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‘Hope Flickers Her Lamp’
The Cat and the Skull by Robert E. Howard
Reading from Kull, Del Rey, 2006, pages 87-116, unpublished in Howard’s lifetime
The Kull stories in general offer something unique from Howard, a cast of regular supporting characters. This rogue’s gallery is varied beyond its core three and goes a long way to impart the atmosphere of alienation that a barbarian king would experience on a civilized throne. In none of these tales are the supporting characters more involved than in The Cat and the Skull.
The beautiful and beguiling owner of a speaking cat of supposed great antiquity, Delcardes, not only fails to seduce the king, she does not try. Kull is the step father of this dying race, gentle to his subjects and brutal to their enemies, imparting the virility lacking in the Valusian spirit, but not imparting it to the women of that decadent race, where it might be smothered.
Kull comes under the cat’s spell, a cat controlled by the villain borrowed by John Milus for the making of the Conan the Barbarian movie, Thulsa Doom. The sorcerer sends Kull on a suicidal quest to test the magic of a submarine race of ancient, pre-human lake dwellers and their huge beasts. This is a very un-Conan-like quest. Where the other barbarian usurper king of Howard’s canon tends to pursue material goals and in so doing stumbles upon the darker secrets of the world, Kull seeks the otherworldly backing of the façade that is reality and plunges in to the mythic fray like Gilgamesh, Herakles and Beowulf, willing to follow a whim into Hell itself, armed with the simple-minded confidence of the undefeated warrior that he can overcome all things.
Kull’s wrangler is an ever-tormented chamberlain, named Tu, whose life is never as simplified as his name would suggest, who often has need to chastise the impetuous king to little avail:
“Tu sighed. As he grew older it was becoming increasingly difficult to refrain from showing exasperation toward kings.”
This passage, and the three men whose duty it is to be ever near Kull and advise and protect him, give away the inspiration for Howard’s sense of kingship, of the inherent risk-taking nature of his hero kings: boxing. Just as a fighter has a three man corner so does Kull and just as Kull is always one sword stroke or one diabolic scheme from losing his crown, so is the fighter at the mercy of schemes to defraud him of his title and ever a single blow away from losing all he has acquired by his craft and might. It was part of Howard’s genius to see in boxing an artifice for the preservation of the extinct tradition of hero kings and to infuse his ideal of the hero king with the circumstances of the successful prize fighter, at the mercy of handlers and befuddled by his success as much as by his doubts and his necessary lack of perspective. For what other kind of man, is more a barbarian king on a civilized throne than the boxing champion?
Kull’s heroic spirit is best reflected in the following lines he utters to swarming enemies:
“A figure of threat and doom, bloody and terrible he loomed above them.”
“‘Take thought, men of the lake, is my slaying worth the lives it will cost you?’”
As for Howard’s underlying perspective on humanity, Kull’s enchanted enemies of olden times speak passionately:
“Death and ruin follow the course of your race…Do we not know? Aye, we reigned in the Lake of blue waters before man-kind was even a dream of the gods.”
And Kull strides mythically on as blind to his peril as he is unconcerned with artifice of any kind, a naked man seething on a gaudy throne
Reverent Chandler: The Saga of Fend
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