Kull the Quandarer

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.

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.  

Short Reviews – Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians

I’m going to do something a little bit differently today. This won’t be a standard Short Review, because I’ll be taking on an entire collection in a single post. Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians, edited by Lin Carter, is a collection of short fiction by S.A.G.A. members was published in 1977.

The Bagful of Dreams – Jack Vance

This is the first Cugel the Clever story I’ve read, and will certainly not be the last. I don’t know that I’ll try to summarize it here, because last night I found myself unable to summarize it to my girlfriend in any sensible manner. It may be kind of a cop-out to say that Cugel is a great example of the Trickster character, but he is, and in a way that evokes a very folkish and mythic feel, as though this were one of many stories told about the great fire long ago.

One of my issues with Vance is that he often gives us wild names of various monsters without any concrete descriptions to help form them in my mind. While it was a bit annoying in The Dragon Masters as a work of Science Fantasy, it works in Cugel, because it makes sense for a mythic trickster to face assorted jabberwocks and jubjub birds as he schemes and tricks his way out of one predicament to another.

Jack Vance is the Voltaire of SF/F:

“…may I inquire your opinion of Cuirnif? What reception may I expect? Are the folk notably eccentric?”
“To some extent,” replied Erwig. “They use no whitewash in their hair; and they are slack in their religious observances, making obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand on the abdomen, instead of upon the left buttock, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What is your opinion?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method caries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views, coming as it does from you, an expert traveler!”

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Portable holes, for one. Much of the story revolves around a magically created portable hole to another universe from which a tentacle of an extra-planar monster emerges.

Also, Vancian magic: not as a system, per se, but as flavor of the implied setting of your typical low-level fantasy game. The lord is endlessly fascinated by magic and will fete any wizard who knows one or two spells because magic is so damn cool, in part because there’s so little of it. Magic doesn’t have to be useful, only neat.

The Tupilak – Poul Anderson
Mermaid adventures can be awesome too, if Poul Anderson is writing them. I like to think of this as a distant sequel to Anya Seton’s Avalon wherein things have started going to crap for the descendants of Ketil the Viking in Greenland. By the time the Merfolk show up asking about their displaced seakin, things are looking pretty grim. The Viking lord wants vengeance on the Inuit with whom his daughter is now living; his daughter wants to be left alone and for the vikings to leave Greenland because they’re doomed if they stay there. She does what any Viking daughter in the same situation would do: convince the Inuit shaman to lash together a chimeric sea-beast and magically animate it to wreak havoc on the Vikings.

Though we get teased with the prospect of incest and Mermaid sex (Anya Seton probably would’ve gone into naughty detail before a priest showed up to admonish everyone and preach repentance before the lord), Anderson gives you just enough to consider the implications of the soul, such as when a viking lad is chastised by his father for having pawed at the captive Mermaid, before diving (quite literally!) into action. We get a bloody battle in the icy sea against an undead/construct that eats men, but can’t digest them, so is full of rotting waterlogged corpses of its victims. We get pathos and tragedy of Vikings dying out in Greenland and love so suffocating that has brought death incarnate upon a people. We get sexy forbidden merfolk (“She’s the fairest sight I’ve ever seen, and brazenly clad.” “A vessel of hell.”)!

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The Tupilak itself, obviously. It’s weird monster made of wood, bones and skins all lashed together into a hideous form so that it has something like the body of a small whale, the jaws of a shark and the claws of a bear. It’s animated through magic that causes it to be possessed by the spirits of the ocean. The only way it can be destroyed is if the skins can be cut off so that its stuffings fall out. Naturally, it’s very resistant to the sorts of piercing weapons that boatmen would have, and you can’t get close enough to it to slash it without it capsizing your boat and eating your crew.

We also get a little bit on Fey alignment here. Merfolk are not of the mortal world (though these are half-human), and therefore are regarded as not having souls. So, why are Fey “non-lawful”? Well, they don’t have souls, therefore they cannot swear oaths upon them. Unable to swear by God, the Saints or their soul, they cannot be trusted to be bound by strictures of man’s laws, natch.

Storm in a Bottle – John Jakes
I was ready to hate this one, because Brak seems like such a knockoff of Conan (or at least pop-culture Conan) or any sort of generic Barbarian protagonist. But damnit, it was a fun story! Any story in which a barbarian has to kill an evil wizard has some merit to it, and this was just so well done that by the end, I didn’t mind that a generic Barbarian had done it.

