Saturday, April 5, 2008

Reflections on REH's Kull of Atlantis

A few days ago I finished Del Rey's Kull: Exile of Atlantis, part of their excellent Robert E. Howard collection. I had read Kull before when Baen Books put out their REH Library series back in the 90's, but I was more than willing to pay up and get my hands on this new, wonderfully illustrated collection of short stories.

Both David Drake in the forward to the Baen Books edition and Steve Tompkins in the Del Rey edition note that Kull is much more of a brooder and a thinker than Howards iconic Conan.

Many of the stories, such as The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune or The Cat and the Skull, are by and large discussions on the nature of reality, space and time, the relationship of man in the physical world to man in the world of dreams. Shorter stories like The Screaming Skull of Silence and The Striking of the Gong all but border on navel-gazing, something which seems totally out of place when compared to a lot of REH's other works.

But as anyone who has read a large body of his work can attest, Howard was no simpleton. He was a product of his environment, but I do not consider him a part of it, and I don't think he really did either. Corresponding with cerebralists like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard's letters are filled with discussions of ancient cultures and peoples as well as ruminations on the nature of reality, the cosmos, gods, spirits, demons, and alternate planes of existence. While he might have been the most action-oriented writer in his circle of peers, Howard was still a scholar in his own right, or at least as much of a scholar as one could become confined to a place like Cross Plains, Texas.

Because of this philosophizing on the part of Howard, Kull is regarded as the most REH-like of his characters. After having read the stories again, and knowing what I do about Howard, I think Kull and Conan are two sides to the coin that is his personality. The Kull side is the one that looks about him in his rural Texan upbringing, seeing the poverty, the ignorance, and the violence, and as well the massive technological development sweeping through the world of the early 20th century, and the Kull side at once marvels at this civilization and at the same time, is too much of a thinker to ignore the way in which it can be unsettling. Kull never rests easily while in Valusia, just as I imagine Howard never rested easily in Cross Plains.

But on the other hand, the Conan side of him is the part that wished to forget all the worries and the troubles, and just delve into adventure. It's the part of him that I'm sure Howard wished he could have "let loose" more, but found that in the "civilized world", such a life could never be. He was truly a man born too late, and although that twist of fate has allowed us (and many generations both in the past and in the future) to enjoy his creations, I cannot help but wonder if it would have been a far fairer world if he had been born to the life of a Highlander, or Crusader, or an adventuring Conquistador or Roman Legionary.

In any event, all we can do now is mourn a man who died all too young, and remember him for what he was able to accomplish in a shockingly short span of time.

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