Today's post will consider one of Robert E. Howard's finest Conan stories: The Tower of the Elephant. If you wish to remain spoiler free, do not read on.
The Tower of the Elephant is perhaps one of the finest pieces of Sword and Sorcery Robert E. Howard produced. It drew the attention of Dino de Laurentis et al. when they produced the landmark film Conan the Barbarian as well as inspiring a piece by famous fantasy artist John Howe. With that bit of background, let's take a look at what makes this particular piece of writing work.
The genre and tone of the work are what we've come to expect from a Conan story. The tales begins ostensibly as Sword and Sorcery, morphs into "heist" fiction, and ends firmly (as usual) as a "weird tale." These three genre forms are seamlessly interwoven by the tone of increasing mystery leading up to the dramatic collapse of the tower itself.
As in previous works, Howard uses The Tower of the Elephant to carefully expand and deepen his Hyborian age. Much of the history of the Hyborian peoples that was originally intended as a prologue to The Phoenix on the Sword finds its way into the mesmerizing speech of Yog-Kasha where it adds to the tone and does not disrupt the flow of the story. We also get to learn a little about the decadent Zamoria with its "spider-haunted" towers and women-snatchers.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Tower of the Elephant is Conan. We meet our hero here as a young man just come down from the North (maybe at an even earlier stage in his life than The God in the Bowl). He is naive and insecure, as we see in his failure to understand and properly handle the raillery of the Kothian kidnapper. The fabled "Heart of the Elephant" impresses him not because of its value but because of the challenge it presents, highlighting a sort of "savage" nobility that disdains mere worldly gain. There are also hints of a definite moral compass in the fact that the truly wicked characters all get their just deserts. The Kothian kidnapper is dispatched by Conan, the professional and treacherous thief is destroyed by his own overconfidence and selfishness, and the evil wizard is undone by the very being he thought under his thumb. Finally, the most impressive aspect of the story is Conan's pity. Conan pities Yog-Kasha and helps him for no other reason. This isn't the action of the Nietzchean reaver Conan will become in the middle third of his life (primarily due to sales numbers), but we instantly recognize the man who will one day wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. This Conan is complex, and while he didn't sell magazines in the short run, his story has endured to become one of the touchstones of fantasy fiction.
That's it for today. Join us next time for a return to Conan the king as we take a look at The Scarlet Citadel.