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On Being A Barbarian
The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E. Howard
This is the first Kull story to make it to audio-book. My reading has been from the Del Rey, 2006 Kull: Exile of Atlantis, pages 11-52.
This story was first published in Weird Tales, August 1929, two months before a real shadow kingdom was touched by the light of a witless day.
As a corrupt modern person who chaffs at the civilized bit, I identify most strongly with Kull of all of Howard's characters.
In this story Kull bonds with an enemy of another race—his hereditary foes, the savage Picts—in the face of the all corrupting forces of civilization. Many an urban white survivor has a similar tale of bonding with an outcast from an enemy group. In Howard’s mythos barbarians are allegorical figures representing the alienated person, who is so alienated because he has an internal and ineradicable value system and refuses to be simply bought and sold by the puppeteers that control the vast, soulless automaton that is the body politic.
One might read the barbarians as representing the politically aloof ethical person in a factional world—for politics does require the discarding of any ethic other than, “My side, right or wrong”—or might alternately represent the "natural” person in a denatured world or the whole man in an emasculated setting. Howard's expression, through such characters as Kull, seemed to hold to a full spectrum viewpoint, that civilization must naturally work against all of these facets of being human. Often does he evoke "gulfs" of horrible incomprehension, but few of these shadowed images are more alien to the reader than are the machinations of the political puppeteers to the direct-action hero.
The reader could consider Howard’s term “barbarian” to represent the tiny percentage of human beings who are still human, rather than having been corrupted into some form of tittering meat-puppet. The point of the story is that real, unadulterated, ethical men are so few, that when they find each other in the shadows of the towering edifice that is The State, they would be best served to put aside their factional differences and work together.
Note how the political functionaries vested in the operation of the Kingdom are the least likely to perceive the malevolent hand of the Shadow Kingdom.
As always, the best reason to read Howard, or to enjoy one of his yarns on audio, is to be carried on the words of a story, away from the grind of our dreary day-to-day. But when we land, he has left us with something to consider beyond, behind and below our collective master’s many, and forever unfulfilled, wishes.
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