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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.

The Tower of the Tropes:

  • Acrofatic: Taurus the thief is described as fat, but it does little to hinder his agility.
  • All for Nothing: Conan ends the adventure with little more than the sword and loincloth he came with and a story to tell.
  • 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.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: It is stated in the story that the King of Zamora is so fearful of Yara that he resorts to drinking to cope with the situation.
  • Eldritch Abomination: A rare sympathetic example in Yag-kosha, who is an impossibly old, extraterrestrial, monstrous sorcerer and in any other story would probably be the main antagonist. Yag-Kosha himself says that he is "of flesh and blood, though they are of different substance than yours," and that he is "not immortal, though the life of Yag is as of the lives of stars and planets." The only explicitly eldritch thing he does is reincarnate himself whole and healthy, as "the Death of Yag is different from the Death of men."
  • 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".
  • Forced Transformation: Itís mentioned Yara once killed a prince by turning him into a beetle and crushing him.
  • 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 is solid gold, befitting the opulence of the Tower itself.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Yag-Kosha is an extremely powerful alien sorcerer, but until Conan frees his spirit, he's helpless against Yara's lust for power.
  • 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, teaching him about the finer points of thievery. He does not make it out of the Tower alive. He barely makes it into the Tower alive.
  • 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 Heart of the Elephant, a mystic gem of unknown power.
  • The Need for Mead: The first scene takes place in a Zamoran tavern, where Conan first hears of the tower.
  • Perfect Poison: The black lotus derived powder that Taurus uses to kill the lions guarding the outer perimeter of the tower drops them on the spot and with no noise.
  • 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.
  • Pocket Dimension: Yag-Kosha's last gift and last enchantment for Yara involves shrinking him into palm top size, phasing him into the Heart of the Elephant by magnetizing him into it, and finally taking form within the crystal before Yara to do... Mitra knows what to Yara. The Heart of the Elephant disappears, and Yara and Yag-Kosha with it as would a bubble when stung by a needle.
  • 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" and, if the Dark Horse Comics timeline is to be trusted, "The God in the Bowl").
  • 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.
  • Roar Before Beating: Inverted, and lampshaded. The guard lions not roaring is evidence of the uncanniness of the Tower.
  • The Ruins I Caused: Conan leaves the Tower of the Elephant as Yag-Kosha instructs through a path to the back exit that offers him no resistance. As Conan turns to gaze at the Tower from some distance, it begins to give way and collapses before his eyes
  • Tortured Monster: Yag-kosha, locked up and mutilated and forced to divulge his secrets to an Evil Sorcerer so said sorcerer can become more powerful.
  • 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.