The first Kull story was the first proper Sword & Sorcery story, and other Kull tales followed, some better than others. In 1929 “The Shadow Kingdom” opened the Kull series, and later that same year the last one Howard wrote - “By This Axe I Rule!” - was rejected by both Argosy and Adventure, and thus the history of fantasy literature was changed. Unsatisfied with it, Howard re-wrote the entire tale with a new setting and a new hero, a brawny northern adventurer very much in the Kull mold – Conan of Cimmeria.
This is the point where Howard’s literary legacy really took shape, because no single character he created has ever gotten the traction Conan did. He wrote more stories about his Cimmerian wanderer than he did about any of his other heroes, and he did it all in a very short period of time. The rewrite of “By This Axe I Rule!” was entitled “The Phoenix on the Sword”, and was probably written sometime in 1931. By 1936 Howard would be dead, and between those two points in time he wrote a total of 21 complete stories about Conan – a creative outpouring of tremendous originality and energy.
“By This Axe I Rule!” is obviously the work of a younger writer – Howard was probably around 21 when he started work on it, and the style is in places quite primitive, making me wonder if parts of it don’t predate “The Shadow Kingdom”, with its polished, dreamlike prose. “Axe” is full of awkward sentences, diction drops, and even places where the tense wobbles.
It is by far the shorter story, at around 5600 words, and it contains no supernatural or horror elements. The cold open depicts a gathering of rebellious nobles who plot to kill Kull, and then shows Kull bored and stifled by the work of being a king. In both tales Howard makes the point that taking a throne and holding one are very different things. Kull is presented with a rather cliched subplot about a nobleman who wants to marry a slave, but is forbidden by ancient Valusian law, which Kull is powerless to change and chafes at.
The last act is the attempted assassination, with the conspirators bursting in and trying to cut down the king as he fights with his back to the wall. Kull slays almost all of them before the chief plotter is cut down by the lovesick nobleman from before, and then as Kull is wounded and bleeding he calls for the law tablet and smashes it with his axe, proclaiming the titular line.
It’s not Howard’s best work, and certainly far from the best Kull story. The characterizations are thin, and while the action at the end of the story is visceral, Howard can do much better. The plot is rather weak even for such a short story, and a lot of time is spent with Conan complaining to Brule about his duties, and a long encounter with the lovelorn slave girl, Ala. It’s not really a mystery why it was rejected.
In fact, only 3 of 12 Kull stories were ever published in Howard’s lifetime, and one of them is “Kings of the Night”, which is a bit of a mashup tale where Kull travels through time to fight the Romans alongside Bran Mak Morn. The rest of the Kull stories did not see print until more than 30 years after Howard’s death.
“The Phoenix on the Sword”, by contrast, shows Howard at the peak of his game. The prose is more measured, the tone and pacing much more controlled. At around 7000 words the story is quite a bit longer, and fills in a good bit of the world that would later become the well-known Hyborian Age. It also removes the subplot about the two lovers entirely. Parts of the dialogue and action are taken almost word-for-word from the previous story, with names changed and some small edits to make the text scan better.
In place of the frustrated lovers, Howard adds a subplot about a wizard held in thrall to the chief conspirator, Ascalante. The wizard has lost his ring, and is thus powerless and kept as a slave. His name – Thoth-Amon – will be one familiar to fans of Conan tales, as he was often used as a nemesis in later pastiches of the character. In the course of the story, Thoth-Amon recovers his ring and summons a demon to go and kill Ascalante.
The confrontation with the traitors goes very similarly to the events in “Axe”. Conan is warned of the coup by a kind of dream-vision, and a phoenix is scribed on his blade. Then the conspirators bust in and hell breaks loose. Howard is in fine form for this battle, delivering the kind of bloody action he is almost a byword for. This fight scene is much better than the one in “Axe”, even if the basic beats are almost the same.
At the end, rather than have Conan saved by the nobleman, Thoth-Amon’s demon rushes in and kills Ascalante, and then Conan is forced to kill the thing off with his broken sword. It makes for a tense ending, and Conan looks more badass because he doesn’t have to be rescued. The demon adds some supernatural horror to the story, and makes it feel much more like Sword & Sorcery. The story ends with a foreboding note, dwelling on the foul remains of the demon and men running away in mad terror from the sign of it. Conan, sadly, does not get a resolution to his ennui over being king, and does not get to smash a law tablet with his axe.
The focus of the tale is quite different, without the romance subplot and the emphasis on the king feeling enslaved by laws, the story has less subtext, and plays much more like an action story. That said, it is much more well-written than “By This Axe I Rule!”, and is obviously the work of a writer who has grown up a lot in the years since he wrote the original tale. There are still some awkward parts, such as the coincidental way the wizard recovers his ring – which feels rushed – or the vision of the ancient scholar who warns Conan as a kind of deus ex machina.
The Conan stories flowed onward from this beginning, and Howard kept getting better and better at what he was doing. This is a telling point where we can see, between one version of a story and another, an artist turning a corner and really starting to take off. "The Shadow Kingdom" is the first Sword & Sorcery story, but "The Phoenix on the Sword" is where you can hear the engine start to roar.