I'm a complete sucker for sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and actually I've written a significant amount of it for my own amusement. Of course, the true master, and really the originator of the genre, is Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stories are both incredibly fun to read and surprisingly eloquent.
After Howard's unfortunate suicide in 1936, readers still hungered for strong fantasy characters, and many incredible authors stepped up to fill the void. One of those was the masterful Henry Kuttner, who danced easily between fantasy, horror and science fiction. He wrote a quartet of stories about Elak of Atlantis, which were recently reprinted:
Below, I give a brief summary of the Elak stories, and some comparison to the Conan works of REH.
Kuttner wrote four Elak stories, which appeared in Weird Tales between 1938 and 1940. They serve as a sort of abridged version of REH's Conan stories, and follow the exploits of Elak as he passes from sword-for-hire and no-goodnik to king.
My overall impression of the Elak stories is that they are not as well developed as the Conan tales. The setting of Atlantis is but a shadow of Howard's Hyborian Age Earth, though there is at least a consistency in description which makes the land mappable (a map is included in the recent volume). We've discussed previously Kuttner's collaboration with wife C.L. Moore; comparing their styles, one can see that Moore provided much of the elegance and descriptive power in their joint work. Comparing Kuttner's fantasy to Howard or Moore, one finds that Kuttner is much more sparing in his descriptions. Details also seem a bit less thought out: the villain in the first story is named "Elf", for pity's sake!i
Elak himself is a different sort of warrior than Howard's creation. Where Conan's fighting style is a mixture of skill and savagery, Elak is a skilled, surgical fighter who wields a rapier like a scalpel. Where Conan is a savage from the untamed north who fights his way to his own throne, Elak is the cast out son of royalty who fights against accepting his destiny. One bit of common ground is in their amorous nature: we first meet Elak returning from an encounter with the wife of Atlantean nobility.
Elak is accompanied by the perpetually drunk thief Lycon, who is loyal even when he is sneaking a few coins from Elak's purse. He is occasionally joined by the druid Dalan, who uses his magic in service of Elak's native kingdom, Cyrena.
Elak's four adventures are summarized below:
- Thunder in the Dawn. Elak is rescued from an assassin by Dalan, who informs him that his brother, the king of Cyrena, has been overthrown by invading Vikings aided by the wizard Elf. The trio, joined by the feisty lady Velia, battle their way to the northern kingdom to return Orander to the throne. This tale reads remarkably like a bit of Dungeons & Dragons fiction, with a party of adventurers undertaking a journey to defeat evil.
- The Spawn of Dagon. Elak and Lycon are hired by a secretive society to kill the Wizard of Atlantis, who performs secret and sinister works away from prying eyes. But, as is often the case, things are not quite as simple as Elak first assumes.
- Beyond the Phoenix. Elak and Lycon, serving as guards of the king of Sarhaddon, fail in their duty! They are then tasked to take the king's body, and his heir, on a journey along an underground river and through the Phoenix Gates, to complete an ancient ritual. Betrayal, and the clash of ancient powerrs, await them beyond the gates.
- Dragon Moon. Dalan yet again seeks out an unwilling Elak, this time to claim the throne of Cyrena. Elak's brother Orander has been killed by a sinister and powerful being of unknown origin named The Pallid One. Now the Pallid One, occupying the body of a rival king named Sepher, marches to conquer Cyrena. Elak must unite warring tribes and nobleman against the forces of The Pallid One, and also learn the secret origin of the creature. This tale is very reminiscent of Howard's "Conan the King" story, The Hour of the Dragon, even having similarly-themed titles!
The Elak stories are excellent page turners, albeit a little clumsy in their execution. They can't compare with Howard's masterful prose (what can?) but are well worth reading for fans of sword-and-sorcery.
It is worth mentioning that the Planet Stories edition includes two other Kuttner S&S tales, featuring Kuttner's character Prince Raynor.