Seven witches standing in the road
Stirring up the future with the legs of a toad
They've got the wine, and I've got the time
And isn't it sublime to lay down your load
--Jim Spheeris: "Seven Virgins" [sic]
Exile of Atlantis The Screaming Skull of Silence The Shorter Untitled Fragment The Shadow Kingdom The Striking of the Gong By This Axe I Rule! The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune The Altar and the Scorpion Swords of the Purple Kingdom The Longer Untitled Fragment The Black City The King and the Oak The Cat and the Skull The Curse of the Golden Skull Kings of the Night
Robert E. Howard's Kull is truly one of the most interesting protagonists to spring from the venerable Texan's creative mind. This series begins with a brash, impulsive barbarian who siezes a foreign throne, then progresses to gain the feel of his kingship, and finally is led to moodily contemplate many things that most people take for granted. Interestingly enough, the stories have never been arranged in a manner that illustrates this, and a chronology can most definately be deduced from the growth and change of his personality. First however, let's examine the world that existed at Kull's time.
According to Howard's essay, "The Hyborian Age," his fictional historians, the Nemedian Chroniclers, knew little of this time. If they had journeyed out into the eastern ocean to one of at least two of the islands of Lemuria still above the waves at that time, they would have been able to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
One of those islands was Valla, upon which was the city of Na-hor, apparently a region of high altitude during the time of Mu. The story of the "Crimson Kingdom", as it was called, is recounted in Howard's aborted novel, The Isle of the Eons.
A manuscript found in that story details a history of the world up through Kull's time. This manuscript was written by the priest, Nayah, who later went mad; so parts of it can be assumed to be inaccurate.
Using this, brief references in "The Hyborian Age", evidence found in some of the Kull stories, and some guesswork it is possible to reconstruct a picture of the world during and prior to Kull's time.
Mu was apparently the seat of civilization and certainly the most advanced country of its heyday. Mu was a large continent (with at least 20 "great cities", whatever that meant) in what is now called the Pacific Ocean.
They had a pantheon of gods, including two whom Kull frequently swore by: Valka, revealed here as the god of fertility and growth, and later, of sea and land; and Hotath, the god of war. Other gods were the Moon-Woman and her sisters (referred to as the Star Maidens); Zukala, the disposer of souls (about whom Howard wrote a series of poems); and the Strange God, the god which is Unknown. However the first god worshipped appears to be Xultha the ape-man. Later he was replaced by Poseidon (with whom I'm sure most readers are familiar). By now some civilization has spread throughout the world. The human race had reached what was later to become known as the Thurian Continent (modern Eurasia). At this time the bulk of modern-day Africa was under the seas, as was the Americas except for their top-most peaks which were islands upon which the Picts lived. The human beings on these lands were still savages and were engrossed in the waging of great wars to throw off the yoke of hideous creatures that ruled the lands before the human advent: winged humanoids (referred to by gender as either harpies or bat-men), werewolves and various others referred to in "The Shadow Kingdom" as demons and goblins. As these wars were nearing an end, Nyulah the usurper seized the throne of Mu and, aided by the priest, Nayah, replaced the worship of Poseidon with that of "The First God", Xultha. Under the guidance of Nayah and his minions the worship of the ape-god spread throughout the known world except for a region on the main continent already known as "Valusia" where mankind had not yet rose to challenge their masters, the serpent people, whom they even worshipped. Already the northwestern section of that continent was referred to as "The Seven Empires," a name carried on into Kull's day. This may be why it is so difficult to ascertain which of the nations of Kull's time constitutes the seven empires as apparently this is a name that went on to represent the Thurian civilization as a whole.
It was soon after this that Mu sank leaving only its highest peaks above the water. These peaks became known as the Lemurian Isles (though even in Kull's time these were still sometimes referred to as "Mu").
With this sinking, the worship of Xultha waned, though other gods of the Mu pantheon, especially Valka and Hothath, were worshipped; or at least sworn by.
