Of Shadows and Serpent – The First Sword & Sorcery Tale

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    When people think of 1929 they usually recall the Great Depression and “Black Tuesday” (October 29th). I prefer to think of it as the year Sword & Sorcery was born. For S&S, like its greatest hero, Conan, was a child of the Great Depression. But the first tale was written before the darkness fell over America. The first tale in a new sub-genre of Fantasy that would grow slowly for eight decades until it was part of our culture.

    But it is unlikely that any of that crossed Robert E. Howard’s mind as he wrote “The Shadow Kingdom” in 1927-28. He wasn’t out to invent a new sub-genre. He was simply doing what all writers do: taking lessons from the authors who inspired him, and telling a story. He had tired of writing about Solomon Kane, a most unpuritanical Puritan who wandered a quasi-historical Europe and Africa. Much in the Kane stories feels like Howard’s S&S but they lack one important element: a Fantasy backdrop (what Tolkien would later call “a secondary world”) such as this new tale had. Kull lives in Valusia, a land in Atlantean times before the Great Cataclysm that would reshape the world into something we might recognize.

    A Sword & Sorcery tale as Howard created it in “The Shadow Kingdom” has several different elements that had up to this time never been used together before. Each of these can be traced to Howard’s influences, the great Pulp and book writers. For Howard was a professional and he had his eye on what would sell as much as please himself. These elements were: 1) a Fantasy background of gods and kingdoms such as Lord Dunsany had used in his Pegana series, 2) the martial prowess of a Harold Lamb tale, 3) the interstellar evil of a H. P. Lovecraft story and 4) liberal amounts of sex, action and derring-do pace as per any Pulp tale. (Throw in a pinch of currently popular writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sax Rohmer just for seasoning as well.) All these ingredients came together as Sword & Sorcery.

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    The combination had never been written like it before. Howard would extend it to include pirates, desert, jungle and other forms of adventure fiction in his Conan tales. No other 20th Century writer would innovate Fantasy so much until J. R. R. Tolkien and his The Lord of the Rings in 1954.

    Let’s get back to “The Shadow Kingdom” now. The plot is lengthy with several sub-plots. Kull, the usurper king of Valusia, hears that an evil plot is afoot in his palace to displace him. He hears this from Ka-nu, priest and lord of the neighbouring Picts, usually enemies of Valusia. Ka-nu assigns Brule, known as the spear-slayer, to guard Kull. After an elaborate scheme to imprison Kull’s soul with sorcery, the king finds out that there are those in his palace who are not what they appear. They are in fact Serpent Men who can disguise themselves with magic. The Serpent Men trap Kull in the throne room and only Kull’s amazing prowess can hold them at bay until the calvary arrives with Brule and the Picts. The fight scene between Kull and the Serpent Men is one of S&S’s finest.

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    “The Shadow Kingdom” appeared in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales. Howard received $100 for the novella, the largest payment he’d received up to that time. However, it was not the cover story. That went to “The Inn of Terror” by Gaston Leroux. (The story did get a decent illustration by Hugh Rankin, showing Kull cutting the head off a Serpent Man as a beautiful wench watches from the side. This type of illo would become iconic by the 1970s.) We can suppose Farnsworth Wright decided against using the story on the cover because it is Fantasy and not Horror, but more likely he spent some good money for the famous French writer’s work and wasn’t going to waste it. Howard got covers later when his Conan stories would propel him to the top of the Weird Tales cadre, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. (None of whom can hold a candle to the master cover-hog, Seabury Quinn.) It was a quiet start for a new Fantasy innovation but the door was now open and Howard was about to pour out his magic.

     

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