Short Take: "The Tower of the Elephant," Robert E. Howard
This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery short story “The Tower of the Elephant,” first published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover image at left), is a sterling example of pulp adventure fiction. Conan the Cimmerian, Howard’s barbarian-thief antihero, comes to the thieves’ quarter of an unfamiliar city. His curiosity has been piqued by the city’s so-called Elephant’s Tower, a tall, silver temple rimmed with jewels. He learns the temple is home to a fabulous gem known as the Elephant’s Heart, and he resolves to steal it. Of course, this is easier said than done. The task requires scaling the tower wall and entering from the top. And as Conan learns, there are defenses against intruders that are far beyond the threat posed by human guards. Howard does a fine job of crafting the story, and he develops it a good deal beyond Conan defeating challenges in pursuit of a goal. The rather ironic final act, in which Conan shows his heroic side, is imaginatively conceived and very well executed. The major action setpiece, a battle with a giant spider, is almost as impressively handled; Howard’s depiction of the spider’s predatory tactics is both shrewd and quite suspenseful. The story is also admirable in ways that are surprising for Howard. With the alien figure who plays a central role in the story's final section, the treatment isn’t the least bit reactionary; the figure is sympathetic rather than a threat. Howard’s most off-putting characteristic is probably his misogyny, but here those sentiments are restricted to the mouth of a fellow who dies at the business end of Conan’s sword. The odious comments are not what prompt his death, but it’s a relief to see him treated as an antagonist regardless. Overall, the story has all the best aspects of pulp-adventure entertainment, and very few of its weaknesses.