The Tower of the Elephant

July 13, 2011

One night, in the smokey Zamoran city of the Maul, Conan the barbarian sneaked into the cylindrical silver Tower of the Elephant.  This was the first Conan story by Robert E. Howard that I ever read, since it comes first chronologically in the warrior’s career.  Conan himself, though he is already an experienced killer, comes across as a bit of a seventeen-year-old tyro.  And though the descriptions of his rippling barbarian muscles and swift barbarian reflexes are standard for Howard’s writing, the brash ignorance displayed by the future king of Aquilonia’s grows much less significant in the author’s later tales.

The story opens in a tavern, where Conan learns of the evil priest-lord Yara, whose unassailable Tower of the Elephant is packed with booty and the greatest gem in the world.  After a bloody altercation, the barbarian leaves and decides, on a whim, to break into the fortress.  He succeeds, but only thanks to the cooperation of Taurus, a prince of thieves for whom this will prove to be the last heist.  Inside the tower, he meets the being that is the true source of Yara’s power, and he aids this captive in a final act of revenge against the evil master.

Two things in particular struck me about this story.  The first was Howard’s extensive use of ordinary creatures as hazards for his hero.  The lions in Yara’s garden are vicious and silent, but they are otherwise normal beasts.  The spider is unnaturally large, perhaps with intelligence to match, but it too is relatively mundane.  In the end, its fate is merely to be squashed like the arthropod vermin it is.

The second striking element was the nature of the monster.  When Conan steps through the ivory door, he faces a green elephant-headed idol.  At first, this chamber seems like a standard orientalist literary device, something that might have been more impressive in the pulp era than it is today—when images of Ganesh can be seen even in Europe and America.  But then the idol moves.  It’s not a statue at all but an alien—and a blind and battered one, at that.  Suddenly, in the midst of this horrible citadel, we find a being that is disturbingly inhuman and yet also incredibly sympathetic.  And Conan, though no stranger to blood, is disturbed to face the grisly task of slaying the poor creature, since it cannot take its own life.

After Conan’s encounter with Yogah, the final defeat of the high priest Yara is really an anticlimax.  In fact, until I reread this story, I didn’t even remember about Yara’s existence, or why Conan had tried to enter the tower in the first place.  But the prince of thieves, the great hairy spider, and, most of all, the elephant-headed alien are unforgettable.  And, as in many of the best Conan stories, the warrior finally succeeds not through mere brawn, but because some of the eerie magics that dwell in the Hyborian age choose to side with him against his equally magical enemies.

There is also something about the magic in this story that I find interesting.  In some fantasies, magic is a power derived from within the wizard, but that is not the power of Yara.  Yara’s tower and his wealth were gained through the dark priest’s mastery of an ancient being of power.  Prisoner and magical gem are the sources of Yara’s might.  Although he needs lore and learning to control them, he would be powerless if he were robbed of his instruments (something which actually befalls the evil magician in another Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword“).  Many, but by no means all, of the practitioners of magic in Howard’s stories operate this way, through the control of talismans or ethereal creatures, not through spellcraft derived from within.

This story was also the inspiration for one of the episodes in the Conan the Barbarian movie, although aside from stealing into the tower, little of Howard’s original concept remained in the movie.  While the film has its moments, the tower episode isn’t really one of them.  In written form, “The Tower of the Elephant” is actually astonishingly original.  It was not at all what I expected when I first read it—not just smashing and kicking and gnashing of teeth.  Howard definitely had talent; not all his writing was particularly good, but sometimes he really could pull it off.


9 Responses to “The Tower of the Elephant”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    Even though the defenses of the tower are “ordinary,” an unnatural feeling grows, the further into the tower Conan progresses. It starts small with the silent lions, but Howard places particular emphasis on Conan’s surprise at this unusual behavior. The spider is more than a little freaky, too. Maybe it is because I am a zoologist, but the presence of *three* wounds on Taurus’ back, this violation of natural symmetry, was very unsettling.

    I also liked Howard’s almost throw-away deep thought near the beginning of the story: “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree with you that there is a progression in the dangers that Conan faces, starting with the guard in the outer garden. However, I had never really noticed the increasing creepiness of the threats, at least not consciously. The three wounds inflicted by the spider certainly struck me as odd when I reread the story, but I can’t remember how I reacted to them the first time, before I knew about the arachnid. The episode with the silent lion just seemed stupid to me. I suppose Howard didn’t have the benefit of growing up with television shows about nature, so I can forgive him the expectation that lions should roar when they pounce. (I’ll bet REH really liked the circus when he was a kid.) However, the creepiness factor is still completely absent, since I do know that lions will usually try to keep silent for as long as possible when they attack.