The plot could’ve been pulled from a Sword & Sorcery rollodex: barbarian is captured, evil overlord gives him challenge to end a magical crisis plaguing his land, barbarian solves the crisis by killing the overlord’s court wizard, evil overlord is all “I said I’d let you live, I didn’t say I’d set you free, bwahaha!” But complaining about the unoriginality here feels like complaining about seeing trees, rolling hills, and pastures full of horses on a Sunday drive through the country.

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The wizard in this is pretty powerful, but all of his best stuff comes from the school of illusion. Use of illusion magic to create mass public hysteria and a fighter’s ability to break illusions by breaking things and disbelieving is Fantasy 101, but fun to see in action.

The titular Storm in a Bottle is literally a storm in a bottle; the evil wizard has imprisoned all of the rain in the region in a magic vessel. Great magic item with a lot of fun potential.

Swords Against the Marluk – Katherine Kurtz
From the intro, it’s pretty obvious that Lin Carter is hotted out by Katherine Kurtz. She’s a lady. And a blonde!

This was the only story in this collection I just couldn’t get into. Apparently it was written as a prequel to her (then) trilogy about the Deryni, a fictional race of, I don’t know, Welsh Elves or something? It was obviously one of those stories where it would’ve helped to have some context from having read the other books, but it was, to me, just a parade of names while the king and elf-liege prepared for a big fight against some guy. They do a ritual thing, everyone is all “Oh, golly, gosh, the king!”, and they fight the guy. The guy’s daughter gets away to become the main badguy of the previous books or something?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – For me, nothing. If you’re into stuff like Pendragon, or other quasi-Arthurian stuff, you might get more out of it than I did.

The Lands Beyond the World – Michael Moorcock
Like Storm in a Bottle, I was prepared to hate this. This was part of the collection of novelettes that made up Sailor on the Seas of Fate. While it was The Vanishing Tower where I finally burned out and said “no more”, it had been The Sailor on the Seas of Fate that crushed any enthusiasm that had carried over from Elric of Melnibone. In fact, out of the four Elric collections I read, the only story I remembered after the first book, apparently, was the first one from SotSoF, and only that because of how much I hated it. It was some latter day eternal champion nonesuch which I may have enjoyed more if I had been a fan of more of Moorcock’s franchises, but did not make a good impression as the second Elric story I read. Regarding that tale, I agree with Elric’s sentiments: “I’ll be glad, Captain, if you would cease such vapid mystification. I’m weary of it.”

I was expecting the worst, because the first chapter was there to wrap up the Gagak and Agak story before dumping Elric off on his next adventure. But it was a pretty solid adventure. Elric’s stranded on a magic island and kills a bunch of pirates with a new companion who happened to be in the right place at the right time and also hated pirates. Evil wizard wants a girl who is the reincarnation of the love he foresook, who happened to be a passenger on the new Elric-buddy’s ship. Elric eventually puts together the legend of the girl’s betrothed with the mystery of ghost horse and summons the horse’s rider from limbo to get its revenge on the evil wizard. The story was decent enough to remind me that I told myself I’d give Elric another go one of these days.

Still, during the fights where Elric is going up against over a dozen guys, I’m reminded of Fafhrd remembering tales of great swordsmen able to fight against 4 men at once and how those tales were all lies. Oh, well. Magic sword, right?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Well, the Planar Sea, for one thing. Given this sort of stuff, it’s not surprising that the Brits stuffed the Fiend Folio with Planar Pirates.

I’ve got my reading and work on Short Reviews cut out for me.  Over the weekend, I grabbed another handful of pulps and some old paperbacks.  I now have a lot of Vance, a lot of Leiber and a lot of Brackett on my list, plus an impressive growing collection of vintage pulp mags from the 40s and 50s.  I don’t know how many novels I’ll do posts on, but I’ll try to cover anything out of pulp or collection of short stories.  And after finishing The Falling Torch, I can say that Algis Budrys writes Sci-Fi as well as he writes about it.

Minor addendum: A thought occurs…  Or maybe just an observation.  I keep seeing bits about how Kurtz wrote sword and sorcery as though it were historical fiction.  On the other hand, Anya Seton wrote historical fiction as though it were sword and sorcery.