Following Robert E. Howard’s death in 1936, the Weird Tales crowd demanded more Sword and Sorcery (S&S), and this ushered in a host of Howard imitators who took Conan as their starting point. Henry Kuttner took up that mantle in 1938 and brought us Elak of Atlantis, an adventurer who would swashbuckle his way through three tales that year and return for one last outing in 1941. In the intervening year, he also published two Prince Raynor stories, sword and sorcery of a statelier sort. All these tales are collected in Elak of Atlantis, recently reprinted by Planet Stories.
While Howard may have spawned a subgenre, these early forays into post-Howard S&S tend to be more interesting than the boom of the sixties and seventies—perhaps because Lin Carter and John Jakes hadn’t infected the waters yet with their shallow and derivative works. Elak of Atlantis certainly is derivative, and yet Kuttner’s work is made interesting by his significant divergences rather than the similarities to Howard.
Elak of Atlantis
It’s difficult to appreciate how fluidly Howard incorporated various historical and cultural influences into a nearly seamless whole with his Hyborian Age until you see someone try for a similar effect. The first Elak story, “Thunder in the Dawn”, speaks to a mad, slapdash approach. While the geography of Atlantis is a clear call back to Athanasius Kircher’s 1669 map (even corrected for north!), the stories don’t take place in any clear sort of prehistory. For one thing, “Thunder in the Dawn” features an invasion by Vikings (who are, in fact, actually referred to as such), in long ships, who worship Thor and the like. On the other hand, Elak fights with a rapier, a decidedly un-medieval weapon, and the Atlanteans worship decidedly Babylonian gods while maintaining decidedly Celtic druids in their ranks. This is clearly our world, yet where a broad swath of time has congealed together. That’s one way to look at it. The other would be that Kuttner was trying to jam together recognizable historical elements the way Howard did, but his sources were so widely divergent that the result was far from convincing unless the reader was ignorant. Which was a safe bet, the readership of Weird Tales being what it was—yet Howard was far more careful with his sources than Kuttner. Each Conan story has a clear geography and cultural “theme”, the mishmash world of Kuttner’s Atlantis does not.
And yet. And yet…
“Thunder in the Dawn” is a long, meandering tale, with significant digressions (there is one incident on an astral plane which would have worked better as a separate short story entirely). It’s a far cry from the galloping pace of Howard’s sword and sorcery. Yet the pairing between Elak and his overweight comic sidekick Lycon (who manages to actually be useful and not get on your nerves) was a nice stroke on Kuttner’s part, and I can’t help but see a little Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser in the two. Here, that’s not enough for a saving grace. After said digressions, the story pushes forward too quickly towards a rather muddled climax. It’s in later stories that we see Kuttner fleshing out Elak and making Atlantis a much more interesting place.
I’m quite fond of “The Spawn of Dagon”, a short tale that introduces some Lovecraftian beasties to Atlantis. It turns out that Dagon’s children are actively attempting to sink the continent (and all others, in fact) and reclaim their underwater kingdom—I can only assume they succeed at some point and then resettle in Innsmouth. Yes, silly, but also inspired. “Beyond the Phoenix” does one better and gives us a full-fledged Lovecraftian god named Baal-Yagoth, as well as some well-wrought scheming among underground immortals.
By far the best Elak story is “Dragon Moon”, where Kuttner finally takes Elak out of Conan’s shadow. It’s a brisk story with some Clark Ashton Smith-like moments of sheer weirdness. An underwater city is particularly impressive:
Strange it was, a weird beyond imagination, to be floating above the wavering outline of those marble ruins. Streets and buildings and fallen towers were below, scarcely veiled by the luminous waters, but possessing a vague, shadowy indistinctness that made them half-unreal. A green haze clothed the city. A city of shadows–
And the shadows moved and drifted in the tideless sea. Slowly, endlessly, they crept like a stain over the marble. They took shape before Elak’s eyes.
Not sea-shapes—no. The shadows of men walked in the sunken metropolis. With queer, drifting motion the shadows went to and fro. They met and touched and parted again in strange similitude of life. (141)
“Purple prose done right”, as we might say. Here we see Kuttner transcend his influences and deliver some chilling Weird Tales goodness of his own. Instead of descending into torpidity the way Lovecraft might, Kuttner kept such forays to their place: make no mistake; “Dragon Moon” is a swift-moving tale with plenty of bone crunching to boot, coming to a satisfying conclusion when Elak ascends to the throne. Unfortunately, while “Dragon Moon” completely vindicates “Thunder in the Dawn”, it’s also the last Elak story Kuttner wrote.
At least it was a fitting conclusion.
However, I do have a complaint: the women in the Elak stories are essentially nondescript. Sure, Velia goes into battle in “Thunder in the Dawn”, but it’s almost perfunctory: she does nothing by her own agency, she may as well just not be in the story at all, the impression she makes. Elak saves a girl named Coryllis in “The Spawn of Dagon”, who’s main function in the story is to faint. And so it goes. There are warrior women, yet none of them match the likes of Red Sonya or Dark Agnes or Valeria; it’s as if Kuttner felt the need to include a “strong woman” or two but really didn’t want to write one. Fortunately, Kuttner rectified that problem in the Prince Raynor tales.
Of these, there are only two, though I personally found those two stories presented a far more interesting setting than Kuttner’s Atlantis.
In the lusty youth of the World Imperial Gobi, Cradle of Mankind, was a land of beauty and wonder and black evil beyond imagination. And of Imperial Gobi, mistress of the Asian seas, nothing now remains but a broken shard, a scattered stone that once crowned an obelisk—nothing is left but a thin wailing in the wind, a crying that mourns for lost glories. (“The Citadel of Darkness”, 191)
Much of the playfulness and humour found in the Elak tales are gone, replaced by a hanging air of decay and dread. “Cursed be the City” concerns the doom of Sardopolis, Prince Raynor’s city, and features a visit from the great god Pan (yes, that Pan). Suffice to say, Kuttner captures the nameless horror and accompanying mad piping very well. “The Citadel of Darkness” may have a cliché title, and yet presents us with some delightfully creepy moments, chief among them a field of black flowers giving off an “insidious perfume…vaguely repellent, and redolent of unknown and forbidden things” (205).
The Prince Raynor tales feature another pairing, but quite different from Elak and Lycon. Prince Raynor himself is far more dour, a grim exile of a fallen kingdom, and instead of a portly companion he’s accompanied by the muscular Nubian, Eblik. Eblik is black, and referred to as “gargoylish” more than once—unfortunate and playing into the racial discourse of the time—yet while he is Raynor’s servant, he isn’t a fawning slave. Often, his cunning and prowess in battle exceeds Raynor’s; his decisions are often the wiser, and it’s clear Eblik accompanies Raynor out of choice. In “The Citadel of Darkness”, Raynor’s extortion for Eblik to “Obey!” leads to Eblik openly criticizing his Prince. “You may have been Prince of Sardopolis […] but Sardopolis has fallen” (192); this isn’t the only time Eblik corrects the warrior, and I believe Kuttner meant Eblik to be Raynor’s equal in cunning and feats of arms.
So too with Delphia, the bandit princess. Her first words to Raynor? “Well? Have you had your fill of staring?” (179). At this point, Kuttner already establishes her as a skilled leader of men and a warrior in her own right. She’s also integral to the story, not a piece of woman-flesh thrown in for titillation as found in the Elak stories. She’s sort of warrior-woman Velia should’ve been.
I’m not surprised “Dragon Moon” came after the Prince Raynor stories; with Raynor, Kuttner pulled his S&S out from Howard’s domain and away from Lovecraft to create something wholly his own.
Howard’s S&S heroes tended to be barbarians coming to civilization from without—Conan, or Kull, or Bran Mak Morn. Even Solomon Kane is described as a pagan at heart who rejoices in the mad exultation of battle. This was, of course, a result of Howard’s unifying theme: barbarism vs. civilization, where the “barbarians” uncover civilization’s corruption. In Kuttner’s S&S, we find a very different dynamic. Both Elak and Raynor are royalty. Their heroism is in their blood, something especially made clear in “Dragon Moon” in the test for the throne of Cyrena—the throne consumes those unworthy to sit upon it in fire. Kuttner presents the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and the Gobi as wondrous rather than decadent, and worth preserving in the face of the barbarians. That optimistic outlook towards civilization might explain why the early Elak takes seem such a poor fit: Kuttner tried too hard to cleave to Howard when he clearly didn’t believe in the underlying themes driving Howard’s work.
Yet, over time, Kuttner showed he could write some unique and exciting S&S of his own. Elak of Atlantis gives a glimpse of how much sword and sorcery can encompass as a subgenre. So much S&S comes off as poor imitations of Howard (Brak the Barbarian, I’m looking at you!), and yet there’s a world of wonder yet to be uncovered in S&S. Kuttner gave us a peek at that world, and for that, I’m grateful.