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