Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Illustrations by Justin Sweet
Trade Paperback, 319 p., $15.95
Just so you know, this post will contain spoilers.
"The Shadow Kingdom" was the first of the Kull stories to see print, and it appeared in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales. In this story Kull has, with the help of some dissatisfied nobles, seized the throne of Valusia from the tyrant who's sat on it for a while. Apparently he's been on the throne long enough for the luster to have faded, for Kull makes it very clear he prefers the straightforward manner of his barbarian kinsmen. You know, the ones who've exiled him.
After a parade in his honor, Kull is holding court when an emissary from the Pictish ambassador requests a private council with him. Kull grants it and takes advantage of the opportunity to bait the man, the Picts being ancient enemies of the Atlanteans. The emissary, a warrior, requests that Kull come alone that night to a banquet with the Pictish ambassador, Ka'nu.
Kull's suspicious, but goes. Ka'nu informs Kull that only Kull can usher in an era of "peace and goowill", of "man loving his fellow man", to Valusia and the Seven Kingdoms. This is somewhat ironic seeing as how Kull is a warrior king who carries deep hatreds. It's also not what you would normally expect in a Robert E. Howard story. In order to do this, Kull has to live. The next in line to the throne is a figurehead controlled by a race of serpent men, if not actually a serpent man himself. Ka-nu will send proof of this through Brule the Spearslayer. Kull will recognize Brule by the armlet he'll be wearing. To show he can be trusted, Ka-nu reveals to Kull that he has a jewel stolen from the Temple of the Serpent. If the priests of the Serpent knew its location, Ka-nu would have a very short life expectancy.
The next night, Brule appears. He's the Pictish warrior who brought the message from Kan-nu in the first place. He reveals to Kull a secret society of serpent people who have the bodies of men but the heads of snakes. Through some type of sorcery they are able to assume the faces of any person they wish. When they die (read are killed by Kull or Brule), their heads revert to their natural forms.
You can probably figure out that there will be a lot of people who turn out to be other than who they appeared. It turns out the serpent men are an ancient, mongrel race who have a long history in Valusia, although it's a history that most of Valusia's citizens are ignorant of.
Naturally, Kull triumphs, but not easily. Brule and Ka-nu are afraid he dies from his wounds, although he only loses consciousness. The intriguing part of the story, for me at least, is the depth at which Howard shows us Kull's thoughts. Kull wonders which is the real Kull, the monarch "who sat on the throne or was it the real Kull who had scaled the hills of Atlantis, harried the far isles of the sunset, and laughed upon the green roaring tides of the Atlentean sea." This brooding is provoked of course by Kull's discovery of the Serpent Men and the masks they don to deceive people for evil means, something he had already encountered in his courtiers, albeit in a less literal sense.
Evidence indicates "The Shadow Kingdom" was written, or at least begun, in 1926, the year Howard turned 20. It's a common occurrence to many men and women around that time in life to discover that people aren't always what they seem, but don masks to further their own ends. I think it's safe to speculate that perhaps some of that discovery of the realities of life was making it's way into Howard's fiction. Many a child and teenager is dismayed to discover that becoming an adult isn't all the fun and privilege it seems when you're young. I know my eight year old certainly has the illusion that being an adult is more fun than being a child because it means getting to stay up late and eat and drink close to bedtime. Would that it were that simple.
Another thing common to young adults and teens is the fear that they can't cut it as an adult. This is a fear that can return later in life when a person experiences a major upset, often but not always the loss of a job or business. Affirmation that a person can function as an accepted member of adult society is one of the purposes of a rite of passage. Entire books have been written on this topic. I have to wonder if Howard was feeling some of that uncertainty about this time in his life. I know he made a deal with his father to give writing a try for one year and if at the end of that year he wasn't making a living, he would find a regular job. Kull has thoughts along these lines more than once in the story.
The first incident occurs during the brooding quoted in the paragraph above when Kull thinks of himself as "the futile king who sat upon the throne - himself a shadow." The second occurs at the climax of the story when Kull and Brule have escaped a trap in which the serpent men have disguised themselves as his council in order to assassinate him. Hurrying back to the council chamber, they find the real council in session with a serpent man disguised as Kull himself. For a moment Kull wonders "Do I stand here or is that Kull yonder in very truth and am I but a shadow, a figment of thought?" Maybe I'm reading too much into the text, but it sounds to me as though Kull is experiencing a little insecurity. Not something you would expect from a Howard hero.
After all the serpent men in the palace have been dispatched, Kull swears an oath to destroy all the remaining ones. He swears this oath on his own identity as Kull, king of Valusia. While I may be stretching things a bit to interpret this ending as a metaphor for Howard striving to make his way in the world as a writer, I don't think I'm too far off the mark.
"The Shadow Kingdom" has been called the first true sword and sorcery story, a statement that is not without some controversy. I'm willing to go along with that premise, at least for the sake of this post, because it points out something that I think can't be understated. Sword and sorcery has been dismissed by its critics as shallow and cliched, without depth, power fantasies of social misfits and closet homosexuals, and mind candy or softcore porn for adolescent boys. What "The Shadow Kingdom" is, at least as I read the story, is a reflection on identity. While this is certainly an issue of adolescence, it's also an issue that concerns everyone at most stages of life, to a lesser or greater degree. Furthermore, I see it as a meditation on the meaning of life, especially the role one will play in that life. Until he sets out to eradicate the serpent men, Kull is lost, searching for meaning after achieving his goal of becoming king and finding it unfulfilling. I'm fairly sure Howard didn't consciously set out to create a new form of literature when he wrote "The Shadow Kingdom", but on some level was dealing with the issues in his life in the best way he knew how: by fictionalizing them. Creating sword and sorcery was to some degree incidental. That's a pretty impressive legacy, to create a new genre with those themes at its core. Not bad for "escapism", huh? So the next time you hear someone dissing sword and sorcery as not being real literature or worthy of serious consideration, give them a copy of "The Shadow Kingdom."