Sunday, August 14, 2011

Blogging Conan: The Tower of the Elephant

Of all the Conan stories, this one, "The Tower of the Elephant", is arguably the best.  It's one of the shortest, but it contains some of the strongest writing Howard ever did.  For example, from the opening paragraph, in which Howard describes the the Maul, the part of town smart people don't go into after dark:  "Along the crooked, unpaved streets with their heaps of refuse and sloppy puddles, drunken roisterers staggered, roaring.  Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings.  Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face." 

That's only three sentences.  Yet Howard managed to pack more description in those three sentences, more atmosphere and sense of place, than most writers do in three paragraphs.  He does more than paint a word picture.  He places the reader in the middle of the scene.

It's into this scene that a young man named Conan comes. 

The plot is pretty straight forward.  Conan overhears a kidnapper bragging in a tavern.  The man mentions a tower known as the Elephant's Tower.  He questions the man, who tells him that somewhere in the tower, guarded by more than human guards, is a priceless jewel known as the Elephant's Heart.  The tower is the domain of the sorcerer Yara. 

When Conan says that courage is what is keeping the local thieves from stealing the jewel, the man attacks him.  Conan kills him, then decides to rob the tower himself.  While doing so, he encounters another thief named Taurus, who has been planning the heist for months.  They decide to team up. 

Taurus is killed by one of the guardians of the tower, and Conan proceeds alone.  Normally in these posts about Conan, I would have stopped summarizing by this point, but I'm going to make an exception here.  It's what happens when Conan finds the jewel that makes "The Tower of the Elephant" stand out among Howard's work and among works of twentieth-century fantasy.

Conan discovers the chamber containing the Elephant's Heart is occupied by a creature with the body of a man, green in color, and the head of an elephant, with the head being disproportionately large for the body.  The creature is blind.  He's also been tortured for centuries by Yara. 

At first Conan is horrified, then as he realizes the creature, who we learn is named Yogah or alternatively Yag-kosha, is no threat he feels a great sense of pity for him.  Yogah explains how he came to be trapped there (mentioning Valusia and Kull's world, although not specifically naming Kull), then asks Conan to aid him in his revenge against Yara.  Conan does as he's asks.  He kills Yogah, then squeezes his heart out on the jewel he'd come to steal.  The blood soaks into the jewel as if it were a sponge.  Conan takes the jewel to a lower level in the chamber, where Yara is in a trance.  He awakens Yara and gives him the jewel along with a verbal message from Yogah.  He then makes his escape from the tower.

What?  You think I'm going to tell you all the details of Yara's demise?  You'll have to read the story for that.  It's short, and more than worth your time.

It's Conan's reaction to Yogah, even more than Howard's prose, that lifts this story above most others.  Howard did a lot with the Conan stories to establish the trope of the thief stealing an ensorcelled item, yet in one of the earliest Conan stories he breaks the very stereotype he's establishing by adding a layer of depth and feeling and having the thief willingly give up the item he's come to steal. 

The popular misconception of Conan is that he's a ruthless killer with little or no empathy for the pain of others.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, there are stories in which Conan's bloodthirsty streak is the characteristic that is displayed most prominently.  But Conan is a three dimensional character.  The compassion he shows here, while harsh, is still compassion.  He acts out of mercy, not bloodlust.  Only by killing Yogah can Conan free him from the torment he's suffered and allow him to take revenge on Yara.  Conan genuinely feels compassion for Yogah.

It's easy to see why "The Tower of the Elephant" is considered a masterpiece.  If you haven't read it, or read it recently, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Then compare the storytelling you find here with what you'll see in the movie when it comes out this week.  See if there's a difference.  We'll talk more about that when I review the move.


  1. My second favorite Conan yarn, after Red Nails. Nice review. Now I must read this gem again. :)

  2. Thank you. I'm glad you liked the review. I'll be looking at Red Nails sometime in the next couple of weeks.