Sunday, 22 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 08: The Tower of the Elephant (Reading Conan 03)

“The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Mar. 1933)

This is the earliest original Conan story that I recognized by the title alone. That’s because I’ve read one of the comic book adaptations, the one originally published in Conan the Barbarian #4 by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sal Buscema. I’ve actually written about that particular issue in my review of Conan Saga #2 which collects issues #4-6 of Conan the Barbarian. Unlike the two previous stories, I was pretty familiar with this one and I was looking forward to see how the original telling by Robert E. Howard would differ from the comic book version. Overall, not a whole lot in terms of plot, but the execution was better.

A young Conan is in the City of Thieves in the country of Zamora. He’s spending his evening in a tavern where a man is talking of the riches and jewels tucked away in the Tower of the Elephant. Conan mentions that the tower looks unguarded and it must be an easy target for thieves. He questions why no one has tried to steal from the tower before. Soon the exchange of words becomes an exchange of fists and a brawl takes over the tavern.

Conan leaves and decides to try his hand at stealing the most precious jewel in the tower: the Heart of the Elephant. Over the courtyard walls he encountered Taurus, another thief. He’s clearly far more experience at thieving than Conan and enjoys showing the young Cimmerian just how experienced he is. Taurus has been preparing himself to steal form the tower for years and his preparation saves them both on a few occasions. Together they fend of guards and lions and proceed to scale the walls of the tower. One they enter, they discover the real guardian of the tower. As they explore deeper into the building, revelations regarding the true nature of the Heart of the Elephant and the tower are made and Conan once again faces the awesome power of magic with nothing but a sword in his hand and a lot of grit.

The biggest difference between the comic book adaptation I read and the original story is the atmosphere that Howard conveys with his words. He’s really skilled at it and so far, that’s been one of the more enjoyable aspects of the original Conan stories. It’s a shorter story than the previous two. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the shortest original Conan stories. Maybe that’s one of the contributing factors as to why it’s been retold so many times (notably, three different comic book adaptations). Its short length works to its advantage.

I like that everything happens in a single night because it grounds the otherworldly and magical elements into something more relatable. I’m used to reading about immensely huge fantasy adventures. Those can be great to help you experience something very big and mythic in proportions, but it can also have a downside which is to make you feel like they are overdrawn and unnecessarily long. Some larger series overstay their welcome and others get lost in the details or forget what they were originally meant to be about. That “The Tower of the Elephant” is based on a simple idea, stealing a large gem from a deceptively unguarded tower, and then morphs into something big and strange that also feels epic is pretty great. All the while it hangs onto the qualities that made it approachable in the first couple of chapters. It’s a great example of a story that uses big ideas and mixes it with quick and skillful execution.

Cover art by Barry Windsor-Smith.

Howard seems to effortlessly convince the reader of how impressive Conan’s actions are during this story. He’s going to go steal something which, in itself, doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it is because he’s going to steal a hugely precious gem from a fortified tower that oozes with myth and legend. Let me remind you that the Tower of the Elephant is placed in the middle of the City of Thieves yet nobody has gone to steal it. There must be more to the rumours about the tower than just stories to tell each other while drinking at the local inn. What’s truly hidden inside the tower? Conan, he doesn’t give a shit. He’s just up for the challenge. He’s young, probably more than a little reckless, but he’s also confident in his abilities, one of which is clearly the ability to survive some pretty horrendous things such a coming face to face with giant venomous spiders and an alien sorcerer from another dimension.

That all this crazy otherworldly stuff happens just down the street from a tavern where other, lesser thieves are drinking themselves blind is captivating. This story pulls me in and enthrals me. It’s grandiose without being overblown. There are so many things to like about this story. For starters, I love, I absolutely love, the visual of Yag-Kosha. He’s the sorcerer with a human body and the large head of an elephant. It’s a great visual and it really works for me. I can’t explain why, but its undeniably a powerful image. That Howard tops the weirdness of that idea by explaining Yag-Kosha’s origins, which somehow manages to make things even weirder, is damn impressive.

While reading “The Tower of the Elephant” I couldn’t help but notice the impact that this story has had on the fantasy genre, particularly sword & sorcery. I won’t go into a long analysis of the breadth and depth of Howard’s influence on fantasy literature. I do want to point out that this is certainly a candidate for being the original dungeon crawl story and it just makes sense that Gary Gygax was inspired by Conan in his creation of Dungeons & Dragons.  

As an aside, if you’d like to read more about the influences of fantasy and science fiction writers on Gygax’s D&D, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons by Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan at Tor.com.

Now that I’ve read a few of the original Conan stories by Howard I have to say that this is the story to beat. There is so much here that I adore and I think it all makes for a great story. I admit, some of the reasons why I think this story is so great somewhat elude me. Maybe it’s the perfect execution of a three part story where the idea of stealing the Heart of the Elephant is seeded. The second chapter turns the story into an exciting adventure, including suggestions to the reader and characters that not all is as it seems. The final chapter then takes the expectations of the first two parts and completely turns them around into an incredibly weird third act where Conan’s descent into a world of horrors is completed. I particularly like how his descent into a world of strange horrors is juxtaposed with his ascent of the tower.

Art by Benito Gallego.

I like seeing the pattern of Conan’s determination to do the impossible from one story to the next. He continues to do what other men aren’t even willing to attempt and it often leads him into a confrontation with unexplained sorceries. This time it’s an evil sorcerer feeding on the power of another sorcerer that happens to be from another dimension. Once again, Howard shows us that Conan has mastered many of the physical and human arts of warfare. After all, he survives the tavern brawl without any difficulty. However, all his skill and knowhow is useless when he is face to face with something he doesn’t understand, like magic.. Sorcery continues to be the anti-Conan and this story is a clear example of that.

Conan’s encounter with Yag-Kosha demonstrates the kind of man he is. After seeing the mistreatment Yag-Kosha has suffered at the hands of Yara, Conan loses focus on his reason for being in the tower. He doesn’t continue with his attempt at stealing the Heart of the Elephant, instead his goes on to help the wounded Yag-Kosha. So far, Conan is a pretty honourable person. In “The Sword on the Phoenix” he defends himself against a murderous plot while also saving his kingdom from the destruction of the summoned monster. In “The Scarlet Citadel” he defends his kingdom from neighbouring invaders. In “The Tower of the Elephant” he shows compassion for a wounded and tortured man (close enough). He recognizes something human, a shared connection between himself and Yag-Kosha and instead of feeding his greed or taking advantage of Yag-Kosha like the evil Yara has done, Conan finds a way to help the alien sorcerer. I’ve kind of always considered Conan to be an honourable character but I’ve been led to believe that this isn’t always true, especially in the stories written by Howard. I’ll be paying attention to see if and when this changes.

Rating: 5 Precious Jewels (which Conan doesn’t get in this story)
“The Tower of the Elephant” has it all. I really can’t think of what would make it any better. Even Howard’s theme of barbarism vs. civilization is at present. Surely the sorcerer Yara is a learned and educated man, yet he’ll take advantage of a sentient being from another world in order to profit from it. Conan clearly doesn’t do this yet his society considers him as a lowly barbarian. It’s also great to see the kind of weird and admittedly crazy adventures Conan had in his youth. I hope I’m right when I say that this is probably the best story to introduce new fans to Conan. It’s certainly helped make me a fan.


Next Sunday, I continue my exploration of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard with “Black Colossus”. Will there be an evil sorcerer? Probably. I’m not sure there can be a Conan story without one. 

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