After the sinking of Mu, their settlements on the mainland were soon overthrown by wandering barbarians. On the northwest quarter of the continent these nomads, the Thurians, settled and took control of this area from the Elder Race of Mu. Under Thurian control these countries grew slowly into great civilizations. The serpent people were finally beaten (or so it appeared) at this time. The names of some of the Thurian countries are mentioned in "The Hyborian Age": Valusia, the westernmost; Grondar, the easternmost; Verulia, which apparently bordered Valusia, for, in "Swords of the Purple Kingdom," they attempt to remove Kull from the throne; Commora, which may also have bordered Valusia, for "The Hyborian Age" mentions that after Kull's time Valusia fought great wars with them; Kamelia and Thule, of which no information is given in either the essay or the Kull stories to place them -- though of course we have the ancient legends of Thule to tell us of that very unusual land. The longer untitled fragment (best known as "Riders Beyond the Sunrise") mentions three other countries: Zarfhaana, the only kingdom between Valusia and Grondar; Thurania, which is south of Zarfhaana; and Farsun, which is southwest of Valusia. At this time the remnants of the Serpent people dwelt outside the Thurian kingdoms (although they'd infiltrated them to a great extent). There are several other areas inhabited by non-Thurian civilizations, as well as areas where groups of savages live. Only three non-Thurian nations are named: the Celts and the Kaa-U, with which the Thurians have contact, and Zhemri, with which they don't. Cave dwelling savages are said to live in the north. A mysterious pre-human civilization dwells in the south. One of the non-Thurian civilizations dwelling on the east coast are the ancestors of the Stygians of Conan's time. The latter are mentioned as having some contact with the Lemurians.
Most patently this is an imaginary history of the world created by Howard for fictional purposes. Readers who are offended by its lack of accuracy may assume that Howard's pre-historical and historical fantasies occur on some sort of alternate world with a somewhat different history than that of Earth. This would also explain some of the anachronisms such as can be found in the Bran Mak Morn series.
* * * * *
One of the things that Howard seems to have done with the series is to examine laws and customs in general, particularly in regard to ones that could readily be judged as ridiculous or unnecessary. As the vehicle for this theme Howard chose laws that dealt with marriage, and five stories depend heavily on this: "Exile of Atlantis," The Longer Untitled Fragment, "The Cat and the Skull." "By This Axe I Rule!" and "Swords of the Purple Kingdom." The stories most probably occur in this order.
"Exile of Atlantis" is undoubtedly the first Kull story as it is the only one that occurs prior to his gaining the crown of Valusia. The Longer Untitled Fragment would probably be next of the marriage-themed stories, as here Kull is seen as being brash and impulsive. "The Cat and the Skull" would be the next of these, as Kull is seen as being more contemplative, asking many philosophical questions, and at the end of the story he actually grants the girl, Delcardes, permission to marry, at least temporarily negating the law. Next would come "By This Axe I Rule!," as here Kull is no longer tolerant of laws that enslave him and will not let him govern his people as he sees fit. And last of these would be "Swords of the Purple Kingdom," where he does not grant a young woman permission to marry her lover; not because of the law, but because the girl's father is Kull's friend. The father forbides the marriage and Kull doesn't wish to go against the will of his friend. Mention is made in this story of events in "By This Axe I Rule," or "Axe" would be the last of these five.
Another element in the stories that leads to setting them in a different order than that published is that Kull is the brashest at the beginning of his rule and "The Screaming Skull of Silence" and the Longer Untitled Fragment would seem to occur here. The more meditative stories (and poem), "The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune," "The King and the Oak" and "The Striking of the Gong" would logically appear near the end of the series.
Another factor is Kull's growing friendship with Brule, the Pictish warrior. Brule is introduced in "The Shadow Kingdom" and appears in all the stories of Kull as king except for "Kings of the Night," in which he is mentioned, the poem "The King and the Oak," and the two stories in which Kull does not appear on stage, "The Altar and the Scorpion" and "The Curse of the Golden Skull." "The Altar and the Scorpion" occurs sometime after "The Shadow Kingdom" but probably early in the series, while "The Curse of the Golden Skull" has no internal evidence as far as placement in the Kull series (though Rotath could be the ventriloquist hinted at in "The Cat and the Skull"), but because part of the story happens in a contemporary setting, it is desirable to place it at the end as an epilogue to the series.
Kull's friendship with Brule can be used in placing the last three stories: "The Black City" occurs somewhat early in the series, as Brule behaves formally towards the Atlantean. In the events of "Kings of the Night" Kull is again seen as brash and as someone who acts quickly (however, we are told by Gonar, the Pictish shaman, that travelling through time as Kull does in that story will indeed have some effect on him). The Shorter Untitled Fragment occurs after Kull and Brule have become very good friends, though it is not so late in the series that Kull is seen to be only somewhat contemplative at this point.
Thus the stories can probably be arranged in the following order:
Exile of AtlantisThis brief story introduces Kull to the reader and is the only one to take place prior to his becoming king. Here Kull is a young savage who, until taken in by the Sea-Mountain tribe of Atltantis (the only tribe mentioned in this story), was a wild creature and, like any other animal running wild in the jungles, was unable to speak the language of human kind. Apparently he has spent more time with the tigers, whom we are told he "ran with," than any other animal, though wolves, leopards, deer and buffalo also are mentioned as inhabiting the continent. It is later revealed in the saga that the Tiger is his totem.
