Thursday, November 19, 2015

By This Axe I Rule!

By This Axe I Rule! by Robert E. Howard. A Kull the Conqueror story, appearing in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands. Approx. 17 pages.

Note: By This Axe I Rule! is one of Howard's posthumously published Kull stories. It was re-written as the Conan tale "The Phoenix on the Sword", which appeared in Weird Tales in 1932.

The burdens of kingship weigh heavily upon Kull once more, making the former slave feel a slave again, bound by grander chains. His free spirit is tethered by bothersome, archaic laws; plus, although he has supplanted a despot, he finds that the fealty of the common folk is easily swayed by well-articulated words of malice....

As Kull toils under the weight of the crown, a quartet of usurpers have cast their lot with an outlaw named Ascalante to hatch a plan to murder the king. 

In a separate sub-plot, a local noble petitions King Kull to allow him to marry the love of his life, a beautiful young slave girls. Kull is again rendered impotent to the mandates of Valusian law, much to his frustration.

Taking inventory of all these ingredients, and knowing that it is Howard penning it, there is little doubt how events are going to unfold. The prose here is purple enough to leave bruising on the pages, but the action excels. The "dramatic" scenes have setups and dialogue that vary from meandering to cringeworthy. However, the opening scene is masterful and rousing, as the plotters solidify their intent and plan. Even though the bad guys are paint-by-numbers tropes (a scarred mastermind, a mad minstrel, a simpering fat lord, a brutish giant, and a dwarf with long arms whose reach overextends his stature - get it?), Howard lends this scene an emotional ferocity. In this scene, the crazed minstrel Ridondo utters what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes from a Howard story:

"My songs are nails for a king's coffin!"

And, of course, for all the peaks, there are the valleys as well. There is one moment, when the assassins are poised to strike, and Howard decides then and there to go into a lengthy expository diatribe as to how Kull knew to get ready for a scrap. What could have been summed up in a line or two, for those split second of action, instead read more like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge than Kull the Conqueror.

There are also examples here of the unique cultural observations of Howard's day. One prime example of this occurs when King Kull visits the young slave girl betrothed to Seno val Dor, who is distraught over the law's prohibiting her marriage. He extends the courtesy of an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, and, well, let's just let Howard explain it:

"What's the matter, child?" he asked, and because a woman in extreme grief is likely to pour her sorrows out to anyone who shows interest and sympathy she whimpered: "Oh, sir, I am a miserable girl!"

I mean, I think it's a prime example of how hot-blooded youths thrive on the concept of a damsel in distress in dire need of a man's man to save them. It's the pinnacle of escapist fantasy. At its worst, we can chuckle at its cultural antiquity. Sadly, though, in this day and age, dialogue like that needs to come with trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Well, it seems puerile to nitpick on the literary merits of action yarns in vintage youth magazines. The fact is that the characters here are well conceived, as is the standard for Howard's works. In its dormant sections, the story suffers, but when it comes to action, or rousing declarations, there is great stuff here. Stuff that has stood the test of time - eight decades old and still thrilling. 

By This Axe I Rule! has a superb opening, and an exhilarating climax in which Kull makes literal mincemeat out of his would-be assassins. A great way to pass some afternoon reading.

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