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Hither Came Conan: Jason M Waltz – “The Tower of the Elephant”

Monday, January 28th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

The great Mark Schultz

The great Mark Schultz

Every Monday morning for Hither Came Conan, a Robert E. Howard expert looks at the merits of one of the original Conan stories from REH. Up this week is Jason M Waltz with “The Tower of the Elephant.”

The Tower of the Elephant is #1!

That’s the chant I heard rising above the darkened canopy shrouding the mighty yews and other overgrown vegetation blocking any chance I might have had to see the Pictish village. The heavy hand upon my shoulder kept me from ever knowing if the wattle huts truly stood there, cavernous doorways gaping wide like entrances to giant earthworm tunnels, shadowed gates to a scarcely known past few dared to poke and muck about in.

Pulled backward until I was off my feet and set hard upon the trunk of a fallen giant, I craned to my left to see my captor. A mane of black hair, shaggy strands barely covering the flash of sullen eyes, twisted away, the hand that had never left my neck squeezed tight, forced my face forward. A downward glance caught a mighty foot and shin of brown skin girthed in high-strapped sandals, before they too were snatched from my sight by that iron grip jerking my head upright. A chuckle sounded low behind me, shook the arm up which it traveled till I shook as well.

“You’ve been asking which of my tales is best; none better to tell you than those who know me best. A man’s story is only as good as his foes tell it, after all. You think these Picts will praise the tales within which I slaughter them? Ha! Those are the tales they tell their whelps over the fires to hone their hatred. Their favorite tales, the ones they retell strangers, are my adventures outside their territories.

“Now my favorites are those times with Bêlit, my queen…” A gigantic sigh echoed, followed by a shake of that mane and a rueful laugh. “Ah, if only I’d met the elephant-man later, there is much I might have asked. But it is he who taught me to open my eyes, he who made me take heart.

“The best of my tales? It must be “The Tower of the Elephant”, all else follows, for I’d not be the man I am without it.”

The grip upon my neck vanished as if it never were, taking the chants and heavy verdure and powerful presence behind me along. Had I just been bewitched, enchanted? Had I dreamed all that had just seemed so real? As I looked, I saw the gleam of the rising sun sparkle and crash against the morning like shards of jewels and I doubted not.

As the man himself said, “The Tower of the Elephant” is the best Conan tale. Only a civilized person does not accept the word of a barbarian. Since this barbarian knows that, here’s three reasons why this truth is so for all you civilized readers.

One. We get perhaps Howard’s best rendition of Conan’s straightforward fighting man from the north versus the duplicitous conniving men of the city, any city. There’s not a better comparison of the stark line drawn between such creatures then what is shown in speech, posture, thought, and action throughout our opening bar scene. Life is pretty cut-and-dried for Conan, making his decisions fairly simple (We’ll see in later stories as he lives longer among the civilized that sometimes he no longer sees so clearly and dawdles in his deciding).

Hither_ElephantMarvelCoverLike the men he’s met here, Conan abides by an ‘I-see-I-want-I-take’ rule, but unlike the tamed men who must scheme and connive to achieve, Conan the Cimmerian practices ‘If I can, I win; if I can’t, I won’t.’ He knows what he wants and what he can accomplish, and there are only three things that keep the barbarian from messing with you or your possessions: respect, practicality, and fear…and there isn’t too much of the latter. As the man observes, “like all things of a civilized…people…a maze of formulas and rituals” burdens everything.

Throughout this tale, Conan always takes steps forward, always takes action, always takes responsibility. Conan does, and very few characters does it better. Real-life people either.

Two. It is difficult to live up to a star billing byline if you don’t take advantage of those moments that fit the bill. Labeled a thief come “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth,” Conan certainly better jump at opportunities to do so. Climbing high above the Earth upon the jeweled tower that houses the seat of a powerful wizard and throne of an otherworldly creature and then bringing it down into the dust is just about the perfect delivery.

If the tabloids weren’t already using such a ringing endorsement of the big man, they’d start after this caper. Talk about selling copies! As our hero observes above, a man’s story is only as good as others tell it–but he certainly must provide them fodder! Conan may not tell his own tales, but he definitely does not shy from living them to their fullest.

There is no tale where he does not conquer the insurmountable climb, the cavernous gaping doorway, the paralyzing fear of the weird and strange, the dubious kindred of other men–but after making conscious choice to do so. How dull otherwise! Like reason one, Conan does, and each step of each tale takes him on an arc he never anticipated but seems inevitable upon our looking back. Any other character and we’d be asking, can a byline make a man?

