Robert E. Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant was published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tale Magazine, and is the first of the two stories I selected for the forthcoming “Four from Conan” episode of my Italian-language podcast, Chiodi Rossi, that we are recording in 48 hours.
Because with my friend Germano we decided to do only four stories for this episode, and each one of us would select two, the choice was particularly hard. I have read all the original Howard-penned Conan stories a number of times, and I have a handful in my “best of Conan of all time” selection.
Choosing only two is torture – especially because one has to be People of the Black Circle.
So I weighed the pros and cons of each possible choice, I checked my counterpart’s choices, and finally decided to go with The Tower of the Elephant.
The Tower of the Elephant is one of the “Conan as thief” stories, and shows us a young Cimmerian as he learns to know the ways of civilization.
Indeed, the story includes one of the most quoted lines in the whole Conan canon…
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.The Tower of the Elephant, chapter 1
The set-up is quite simple – a brash young thief, Conan decides to ply his trade in the Tower of the Elephant, in which the sorcerer Yara holds the Elephant’s Heart, a jewel that is said to be the source of his power. Smart thieves avoid the Tower, that is guarded both magically and mundanely.
But Conan is young, bold, probably overconfident, and looking for challenges…
It is a very basic sword & sorcery plot – a simple heist, and indeed the story has been adapted into a roleplaying game scenario, because, really, it’s the perfect setup for an adventure.
Like any basic heist story, it features a rival for the hero – Taurus of Nemedia – and a number of menaces/traps/tests the hero need to overcome to reach their goal.
But Robert E. Howard at 27 was a more sophisticated and smart writer than your run of the mill sword & sorcery hack, and he slips a stunning twist in the last chapter, while infusing his story with what can be only described as sense of wonder.
Pure, unadulterated, science-fictional sense of wonder.
Because the Tower turns out to be the prison of Yag-kosha, a member of a space-faring species that has been on Earth for ages, a witness to the rise of the Hyborian world. Confronting blind, chained Yag-kosha, Conan is offered an overview not only of the history of his world, but also of the wonders of the cosmos, and is finally made into the instrument of the creature’s liberation and revenge.
Ruthless and amoral he can be, but Conan holds a barbarian’s simple sense of justice, and his horror at the condition of Yag-kosha counterpoints the awe the reader feels for the wonders the creature describes.
The story is fun, surprising, and carries the raw energy of Howard at his best.
It is compact and essential, and still packs quite a punch.
We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria, and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and the shining cities of civilization. We saw the survivors of Pictdom and Atlantis build their stone age empires, and go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again. We saw new savages drift southward in conquering waves from the arctic circle to build a new civilization, with new kingdoms called Nemedia, and Koth, and Aquilonia and their sisters. We saw your people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans. We saw the descendants of the Lemurians who had survived the cataclysm, rise again through savagery and ride westward, as Hyrkanians. And we saw this race of devils, survivors of the ancient civilization that was before Atlantis sank, come once more into culture and power—this accursed kingdom of Zamora.The Tower of the Elephant, chapter 3
There are a number of reasons why I chose this story.
I love the setting, the city of Arenjun in the nation of Zamora, and the disreputable neighborhood of the Maul, a kaleidoscope of peoples, deftly described in a single scene.
I like young Conan as he tries to come to terms with civilization.
There is a good deal of action, including a fight with a giant spider (together with giant snakes, quite a common specimen of Hyborian fauna).
We also get a thumbnail summary of Hyborian history.
And the whole third chapter, with Yag-kosha’s narration and death, and then Conan confronting Yara the Sorcerer to dish out some barbarian justice, is absolutely excellent.
This is also one of the rare stories in which Conan does not get the girl – for the simple reason that there is no girl.
And it’s OK like this.
The Tower of the Elephant is a short story, and yet it offers a perfect balance of worldbuilding, action, adventure, horror and wonder. It is strikingly visual, and this explains probably why so many artists have created paintings and sketches based on it.
I have placed a few examples in this post.
I have also linked the electronic text of the story, in Wikisource, and the complete scans of the March ’33 issue of Weird Tales in the Internet Archive.
And as an extra bonus, here is an audio-drama adaptation: