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‘Locked with Heavier Chains’
By This Axe I Rule! By Robert E. Howard
Formerly published as ‘We Are Barbarians, Together’, revised and expanded
Written in 1929 and unpublished until 1967
As with most of Howard’s Kull stories—Kull being the clear prototype of Howard’s most famous character, Conan—the author was unable to sell this story. Instead he rewrote it as the Conan story The Phoenix on the Sword, and then, after an additional rewrite, sold it to the man who had rejected it, which tells us something about why By This Axe I Rule! was rejected at the time it was written.
The story was written just as America groaned under the fall of its economy, felled, in Howard’s view, by crooked bankers and politicians, who were given free rein to do evil by the very State that was supposedly there to protect the people.
The Kull character has a steady sidekick named Brule the Spear-Slayer, a Pict who is from a rival tribe of barbarians. Kull is allied against the corrupt forces of civilization with Brule, who has been tricked into leaving the king in his hour of need. Howard’s general literary theme that barbarism [remaining spiritually outside the political construct] is a superior ethical state to civilization, is laid as a foundation in the person of these two characters, one of whom evolves into Conan, and the other [arguably] serving as the basis for Howard’s most intense barbarian character, Bran Mak Morn, discussed elsewhere in this book.
In 1929, almost immediately after the stock market crash, Howard’s writing drew inspiration from his perception that his nation’s economy had been brought down by the unseen hands of nefarious bankers and other conspirators. Kull is a fascistic outsider, a regicide, a chieftain of barbarian mercenaries who rips the crown from the head of a corrupt king just after slaying him with his own hands. This element was kept in the Conan character. However, three key elements of Kull were—forgive me—culled from the persona template in the formation of Conan:
1. Kull is a committed bachelor and has no time for women, where Conan is an extreme womanizer, making him more salable.
2. Kull suffers from melancholies and depressions, something that is stated as a facet of Conan’s personality in the poetic preamble to the series “Oh Prince,” but not evident in his plot-driven behavior and outgoing personality. Thus Conan, as an inspirational character—a important element to consider when appealing to a fantasy readership—demonstrates, in his every adventure that an alienated man can overcome his melancholies through direct action.
3. While, like Conan, Kull is unable to fathom the logic of civilized ways and is not good with high cunning or political skullduggery, unlike Conan, once king, he does not accept civilized laws.
The plot of By This Axe I Rule! revolves around a band of conspirators isolating and attacking the king in his bed chamber. In both stories the main conspirator has a slave with a sympathetic ear who he confides in. In the Kull version the slave is a dead end character, a reflecting mirror to help visualize the motives of the assassin. In the Conan story the slave becomes the prime actor, a sorcerer who takes on the plot as his own tool for world domination, permitting Howard to share his hatred for the manipulative political systems of mankind in a veiled way.
The subplot, which rises to displace the main plot and take the focus of the story away from a king’s life-or-death struggle at midnight, and which was ruthlessly scrubbed from the second Conan version of the tale, in order to get a sale, tells us much about the editorial constraints Howard worked under.
This element is a love story, the story of a nobleman and a slave girl who wish to marry, not for the nobleman to buy the girl from her owner, who happens to be one of the conspirators. The young nobleman appeals to the king to sanctify the marriage, which is barred by Valusian law and tradition. The barbarian king, seeing that this man is in love, and having had no experience with love himself, feels pity for him and appeals to the chief counselor of the realm, who brings forth a stone tablet upon which the unbreakable and unchangeable law is written, and denies the king’s request.
Next we are introduced to the suffering slave girl who weeps in her master’s garden:
“In the midst of this pastoral quietude, a little slave girl lay with her face between her soft white arms, and wept as if her little heart would break. The bird sang but she was deaf; the brook called her but she was dumb; the sun shone but she was blind—all the universe was a black void in which pain and tears were real.”
A kind, giant stranger, seemingly like a tiger, came to the little girl in the garden and spoke with her, seeming interested in her woes. She then discovered that he was the king, and that he was as much a slave as her, both of them hating the laws of civilization:
“After all, little one, the king is only a slave like yourself, locked with heavier chains.”
The girl, understanding now that she had belly ached to the king about his inability to help her and her lover, ran off.
Later that night Kull is attacked, and nearly prevails, in the brutal fight with his assassins, which spares not a drop of gore. Just as the last conspirator is about to finish him off he is slain by the young nobleman, whose girlfriend had overheard her master conspiring against the king when she ran off. As the palace awakes to tend to the king's needs and rich ladies and gentlemen scamper about uselessly, Kull demands that the law keeper bring the sacred law tablet forward. When he announces that he wishes to sanction the marriage of this noble and this slave the courtiers are aghast and refuse to condone it.
During the course of the battle his sword was shattered and he had torn an ancient heavy axe from the wall and smashed and cleaved his foes with that. He was now so armed. The axe symbolized the common man, the barbarian, not the noble symbolized by the sword, the queen of weapons. The axe was also the symbol of justice in ancient Rome, a fact of which Howard was well aware.
Kull, in a psychotic rage, more unhinged than any Howard character ever was, then gave a speech as to the vile nature of laws and tradition, stating that the best man should make the decision—and in so doing must have sounded more like Hitler than any fictional American hero ever has. He then raises the axe and smashes the tablets of the laws to bits, declaring, “By this axe I rule!”
When Howard rewrote the story by excluding the slave girl [who might have been assumed to represent a black female] and her lover and replacing this romance with the conniving sorcerer, which gave Howard a more subtle outlet for voicing his disapproval of civilization as inherently immoral, and deleted the king’s rage against the constraints of law and tradition, the story was sold.
Howard would go on to cast numerous characters in male female pairs who break the law in savage outbursts of social rebellion, and moralist heroes who rail against social inequity, but would never again go so straight for the establishment throat as in this story.
The character of Kull shows the character of his creator more so than the more successful figures of Kane and Conan, and remained—during Howard’s lifetime—a minor offering like Bran Mak Morn, generally a little too bleak for editorial tastes. Conan broke civilization’s rules with wild abandon and quipped about inequity. He did not challenge the ideals of systemic government, but simply claimed impatience. Kane railed against iniquity and inequity as an evil against God, not as a natural result of politics, as Kull did.
Kull was Howard’s editorially unforgivable character, the haunted outsider brooding within the very halls of power, where no functionary of the system may be trusted to possess or abide by his or her humanity, where only another outcast soul might offer understanding and empathy.
For any reader who suffers the slings and darts of inequity and iniquity in their daily life, By This Axe I Rule offers a tonic for the lone soul.
Under the God of Things
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