As part of my Guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot.
In my hopes of getting every awesome Robert E. Howard enthusiast or expert I can to come on my blog and share some of their vast enthusiasm and knowledge, I was able to convince today’s guest to write a guest blog post for my series. (And share some of his art!)
I am very excited and
Would you like to be a part of my guest blog series? Please contact me! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
And check out this post: Calling on my fellow Robert E. Howard Enthusiast and Experts.
Now without further adieu here is Mark’s awesome guest blog (And art!).
The “Tower of the Elephant”, A Hero’s Journey
Mark Lynn Stoddard
Conan was never intended to be a classic hero. Creator Robert E. Howard used the Conan stories to ruminate on his ideas of barbarism versus civilization, the natural man versus the tamed man. The Hyborian age world of Conan was created to suggest historical eras and places because Howard, writing during the Great Depression, needed money and didn’t have the luxury to research the historical fiction tales he wanted to write. The fantasy world Howard created was a clever shortcut. It served the main purpose of giving a flexible platform for the barbarism versus civilization comparison and some good adventures.
In the stories Conan is the outsider, the barbarian making his way in the civilized world. He is a “man with no name” type character from a place, Cimmeria, which many of his contemporaries aren’t sure truly exists. His position as the stranger gives Conan a unique perspective on the lands he travels to and through his outsider’s view, he finds ways to manipulate situations to his advantage.
The “Tower of the Elephant” is a story about a young Conan in an Eastern country, where the Cimmerian has a run-in with the supernatural that changes him. The story follows a timeless structure that is unusual for a Conan tale. In this short story he goes on a hero’s journey and is transformed.
The Hero’s Journey is a common structure seen throughout history from ancient myths and fairy tales to contemporary literature and movies. The idea was made famous by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” as well as in lectures and interviews. Campbell breaks down the Hero’s Journey into seventeen stages grouped into three acts. He notes however that not all myths or movies have the hero go through all stages. Others have also written about the Hero’s Journey and presented similar stages and definitions.
The three acts defined by Campbell are Departure, Initiation and Return.
In the Departure the hero receives the call to adventure. They may or may not resist the call and usually encounter a mentor to advise and guide them.
During the Initiation the hero passes into the unknown, a cave or some type of special world which they must navigate through. This is the place where the hero must undergo trials and overcome obstacles. There may be helpers along the way. Eventually the hero reaches the “innermost cave” and goes through an ordeal concluding with the final “boss fight” to gain the reward.
Return sees the hero coming back to the ordinary world with the reward. The reward may be a treasure, a magical elixir, wisdom or even spiritual power over both worlds.
A dark night in Zamora finds the young Conan in a tavern nestled in the most dangerous neighborhood of the city. The tavern has many foreigners. One is bragging about his kidnapping skills and the traits of his next intended victim… “I know lords in Shem who would trade the secret of the Elephant Tower for her.” Conan presses the man to tell the secret which is revealed to be, “…the great jewel men call the Elephant’s Heart…” The Cimmerian asks why in a city full of thieves no one has stolen this great, magical jewel. Words are exchanged and violence ensues resulting in the death of the kidnapper. The young barbarian flees the tavern with one goal in mind, steal the jewel called the Heart of the Elephant. The Departure stage has begun.
Conan’s reasons are immature. He runs off to steal the jewel with an “I’ll show them!” attitude because he felt he was ridiculed. He reaches the Elephant Tower and enters the surrounding gardens. It is there that he runs into Taurus, the “Prince of Thieves”, who is also there to steal the infamous jewel. Though, in contrast with Conan, Taurus has made careful plans and preparations. They agree to work together. Our hero has found a mentor.
They vanquish the lions guarding the gardens with Conan barely escaping with his life. Then the two successfully scale the tower, and at the pinnacle, Taurus enters the chamber and is mysteriously killed. Summoning his courage, Conan then enters the chamber. He enters the other world, the mystery, the unknown. Immediately he is confronted by a guardian of the gate in the form of a giant spider which he must defeat to continue his journey into the unknown. The Initiation phase has begun.
Again, the Cimmerian overcomes and though the room is full of more treasure “…than he had ever dreamed existed in all the world… “ he doesn’t take what he can and leave. He presses on. He opens the door at the other end of the chamber. “Below him the silver stair wound down to vanish in the dimness. And up that shadowy well no sound floated; he and an eery feeling that he was alone in a tower occupied only by ghosts and phantoms.” He descends further into this underworld above the city.