      I am actually not fond of Howard’s frequent blather about the barbarians and how awesome they are. It frequently takes the form of “Civilized men do X, but Conan does Y, which is way more cool!” (although it’s usually paraphrased). However, the example in this story was a bit better than most.

  2. “In written form, “The Tower of the Elephant” is actually astonishingly original.”

    I don’t know that I feel that way. Granted, it wasn’t what I was expecting, and I’ve never seen the elements of this story put together in that way (i.e. pulp barbarian plus magic plus tower plus thief plus sympathetic enslaved alien), but I sort of feel I’ve read everything in it before. Perhaps it was more original at the time.

    (“I’ll bet REH really liked the circus when he was a kid.”)

    That made me laugh–and it feels dead on!

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that the juxtaposition of elements in this story no longer seems that remarkable, but I think it was pretty unusual when Howard wrote it. The theme of aliens on Earth, up to dark and mysterious things, had practically never been explored at that time. (Indeed, one of the keys to the development of that theme was Lovecraft’s later writings, as his fantasy universe moved more in the direction of science fiction.) As unexpected as the nature of the elephant is to modern readers, I think it must have been far more so to the first people who perused this story.

      • Diapadion Says:

        Indeed, I was struck particularly by the fact that the monster is clearly a space alien, not just an “otherworldly spirit,” mainly because I haven’t encountered much in this sort of deep fantasy setting that discusses outer space… at least not in quite this way. Closest comparison that comes to mind is Jack Vance’s original dying earth story collection.

        Point is, the alien remains striking to the audience to this day because of the way in which the speculative sub genres have laid themselves out.

        • Buzz Says:

          A lot of it comes down to what you are expecting. My natural expectation with Conan was, as you say, “deep fantasy.” On the other hand, that was not at all what I was anticipating when I read The Dying Earth. (The entire text of the first book, at least, seems to be viewable via Google!) I knew, from the name and what I’d heard about the stories, that The Dying Earth was supposed to be a “far future” fantasy, so I expected there to be some science fiction elements. However, I thought that, of the original stories, only “Ulan Dhor” had a significant SF feel to it. The others (particularly the episodic novella that comprises the first four stories) are almost pure fantasy. The only one with even hints of SF is that last one, “Guyal of Sfere.” Personally, “Guyal of Sfere” is my favorite Dying Earth story, but the technology seems mostly steampunk. (*Spoiler about this below.) In the later stories, there’s again practically no SF stuff (expect perhaps mention of solar activity) until well into Rhialto. So while I really admire those seven short stories, I was a bit disappointed not to see some mixing of the fantasy and science fiction elements.

          However, the disappointment did drive me to read a lot of Vance’s SF writings. The good ones (like the Planet of Adventure novels), are really striking. Many of them veer way too much into Planet of Hats territory, unfortunately. I still pick up a Vance novel now and then, because he always has some interesting plot devices, even if you may have to sift through the “alien cultures” stuff.

          * SPOILER: The image of the demon lord, unravelled into a glittering thread, and wound upon dozens of huge spools stacked throughout the room, is my all-time favorite steampunk scene.

  3. Hmm. I guess I don’t find it striking in the least. I would describe the ‘reveal’ that the big magic was, in fact, a space alien, to be quite generic. There are probably at least ten episodes of Dr. Who that make the same move, i.e. The Demons, as well as at least a triple digit number of stories in the major magazines that feature the same plot. In the main, the move seems to me both conventional and uninspired, and what interest this one has comes from the pathos surrounding the story of this particular enslaved individual.

    • Buzz Says:

      The idea that the source of “magic” might be an alien doesn’t seem so original now (and it wasn’t even that original when Howard wrote it), but it was certainly totally contrary to my expectations. I agree that a big part of what makes it enduringly unique is the sad state in which this powerful being finds itself.

      I do think comparisons to Doctor Who are a little unfair, since that is really a science fiction show (even if the science fiction involved tends to be very soft). So things pretty much need to have a scientific-sounding explanation in the end. And having powerful aliens masquerade as magical beings would actually probably be a pretty smart strategy in many cases.

  4. […] spider in Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant,” which I pointed out features a similar progression of hazards for would-be thieves to face. Finally, there are the truly eldritch guardians—seven quite […]

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