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‘Strange Dooms’
The Tower of the Elephant by Robert E. Howard
Previously entitled ‘Take Your Sword Oh Man’ and ‘Morning Crowned and Shining,’ reviewed as both text and audio book and revised with Danica Lorincz.
First published in Weird Tales in March 1933, pages 61-81 in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Del Rey, 2003, illustrated by Mark Shultz.
The criminally inept Conan movies have given a nod to this story, and then walked away from it. A good movie could have been made by simply combining Rogues in the House with the Tower of the Elephant, both located in the same decadent Zamora, City of Thieves—Howard’s ensorcelled version of Manhattan. For some reason John Milus and his successors thought they could tell a better story than Howard.
The Tower of the Elephant is absolutely the best Conan story.
It is the best Sword and Sorcery story ever written.
The Tower of the Elephant is by far the best novelette I have read.
Artists that illustrate Conan all seem to be most inspired when doing this story. Mark Shultz’ illustration of Conan and Yag-kosha is gut-wrenchingly faithful to the melancholy story of supernatural justice. Jason Lenox did a very soulful Conan illustration, stressing the atmosphere of the story, with atmosphere being Howard's boldest stroke of the keys.
Howard gives the most sympathetic and introspective treatment of Conan the character in this story, through which he wanders as the least of four major characters, all fleshed out and given vibrant life in a mere short paragraph. Conan is cast as ‘the hand of fate’. There is no woman to distract and occupy Conan, who, as a country bumpkin, comes to the big city to ply the thieves’ trade, and falls in with Taurus, "the prince of all thieves."
The story has plenty of dialogue interspersed with action. The visual imagery is rich and murky, developing an otherworldly feel quickly as the quest is engaged. Conan goes from the slums of the Thieves’ Maul to the base of the fabled Tower of Yara the Magician in less than a page. Taurus is a well-sketched rogue. Yara is the standard tall vulture-like sorcerer who comes to life so easily for Howard, being a symbol of the manipulative puppet masters who thrive in the folds of the cozy curtains that cloak civilization, and reach out from the shadows to sow misery and reap ruin. The story though, is not about any of these three miserable human adventurers.
Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, once mentioned that Howard’s Conan stories served as a secondary inspiration along with the works of Fritz Leiber, to the majority influence of Tolkien. If you are a fantasy reader who also plays a role playing game, I highly suggest taking a look at The Tower of the Elephant. The adventure elements in this piece bring Gygax to mind as much as Howard. It is amazing to me that Howard’s best literary effort is also one that obviously inspired some gaming adaptations—perhaps, though, that is the point, that the story was so good that one of the original gaming geeks wanted to be able to recreate it as an exercise in interactive story telling.
Yag-kosha was an exiled alien being once worshipped by kindly "yellow-skin men" in the far off jungles of Khitai. His self-descriptive fall from god to pitiful tortured prisoner, forced to "blacken his soul with cosmic sins," is essentially the story of the shamanic soul being chained at the heart of a religion and serving the dark purpose of the enslavement of the collective mind. This, when the brutish but honorable Conan meets the fallen god in his chamber of torment, is perhaps Howard’s best scene. The fact that Howard’s violently superstitious, racist, hyper-barbarian is moved to pity a monster and set aside his greed to do what is right, just because it is right, has impact potential that Howard does not fumble, but handles deftly. The meeting of Yag-kosha makes for the perfect place in the Conan series for Howard to cash in on his protagonist’s stark brutality, and use him as a gray backdrop on which to sketch the darker evil of the world with words.
The Tower of the Elephant works on every level. I have read it seven times and will read it again, gods of Yag willing.
D.L.’s Note: What sets Conan apart from all the others in this tale are his sincerity, instinct, inner strength, and honor. He is unlike Yara, who has built a life for himself based on smoke and mirrors, both seen and unseen. Yara uses these to manipulate those around him so that they continue to bestow power which leads him to feel immortal among mortals; and so he arrives at a certain evil complacency bred by a false sense of omnipotence.
And unlike Yag-kosha, who allowed himself to be deceived by Yara, Conan trusted his instincts regarding those around him (surging from his extremely sensitive lizard brain) and acted upon them unquestioningly, which continually honed them.
He maintained an elemental relationship to his values, from which issues his unwavering ethical sense, superior to anything civilized. The integrity that others lack proves his barbarian (outsider) identity, keeps him from being drawn into ordinary social dissimulation and remain true to himself. His high level of self-awareness is not analytical but simply recognizes what he needs to live with himself.
By the end of the story, and this is always the case, Conan is richer by another adventure, never by riches, and that’s really what Conan is all about.
James’ Note: if you cannot get a hold of the original in a collection, try Dark Horse Books Conan #3: The Tower of the Elephant and other stories, a superb graphic novel that leaves nothing out of this gloomy fatalistic story that somehow retains a note of beauty.
Below find two audiobook versions of Robert E. Howard's tale of the captive human soul—the story of us all, buried at the base of the literary tradition that has been hijacked by souls as sin-stained as Yara.
The first link is a dramatized version.
The second reading is by TheLeninistPlays Games, who has been posting numerous Robert E. Howard readings on YouTube.
The dramatized reading reminds me of old time radio shows I used to listen to with my father. I think I prefer the straight reading, but then again, you don’t get the creepy creak of a door in a straight reading. I really like the voice of the actor reading Conan’s part. I had feared that the voice of Conan would by loud or gruff. The easy—even faint voice—is consistent with a wilderness-raised person, who would be conditioned to a habit of silence and low conversational tones.
The Dramatized Reading #1
The 'Leninist' Reading #2
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