The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Tower of the Elephant”

comingofconanBill Ward and I are working our way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing story four, “The Tower of the Elephant.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: If you listen very closely, toward the end of the final verse of The Beatles hit “Hey Jude” you can hear either Lennon or McCartney (stories vary) shout out in surprise “Whoa!” followed a moment later by “f*ing Hell!” Once you notice it, you can never NOT hear it, a single small ding in an otherwise flawless song. I feel the same way about Robert E. Howard’s use of the word “frostily” or “frosty” in “The Tower of the Elephant.”  I didn’t notice it the first four or five times I read the tale. Now I can’t ever NOT see that he uses it maybe two times too many.

elephanttower5And damned if that tiny nitpick isn’t the only thing I can find remotely wrong with this story. THIS is Robert E. Howard at his absolute best, in complete control of his narrative, knowing his character better than his closest friend. His Hyborian history article was written just prior to his penning of “The Tower of the Elephant,” which makes sense, because he knows the history and societies so well that he casually mentions cultures in such a way we can usually intuit what he’s talking about.

Bill: Yes, you can really see him drawing on some of that background he had just worked out in this story, both in the cosmopolitan setting, and in the bit of “deep history” he gives us in the words of the Elephant God toward the story’s close.

Howard: Yeah — now I’m glad you insisted we read that essay first.

elephanttower4I love the opening of this story. I keep comparing Robert E. Howard’s description to camera work, because he often uses an establishing shot. His words present the hustle and bustle and atmosphere of both the section of the city and the tavern itself.

And then Conan appears. We, the readers, know well who he is, even though he’s not mentioned by name, and he clearly dominates the scene. And, true master that he is, REH continues to give us great throw away lines that are incredibly revealing of character:  “The Cimmerian glared about, embarrassed at the roar of mocking laughter that greeted this remark. He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

Bill: Here Conan is a “gray wolf among gutter rats,” to paraphrase just one of the great lines in the opener. From the first paragraph of this section that paints a vivid picture of The Maul, the thieves district of Zamora where the guards have been bribed with “stained coins” to leave the criminals alone, all the way to the conclusion, which sees Conan slay the civilized man who just didn’t understand that you can only push some men — literally in this case — so far. I think this opener, and this story in general, is one of the best introductions to Conan, and probably the one I would hand a novice that was interested in seeing what all the fuss is about.

elephanttower1Howard: Me too — this is usually where I tell people to start. A great story like this is chock full of one fine scene after another, and we next get Conan’s take on civilized religion, then join him for his foray into the grounds of the Tower of the Elephant. The action is fluid and surprising and exciting. The meeting with Taurus and the thief’s astonishment at his daring is perfect. At first it seems like Conan is outclassed, but then he lengthens the thief’s life by slaying that lion, impressing both him and the readers at the same time.

Bill: It’s Conan’s savage instincts that ultimately prove to be of greater worth than Taurus’ long experience. Even a Prince of Thieves — a man with a poison gas blowgun, super-rope, and a strangler’s grip — doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head like a barbarian who has lived by his wits in wild places. And the whole interaction between the two is really finely put together, just trying to imagine the story without Taurus results in something lesser. As amazing as Taurus is, it’s Conan that, as you say, we ultimately become even more impressed with, and that’s only because we have Taurus to compare him to.

elephanttower6Howard: Right on all counts. Taurus allows us to better understand how impressive Conan is, and I can’t imagine the story being as enjoyable without him. The tower itself is gorgeous. I still wonder what Taurus planned when he told Conan to remain behind, the characters being so well motivated that I don’t find myself asking what REH intended, but what his character was thinking. Hocking and I were talking about it the other week and we were both wondering whether or not Taurus was going to betray Conan, or if he actually had something in mind for him to do.

