By This Axe I Rule!

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was a rewrite of a Kull story he failed to sell, and James LaFond finds the differences remarkable:

The story was written just as America groaned under the fall of its economy, felled, in Howard’s view, by crooked bankers and politicians, who were given free reign to do evil by the very State that was supposedly there to protect the people.

The Kull character has a steady sidekick named Brule the Spear-Slayer, a Pict who is from a rival tribe of barbarians. Kull is allied against the corrupt forces of civilization with Brule, who has been tricked into leaving the king in his hour of need. Howard’s general literary theme that barbarism [remaining spiritually outside the political construct] is a superior ethical state to civilization, is laid as a foundation in the person of these two characters, who evolve into Conan, and who serve as the basis for Howard’s most intense barbarian character, Bran Mak Morn, discussed later in this book.

In 1929, almost immediately after the stock market crash, Howard’s writing drew inspiration from his perception that his nation’s economy had been brought down by the unseen hands of nefarious bankers and other conspirators. Kull is a fascistic outsider, a regicide, a chieftain of barbarian mercenaries who rips the crown from the head a corrupt king just after slaying him with his own hands. This element was kept in the Conan character. However, three key elements of Kull were — forgive me — culled from the persona template in the formation of Conan:

1. Kull is a committed bachelor and has no time for women, where Conan is an extreme womanizer, making him more salable.

2. Kull suffers from melancholies and depressions, something that is stated as a facet of Conan’s personality in the poetic preamble to the series “Oh Prince,” but not evident in his plot-driven behavior and outgoing personality.

3. While, like Conan, Kull is unable to fathom the logic of civilized ways and is not good with high cunning or political skullduggery, unlike Conan, once king, he does not accept civilized laws.

The plot of By This Axe I Rule! revolves around a band of conspirators isolating and attacking the king in his bed chamber. [...] The subplot, which rises to displace the main plot and take the focus of the story away from a king’s life or death struggle at midnight, and which was ruthlessly scrubbed from the second Conan version of the tale, in order to get a sale, tells us much about the editorial constraints Howard worked under.

This element is a love story, the story of a nobleman and a slave girl who wish to marry, not for the nobleman to buy the girl from her owner, who happens to be one of the conspirators. The young nobleman appeals to the king to sanctify the marriage, which is barred by Valusian law and tradition. The barbarian king, seeing that this man is in love, and having had no experience with love himself, feels pity for him and appeals to the chief counselor of the realm, who brings forth a stone tablet upon which the unbreakable and unchangeable law is written, and denies the king’s request.

Next we are introduced to the suffering slave girl who weeps in her master’s garden:

“In the midst of this pastoral quietude, a little slave girl lay with her face between her soft white arms, and wept as if her little heart would break. The bird sang but she was deaf; the brook caller her but she was dumb; the sun shone but she was blind — all the universe was a black void in which pain and tears were real.”

A kind, giant stranger, seemingly like a tiger, came to the little girl in the garden and spoke with her, seeming interested in her woes. She then discovered that he was the king, and that he was as much a slave as her, both of them hating the laws of civilization:

“After all, little one, the king is only a slave like yourself, locked with heavier chains.”

The girl, understanding now that she had belly ached to the king about his inability to help her and her lover, ran off.

Later that night Kull is attacked, and nearly prevails, in the brutal fight with his assassins, which spares not a drop of gore. Just as the last conspirator is about to finish him off he is slain by the young nobleman, whose girlfriend had overheard her master conspiring against the king when she ran off. As the palace awakes to tend to the kings needs and rich ladies and gentlemen scamper about uselessly, Kull demands that the law keeper bring the sacred law tablet forward. When he announces that he wishes to sanction the marriage of this noble and this slave the courtiers are aghast and refuse to condone it.

During the course of the battle his sword was shattered and he had torn an ancient heavy axe from the wall and smashed and cleaved his foes with that. He was now so armed. The axe symbolized the common man, the barbarian, not the noble symbolized by the sword, the queen of weapons. The axe was also the symbol of justice in ancient Rome, a fact of which Howard was well aware.

