In the long shadow of Conan hides an almost forgotten literary character who may be one of the great lost tragic figures of 20th century fiction: King Kull. Most of those who have heard of Kull know him only through the deservedly panned Kevin Sorbo flick “Kull the Conqueror”, which is a shame, given a fandom that looks to Elric as its dark and brooding modern hero. While Elric is moody broody glam-star for a post-acid age, King Kull of Atlantis is a timeless hero of almost Shakespearean mold.
Kull is an Atlantean who fled his home, served as a galley-slave, a mercenary and a general before seizing the throne of Valusia from its tyrannical hereditary king. Though Kull was an adventurer, the focus of the tales of Kull surround his later years as King of Valusia, the mightiest of the human empires, whose descent into decadence he cannot but fail to stop.
At the heart of Kull lies a question of legitimacy. His rulership was achieved not by traditional means; he is an outsider and is intently aware of it, learning that the skills one needs to seize a throne and the skills one needs to hold it are very different. Kull is an Othello with no one Iago to undo him, but countless faceless Iagos who would see him fall because of his foreign birth. Thulsa Doom? Hardly! Kull could best even a sorcerer with his martial prowess, but he is constantly aware of how his sword arm fails him when it comes to dealing with intrigues and matters of state.
The phrase “By this Axe, I Rule!” either evokes again the cheesy Kevin Sorbo movie, Val Hallan from Justice Friends, or some other heavy metal silliness. In context of the Kull stories, it springs from his frustrations as King of Valusia: as King, he feels trapped – enslaved even – by the ancient laws and customs of the land he rules. He cannot do what he feels is right and just and moral in his heart – allow a marriage of love to take place – because law and tradition prevents him. He shouts this line, grievously wounded, as he symbolically rends a tablet of the law so that the young couple (a noble and a slave) who saved his life from a conspiracy could marry. It is implied in this and other stories that there may be repercussions of this to come, but what these are we can only guess based on the fall of the Valusian empire sometime after Kull’s reign.
Kull is constantly trapped by his station as a usurper king, which feeds into his paranoia. It’s not just the hidden serpent men who plot against him, but his own people. His only true friend and most loyal ally is Brule, the Pict, who is also an outsider, thus his state of isolation is further reinforced. His status as usurper king is always up against blind dynastic loyalty. He is the outsider, thus he is bad in the eyes even of those whose lives are better for his rule.
“I know what the people think, and with what aversion and anger the powerful old Valusian families must look on the state of affairs. But what would you have? The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me. This is the price a nation must pay for decaying: the strong young people must come in and take possession, one way or another. I have at least rebuilt the armies, organized the mercenaries and restored Valusia to a measure of her former international greatness. Sure it is better to have one barbarian on the throne holding the crumbling bands together, than to have a hundred thousand riding red-handed through the city streets. Which is what would have happened by now, had it been left to King Borna. The kingdom was splitting under his feet, invasions threatening all sides, the heathen Grondarians were ready to launch a raid of appalling magnitude-
“Well I killed Borna with my bare hands that wild night when I rode at the head of the rebels. That bit of ruthlessness won me some enemies, but within six months, I had put down anarchy and all counter-rebellions, had welded the nation back into one piece, had broken the Grondarians. Now Valusia dozes in peace and quiet, and between naps plots my overthrow. There has been no famine since my reign, the storehouses are bulging with grain, the trading ships ride heavy with cargo, the merchants’ purses are full, the people are fat-bellied but still they murmur and curse and spit on my shadow. What do they want?” (pp 168-169)
Brule reminds Kull that he didn’t become king for the sake of others but for his own ambition. But what of it? He has the throne, because that was his desire and ambition, but now he must hold it, and kingship gives him so little pleasure. Kull may desire some sort of legacy, something beyond himself, but he finds that kingship alone does not reward him this sense of self-actualization he desires, and his fears of insurgency claw at him constantly. Again, Thulsa Doom, though memorable due to his appearance in the Conan movie, is not Kull’s most dangerous foe, but Ridondo and his fellow poets, and Kull knows this: their songs will outlive him and his reign. “A great poet is greater than any king. He hates me; yet I would have his friendship. His songs are mightier than my scepter, for time and again he has near torn the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten; his songs will live forever.”(p145) Indeed, after Ridondo and his cabal are rooted out and killed by a reluctant Kull, a character in a later story is idly singing one of Ridondo’s poems to himself.
One of the many tragedies of Kull is that he never finds love of his own, though it is intensely clear how important love and marriage are to him. Some of the thematic repetition may be due in part to the nature of a story told and retold in reworkings, as much of Kull went unsold and unpublished during Howard’s life, but the themes are unquestionably there. Marriage becomes a symbol and mirror of legitimacy. Kull’s chief councilor warns that marriage and blood could lead to challenges to his own legitimacy as king. The first appearance of Thulsa Doom in Delcardes’ Cat relates to an attempt for a woman to marry outside of her station with the help of the King. In this case, near tragedy would have been avoided had the woman simply been allowed to marry whom she loved. Swords of the Purple Kingdom is an effective rewrite of By This Axe, I Rule!, so twice we have stories in which law or custom would prevent matrimony, but the couple saves Kull from traitors so they are rewarded with marriage. Even in his youth, Kull’s legitimacy is questioned in a tale relating to marriage. He had been adopted by an Atlantean tribe not his own; his ideas and beliefs of right, wrong, and, you guessed it, marriage put him at odds with his people. When a girl will be killed because she chose to marry outside the tribe, Kull grants her a quick death rather than allow her to be burned alive, and he is forced to flee, sending him on his journey toward the Valusian throne. Kull is constantly torn between wishing to reward love and the restraints of custom which grant him legitimacy as ruler in the eyes of those around him. He is peerless, however; no other Valusians come close to the nobility and honor of Kull, and while this sets him above, it also sets him apart. He is a part of “the natural aristocracy of true manhood”, but it is a lonely place with few equals.
Kull is an honorable man who wants to be a wise and good king but learns just how difficult it can be to be all of those things. Stories of his reign embody the whole “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” in ways unlike nearly any other figure in popular culture. We never learn what ultimately becomes of Kull, though it is as undoubtedly as sad and tragic as Howard’s own end. If Kull grew old and had heirs, he would have died a King Lear, though we do not know if he was even that blessed.
“Strange savages roam the elder lands and new lands flung strangely from the deeps, defiling the elder shrines. Valusia is vanished and all the nations of today; they of tomorrow are strangers. They know us not.” Kull, p208.
The original paperback illus is about the only one that reflects that Kull and Brule are pretty explicitly non-white characters, another aspect that reinforces the modernist themes of isolation of an outsider – a barbarian – ruling the ‘civilized’ land of Valusia. If that scary guy front & center isn’t Brule, it is almost certainly one of Brule’s Pictish lieutenants.