What is the Secret of the Elephant Tower?

An illustration by Stephen E. Fabian for ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ by Robert E.Howard

I find ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ (1933) to be the most spiritual of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. There is a quality to the narrative which brings to mind the allegorical tales of the Sufis. The story concerns Conan’s attempts to steal a legendary jewel from the tower of an evil sorcerer and is replete with beautiful imagery of the night sky and a nocturnal garden guarded by silent lions.

‘The secret of the Elephant Tower?’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, any fool knows that Yara the priest dwells there with the great jewel men call the Elephant’s Heart, that is the secret of his magic.’

Conan enters the tower as a thief but does not steal the jewel as the idol from which he is about to take the gem reveals itself to be an imprisoned elephant-headed demi-god.

‘This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? As Conan came forward, his eyes fixed on the motionless idol, the eyes of the thing opened suddenly! The Cimmerian froze in his tracks. It was no image–it was a living thing, and he was trapped in its chamber‘!

Struck by pity Conan liberates the demi-god in an act of sacrifice which frees Yag-kosha from the material world to take revenge upon Yara the priest who has tormented him for so long.

‘Uncertainly Conan approached, and Yag-kosha, or Yogah, as if sensing his uncertainty, indicated where he should strike. Conan set his teeth and drove the sword deep. Blood streamed over the blade and his hand, and the monster started convulsively, then lay back quite still. Sure that life had fled, at least life as he understood it, Conan set to work on his grisly task and quickly brought forth something that he felt must be the strange being’s heart, though it differed curiously from any he had ever seen. Holding the pulsing organ over the blazing jewel, he pressed it with both hands, and a rain of blood fell on the stone. To his surprise, it did not run off, but soaked into the gem, as water is absorbed by a sponge… Now Yara was no bigger than a child; now like an infant he sprawled on the table, still grasping the jewel. And now the sorcerer suddenly realized his fate, and he sprang up, releasing the gem. But still he dwindled, and Conan saw a tiny, pygmy figure rushing wildly about the ebony table-top, waving tiny arms and shrieking in a voice that was like the squeak of an insect‘.

Does Yag-kosha represent the tortured artist imprisoned by a philistine society? Or is the elephant-headed godling in the tower a symbol of the human soul enchained by matter? Given Robert E. Howard’s tragic end is Yag-kosha a metaphor for the writer’s own tortured psyche? What is the secret of elephant tower? The tale ends on an enigmatic note as the barbarian strides away against the backdrop of the elephant tower shattering like a mirror or glass.

‘Into the waving green gardens came the Cimmerian, and as the dawn wind blew upon him with the cool fragrance of luxuriant growths, he started like a man waking from a dream. He turned back uncertainly, to stare at the cryptic tower he had just left. Was he bewitched and enchanted? Had he dreamed all that had seemed to have passed? As he looked he saw the gleaming tower sway against the crimson dawn, its jewel-crusted rim sparkling in the growing light, and crash into shining shards‘.