The materials available to the Atlantians, or at least their ability to use them, was not great at this period: They have bows and arrows, wooden chains, and Kull carries a flint dagger. They also have spears and appear able to manufacture ships or boats of some kind, and these are large enough to travel to the Thurian continent and for the Atlantians to war with the Lemurian pirates. Nor do they appear to wear much in the way of clothing, only Kull's attire is mentioned, and that is a leopard-skin loin-cloth.
Although the Atlantians may worship a pantheon, only Valka is mentioned. Khor-nah says that man is Valka's mightiest creation (remember that, according to The Isle of the Eons, Valka is the god of fertility and growth).
The primitive Atlantian culture is somewhat stiffling in true barbaric tradition. Each legend is accepted as reality, no matter how absurd. And the traditions of the Atlantians are not only respected, but are considered holy, each myth assuming the form of some kind of ultimate truth. Kull however, being raised by an animal and not as a member of an Atlantian tribe, has no respect for these traditions and myths. And where he knows one to be a lie he quite frankly says so, which displeases the culture-bound savages he has fallen in with. They believe that if a legend has existed for so long, then it obviously must be true. Kull's attitude here foreshadows the disregard for Valusian law he later shows. Probably as a result of his feral origins Kull is a hard pragmatist. The legends of the Sea-Mountain tribe and the laws of Valusia are not regarded with any kind of respect whatsoever, but rather judged on their own merits and dismissed if found wanting. Kull's pragmatism is illustrated with this point: "Animals are neither gods nor fiends, but men in their way without the lust and greed of the man--." It is a common conceit among the human race to want to believe that it is special or better than its animal brethern, and to this most creation myths apply.
The differences between the tribes and Kull come to a head when a tribesman's daughter, Sareeta, who has married one of their enemies, is shipwrecked and ends up back with her tribe. The latter, in blood-lusting vengeance, decides that the girl must die and set out to brutally burn her at a stake. Kull would rescue the girl if he could. He can't understand why this girl's own people would hate her for her choice of husband. There is no way he can rescue her however, instead he grants her a swift and merciful death which she silently agrees to, and then flees his tribe aided by his good friend Am-ra. The theme of friendship is to play an important part in the Kull saga, especially in regard to him and Brule.
In this story we see that Kull is deeper of chest than his muscular friend, Am-ra, and we are told also that Kull is the fastest runner in the tribe. So already we have the athletic, rebelous kind of hero that often appears as a Robert E. Howard protagonist.
It is interesting to note that Kull is somewhat obsessed with reaching the City of Wonders, capital of Valusia. He mentions early in the story that he would like to see it and then later dreams of the city in the following evocative passage:Through the mists of his sleep echoed faintly and far away the golden melody of trumpets. Clouds of radient glory floated over him; then a mighty vista opened before his dreamself. And a great concourse of people stretched away into the distance, and a thunderous roar in a strange language went up from them. there was a minor note of steel clashing, and great shadowy armies reined to the right and the left; the mist faded and a face stood out boldly, a face above which hovered a regal crown -- a hawk-like face, dispassionate, immoble, with eyes like the gray of the cold sea. Now the people thundered again: "Hail the king! Hail the king! Kull the king!Is it just a dream that happens to come true? Or is it some kind of precognition ? If the latter is true is Kull predestined then to be king of Valusia? If so, why? Why should a savage have such a dream in the first place? These questions are open to interpretation though Kull will later state in "The Cat and the Skull" that he doesn't believe in predestination.
Also of interest is the theme of alienation. After all, Kull does become an exile. The reader is told of the Atlantian, Ascalante, who escaped from being a Valusian slave; but was with the civilized people so long that he forgot his name! This illustrates how contact with a civilization will rob a primitive people of their culture and, in a sense, their identity.
The story is redolent with some of Howard's marvelous prose. Not purple yet not simple and straightforward either. The way he combines words to special effect is something unique to his style that has never been successfully copied. To wit: "There was a minor note of steel clashing," and in the story's opening paragraph, "The sun was setting. a last crimson glory filled the land and lay like a crown of blood on the snow-sprinkled peaks. The three men who watched the death of day breathed deep the fragrence of the early wind which stole up out of the distant forests..." (emphasis mine). Essentially, it seems, Howard uses extremely evocative phrases to do in a few words what could take most writers several paragraphs.
