Robert E. Howard's King Kull

Despite the very first Conan story was a re-written Kull story it would be wrong to call Kull a Conan-lite. While both of them are brawny, tall and agile warriors, there's a stark difference in the style of their stories as well as personalities and fighting abilities. There where Conan is an extremely skilled fighter who usually keeps his cool during fights, Kull is prone to fall in a berserker fury. Conan, despite a grim man, has a sense of dark humour about him and Kull is rather dour, serious type and more prone to philosophical musings about the reality of world, time, space and existence in general.

Howard wrote only 12 Kull stories, most of which were released only after his death. The style of those stories is very different from Conan stories, despite they are set in the same universe, in Kull's case long before the events that take place in Conan's Hyborian world. Kull himself is an Atlantean warrior, who has become a king of the wonderous, sprawling kingdom of Valusia. The seven kingdoms as described in the stories sank under the oceans in a great cataclysm and the still then civilised race of the Picts was one of the few who managed to escape the great flood. Timescale between Conan and Kull is somewhere in the ballpark of 10 000 years.

There are several things that separate Kull stories from those of Conan. First off, they have a more pondering feel about them. Howard uses them as vehicles for a lot of philosophical musings, starting from the reality of existence to the possibility of multi-universes. Kull himself is often drawn to these kinds of thoughts, even to a cost of that in the tale The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune a crafty wizard tries to use this inquisitive nature of his to his undoing. He's only saved by his trusted friend, a Pictish warrior Brule Spear-slayer. Recurring side characters are another thing that Howard uses more in the Kull stories, as he is a king of Valusia, it makes more sense to have a cast of characters, who are also present in most of the stories.

Brule is basically Kull's right-hand man, then there are his several advisors, whom Kull places a lot of trust upon. Tu is Kull's main advisor, but also on who is quick to remind him of customs and existing laws of Valusia. At one point Kull does, however, feel so shackled with those old laws, that he decides to start removing bits that don't work anymore, as many of them were written thousands of years ago. This is prompted by an assassination attempt and a plea from a young nobleman, who wants to marry a slave girl, but is prevented from doing so by the archaic laws. Another important advisor is the ambassador of Picts, Ka-nu, who often provides his insights on the matters at hand or just gives out important information to Kull.

Most of the Kull stories take place when Kull is already a king. We only learn of his past life as a slave and a pirate from small titbits from the several stories. The main bulk of the stories mostly revolves around the fact, that seizing power is always easier than staying in it. In many of the stories, the story presents a coup attempt in one form on an another, which usually leads into a bit of carnage, but never in the same amount as in Conan stories. Kull also is not as good of a fighter as Conan is, as his modus operandi often is just hacking as much as he can, which in cases almost leads to his death thanks to this allowing enemies to stab him or strike him almost fatally. Only because of his friends he stays alive, as they know the importance of parrying the enemies while letting the great berserk do the butchering.

Another interesting difference between Kull and Conan is, that Kull isn't really a ladies man. There where Conan conquers women in almost every story he's in, or at least recalls the many conquests he's had, Kull is said to have little experience in the matter. In fact, it's stated that he has never experienced woman's love, so I think it's safe to assume that he's actually a virgin and isn't in any particular hurry to change that. Overall though the way the society treats women in Valusia is much fairer than the more brutish outlook of Hyborian societies.

I must admit, that the style of Kull stories took me by a surprise. It has been some time since I read any of the Kull stories and even then I think I've only read two of them, the Shadow Kingdom and By This Axe, I Rule!. While both of these stories do have action in them, they are at the same time very different in style from Conan stories, despite "By This Axe, I Rule!" was a re-written as first Conan story the Phoenix of the Sword. It wasn't an unpleasant surprise, mind you, as it was quite refreshing to see how Howard bends on another type of writing as well, in Kull's case to more philosophical as well as more romantic on contrast to more grimmer tones of Conan.

Kull stories never do manage to get to the same level with Conan though, as while a lot of them are filled with very nice ideas, Howard never did flesh more upon them in the context of Kull stories though. Some of the ideas he did re-use in Conan, but presented them, appropriately, as more ancient and forgotten thanks to the great cataclysms between the eras. Picts for an example are interesting carryover, as the era of Conan they have already succumbed into full savagery and are far from how they were in Kull's time.

A good deal of the Kull stories are short and never really manage to rise over the concept of an experiment, whereas with Conan stories even the shortest ones offer a story within their context. Some stories even feel more like background ideas, that should have been woven into other stories. Then there's the character of Thulsa Doom, who's pitted as one of Kull's main adversaries, but is never really utilised beyond his first appearance. The same thing happens to the lizard men as well, as they are not really used either, despite clearly meant to be a more ongoing hazard in the time of Kull.

As such it's clear that Kull dropped out from Howard's focus after he created Conan. Maybe there just wasn't enough room for two barbarian warriors in his mind or maybe he just liked Conan better. Perhaps it just was, that the style he used for Conan suited him better. However it might be, Kull never did take off the same way. Sure, there's been a movie adaptation of him and some comic book adaptations as well, but in the end, he's stayed as a minor character in Howard's universe. And that, I think, is a bit of a shame.