Skulls in the Stars

Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis

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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:

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.

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