Book Review: Kull, Exile of Atlantis, By Robert E. Howard
At any given time, I have an … extensive to-read pile. Even when I’m traveling, I like to at least have a cheap paperback or two stuffed in the bottom of my bag, just in case. It probably doesn’t help that there’s not a dollar paperback bin I won’t stick my nose into.
But, ironically, when the power went out during the recent snowpocalypse, my to-read pile just didn’t cut it. As I needed something, y’know, good to distract me, and keep me from running down my phone’s battery by compuslively checking on facebook or whatever. And so, in a desire for something familiar, something readable, and something that I could read in small chunks, I turned to a Del Rey collection of Robert E. Howard stories. Kull stories, to be specific.
I’m not a Howard scholar by any means, but I will say these Del Rey collections, distinguishable by their black-marbled covers, are arguably the best way to read Howard. They’re ridiculously comprehensive, including unpublished fragments and poetry and setting notes taken from Howard’s papers. The books also come with introductions and appendixes compiled by later scholars & authors to give more context to Howard’s work. But lest you think these are dry academic texts, it’s worth noting the Del Rey editions also have a bunch of cool illustrations of guys with swords getting into fights.
Many of the volumes are broken down by character– so there’s a bunch of Conan ones, a Solomon Kane book, and this one (the one I happened to have handy) is about Kull of Atlantis. Howard wrote Kull comparatively early in his career. In fact, the first Kull story, The Shadow Kingdom, is often referenced as the first modern Swords & Sorcery story. It’s interesting to see how a lot of the classic tropes were baked in from the start: big burly barbarian heroes, ancient ruins and tombs, devious snake-men, and so on.
While Kull was foundational to the formation of the swords & sorcery genre, only three Kull stories were published in Howard’s lifetime. This collection compiles all that unpublished Kull stuff– at which point you can see various patterns and themes emerge. What’s interesting (to me, at least) is to compare Kull to his successor character, Conan. Howard himself moved on from Kull, and wound up having a lot more success with Conan– and in reading Kull: Exile of Atlantis, I think I’ve got a theory as to why.
See, Kull is your standard Howard protagonist: he’s burly but clever, and of course really good at killing bad guys. And while Kull is a king in most of his stories, his role is kind of passive. In a lot of the stories, Kull is kind of passive. Or, well, at least as passive as a guy who goes around cleaving assassins in twain can be. Seems that half of his stories focus on how Kull reacts to various attempts to depose him. While there are other stories in which Kull gets into trouble because … he’s bored and wants to go take a look at some wizard’s magic mirror, or a talking cat or something.
This kind of curiosity feels rather adolescent, especially when combined with the number of times the stories mention Kull has no interest in the various scantily-clad women sashaying about. In comparison, Conan is more active, chasing women and treasure alike. Which isn’t to say there aren’t Conan stories that give him a more reactive role. After all, famous Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” is basically a re-write of the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!”
Still, Conan feels a bit more … well, I don’t want to say ‘mature’ of a character, but definitely ‘older’ in his tastes and behavior. Kull is curious, but also with kind of an ‘ew girls’ ambivalence like he’s in the 6th grade or something, while Conan is a hard-partying, skirt-chasing frat boy in comparison. Which leads to Solomon Kane being the responsible adult of the bunch, I guess? (I haven’t read enough Bran Mak Born to figure out where he fits on the scale).
If I were ambitious, I could probably spin a halfway decent academic paper out of this. Which, well, I won’t, but still. Overthinking and theorizing about pulp fantasy stories is kind of what I have a blog for, at least. But even still, Howard’s rollicking, fast-paced prose is still engrossing nearly a century later, well worth reading even (perhaps especially) if you’re not going to write a paper about it.