Bill: Right, I’m not sure either. Taurus has already established he knows a good deal that Conan does not, not just of thievery in general (the discussion about why you would leave a dead guard’s body out rather than hide it was a small slice of brilliance) but of the Tower in particular. So, when he dashes ahead of Conan there is enough doubt established to suggest that maybe he really is working in both their interests. I would suggest, though, that in every other instance of Conan’s instincts in this story Conan is reacting accurately, he does not “doubt his senses” even when confronted with the impossibility of the Elephant God himself, as a civilized man would. And Conan’s initial reaction to Taurus’s entering the tower while Conan does a possibly needless bit of scouting was to distrust the Nemedian’s intentions.

BARD_KT1Howard: And damn, there are giant spider fights, and then there’s the fight with the thing in the top room of the tower. The only giant spider fight I’ve read that’s on the same level is the one from the first Bard book by Keith Taylor. You can see this monster and its dripping venom, so virulent that it scars Conan for life. And it’s not just a swing and a miss and a squish, that dammed thing stalks him and scuttles across the ceiling. It’s just incredibly well written, so  much so that even after reading this story multiple times I still find it thrilling. And unsettling.

Bill: The fight is great, and it’s also interesting how clever the spider is — the move it used to bind Conan’s ankle was very slick. Really, the only things that come close to killing Conan in this story are creatures operating at an even more instinctual level than himself.

Howard: Right! Finally we arrive at the big reveal, with one of my favorite moments not just from Robert E. Howard or his Conan stories, but all adventure fiction, when Conan comes upon the crippled creature:

elephanttower2“…and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own. And suddenly all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by a great pity. What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidences of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian, he knew not why. He only felt that he was looking upon a cosmic tragedy, and he shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him.”

It was a habit of the times to give villains monologues, or to explain plot points through sages. We’ve seen that already in some Leiber, most especially the dreadful “Adept’s Gambit” and we’ve seen a little of it in preceding Conan stories. We’ll see it in some written after. But THIS monologue is so nicely done that it flows naturally, and the moment is so riveting that we can imagine Conan standing, nearly spellbound, considering it.

elephanttower3Bill: And the cosmic stranger’s plight is the strongest condemnation of civilization in the story, going right back to that theme that was there from the start. The vile man who has tortured the creature for its secrets is not described as a magician or sorcerer, but a priest — in the fact the High Priest of the city, a man whom the ruler of Zamora fears and obeys. A barbarian thief might cut your throat, but he won’t enslave and torture you for centuries to get at forbidden knowledge. The tower that is the Elephant God’s prison was built with his own stolen power, a very constructive, civilized use of such magic. In the end, it’s a fellow-outsider who does not flinch away from the impossible visitor from the planet Yag, who clearly sees the misuse the creature has been put to, and who kills it for the sake of mercy and of vengeance. It did occur to me that Conan’s obeying of the Elephant God’s final wishes may be due to some geas laid on the Cimmerian, his revulsion and sense of justice possibly not being enough of a motivation to risk everything to confront the priest. I suppose, at that point, Conan’s only way out was to do as the creature bade him, so it isn’t as if he had any real options, anyway.

elephanttower7Howard: Oh, I’m pretty sure he does it out of choice, that he senses the truth of what the creature has told him. I think at least that’s what REH is wanting us to think. We, the reader, are just as convinced as Conan has been.

Bill: As am I, really, there’s just that one line, about it not even occurring to Conan not to follow instructions,  that had me thinking that maybe there’s a small case to be made for the Elephant God pulling a few strings, but it’s certainly more subtle (subtle to the point that it’s probably solely in my imagination) than anything in “Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” I like that that ambiguity can crop up though, even if it isn’t intended at all, because REH isn’t beating the reader over the head by telegraphing Conan’s intentions. It says something that a penniless wanderer would forego a priceless treasure in order to avenge a monstrous crime — a crime against a creature far more alien than any lion, spider, or civilized man.

Howard: Yeah. There’s a certain elemental decency about Conan that gets overlooked, or exaggerated.

elephanttower 8Bill Overall, this is a story that does everything right, and does it masterfully. Conan is the man we will come to know in future tales, the Hyborian landscape has been delineated in a way that deftly integrates it into the story, and the action and imagination hooks the reader and carries them right along to the finish. It seems pretty simple, too, until you go back and look at how the pieces fit together — and then you realize it only seems simple because it was crafted with an expert hand. It’s one of the best of the best, and its no surprise that “The Tower of the Elephant” is a perennial fan favorite.