Three. Conan understands a lot more and a lot more often than he is credited for, and he often shoulders a larger world of hurt than would be his share. This time he takes on the guilt of humanity. I can’t think of too many heroic characters who overcome their debilitating fear amidst a daunting treasure raid to render salvation upon a tortured foreigner.

Yet here’s Conan, feeling sorrow and embracing empathy within a moment fraught with more danger than he comprehends. Even better, he acts. Hey, there’s that ‘being a doer’ trait again. He takes all that Yogah of Yag tells him to heart, then takes that heart and saves the mortal creature and the day…despite ‘losing’ what he’d started the whole affair for without a tear.

I’m certain those civilized men he’d met earlier would not have embraced a moment of guilt when they discovered the chained and tortured alien. They would have hacked it to bits in fear or sunk their cruelties into its flesh in greed. And perchance Yogah would still have escaped, I highly doubt they wouldn’t have shed a vast quantity of tears bemoaning their lost wealth.

This is a pretty good 3rd Edition module from Mongoose

This is a pretty good 3rd Edition module from Mongoose

Howard gave Conan an insightful mind that is too often hidden away (sometimes intentionally, sometimes negligently) from modern readers. He is a man strange to the ways of civilization, to the ‘better’ and the cultured, whose internal observations often share piercingly clear analysis of what we have become: jaded, sated, and over-rated.

And four. “The Tower of the Elephant” is a damn fine tale showcasing much of the powerful passions of two people: creator and creation. Both live larger-than-life in this, arguably the most well-known Conan adventure. Howard pits Cimmerian savagery, practicality and innocence beside and against the deviltry of civilized man, the civilization of devilish men, the devilishness of wicked man and the otherworldliness of cosmic man.

Howard touches upon numerous themes (beyond those just mentioned there are honor, loyalty, compassion, trust; the list continues), pontificates just a wee bit, yet drives Conan and readers forward without pause into a cataclysmic crescendo that actually tugs the heartstrings. Imagine saying that about a thief and death tale! And Howard gave us so much fun action and excitement from start to finish, it’s not ’til later, as we reminisce about the tale, we realize it took us somewhere we never, ever anticipated in that opening tavern scene.

Speaking of that tavern, here’s a fun rendition of the story to enjoy over a slow half-hour and drink. The background festivities can be a bit loud at the onset, but overall the story is well-delivered. I do believe the gigantic Cimmerian would experience bouts of both his famous moods were he to give it a listen.

So, is there any reason not to claim ‘Best of’ status for this tale? Well, yes. To avoid discovering it, try not to think too hard whilst reading, and just let yourself sink into the tale and enjoy its adrenaline blast. If you let thoughts of things that just don’t add up or work just right escape, you’ll enjoy the whole experience and will continue to sleep deep each night. Crom help you, if you do not.

Hither_EditorDesk

From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)

“The Tower of the Elephant” was the first story published after Howard composed ‘The Hyborian Age,’ and its geographic depth reflects that, starting with the description of the different characters in the tavern in the Maul.

This story built on and expanded the ‘barbarian vs. civilized man’ theme present in the rejected “The God in the Bowl”

With two of the first three Conan tales returned by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, there was no guarantee that the character would endure. Howard wrote fiction to make money. But the next three stories ensured that there would be a market for Conan: “The Tower of the Elephant,” “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Queen of the Black Coast.”

It has been adapted for Marvel’s ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ and ‘The Savage Sword Of Conan,’ as well as by Dark Horse.

Taurus of Nemedia seems to be one of the most popular one-shot supporting characters in the entire Conan Canon. I seem to recall that he is referenced in Sean Moore’s very good Tor pastiche, Conan and the Grim Grey God, but I don’t remember the thief actually appearing in any pastiches.

At the end of each of the first five stories, there was a surreal element. With the evil sorcerer Yara, the alien Yag Kosha, and the mystical tower, this story dripped with the fantastic – putting the sorcery in’ swords and sorcery.’

Prior Posts in the Series:

Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”
Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Up Next Week: John Chris Hocking looks at “The Scarlet Citadel.”


Reader, writer, editor, publisher, and general promoter of the heroic, Jason M Waltz is Rogue Blades Entertainment – and RBE is reinvigorating short form heroic adventure. As Chief Officer Navigating Against Nonheroics (C.O.N.A.N. for short), I believe in heroes, and in the reading and sharing of heroes, so I make sure RBE pushes the edge of its tagline “Putting the HERO back into heroics” for all readers.

As for my own writing, lots of pencil markings and stacks of paper exist, though Direk, Lord of Vengeance is the only true public representation of such. Check him out and let me know if he delivers the Xtreme edge of heroics that would make RBE proud.

 

Me_CJOSouthernCropBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).

He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.

He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IVV and VI.

