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‘Kull of the Sea-Mountain Tribe’
An Untitled Story by Robert E. Howard
First published as Exile of Atlantis in 1967
This is a seven page story with as many illustrations. I prefer illustrated stories over comics or un-illustrated fiction. For me illustrations work best as a supporting atmospheric element.
This reading is from the collection Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Del Rey, illustrated by Justin Sweet in 2006.
Kull was the character that seems to have been Howard’s Conan progenitor. There is something different about Kull though. The Conan character is tribal in loyalty. Kull is not, being a conflicted cosmopolitan barbarian, who holds to personal loyalties. It is more important to Kull that he is a barbarian, than that he is a barbarian of the Atlantean tribe who adopted him. Kull is morally defined more by what he stands against than by his origins or socialization, which makes of him a conflicted character, suffering on the split cross of his own contradiction, sure only of his prowess and what he must stand against.
This story begins in Howard’s best atmospheric style, with a level of expression often reserved for Solomon Kane stories:
“The sun was setting. A last crimson glory filled the land and lay like a crown of blood on the snow sprinkled peaks.”
This entire story is about questioning tradition, rejecting myths and clannish assumptions, and going against your own kind for a greater, inner, totemic good; not a greater political good, but rather in service to a natural moral imperative. Most of the tale concerns a fireside conversation between two cavemen and Kull, a feral barbarian child that was something of a Tarzan/Moses. There is no action for action’s sake. The only actions are triggered by loyalty and disloyalty; by the conflict between Kull’s personal, inner law versus the immediate tribal law of his people and are expressions thereof.
A theme Howard explored often was that less civilized people are naturally less rotten than more civilized people. You might say it is his strongest theme, and it never shows through more clearly than in this simple story that he never sold.
Kull feasts with an elder Atlantean, Gor-na and a youthful Conan prototype, Am-ra. Gor-na tells a tale of the moon goddess rescuing a hunted king tiger, a legend which Kull scoffs at, moving Gor-na to a rebuke:
“It little becomes you, Kull, to jeer at your elders or to mock the legends of your adopted people.”
Kull then speaks of journeying to civilized lands and through his debate with Gor-na over the evils of civilization something is roused in him. When he drifts off to sleep it is established in dream and upon his awakening that the tiger—king of the great hunting cats—is his totemic beast.
The three then journey to “the caverns of the tribe,” where they are to witness the burning alive of a woman of the tribe who committed the unforgivable sin of mating with an enemy.
Kull is now—forewarned by the legend and the dream, on the horns of a transformative dilemma.
The young Kull, outcast among outliers, is driven by his inner sense of justice to go against his adopted tribe at the price of choosing a road ultimately more dark than any of the moral quandaries that might be thrown up by barbarism; this idealistic barbarian is set on his road to failed assimilation in the decaying bowels of a corrupt civilization by his refusal to tolerate the cruel imperfections of the primal order.
In the end, Gor-na’s legend, the bloody sunset crown and the totemic dream come together in Kull’s supremely anti-social actions.
This might have been Howard's most shamanic, and at once most modern, piece.
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