Elak of Atlantis
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007
"Dragon Moon" is the last of the Elak stories Henry Kuttner wrote. It got the cover of the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales. I was browsing recently on the Dark Worlds site and discovered that all but "Thunder in the Dawn" got the cover. I shouldn't say "discovered" so much as I was reminded. I had seen all three of the covers featuring the Elak stories before and should have remembered them. Rather than reproduce the rest of them here, I'll let you view them over at Dark Worlds. G. W. Thomas has put together an interesting website, and you owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven't already.
"Dragon Moon" opens very much like "Thunder in the Dawn", with Elak and Lycon becoming involved in a brawl over a tavern wench in the port city of Poseidonis. Once again the druid Dalan saves Elak and tells him his home kingdom of Cyrena is in danger. At this point, the two tales diverge in their similarities. An alien presence, not a demon or a spirit, but an alien presence (Dalan is quite clear on this point) called Karkora the Pallid One has taken over the mind of the ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Kiriath. Karkora had begun to take over the mind of Elak's brother Orander. In order to prevent this from happening, Orander has taken his own life. Elak is now heir to the Dragon Throne and the kingdom of Cyrena. Kiriath is assembling an army to invade Cyrena.
Elak has no interest in ruling and sends Dalan away. That night Elak has a strange dream in which he finds himself on a cold mountaintop being assaulted by a presence. He is only able to escape by calling on the aid of his god. This is a complete departure from Conan, who is well documented in his practice of not calling on gods and whose deity Crom hates weaklings. Elak doesn't give it a second thought.
This is the first dream sequence (or dream-like at least) in the story and is fairly short. Unable to find Dalan, Elak and Lycon hire a skiff to take them to a boat that is just setting sail for Cyrena. Upon climbing up the side and over the rail, they discovered the ship is captained by a man named Drezzar. The same Drezzar Elak was fighting in the opening scene of the story. He and Lycon are immediately taken captive and put to work at the oars as slaves.
This sequence, in which Elak is captured and eventually leads a slave rebellion, is the part of the story that most reminded me of Conan. It's a straight action-adventure sequence which ends with Elak assuming the captaincy of the vessel.
The next truly weird part of the story occurs after Elak has been instructed by Dalan in a dream to leave the ship at a certain location. He eventually ends up seeking aid from a sorceress named Mayana. She is the mother of the current Kiriathan king and a descendant of Poseidon. In reaching her, Elak has to swim across a lake inhabited by the shades of a drowned city. This is the closest Kuttner comes to including a bizarre otherworldly sequence of the intensity of the ones seen in the earlier stories.
Mayana is by far the most interesting character. She fell in love with the former king of Kiriath and bore him a son with the aid of a sorcerer named Erykion. He's ultimately responsible for the Pallid One possessing the current king of Kiriath, who is Mayana's son. She holds the key to stopping her son, but is reluctant to aid Elak because it will mean her son's death. Yet, she also realizes that this is the right thing to do. She withholds her aid but promises to give it to Elak in his hour of greatest need. Mayana, in spite of being a child of the sea and not human, has fallen in love with the forests and fields of the land and longs to be able to walk them once again.
There's more, but I won't spoil it for you, except to say this. It appears that Kuttner was intentionally ending the series with this installment. Elak ascends the Dragon Throne and agrees to change his wandering ways, to settle down and rule. While kings can certainly have adventures, (Kull and Conan did, after all) the tone implies Elak the king will have a more quiet reign than his predecessors in Weird Tales. The ending of the story is the most bittersweet one of the entire series.
Whatever reasons Kuttner had for terminating Elak's adventures, he ends the series on a high note. The writing is probably the most polished of all the Elak stories. The action flows smoothly. I found the characters to be better developed, especially Mayana, who is by far the most complex of any of the characters in the series, especially given the amount of time she is actually in the story.
"Dragon Moon" was published in the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales. "Beyond the Phoenix" made its appearance in the October 1938 issue. That's a gap of over two years. All of the preceding Elak stories were published in 1938. I'm not sure why there was such a long break. The two Prince Raynor stories were published in Strange Tales during those two years. It appears as though Kuttner left the character and came back to him, although that's entirely speculation on my part. Did Kuttner feel that his writing had matured since the first Elak story (it had) and want to try his hand at a different sword and sorcery setting? Did Raynor not connect with the readers? Did Kuttner submit "Dragon Moon" in late 1938 or early 1939 and Farnsworth Wright delayed in scheduling it so that Kuttner had to create Prince Raynor for another market? Hard to swallow considering all but one of the Elak stories got covers and Wright published Conan in a number of consecutive issues. I don't know the answers to these questions, but they're interesting to think about. If anyone out there knows why "Dragon Moon" was published later, I'd like to hear the answer.
So, to sum up the Elak of Atlantis series. While the first has some definite flaws, the quality improves over the series. While comparisons to Conan are inevitable, and most of them will probably be unfavorable comparisons, Elak is his own character. He seeks help from the gods. He is an adventurer by choice. You can argue that Conan is as well, but the backgrounds of the two men are vastly different. Elak turns his back on a throne before ascending it. Conan, who has no such prospects due to his birth, makes his own opportunity. This series, while maybe not a major sword and sorcery series, is certainly one worth reading. Kuttner was expanding the genre, giving it a more weird and bizzare feel through the scenes where Elak goes to another realm, be it extra dimensional or in a dream. To my knowledge, at this time only C. L. Moore had done that with her Jirel of Joiry adventures. So, in conclusion, if you haven't read the Elak stories, check them out, especially the second, third, and final tales.
We'll look at the Prince Raynor stories next and see how they compare to both Conan and Elak.