The Shadow KingdomBy the time of "The Shadow Kingdom," Kull has become an interesting puzzle of a character. His life, to this point mostly unknown, had much to do in forming his personality.
As previously stated, Kull is a feral child. He was brought up in the wild by tigers. Unlike other feral characters from fiction, Kipling's Mowgli and Burroughs' Tarzan, Kull forsakes the wild for the companionship of his fellow humans. In modern times it has been learned that feral children are "unrescuable" from the wilderness ways after the age of six years or so. It can be assumed then that Kull was just under that age when the Sea-Mountain tribe took him in. These feral beginnings made of him the excellent athlete mentioned in "Exile of Atlantis." These same beginnings also gave him the practical mind that made him question the myths of his adopted tribe. Kull is never ashamed of his origin, but takes the tiger as his totem.
After fleeing Atlantis with his tribe screaming for his blood as a result of the events mentioned in "Exile," Kull is captured by the Lemurians who make a galley slave of him. This would have further increased his muscular ability and endurance, as well as introducing him to the harsh realities of dealing with a "civilization."
Kull does manage to escape the Lemurians and does a bit of wandering before reaching Valusia. In the present story the reader is told that Kull had been to the jungles of the south.
In Valusia he begins as an outlaw in the hills. So already he has a disrespect for the laws of Valusia -- laws that he will later shatter. However, Kull the outlaw is captured and incarcerated by the Valusians, and shows sufficient fighting skills to become a gladiator in that kingdom's arenas and later a soldier in its armies. He also has the self-assured strength of character to be a leader and becomes a commander in that nation's armies; reaching as high a post as outlander barbarians are allowed to reach. The Seven Empires, including Valusia, are waning. The people are soft and idle and decadent, and outsiders like Kull are becoming the new backbone of the Thurian kingdoms.
Kull, being the intelligent though rash man that he is, becomes aware of the petty intrigues and gossips and connivings of the Valusians, and slowly learns to deal with them. Kull regards the Valusians with "carefully hidden, grim amusement." Finally their decadence and cruelties, especially as exhibited by King Borna, prove too much to bear and Kull strikes for the throne for his own reasons. This story takes place early in Kull's kingship. He has learned enough of the Valusians' petty behavior to deal with them to some extent and to play their own "game with them, though many of his subjects still consider him a barbarian intruder.
Probably in his wanderings Kull has not encountered anything of an extremely supernatural nature, for he is quite surprised at the grim horror of the serpent people's manipulative plot. Even at a point where he's fought and killed over a dozen of these characters, all disguised as men he knew, when he confronts one who looks like himself, he temporarily loses his grip on reality, doubting whether he or the serpent man is the real Kull. Only Brules's pragmatic behavior brings Kull back to reality to confront the usurper.
Perhaps one of the aspects that make "The Shadow Kingdom" such a well-crafted story is its use of horror. This is no mere blood-and-thunder adventure. The menace Kull fights is frightening in its evil, maniacal, plotting ways. It is something to be feared and quite clearly Kull and Brule experience genuine fear making them all the more believable as characters. The revelation about the serpent people is accomplished by a rush of "racial memory" that leaves Kull astounded.
There is a distinct lack of violence at the beginning of this story. Not until chapter three is blood spilled, yet the story remains well-paced and interesting.
Another facet of Kull's character is revealed during the battle with the serpent people. He is an infrequent berserk. During the battle his eyes see a red haze, all his muscles tighten (preventing great loss of blood), his mind is cleared of thought and he becomes a deadly offensive fighter with no thought to his defense. The berserk rage passes once the battle is ended, leaving him somewhat confused.
An important item that Howard handles well in this story is that of the age and decadence of Valusia. It is so ancient that its beginnings are forgotten, its antiquity is a cloying, suffocating thing that reaches out and communicates to Kull that there have been hundreds and thousands of kings that have come and gone, and yet the walls of the City of Wonders remain; and that Kull will not -- he is only another king.
Kull is shown as merciful, for although he is informed that Kaanuub is the serpent people's ally, Kull makes no effort to imprison or execute him.
The question arises as to the remark in this story that Kull has "not yet known the love of women." Some critics have assumed that this might mean that he has homosexual tendencies. However, there is not enough evidence available to support such a theory. Kull may well be asexual, seeking rather to fulfill his philosophical side; or "love" may imply emotional fulfillment and not a sexual act. The series has to be examined as a whole to look at this apsect of his character effectively.
