Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Blogging Kull: Untitled Draft

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, $15.95

After completing "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune", Howard's next attempt at a Kull tale was an abortive effort simply called "Untitled Draft" in the Del Rey edition.  A good title would have been something along the lines of "Who Rides into the Sunrise" since that phrase is repeated in several forms at one part of the story and would have been a central theme if Howard had chosen to finish it.

The story opens with one of the Valusian nobles telling Kull about a scandal in which the Countess of Fanara, Lala-ah (surely one of the silliest names in all of Howard's canon and certainly more fitting for a tavern girl than a countess) has jilted her fiance at the altar to elope with Felgar, an adventurer from the neighboring kingdom of Farsunia.  There's definitely some alliteration here.  Normally, so many proper names so closely associated would be off-putting and confusing to the reader.  A more experienced author would probably not have made this mistake.  Howard was still learning his craft, although by this time he was becoming quite an accomplished wordsmith. Howard perhaps was aware on some level of the potential for confusion, because this is the only time all three names (Fanara, Felgar, and Farsunia) are used in close succession.

Kull is bored by the whole thing, and comments that in Atlantis, the "women mate with whom they will and whom they choose."  Having grown up in small Texas towns, I think I can safely say that this idea was ahead of its time in 1920s Cross Plains.  It's only when a messenger informs Kull that Felgar has said:  "Tell the barbarian swine who defiles an ancient throne that I name him scoundrel.  Tell him that some day I shall return and clothe his cowardly carcase {sic}in the clothing of women, to attend my chariot horses."  Why Felgar would do this is never explained.

Strong words from a man who is also a foreigner, although from one of the civilized kingdoms.  This, of course, sends Kull into a rage.  He summons Brule and the royal cavalry, the Red Slayers.  They take off in pursuit of Lala-ah and Felgar, crossing the border of the neighboring kingdom of Zarfhaana. 

Howard seemed to be setting up some conflict besides that between Kull and Felgar.  There are two other men in the party besides Kull and Brule who are named.  Ka-yana, who led the original pursuit and is overtaken by Kull and the Red Slayers, is the first.  There is definite dislilke between him and Brule.

The second man is named Kelkor.  He is second in command of the Red Slayer.  Instead of being Valusian, he's Lemurian.  He worked his way up through the ranks, attaining the highest rank he could as a foreigner.  This prevents him from becoming the lord commander of the entire army.  Kull silently laments this fact. The passage (p. 71) implies, to me at least, that this will become a plot point later. Kelkor is a warrior's warrior.  In fact Kull has something of a man-crush on Kelkor.  I don't recall any other passage in Howard's writings in which the central hero wonders if he can ever have the self control and martial prowess another man has.  There may be such a passage, but if there is, I'm not aware of it. 

This is the least brooding of the Kull stories Howard had written up until this time.  The emphasis here is more on pursuit.  The party, all 300 strong, track the lovers to a city on the eastern border of Zarfhaana, but the pair manage to elude Kull, although just barely.  It's while Kull and Brule are secretly searching for them in the city that the comments of riding into the sunrise begin.

The pursuit continues, across the border into Grondar, a kingdom of fierce horsemen who often raid Zarfhaana and other kingdoms along their border.  Kull has enough men that the Grondarians don't molest them but do follow along behind them, watching.  Felgar and Lala-ah manage to stay about a day's ride ahead.  I don't know much about horses, but I found it a little hard to swallow that the horses Kull's party as well as the lovers are riding don't start dropping dead from the relentless pursuit.  I realize that Howard says Felgar and Lala-ah have spare horses, but still, give me a break.

Eventually, they come to a river, the Stagus.  On the western side is grassland; on the eastern, desert.  At the river they meet a man, Karon the Ferryman, as he calls himself.  It's been established that many of the names Howard was using in his fiction during this period were taken from Bullfinch.  Here's a  perfect example of his doing so, and I think it's brilliant.  Howard makes Karon seem a natural fit to the story, not forced.  Howard even states that Karon will eventually be known as boatman to Hades.  While the land on the eastern side of the Stagus isn't called Hades, it is called World's End and is a hot and hellish place inhabited by monsters.  No one who has crossed the Stagus has ever returned.

Karon informs the group that he is a member of the Elder Race.  He also knows Kull's name, even though Kull does not give it.  I'm not sure if this was an oversight on Howard's part or not.  I suspect not.  It certainly works to make Karon more mysterious and a little threatening even though nothing he does or says is overtly hostile.

Felgar and Lala-ah took the ferry across the Stagus at dawn the previous day.  Kull says he intends to follow to avenge the insult Felgar has given him but that the men are free to return without it being held against them.  They all follow Kull.  So impressed by this is Kull that he gives them the highest compliment he can:  "Ye are men."  Karon ferries them across, and the party prepares to continue it's pursuit.

And that's where the story ends.  Just as it was starting to get interesting. 

It's unfortunate that Howard chose not to finish this tale.  It was probably shaping up to be the lengthiest Kull story Howard had written up to this time.  Yes, the impetus to get Kull to take to the road is weak.  Pursuing lovers that he would ordinarily sympathize with in order to avenge an insult is a bit thin for motivation to leave the kingdom in the hands of the nobles, who we know from "The Shadow Kingdom" are not to be trusted.  Especially if you take most of your personal guard with you.  It's easier for me to see Conan in his pre-Aquilonia days doing something like this than it is for me to see Kull acting this way.  But once Kull and his men are on the road, who cares why he left.  This installment shows us some of the geography of Kull's world, something we don't get to see much of in the other stories.  Once Kull and Brule are in the city looking for their quarry, Howard drops hints that they're heading into trouble.  This is confirmed when Karon tells Kull no one who has crossed the Stagus has ever returned. 

Personally, I can't wait to see what's on the other side of that river.  I want to know what monsters are lurking there.  More critters from Bullfinch?  It would be fascinating to see what Howard does with them.  Maybe no one has ever returned because a gorgon is hiding over there.  It would certainly fit with the Greek mythology motif Howard establishes with Karon.  And what about the animosity between Brule and Ka-yana?  Where was Howard going to take that?  Yes, I know it would almost certainly have ended in Ka-yana's blood being spilled, but half the fun is getting to that point.   Let's not forget Kelkor.  Will Kull eventually go against custom and promote Kelkor to command of all the army and not just the Red Slayers?

Sadly, unless the highly unlikely happens and the rest of the story turns up somewhere, the world will never know.  Even with it's flaws and unfinished state, this draft showcases Howard's growth and improvement as a writer.  He has more characters than in any of the previous Kull tales, and their motivations appear to be more complex than any to this point.  Their interactions certainly are.  This could have been a major novella, especially if Howard had tweaked the story a bit to make the motivation for pursuit a little more believable.  It's our loss that he didn't.

1 comment: