Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adventure classics -- Mirrors into other worlds

“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”

by Robert E. Howard


What would the sword and sorcery genre have become if Robert E. Howard’s first “pre-cataclysmic” age character Kull of Atlantis had proved more profitable than Conan the Cimmerian?

Kull’s first public appearance in the magazine Weird Tales opened with a tremendous barbarian bang. But by the next month, when the second Kull story, today’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” saw print, the character had deepened into a philosopher-king, seeking enlightenment from the ancient wizard of the story’s title.

“Tell me, wizard who are wiser than most men, tell me, are there worlds beyond our worlds?” Kull asks.

Although I had intended to finish this month’s discussion of Robert E. Howard stories with a more straightforward barbarian tale, after reading a few pages of “Mirrors,” I changed my mind. Howard fittingly chose to head his story with lines from the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Dream-Land,” and the psychology is worth of the comparison, although written when Howard was only in his early twenties.

The story begins with Kull, an adventurer from Atlantis, firmly established on the throne of the highly-civilized kingdom of Valusia. But, Howard writes, “there was a longing in him for things beyond himself and beyond the Valusian court.” In this mood, he accepts a suggestion to visit the famous House of a Thousand Mirrors of the wizard Tuzun Thune.

At first, Kull hopes only to see diverting spectacles. “Then came a day when Kull seemed to catch glimpses of strange lands; there flitted across his consciousness dim thoughts and recognitions.” As he becomes increasingly convinced of the reality of the other worlds the mirrors reflect, Kull longs to explore them, losing touch with his own world.

Will he disappear completely into the wizard’s worlds of illusion? And are they illusions, or reality? “This is the deepest story I ever tried to write and I got out of my depth,” Howard told his friend Tevis Clyde Smith in February 1929, months before the publication of “Mirrors”.

Howard scholar Steven Tompkins disagrees in his appendix to The Best of Robert E. Howard, insisting, “A good many classic American writers got to be classics by venturing out of their depth and diving instead of drowning, and in this story Howard discovered just how deep his depth truly was.”

Howard’s friend H.P. Lovecraft, urged him in 1934 to write more Kull stories. But the Atlantan had already fallen out of favor with his writer, subsumed by the birth of a new and less introspective barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian.

See the Robert E. Howard foundation’s website,, for more perspective on Kull and his influences. And although “Mirrors” is one of Howard’s shorter stories, for an even briefer, charmingly illustrated version, visit the online magazine Dreamquest at

(Next week -- In honor of the space rover Curiosity, currently speeding toward Mars, July’s science fiction adventures will be all Martian, opening with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.)

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