With This Axe I Edit

As I’m planning to assign Robert E. Howard’s 1928 Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” for my philosophy of law class in the fall (yes, really), I was comparing the version in my Kull anthology with one I found online. The former is obviously Howard’s original version or close to it, while the latter (scanning errors apart) has clearly undergone well-meaning editing, slight but pervasive, to tame some of Howard’s eccentricities of punctuation and usage.

Axe of the Apostles

Axe of the Apostles

While many of the revisions are improvements (including a catch of Howard’s losing track of how many assassins were supposed to be at the door, and of the direction in which Ka-nu’s Pictish escort was heading), on the whole it seems to me that the unknown editor had a tin ear for Howard’s language, and the comparison has given me new respect for Howard’s craft as a writer.

Two constructions in particular seem to have attracted the editor’s disfavour – what I’ll call the fast transition (“X happened and then Y happened”) and the slow transition (“X happened. And then Y happened”). In nearly all cases, both kinds of transition get changed to the more grammatically conventional “X happened, and then Y happened” – which I’ll call the medium-speed transition.

But although some of Howard’s punctuational choices admittedly seem a bit random, I don’t think there was anything random in his deployment of fast and slow transitions. (In this story, at least. I haven’t looked through Howard’s other stories with an eye to fast and slow transitions; sufficit diei.) His general preference for fast transitions fits the fast pace of the story; it’s like a cinematic tracking shot. But when he switches to a slow transition there’s a good reason for it. A good example is when Kull tells Seno val Dor: “I am sorry. But I cannot help you.” The editor changes this to “I am sorry, but I cannot help you,” but rushing through the apology like this makes Kull seem dismissive; Howard’s version, pausing on the “I am sorry,” gives it the weight of sincerity. (I would go back and find more of the examples I noticed, but I am too lazy.)

One reason I think Howard’s preference for fast and slow transitions over medium-speed ones was intentional is that he symbolically incorporates it into his description of Kull:

There was nothing deliberate or measured about his motions – either he was perfectly at rest – still as a bronze statue, or else he was in motion, with that catlike quickness which blurred the sight that tried to follow his movements.

Or again:

Ascalante leaped as a wolf leaps – halted almost in mid-air with the unbelievable speed which characterized him ….

(In that last one it’s almost as though Howard is foreseeing bullet time.)


4 Responses to With This Axe I Edit

  1. Jason July 12, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    How are you planning on using the comic in the class?

    • Roderick July 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

      I’m not using the comic, just the original story.

      The story sets up a dichotomy between, on the one hand, hidebound irrational laws that never change and that bind even the ruler, and on the other, a virtuous ruler who sets aside the laws and rules by irresistible decree. Part of my point is that this is a false dichotomy, but more broadly it’s a painless entry into thinking about the value and disvalue of law.

  2. Larry July 17, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    But Roderick, if nobles are allowed to marry slaves, what will prevent them from marrying dogs?

    • Roderick July 19, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Kull will prevent it. With his mighty axe. His character is a constitution.

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