Kull, yet another creation of the inestimable Robert E. Howard, is easy to write off as simply a precursor to Conan when you realize that Howard worked on the stories immediately prior to debuting his more famous barbarian. It doesn’t help that the first published Conan tale was a reworked Kull story, which should be fairly obvious after you think about it. After all, he’s a barbarian who takes over a kingdom by deposing a tyrant. He’s a man of action, who likens opening Pandora boxes to birthday presents. Like Conan, he represents Howard’s philosophy of barbarism as, if not superior to civilization, then the natural state of society, with civilization being aberrant.
Kull and Conan exist within the same fictional universe, even if they are separated by thousands of years. Kull is an outcast twice-over. He is from Atlantis, here a young island nation of barbarian tribes struggling for survival. He pledges to become something more, and time finds him as king of Valusia, a decaying kingdom marked by Byzantine politics and factious nobles.
Although Conan also becomes a king, the majority of Kull stories (only two of which would be published in Howard’s lifetime) deal with the titular character as a ruler . . . and running away from his responsibilities as much as possible. Kull is frustrated by the restrictions of rulership and feels unfairly bound by the laws and customs of the court. Most famously, he overturns what he views as an unfair law, that slaves cannot marry free people, by smashing the tablet it is written on and declaring, “By this axe, I rule!”
Unlike many of Howard’s other creations, Kull is no loner, instead enjoying comradeship with the Pict Brule and his counselor Tu, even when those relationships were originally contentious, or in the case of Brule, outright hostile. This helps establish a power trio in several of the stories, and provides some of the tension Kull feels between his barbaric past and civilized present.
An item of interest is how many elements from Kull’s stories bled into other adaptations, mostly showing up in Conan stories. For example, Thulsa Doom was a Kull antagonist (and even then he only appears in a single story, “Delcarde’s Cat”) long before he posed the Riddle of Steel to Conan. Likewise, the Serpent People, an ancient race able to shift into a form resembling humans and infiltrating humanity by killing and replacing its leaders, would pop up as the Snake Cult in the Conan animated series that ran from 1992-1993.
And yes, there was a Kull the Conqueror film made, starring Kevin Sorbo, but the less said about it, the better. Honestly, the most (only?) interesting thing about that movie was that it was originally supposed to be the sequel to Conan the Destroyer, but as Arnold Schwarzenegger was unavailable, it was reworked into a stand alone film. And that’s really about all you need to know about it. Seriously, don’t bother looking any further into it. Your brain will thank you.
To be sure, the Kull stories do read as less polished than what Howard produced during his Conan period, but they mark an important milestone in the career of a literary giant and are ultimately worth reading for any proclaimed fan of sword and sorcery.