Our story today is the best thing “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard ever did, his 1933 short story “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a barbarian who’s little more than a boy – an entire lifetime younger than the grizzled old king readers first met in the debut Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword.” This Conan is fresh-arrived in a Zamoran city of thieves, still naive in the ways of men, and when he overhears a lout in a bar talking about the fantastic treasure (called the Elephant’s Heart) held high atop the mysterious smooth-glass structure called the Tower of the Elephant, he wonders why none of the city’s thieves has ever stolen the thing. He’s rudely informed that Yara, the sorcerer who inhabits the tower, has invested the place with guards – both human and not.

Conan isn’t impressed, and after some requisite bloodshed (the boy is destined never to have a peaceful drink in a tavern), he makes his way to the temple district (thinking of his own native deity: “It was useless to call on Crom. He was a gloomy, savage god and hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies. Which was all any god should be expected to do”), hops the garden wall, and heads toward the tower itself. Before he can reach it, he encounters another thief intent on the same quest, and the two of them scale the tower to the top. Once there, the other thief tells Conan to wait while he explores an inner chamber. He stumbles out an instant later, gasping – and falls down dead. Undeterred, Conan enters the inner chamber – and confronts an enormous poisonous spider, which he barely manages to kill (ironically enough, by squashing it with a chest full of treasure). He travels deeper into the tower.

… and stumbles across a horrible story that was old long before he was born. He finds a large green idol with a vaguely human torso and the enormous head of an elephant – only a moment later, the idol opens its eyes! The thing is alive!

The creature’s name is Yag-Kosha, the last survivor of a band of spacefarers who came to Earth on star-spanning wings long before mankind evolved. One by one, this band of nearly-immortal beings died off, until only Yag-Kosha was left, and now he sits in the chamber helplessly, tortured, blinded, and imprisoned by Yara’s dark sorcery. He senses that Conan’s arrival is destiny at work, and he urges the young barbarian to kill him:

Now strike, wanderer – for the life of man is not the life of Yag – nor is human death of Yag. Let me be free of this age of blind and broken flesh. And I will once more be Yogah of Yag, morning-crowned and shining, with wings to fly, and feet to dance, and eyes to see, and hands to break! Strike, I say!

Conan does, and then he follows the creature’s last instructions, cutting out its heart and soaking the enormous gem called the Heart of the Elephant in the strange blood. He brings the pulsing gem to Yara, who is immediately snared in its magic. The evil sorcerer shrinks and shrinks (the whole time calling on his dark gods to save him) and is finally pulled inside the Heart of the Elephant – where for an instant Conan could swear he can see the man running in terror from a restored and vengeful Yag-Kosha. Conan barely has time to escape the place before the Tower of the Elephant, no longer sustained by Yag-Kosha’s magic, comes crumbling down.

In our furtive little Cimmerian ‘Stravanga of 2012, we can dream about “The Tower of the Elephant.” We can dream that “Conan the Barbarian” was a surprise hit movie last summer, and its star Jason Momoa was summarily catapulted to the A-list of young action-movie stars. We can fantasize that he signed on to play Conan for many more movies – one of which would certainly have to be “The Tower of the Elephant” (this is an actor who can morph with almost disconcerting ease to play significantly younger or older characters – in fact, he’d be fantastic as the aforementioned grizzled old King) – with GCI lions and giant spiders and oh! The Yag-Kosha we might get from some especially talented special effects wizard!

And in the meantime, the story certainly hasn’t lacked for comic book adaptations. In 1970 the great Roy Thomas was writing Marvel Comics’ full-color new Conan comic book, and he and artist Barry Windsor-Smith gave readers a “Tower of the Elephant” in which some things work well (the coloring especially, by an uncredited Glynis Wein) and some things work less than well (Smith’s ability to produce exciting action-sequences flickers in and out of existence). The pathos of Conan’s executing strike to Yag-Kosha’s heart is so perfectly orchestrated by Howard that I sometimes think it could survive any interpretation, and the thrillingly satisfying moment when Conan glimpses Yara fleeing from Yag-Kosha is an open invitation for an artist to rise to the occasion. Smith’s main innovation is to make Yara naked:

Seven years later, Thomas got the chance to adapt the story one more time – now in the black-and-white pages of Marvel’s Conan pulp magazine, “The Savage Sword of Conan.” Here he has 40 pages of room to do his work (after the painted Earl Rorem cover in which a hyper-muscled Conan fights an oddly floating spider while the requisite half-naked and terrified young woman cowers in the background), so much more of Howard is quoted and paraphrased. And here he’s teamed up with artist John Buscema, whose feel for action-sequences is usually superb (with one or two screaming exceptions, which we’ll get to by-and-by here at Stevereads) and whose ability to convey the weird and the exotic is at this point, in 1977 (and hugely aided by the fabulous, Gustav Dore-esque inking of Alfredo Alcala), at its peak. For his panel depicting the long-delayed vengeance of Yag-Kosha, he chooses to highlight Yara’s terror:

Thirty years after that great issue of “Savage Sword,” we find “The Tower of the Elephant” being adapted again, this time by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Cary Nord. They spread their adaptation over a few separate monthly issues, which rather spoils the headlong effect Howard clearly meant it to have, but Busiek’s grasp of the story’s core of tragedy is very nearly as strong as Thomas’ was, and Nord opts for a psychedelic vision of Yara’s eternal punishment:

How nice it would have been, to see this old familiar story played out on the big screen, with Jason Momoa perfectly capturing a stolid young barbarian who’s got not experience in the world but is already perfectly willing to be the instrument of any sorcerer’s downfall! Alas, the fickle American movie-going public didn’t make it happen – but we’ll always have our Cimmerian ‘Stravaganzas here at Stevereads!

  • Mike

    Ah, one of the great stories. I still remember as a kid getting from my grandmother a Giant-Size Conan comic for Christmas, and it had 2 Barry Windsor-Smith stories, with “Tower of the Elephant” being one of them. Even at that age when I could make relatively few judgements about comics, apart from that they were the bestest things ever, even as a kid I could feel that this story was not the usual superhero stuff, that it had colors and nuances that I didn’t know how to tease out. I kept that comic till it fell apart, always re-reading it. Yeah, sword and sorcery, but not a hack job, and nothing felt cliched, it always read fresh to me.

    And a brilliant stroke highlighting that moment in the different adaptations. You should do this for a living, you know.

  • Steve Donoghue

    Do this for a living??? Hee. Mike, you have the oddest ideas!

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