And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.

18 Comments »

  1. “Howard’s tales of elder worlds are growing rapidly in stature, and now and then—as in “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Tower of the Elephant”—reach a level of really tremendous power.”
    – H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 18 Jun 1933

    Your average WT story with an elephant-god would be something like Frank Belknap Long’s The Horror from the Hills, where they’re an evil caricature of Ganesh or something.

    And it’s just…have you ever seen a monster cry? Have you ever seen a thing from beyond the stars, it’s limbs twisted and broken on the rack, eyes blinded, and you’ve got the space-elephant’s trunk gently groping Conan’s face like any blind person might do? That was brutal to me.

    But the thing about Robert E. Howard is…and people don’t often recognize this. He doesn’t write stories to tug at your heartstrings. I mean, they might, in a manly sort of way, and no-one has brought as many manly tears to my eye as Robert E. Howard. But REH, he doesn’t write stories about that. REH writes stories about revenge.

    Would another hero have killed Yag-Kosha? Would another hero have taken his revenge? And that is the brilliance of Conan. It’s the difference between good & lawful and honor. Because there are things in this life where there aren’t any easy answers. Where the things that people ask of you are not easy. It’s a last request, and it’s a last request for revenge, and Conan doesn’t know everything, and he hasn’t known this elephant-headed stargod for more than five or ten minutes, he could just knick the jewel and be halfway down the Tower and then up to his armpits in prostitutes before the night is out. But he does it anyway. Because he’s Conan.

    Comment by greyirish - January 28, 2019 9:35 am

  2. A fun and interesting way to state your argument that Tower of the Elephant is the best Conan tale. While I’ve never considered it my favourite or the best, you make a compelling case. I read it again recently and enjoyed it as much as ever. I may need to read it yet again to see if I can be swayed over to your way of thinking Bob.

    Comment by V. Russell Waciuk - January 28, 2019 12:24 pm

  3. I don’t think there are many that would dispute this is at least ONE of the best Conan stories. In reaction, I’ll just say I thoroughly enjoyed the “in-universe” beginning to the essay, and second the editorial comment on Taurus of Nemedia being among the most popular one-shot supporting characters in the canon by pointing out support in the sub-canon. When de Camp and Carter came up with their roster of children for Conan and Zenobia, one of them bore the name “Taurus.”

    Comment by Brian Kunde - January 28, 2019 12:28 pm

  4. I’m up next week to sing the praises of The Scarlet Citadel, which it fully deserves, but I couldn’t even begin to suggest that story was superior to Tower of the Elephant. Not even as a humorous pose for purposes of the essay. Because Jason is right.

    Greyirish is spot-on with how well the story illuminates Conan’s character. It seems to me that criticism of REH’s writing and his characterization of the Cimmerian often, too often, seem utterly blind to what can be seen in Tower of the Elephant.

    And the story itself, an unlikely and sublime blend of realistic detail and weirdly resonant fantasy, captures the elusive essence of myth as well as anything written in the modern era. There is nothing else like it.
    It is a masterpiece.

    Comment by John Hocking - January 28, 2019 12:29 pm

  5. V. Russell – I want to make sure I don’t get credit for other people’s excellent essays.

    I recruited folks for the series, and I post them because I’m a blogger here at Black Gate.

    But I’m not writing all these entries (I will be doing ‘Rogues in the House, though). I wish I could!

    I am adding the ‘Dusty Scrolls’ part, just to include some discussion fodder…

    I make sure to put the name of the contributor in the post title.

    I, too, liked Jason’s approach.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 28, 2019 1:53 pm

  6. I’ve not yet seen an explanation of why Weird Tales ran The Scarlet Citadel (two months?) before The Tower of the Elephant.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 28, 2019 4:08 pm

  7. Great post Jason, love your approach. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Tower, as I lean towards the more action-oriented tales like People of the Black Circle and Red Nails. But this reminds me just how original and trend setting Tower really is; it is the template used by so many in later S&S and fantasy to come. The opening set in a tavern filled with thieves and cut-throats, a treasure to seek in a courtyard bristling with deadly traps, a tower to scale and at the top, just when you have the gem in sight – a giant friggin spider! Fantasy and S&S would simply not exist without tales like this to set the standard.

    Comment by thedarkman - January 28, 2019 4:25 pm

  8. This indeed is quite arguably one of the best tales. Indeed it should spawn a “Trope” but IMO the ‘literati’ are refusing to acknowledge REH as a “Classic” quite yet.

    In it REH reveals the ‘history’ of his world but in a tantalizing glimpse from the perspective of the bound, broken alien being Conan encounters. I like the King Conan speaking flash fiction in this article – if only he’d encountered him later, the things he’d ask, but he realizes that encountering him earlier in life also helped set him on his path.

