Kull, King of the Dreaming West

“Known history begins with the waning of the Pre-Cataclysmic civilization, dominated by the kingdoms of Kamelia, Valusia, Verulia, Grondar, Thule and Commoria.”

With these words in his essay “The Hyborian Age,” Robert E. Howard drowned a previous series of his stories under the waves, turning them into the remote past of which “little is known except the latter part, and that is veiled in the mists of legendry.” Howard was setting the stage for his new stories of Conan of Cimmeria, and to do that he had to place another character, Kull of Atlantis, deeper into the shrouds of his fictional history. The age of Kull, the Atlantean barbarian who became the king of Valusia, was gone, yet dimly remembered. But for the modern reader, Kull’s legacy is vast, and the finest of these stories are among Howard’s supreme fantasy achievements.

Kull first appeared in print in “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales, 1929), which is widely considered the first sword-and-sorcery story in the United States. Howard had already written fantasies in historical settings, but for Kull he crafted an original secondary world for them—creating a new genre for them as well. Kull is a barbarian exiled from Atlantis who takes the throne of Valusia, mightiest of the seven kingdoms of the Thurian Continent in the era Howard would later call “Pre-Cataclysmic.” With one exception, all the completed Kull stories and fragments feature him as a ruler. Only the brief vignette “An Exile of Atlantis,” which remained unpublished until 1967, shows Kull before his kingship. Unlike Conan, whose exploits cover almost forty years from his days as a thief until he rules Aquilonia, Kull is wholly defined by his role as a king.

Howard completed eleven stories with Kull between 1926 to 1929, although in some of them the character is only a figure on the fringe. Three stories appeared in Weird Tales: “The Shadow Kingdom” (August 1929), “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (September 1929), and “Kings of the Night” (November 1930). The last is a Bran Mak Morn story where Kull plays a supporting role when magic summons him into historical time to battle the Romans. By the time the last of Kull’s stories made it to print, Howard’s focus had shifted elsewhere. He had failed to sell two Kull stories written to break into the higher-paying adventure pulps, “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Swords of the Purple Kingdom,” and his interest in the character dwindled.

It’s appropriate Howard retroactively put the Kull series in a distant and dreaming past, because Kull’s stories are steeped in a dream-like, almost hallucinatory aura. Kull rendered the raw material for Conan when Howard rewrote “By This Axe I Rule!” as the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and Kull’s muscular figure and role as a barbarian who seized the crown of a mighty kingdom are similar to Conan—but Kull is not Conan, and his stories occur in their own world of illusions, philosophy, and dark thoughts. The Conan stories are raw and savage and lustful, painted in bright scarlets. The Kull stories are contemplative and distant, painted in blacks and muted purples. Blood still runs, the sword and axe still fall, but the King of Valusia achieves more in mind than on the battlefield.

Kull comes from barbarian stock, but he is a philosopher king. The Valusian crown weighs heavy on him, and his thoughts are always turned inward. He rules a realm of shadows and conspiracies, a place of deceit and illusion where lurk serpents in human shape and the skull-headed sorcerer Thulsa Doom. Attaining the heights of power has not brought Kull happiness:

Kull sat upon the throne of Valusia and the hour of weariness was upon him. They moved before him an an endless, meaningless panorama, men, women, priests, events and shadows of events; things seen and things to be attained. But like shadows they came and went, leaving no trace upon his consciousness, save that of great mental fatigue … An unrest stirred in him and strange, luminous dreams roamed his soul (“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”).

Kull faces magic and monsters, such as the shape-shifting Serpent Men (“The Shadow Kingdom”) and underwater monsters (“The Cat and the Skull”). But he also faces ethereal menaces, such as the lure of Tuzun Thune’s mirrors that shatter reality; passing through worlds within worlds during “The Striking of the Gong”; and the horror of pure absence that breaks from “The Shrieking Skull of Silence.” In one lengthy, unfinished draft, Howard even pushed King Kull to the boundary of the world itself.

In another difference from the Conan series, Kull developed a stable of supporting characters in his court who made frequent reappearances. (Few people around Conan stay alive for long.) Most prominent among the supporting cast is Brule the Spear-slayer, a warrior of the Picts, the small and fierce race that would appear in many of Howard’s stories. Brule is closer to Conan as a character than Kull, and the final Kull stories show a shift in focus toward Brule.

Howard closed Kull’s fictional career with a pair of stories containing no fantasy elements other than the setting. But even without the mists of sorcery, Kull was still a man of thought. When Howard rewrote “By This Axe I Rule!” into a Conan story, he put a monster and magician in place of a subplot about his hero wrestling with a question of kingship: does the king or the law rule first? Kull decides the axe rules—but he chooses this not because of bloodlust or power, but because he’s seen the law unfairly separate lovers through a caste system and slavery. “The Phoenix on the Sword”—the Conan version—is a tremendous work of fantasy, but “By This Axe I Rule!” shows what made Kull so different and enthralling to the readers who discover him among the mists of Howard’s legendry.

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  1. A decade ago I stumbled on a cheap copy of the Del Rey Kull volume. I wasn’t expecting much and just figured it would be a worse version of Conan. I was pleasantly surprised.

    It was the philosophy side that kept me reading. Worlds within worlds type stuff. I read By This Axe I Rule and Pheonix on the Sword back to back for the blackgate read along. I prefer By This Axe I Rule, but only if its read after most of the other Kull stories. It really puts a nice cap on his struggles with the aristocracy and what is the honorable way to rule.

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