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Literature / The Tower of the Elephant

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"The Tower of the Elephant" is a Conan the Barbarian story by Robert E. Howard. First published in March, 1933. It is generally considered one of the best of the Conan yarns and often recommended as a starting point for new readers.

A very young Conan hears of a mysterious tower and goes to steal from it. He meets up with Taurus of Nemedia, one of the undisputed masters of thievery, and together they tackle the tower and brave its various hazards. After losing Taurus to a Giant Spider and killing it, Conan meets up with the Tower's most unusual occupant, a being from beyond the stars enslaved by the Evil Sorcerer who calls the tower home, who reveals to him much about the ancient history of his world before charging Conan with carrying out his vengeance against the sorcerer after three hundred long years.


Being one of Robert E. Howard's most popular and well known stories, it has of had dozens of adaptations. Marvel Comics adapted the story multiple times, in both their Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan books, as have Darkhorse Comics in their ongoing Conan comic. The live-action Conan the Adventurer adapted the story for its opening arc, and used the villain Yara as its overarching villain. Even the cartoon featured Yag-Kosha. Conan the Barbarian (1982) adapted parts of it as the first raid on Thulsa Doom's cult, and Conan the Barbarian (2011) makes a direct reference to it in that version of Conan's backstory.

This short story is also notable for demonstrating the falseness of the modern claim that a story can not be simultaneously High Fantasy, especially mythic fantasy, Low Fantasy, and Cosmic Horror, for the story is all three and more, from a time before these subgenres had become standardized and purists tried to keep them separated.


Yag-Kosha or Yogah, the elephant-like creature of the title is notable for being possibly the inspiration for the "Space Jockey" (later revealed to be called Engineers) of the Alien series.

Tropes included

  • Acrofatic: Taurus the thief is described as fat, but it does little to hinder his agility.
  • All Just a Dream: Conan wonders this about his adventure. Considering what happens in the story, you can't blame him.
  • Broken Angel: While most would not consider Yag-Kosha an angel, he is a fantastical being who has been tragically maimed.
  • Call-Back: In the opening paragraph of the very first Conan story, Zamora's "towers of spider-haunted mystery" are mentioned. Guess what Conan runs into while breaking into a tower in Zamora?
  • Collapsing Lair: After both Yara and Yag-Kosha are finally dead the tower starts to fall apart into dust. Lucky for Conan, Yag-Kosha put a delay on it so he would have time to get out.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Both Conan and Taurus remove their sandals to enter the tower for stealth purposes.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: The only way the King of Zamora can cope with his fear of Yara.
  • Eldritch Abomination: A rare sympathetic example in Yag-kosha.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Yara is so terrible and powerful that even the King of Zamora lives in utter fear of him.
  • Eye of Newt: Most of the implements that Taurus procures in order to successfully break into the tower have extremely exotic origins, such as his rope which was "woven from the tresses of dead women, which I took from their tombs at midnight, and steeped in the deadly wine of the upas tree, to give it strength" and his dust "made from the black lotus, whose blossoms wave in the lost jungles of Khitai, where only the yellow-skulled priests of Yun dwell.".
  • Gem-Encrusted: The tower is made of a silvery material, and encrusted with gems at the top and on the inside.
  • Giant Spider: A pig-sized one, hidden in the ceiling of one room, which ends up killing Taurus.
  • Gold Makes Everything Shiny: The door of the tower.
  • I Have Many Names: The elephant calls himself both Yag-Kosha and Yogah of Yag.
  • Immortality Inducer: Yara uses the Heart of the Elephant to prolong his life.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Taurus acts as a mentor to Conan for a time...
  • Mercy Kill: Conan ultimately has to release Yag-kosha from its pain by killing him, as part of a "last gift and a last enchantment" to destroy Yara.
  • Mineral MacGuffin: The Elephant's Heart.
  • The Need for Mead: Conan hears of the tower in a bar.
  • Perfect Poison: The black lotus derived powder that Taurus uses to kill the lions guarding the outer perimeter of the tower.
  • Projectile Webbing: After the Giant Spider's first charges at Conan fail to kill him and cost it a leg, it settles for webbing the door shut to trap Conan in the room with it and trying to snare him with strands of web fired from beyond sword reach.
  • The Philosopher: Conan finds them unimpressive. When he references them again in a later story, though, he has grown more respectful of them, probably because he himself had had his share of experiences with the things of which they spoke.
  • Prequel: After "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Scarlet Citadel", which show Conan as the King of Aquilonia who presumably has most of his adventures behind him, this story goes right back to Conan's youth and may be the chronologically first of the stories (if you don't count "The Frost-Giant's Daughter").
  • Roar Before Beating: That the lions do not roar is evidence of the uncanniness.
  • Tortured Abomination: Yag-kosha.
  • White Magic: Yag-kosha originally taught Yara this, but Yara wasn't satisfied with only being taught this, and eventually turned Yag-kosha's power against him and enslaved him.


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