Continuing downwards, the hero comes to another room. He enters to find incense burning and an idol of a green man with the head of an elephant. Conan approaches the idol looking for the jewel when “…the eyes of the thing opened suddenly!” The idol was alive. “That he did not instantly explode in a burst of murderous frenzy is a fact that measures his horror, which paralyzed him where he stood.”
The creature speaks expecting Conan to be its captor, the wizard Yara, and then weeps. Conan then notices the creature’s body has been broken by torture and is blind. “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 she shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him.”
Yag-kosha, as the creature calls himself, examines Conan and notices the blood on the Cimmerian’s hands, and is excited by the discovery. Conan killed a man in the tavern and a lion in the garden. “And the third will make the magic of which not even Yara dreams-oh, magic of deliverance, green gods of Yag!” the living idol states.
The tragic creature then tells Conan his story, how he is from a far distant planet and is eons old. He came to earth with companions before the dawn of mankind and ended up being trapped here. None of Yag-kosha’s companions remain. He is the last survivor. He was worshipped as a god and, in return, taught magic to men in a distant jungle. Then came Yara who learned from Yag-kosha until “…with guile gotten among the dusky tombs of dark Stygia, he trapped me into divulging a secret I had not intended to bare; and turning my own power upon me, he enslaved me.” With Yag-kosha enslaved Yara used torture to get more secret magic from the alien and forced him to build the “Tower of the Elephant” and perform evil deeds for three hundred years. “Yet not all my ancient secrets has he wrested from me, and my last gift shall be the sorcery of the Blood and the Jewel.”
Conan is shown the jewel, the Heart of the Elephant that he came to steal. Then Yag-kosha instructs the barbarian to kill him, cut out his heart and drain the blood into the jewel. Following this Conan is to take the jewel to Yara in the chamber below “Then lay this gem before him, and say, ‘Yag-kosha gives you a last gift and a last enchantment.” Conan is told to leave the tower immediately after he completes this task.
The young hero complies, slays the tortured old being and performs the blood ritual. Descending deeper into the tower Conan finds Yara in his sanctuary as Yag-kosha had predicted. He utters the words as directed to the angry wizard. Yara is shocked and Conan watches as the conjurer shrinks and is drawn into the jewel where he is joined by a healthy and intact Yag-kosha. “…immersed in a feeling of overpowering unreality, the Cimmerian was no longer sure of his own identity; he only knew that he was looking upon the external evidence of the unseen play of vast Outer forces, beyond his understanding.”
“Then, like a bursting of a bubble, the great jewel vanished in a rainbow burst of iridescent gleams…” With his ordeals overcome and the blood ritual performed, Conan’s initiation is complete, and he must return to the ordinary world.
He makes his way to the bottom of the tower and escapes with no obstacles. “Into the waving green gardens came the Cimmerian, and as the dawn wind blew upon him with the cool fragrance of luxuriant growths, he started like a man waking from a dream. He turned back uncertainly, to stare at the cryptic tower he had just left. Was he bewitched and enchanted? Had he dreamed all that had seemed to have passed? As he looked he saw the gleaming tower sway against the crimson dawn, its jewel-crusted rim sparkling in the growing light, and crash into shining shards.” Young Conan has made his return from the other world back into the ordinary world and the story ends.
Young Conan departed heeding the call to adventure. He met a mentor along the way to guide him to the entrance to the mysterious world. Conan entered the unknown and overcame trials along the way.
He met a strange and ancient alien being with supernatural powers and found the priceless gem he sought. He was initiated by using the jewel to perform blood magic that resulted in the alien getting revenge on his evil tormentor and the jewel disappearing before the tower collapsed.
The Cimmerian made it back into the ordinary world and out of the tower before it fell. But he didn’t have the Heart of the Elephant nor any of the treasure he found at the top of the tower. Did he get anything for all his trouble? What was his reward for completing the hero’s journey?
Conan did not get a physical object, but he did receive treasures. He was witness to powers and a universe much bigger than he could have ever imagined before. He entered the mysterious tower, defeated monsters and opened his heart to the elephant- headed man. By doing all of this he was given a grand perspective on reality and his place in the universe which informs his attitudes in later stories and how he deals with the supernatural.
Most of all, Conan received maturity because he had compassion for a grotesque and broken alien being. He acted for Yag-kosha in performing the blood ritual because Yag-kosha could not do it himself. He abandoned his selfish quest and performed a selfless act. Conan did get the Heart of the Elephant after all. Not in the form of the priceless gem that he sought to steal but through the compassion and empathy that entered his own heart.