Sunday, April 17, 2011

Henry Kuttner's Prince Raynor: Cursed be the City

Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories
trade paperback, 221, $12.99

In addition to the four Elak stories collected in this book, the only two stories Kuttner wrote about Prince Raynor are also included.  These stories were published in Strange Stories, a rival of Weird Tales published by Better Publications.  Started in 1939, this pulp was often seen at the time as a dumping ground for stories rejected by Weird Tales.  It only lasted until 1941.

In a way I prefer the Prince Raynor tales to those of Elak.  They are set in a more recent prehistory, one in which the ancient kingdoms we know existed are beginning to take shape, rather than some mythical past. As a result, any anachronisms are less glaring.  Also, the prose is leaner and more polished than in some of the early Elak tales, especially the first one, "Thunder in the Dawn".

Both "Cursed be the City" and its sequel, "The Citadel of Darkness", open with quotes from something  called "The Tale of Sakhmet the Damned".  What this is exactly, we're never told, nor does anyone named Sakhmet ever appear.  It's a nice touch, though.

The story opens with the fall of Sardopolis, capital city of the kingdom of Gobi.  The king is killed by the conqueror Cyaxeres, and the king's son Prince Raynor is taken to the dungeon to be tortured.  Cyaxares has a companion and adviser, Necho, who may not be human.  Raynor is rescued by his Nubian friend and servant Eblik.  Together they make their way to the temple of Ahmet.  There a dying priest tells them that when Sardopolis was founded, a great forest god was displaced, but it was prophesied that he would one day return to set up his altar again in the ruins of Sardopolis.  That day is at hand.  Raynor and Eblik are given the task of going to a group of bandits led by the Reaver of the Rock and informing them of the fall of Sardopolis.  They've been waiting for generations for the old god to return.

Cyaxares' men follow them.  The Reaver and his men stay to fight.  Raynor and Eblik, guided by the Reaver's daughter Delphia, a formidable fighter in her own right, take a talisman to free the forest god.  Most readers will recognize the name of the forest god.

The story moves well and has a satisfying, if not exactly upbeat, resolution.  In fact, the story ends on a pretty dark note. 

Kuttner continues to break from pulp conventions here.  Eblik is more than just a black sidekick, and Delphia takes an active role in the events.  The tone and feel of this story, as well as that of "The Citadel of Darkness", is much more Howard-esque than the Elak stories.  In those, Kuttner tended to play the sidekick Lycon for comic relief.  None of Howard's fantasy heroes had true sidekicks, although at times they had companions, who were treated as equals.  In the Prince Raynor stories, while Eblik may be a servant, and upon occasion is reminded that he is, he's still portrayed as a companion, not a stereotype to be played for laughs.  This was an uncommon portrayal of someone of African descent in the pulps of this era. 

By this time C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry had made her appearance, so a strong active woman wasn't exactly groundbreaking.  Still, to cast Delphia as a competent fighter and one of the leaders of the bandits was a departure from the typical standards of the day.

So to sum up, if, as some have stated, Kuttner was trying to fill the void in sword and sorcery stories left by Robert E. Howard's death, I think he succeeded more with Prince Raynor than with Elak.  It's unfortunate that he only wrote two stories featuring the character.  We'll look at the other tale in a future post.

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