Ka-Nu, the Pictish emissary, is introduced in this story. He's a jolly, rambunctious old diplomat who can read his fellow men quite easily. Even Kull is surprised at the old Pict's statecraft when the ambassador puts himself in Kull's hands to show that the king can trust this Pict, tribal enemies though they may be. Ka-Nu's wish is to use Kull's rule to spread peace and harmony among all humans.
Brule is also introduced. The man destined to be Kull's friend is newly come to the mainland to serve under Ka-Nu. Brule is one of Pictdom's elite warrior class, the Spear-Slayers. He too has something of contempt for the civilized kingdom he finds himself in, commenting that "The guards of Valusia are blind buffaloes." Something of the Pictish culture is revealed here; they don't tell lies, they use a curved sword and their favorite sword-stroke is an upward disembowling thrust. Brule swears by Valka; apparently the worship of this diety is widespread. The friendship between Kull and Brule truly begins with their promise to slay each other, if need be, to prevent their souls from becoming enslaved by the serpent men. The friendship grows as they fight side-by-side against these minions of the Old Ones.
"The Shadow Kingdom" is a powerfully written story of adventure and horror, tightly plotted; and chronicling the rash, enigmatic Kull's early days of kingship.
The Mirrors of Tuzan ThuneThis story is as different from the standard S&S fare as one could want to get. Ah, if only Robert E. Howard's imitators had had as muc imagination as Howard himself. Howard experimented in the Kull stories far more than he did in any other series. He had not yet defined the Sword-'n'-Sorcery genre to the extent that he did in his later Conan tales.
"The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune" opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, whose own story "Berenice" is similar to "Mirrors" in its sense of unreality. This is part of a longer quote from a poem that Howard had used in a previosuly discussed story, "Kings of the Night":
I have reached these lands but newlyThis creates a curiosity, because Thule was one of the Thurian kingdoms. Actually Thule appears to have been a mythic land originally written about by Diodorus, Strabo, Procopius and others. Thule (or Ultima Thule, see above, "ultimate dim Thule") was thought to have been a large island in the Artic, ten times the size of Great Britain. It was a land of infertile soil whose air consisted of sea water and oxygen.
From an ultimate dim Thule;
From a wild weird clime that lieth sublime
Out of space -- out of time."
Every year a strange phenomenon takes place in Thule. At the time of the summer solstice, the sun never sets; rather, it stays in the sky until the winter solstice is reached. Then for a period of forty days and nights, it remains hidden. The inhabitants of the island spend that long night asleep as they cannot do anything in the pitch-dark.For being a marvelous fantasy, this story makes a sorry statement as to the conditions of Kull's mind. His questions are not philosophical, as many readers at first believe; but rather they are childish, silly questions, reflecting just the effect that Kull's feral upbringing and his trip through time had upon him.
Among the several tribes that inhabit Thule is one called the Scritifines. The Scritifines lead a life similar to that of beasts. They never dress or wear shoes, drink wine or till the earth. Like savage animals they hunt the large creatures that inhabit the forests of Thule. Sometimes in winter the Scritifines will cover themselves with the skin of these wild creatures, and they extract marrow from the creatures' bones to feed their babies who are never given milk. As soon as a child is born, he is hung from a tree in a leather cradle, a piece of marrow is stuck in his mouth and his mother leaves with her husband to join in the hunt.
The members of another tribe are known for the large number of gods and demons they worship, which they say inhabit every stone, river and tree. To these beings they offer human sacrifice, by slaughtering the victim at the altar, impaling him on a tree or throwing him down a crevasse.
Another, more friendly tribe, is noted for its exquisite hydromel, or mead, prepared from the abundant honey made by its bees.
Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc.
New York, 1980; p. 374
Kull is not however painted as the being nasty heavy-handed barbarian; as in this story he is seen as showing an act of kindness to a girl of the elder race who was used as a tool by Tuzan Thune. Also, once again Kaanuub is shown to be endeavoring in treasonous behavior but nothing much is done about it.
The main strength of this story is its illusionary feel. Absent in the narrative are the hard, concrete, battle-heavy writing that one associates with Howard. Rather the reader follows the protagonist through believable mental subjegation as Kull is brought further and further each day under the spell of the mirrors. This is a great story full of the best of Howard's writing.
Points of interest:
- Sea again used as a reference when describing a highly polished surface (this was previously done with the gong in "The Screaming Skull of Silence," here it is done with Tuzan Thune's mirrors).
- Brule owns a galley.
- The City of Wonders is probably near the sea, as Brule mentions tides.
- Kull is left, at the end of this story, being even less sure of reality than he was before. (Things just get worse, don't they?)