Kull, in a psychotic rage, more unhinged than any Howard character ever was, then gave a speech as to the vile nature of laws and tradition, stating that the best man should make the decision — and in so doing must have sounded more like Hitler than any fictional American hero ever has. He then raises the axe and smashes the tablets of the laws to bits, declaring, “By this axe I rule!”


Kull was Howard’s editorially unforgivable character.


  1. Graham says:

    I remember being struck by that when I first read a Kull collection as a teenager. It obviously struck me as profound then, and I was obviously on the side of Kull, but even then I thought it vaguely wrong to be so.

    Later as an undergraduate studying old regime French history, I was struck by how often French laws were regarded as unchangeable, and how often this frustrated seemingly sensible policies even of notionally absolute monarchs. Obviously not as rigid as Valusian laws, but then French kings never hauled out the barbarian axe either.

    Now, looking at it as a modern, this makes no sense to me. We believe in, more or less, selected unchangeable laws when fundamental rights are at stake. Everything else is merely a legislated means to determined ends in particular circumstances. But some times and places seemed to believe that absolutely everything in the web of rights and customs was unchangeable, not merely by executive whim, but by any means whatever even where the ruler’s claim of divine authority was fully believed. And every solution to every problem was, once determined, never to be reviewed or adjusted. Or, at least, the circumstances had to be exceptional in some way.

    I remain fascinated by the frequency of this cultural pattern. Even where the given laws were known or assumed to have been the mere product of human decisions, they are considered permanent and unchangeable, even by the successors of those who handed them down, even if the method of the ruling was known and could be replicated.

    It struck me as an insane notion, even in a society that experienced and expected little technological, economic or social change over time, but there it is.

    I suppose that in any culture that lacks the notion of a fixed process to amend laws or replace them, there will be a permanent oscillation between the unshaken power of the stone tablets and the irresistible power of the axe. Or the guillotine.

    Sociologically, the oscillation between Weber’s Traditional and Charismatic modes of leadership, without even the dregs of the rational/legal element that even many classical societies could manage.

    Metaphorically, I suppose, it could be cast as the oscillation between Moses and Nietzsche. But even that isn’t quite right. Even Moses could be considered a Nietzschean figure. It isn’t even an oscillation between Moses’ royal and eventual rabbinical [or Christian priestly] heirs and Nietzsche, if only because the rabbis and the churches maintained mechanisms to elaborate, interpret, and even change the rules in a sort of common law fashion.

    Still this idea of unchangeable, yet merely human, law fascinates me. If that is the nature of the law, then the axe is the only source of balance.

    But then Howard was a bit of an extremist on these points.

    Sorry to ramble.

    Last note: Kull was an interesting character. He was more fascist and more purely barbaric in this story than Conan. He was also, in other stories, much more philosophical and introspective and even intellectual than Conan. For that side of him, I’d recommend “The Striking of the Gong”, “The Skull of Silence”, and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”. Arguably also “Riders Beyond the Sunrise”.

  2. Bomag says:

    “who brings forth a stone tablet upon which the unbreakable and unchangeable law is written, and denies the king’s request.”

    Well, law has three components: statute, interpretation, and enforcement.

    What the king needed was one of our modern liberal SCOTUS members to give him the interpretation he needed.

  3. Graham says:

    Or he just needed a means to legislate. If the law on the tablet was laid down by a previous king, then the current king has the same power to change it.

    If the law is deemed of such magnitude that it was first enacted by a king with the sanction of nobles, priests, tenants, or what have you, then Kull has some work ahead of him and he might lose. But at least it wouldn’t mean the law is eternal.

    So for me the question is, who enacted the law in the first place? Then whoever holds these offices and exercises these powers in the present must have the power to enact differently.

  4. Bomag says:

    A little problematic when the law is deemed to have come from an omniscient god. One might need to establish a new prophet or a new god.

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