slowly overtakes him and, even after he leaves Tuzun Thune's home, he continues to ponder it, in the process becoming more and more unsure of whether the world he inhabits is the real one or whether the world beyond the mirror is. His advisors begin to worry about his state of mind, fearing that Valusia will come to a bad end because of it.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" is a unique story, marrying the conventions of pulp fantasy to a philosophical exploration of the nature of identity and indeed reality itself. No one's world is going to be shattered by this story: it's interesting but not especially profound. But I enjoy it nonetheless, in large part, I think, because of just how different it is from Howard's Conan stories. Though Conan is no blockhead, he prefers to leave questions such as these to teachers and priests. I can't imagine the Cimmerian starring in a story like this one (though Roy Thomas clearly disagrees with me) and that's more than enough to make it memorable. 


  1. Ah, that's also one of my favourite Howard passages. I quite like the Kull stories. They're more amateur than his Conan stories, but I feel like that allowed him to explore interesting ideas that wouldn't necessarily work, and part of the reason they work so well.

    The only non-Howard Conan I'm familiar with are the movies, the '90s live action TV show, and the newspaper strip. This seems like a weird one to adapt to Conan.

    1. You're absolutely right about the "more amateur" quality of the Kull stories. They're relatively early works of REH and it shows – but what they lack in polish they make up in ideas.

  2. As an added OSR connection, I’d assume that the White Dwarf AD&D adventure ”The Halls of Tizun Thane” by Albie Fiore is inspired by the story in question:

    1. It's funny you should mention this, because you've anticipated a post I have queued up for later in the day!

  3. I've read most of the stories about Kull (and Solomon Kane and more of "Conan's Brethren") only last year. Plenty of good yarns and because Kull is king in most (or all?), there's a lot more brooding which REH portrays nicely.