    Too many other books have huge glossaries, whole chapters where the history of the “Realm of…” is laid out, excessive page full descriptions of every character even the tavernkeeper that appears once… Now, it is good “World Building” if the author does that so he does know inside how far the realm of the Necromancers is versus the Realm of the Amazons, or the general difference between Red and Green orcs…etc. BUT that stuff is lots of extra work the author is supposed to do himself – then if its popular and when he dies his kids/publisher/whoever buys the rights to feed off the grave publish… REH was the Grand Master of telling “Just enough” in his Laconic but powerful script.

    Out of respect of REH alone I won’t promo stuff I’m writing here – but indeed have a few “Tower of the Elephant” type things planned and the real goal is to work out how to tell things by the perspective of such a being. Could be an alien. A supernatural creature. An ancient machine or other type of construct. An Angel or Demon. The latter two are technically “Intruders” coming outside the universe, btw.

    Relatively low body count, though Conan does some good slaying.
    The recent “Dark Horse” comics adaptation is really good – recommend checking it out. The narrative is made to look like bits of yellowed ‘pulp’ paper with a typewriter font and for Yag-Kosha’s story they go from the already great Cary Nord art to pulling in Michael W. Kaluta!

    Comment by GreenGestalt - January 28, 2019 5:00 pm

  9. BTW – Yag-Kosha was incorporated as a “Mythos” diety for the Cthulhu mythos, RPG. Relatively benign one compared to Cthulhu and such.

    Here are some really good illustrations of them – posting this separate coz it takes a while for links to show up.

    https://www.deviantart.com/mrzarono/art/Yag-Incantations-433193041

    https://www.deviantart.com/mrzarono/art/Tower-of-the-Elephant-213829905

    https://www.deviantart.com/mrzarono/art/Dark-Lord-of-Yag-593602378

    Comment by GreenGestalt - January 28, 2019 5:03 pm

  10. Apologies Jason and Bob for the the mistaken identity. Well done Jason.

    Comment by V. Russell Waciuk - January 28, 2019 5:07 pm

  11. No trouble at all, V. Russell. Much thanks to y’all for the kind words – after the opening two essays I’ll admit to being a bit concerned my approach would not be appreciated. In analyzing my take versus those of Bobby and Fletcher — very intelligent and eloquent researchers both — I came to the conclusion I responded more emotionally than intellectually. I think there is a place for both, and look forward to how they mix in the essays ahead.

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - January 28, 2019 9:00 pm

  12. Yeah, I’m not sure if I’d say BEST story (although it’s certainly somewhere close to the top of the list), but it’s probably the most consequential in terms of its influence on later writers and the shape of S&S as a whole.

    Comment by Joe H. - January 28, 2019 10:07 pm

  13. This is turning out to be a great series!

    Thank you, Gentlemen.

    Comment by John E. Boyle - January 28, 2019 10:41 pm

  14. I love your approach, Jason. This is one of my favorite Conan stories.

    One thing I did notice on this rereading, and that’s how REH describes Conan’s reaction upon seeing Yag-kosha:

    “A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to doubt his senses.”

    Almost sounds as though REH is taking a dig at Lovecraft’s protagonists.

    Finally, I admired how Howard connected Conan to Kull in just a few lines without ever mentioning Kull by name.

    Comment by westkeith - January 28, 2019 11:33 pm

  15. Thanks, Keith! And nice catch on that Conan reaction being opposite a HPL typical character’s. Like greyirish said from the start – It is ‘Because he’s Conan.’

    Interesting takes on Yag-Kosha, GreenGestalt, thanks for sharing that great artwork.

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - January 29, 2019 9:50 am

  16. Happy to say this is the first Conan story I ever read as a kid, so it has stamped a special place in my imagination.

    Re-reading it a couple years ago, I was even more impressed. I haven’t yet read the entire Conan canon, so I cannot claim an opinion on where it ranks therein — but it is, I’ll say, one of the all-time great fantasy stories.

    BTW, Jason: I was so smitten with that Savage Sword of Conan #24 cover that I just went on eBay and ordered it!

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 1, 2019 2:15 am

  17. Yes, isn’t that fantastic!? One of my favorites. I’d definitely frame it if I had wall space.

    Comment by Jason M 'RBE' Waltz - February 1, 2019 6:56 pm

  18. […] (Black Gate): The Tower of the Elephant is […]

    Pingback by Sensor Sweep: RPG Theory, Paizo, Grimdark vs. YA, Lankhmar RPG, Prydain – castaliahouse.com - February 4, 2019 1:31 am


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