Howard: It’s certainly one of mine. But then I’m a fan. Next week, join us for a journey to “The Scarlet Citadel.”



30 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Tower of the Elephant”

  1. I’m really enjoying reading these as a slow burn rather than reading several stories in one sitting. It helps me appreciate each story for what it is.

    My first thought after reading this is how much better it is than the first three stories. Everything flows so well. It would be very easy for Howard to just make Conan act completely superior to everyone around him, but instead we really get to see just how young and naive Conan really is. The tavern scene captures that so perfectly.

    Bill, instead of Conan being under a spell, I took it as he was in awe of this other worldly being. He followed the instructions more out of pity and wonder. But that’s not far off from being under a spell.

    I don’t think I’ve read the Scarlet Citadel before so i’m looking forward to next week.

  2. I think you’re right, Mormegil.

    And that tavern scene is a great look at young Conan not knowing the ropes yet — he’s actually about to slink away, rather embarrassed, when the laughter starts. It’s only when the fool lays hands on the Cimmerian that Conan kills him.

    And I’m really enjoying the slow burn approach as well, I flew through these stories the first time I read them, and I like going back over them now more deliberately.

  3. That’s a VERY good point, Mormegil!

    A lesser writer would go the direction of making Conan a Mary Sue, infallible. I love the observation that the story is better because of Taurus. Conan admits when Taurus’ reasoning with the guard is superior to his own and marvels at the use of the lotus (black here – I think there are a variety of colors used in other stories for various purposes).

    This has one of the best lines in all of Conan:
    “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split.”

    Is Taurus’ rope actually magic, do you think, or is his talk about the hairs of dead women and the wine of the Upas tree a bit of superstition that is meant to show us Taurus is perhaps not as wise as his reputation? Is it a fanciful boast to impress Conan’s presumed barbaric sensibilities?

    A great story.

    • I love that line. A friend of mine who didn’t much care for the rest of that story loves that line.

      As to the rope — I dunno! It could be that Taurus believes it and its hokum, it could be he’s just full of it, or it might be real. Whatever the case, it’s another great detail in an excellent story.

  4. Man, I’d like to get in on the conversation, but you guys nail pretty much anything I’d have to say about these yarns and it’d just be me reiterating ground that’s already been covered much better and more thoroughly than I could manage!!
    Tower is and ever will be one of my favorite adventure tales from any author, a real masterpiece. I originally read the Conan stories in some battered De Camp paperbacks my uncle gave me and even then I could recognize the wide gulfs that seperated the originals and the pastiches. This is prime example of Howard at his finest and I remember after reading it, I flipped back to the contents to see which guy had written, that’s pretty much when it clicked. THIS is the real stuff. Anyway, I might not chime in every go ’round, but know that I’m reading and enjoying the hell outta these ReReads. Keep up the great work, fellas!!!

    • Always glad to hear from you, Jason.

      There is such a vast difference between the sound of this tale and those beside it in those old collections.

      I recall that when I was reading the Darkhorse graphic novel collections I turned to “The Tower of the Elephant” after finishing one tale, not knowing what it was yet because there’d been no splash page with a title. Of course I recognized “Tower of the Elephant” after the first few lines, but then those first few lines and their command were just so much more powerful than the admittedly strong prose of Truman that it would have stood out even if I hadn’t known it was a different author.

  5. I’ve seen this story used as an example of how the best S&S has a vein of horror running through it. There are some good horrific moments, and not just the horror of the Elephant God. The rope made from the hair of dead women is a wonderfully creepy detail. The giant spider has become a pretty common trope, but as Bill and Howard pointed out, it’s rarely used to such effect.

