“If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!”
When Robert E. Howard revised an unsold tale about King Kull, the gloomy ruler of Valusia, he replaced that character with Conan, a barbarian king in a similar position, who would later be fleshed out with a wide-ranging history, and a multiplicity of formative experiences. Along the way, the character turned from an Atlantean to a Cimmerian, and his eye color from gray to blue. His personality also changes in some significant ways, from the original “By This Axe I Rule!” to the available early draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and again to the version of that story published in Weird Tales in December 1932.
As Patrice Louinet says in his appendix to the collected Kull stories, “by writing the first Conan tale on the ashes of an unsold Kull story, Howard was telling us that he now envisioned the Kull series a prehistoric one, which paved the way for the Conan stories” (289).
The Conan who becomes the canonical version deals with court intrigue and attempts to usurp his power, in ways that are similar to the situation in “Axe.” There is a critical difference, in that Conan never declares “I am king!,” because he doesn’t have to. A line about his suffering from the tedious “matters of statecraft” line is taken almost word for word from the Kull story (11, 161), but Conan starts the story with a confidence that Kull had lacked. In “Axe,” Kull, already the king in name, comes into his full authority, an intriguing pivotal moment in a ruler’s career. Unlike Kull, Conan developed his full personal authority before he was in a position of recognized leadership, and even when other characters in the story reject his rule, it’s because of their own personal desire for power.
|Kull of Atlantis
(art by Justin Sweet)
In each story, the hero takes from the wall “an ancient battle-axe” (“ax” in the Conan version) which had hung there “for possibly a hundred years” (Kull 173), or at least “half a century” (Conan 21). The connotations of the axe, especially given the emphasis on its age, link it to the barbarian nature of the main characters. When Kull takes up the titular axe, he claims a personal authority that comes out of his past: who he is and where he came from. Since it belongs to Valusia’s history, the axe is associated with Kull’s formal authority, embedded in the royal structure and government, but it also reflects his primal essence, which he uses to cut through hierarchical, bureaucratic tangles. This satisfying moment hearkens back to a time before the society had become so complex, with a confusing maze of laws and traditions built up over the generations, some of them useful, but some of them unjust and no longer worth following.