    I also can’t help but wondering if REH was taking a subtle dig at HPL when he wrote “A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to doubt his senses.” Better scholars than me have written about the differences between the reactions of the prototypical REH and HPL characters. Not only are we getting a comparison between civilization and barbarism here, but a possible comparison in how the two men had their characters respond to cosmic horrors.

    • Hey Keith — yeah, I think it’s an excellent example of that. Too often modern writers divvy it all up. But Howard didn’t.

      I’d never thought about that HPL angle. That’s a good thought. I wonder?

  6. Yep, hard to add anything. One of my favorite sword and sorcery stories. People take this kind of story for granted now. They easily forget how this “genre” was being created by these stories. Maybe it’s not a good thing that a genre is ever created from the stories of one or several authors. Most of it leads to mediocrity and worse. Ironically, the greatest stories in a genre usually transcend that genre, and I think that’s true with Sword and Sorcery (a term coined by Leiber). I guess genres are most useful to publishers and booksellers. It doesn’t help authors ,or, in my opinion, readers, at all.

    And a good point, Keith, about the horror element. That melding of horror and adventure is key, and Howard did it so well, especially in this story, where he didn’t overstate things (as Lovecraft had a tendency to do).Howard, Leiber and Moore were probably the greatest at melding horror and fantasy (and Moorcock too). What’s really amazing is beautifully melding adventure, horror AND humor. Occasionally, Howard did it. Leiber perhaps remains in his own way the greatest, because he did it on a regular basis. (there, that helps balance out Howard’s “Adept’s Gambit” jab. LOL)

    • Oh, that’s a really good point about genre creation. Sometimes the originators make it look simple, but that’s usually deceptive.

      I think Leiber was better at weaving humor into his fiction, typically, although REH was perfectly capable of it. I certainly don’t think that’s grounds for declaring Leiber “better!” The best of REH I like equally well with the best of Leiber, but I have many more favorite REH stories than Leiber stories, so if I were to judge who’s best by volume, I’d come in on the side of Robert E. Howard.

  7. To my mind this story is the closest any modern author has come to myth. Howard’s unerring blend of realistic, human detail and deeply resonant Fantasy rises to a level I think is fair to call Homeric.

    It is this story I think of whenever I see REH and his Cimmerian underestimated by critics and misunderstood by readers. Even many of Conan’s most dedicated fans appear at ease seeing the character primarily as an icon of alpha masculinity, seemingly oblivious or indifferent to the mythic power Howard gave him. In Tower of the Elephant we see Conan as purely human, as a deadly innocent, as an honest and empathetic man, and as an instrument of cosmic justice. This is more than a masterful performance of characterization and storytelling— this is a masterpiece.

    • Dang it. You know, I think it’s pretty easy to infer that I hold this story in high regard, but I don’t know that I ever came right out and said that it’s one of the very, very best adventure stories ever written. You’re right in saying that it’s a masterpiece, and of its wonderful blending. Very well said. Mythic, absolutely.

      • Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great short stories of the twentieth century in any genre. In sword & sorcery, only “Bazaar of the Bizarre” comes up to its mark for me.

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  9. Howard, that is a compliment that bowls me over. Thank you. I think you and Bill Ward have carried out a superb discussion of “Tower of the Elephant” — one of my own favourite Conan stories. Among other great aspects, it depicts the raw, youthful Conan with any number of wonderful touches, like the observation that he probably would have “slunk away, abashed” except that the Kothian chose to “goad him further”. Disastrous mistake. The contrast between that Conan (seventeen or so) and the Conan of “The Phoenix on the Sword” (about forty) is convincing and professionally handled. WHO were those jokers who said REH had no subtlety?

    • Hi Keith — thanks for swinging by. The first Bard novel is great and it shames me that I haven’t yet read the others. I’ve tracked all of them down.

      And you’re absolutely right about the contrast between the way the different ages of Conan are handled by REH. Beautifully done.

  10. Well, of course Howard, at this level of writing, it’s a matter of taste when it comes to favorite writing. I did try to be diplomatic by saying “perhaps” remains “in his own way” the greatest. 🙂

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