No. 2 – A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
Those Darn Cats
Stories and Main Characters:
A Passion in the Desert by Honore de Balzac
Unnamed man – The narrator
Unnamed woman – The narrator’s friend
A Provencal Soldier – A soldier stranded in the desert
Sweetie – The leopard
Delcardes’ Cat by Robert E. Howard
Kull – A barbarian king
Tu – The king’s advisor
Ka-nu – A Pict ambassador and advisor
Brule – Kull’s trusted ally
Delcardes – A noblewoman
Kuthulos – A learned slave
Thulsa Doom – A necromancer
Saremes – An ancient cat
Man and animal stories have a long-standing literary tradition. They can meet as either antagonists or as companions. Action-adventure stories usually feature them in battle. Snakes, apes, and lions make convenient obstacles for Tarzan and Conan. Tarzan, of course, is also a friend of apes and at least one lion. Conan shows respect for the ape, Thak, in “Rogues in the House” and sympathy for an unnamed ape in “Queen of the Black Coast.” Along with his apes, Tarzan takes a “Golden Lion” on as an ally and companion in several of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels. Conan never takes on an animal ally but he fights side by side with the dog, Slasher, in “Beyond the Black River.”
In looking for a Robert E. Howard story that featured a feline companion the first that came to mind was “Delcardes’ Cat.” This brought to mind another cat as companion story, “A Passion in the Desert” by Honore de Balzac. Both stories feature warriors seeking solace in the company of a cat. But both stories are about more than that.
* * *
“A Passion in the Desert” begins with a couple leaving Martin’s menagerie. This circus like show featured hyenas. The animal’s obedience and affection to Martin impress the woman. The man has heard a story that had previously convinced him of animal intelligence and love. The woman is interested in hearing the story.
An old soldier had told his tale to the narrator. The soldier was stationed in North Africa and fell into the hands of a hostile nomadic tribe. He escaped but was hopelessly lost in the desert. He comes upon an oasis where water and dates are present. He takes refuge in a cave. He sights a sleeping leopard.
He doubts his ability to kill the animal in his weakened state. He notices blood on the animal’s paws and muzzle. The leopard won’t be hungry. He studies the animal some more.
It was a female. The fur on her stomach and thighs was gleaming white. Several small spots, like velvet, formed pretty bracelets around her paws. Her muscular tail was also white, but had black rings near the tip. The coat on her back and sides, yellow as dull gold, but very smooth and soft, bore those typical spots, grouped into rosettes, which distinguish leopards from the other species of the genus Felis.
The soldier admires the animal’s grace and beauty but realizes the danger he is in. Nevertheless he decides to wait until the animal awakens. The animal awakens and begins cleaning herself. The soldier compares her to a spoiled elegant lady. The soldier withdraws his knife.
The leopard approaches the soldier in a non-threatening way. She wanted to be stroked and petted. The soldier complies all the while thinking of how he might kill her. He decides a stab to the throat is best. The animal remains calm but the soldier misses his opportunity.
Time passes and the soldier considers that the leopard has taken a liking to him. She allows him to move about freely and follows him around like a housecat. She rescues him from quicksand. He has nicknamed her Sweetie.
Finally he conceived a passion for his leopard, for he certainly needed some affection.
Whether it was because his will, powerfully projected, had altered his companion’s nature, or because she found plenty to eat thanks to the battles then being fought in the desert, she spared the life of the Frenchman, who finally lost his mistrust, seeing her so tame.
Most of the soldier’s time has been spent sleeping. He did erect a prominent flag in hope of rescue from passing soldiers. One day a bird flies overhead and the soldier shows immediate interest in this new visitor. The leopard reacts with what the soldier believes to be jealously.
The Provencal and the leopard looked at each other knowingly; the coquette gave a start when she felt her friend’s fingernails scratching the top of her head; her eyes gleamed like two lightening flashes, then she shut them tight.
“She has a soul,” he said, observing the tranquility of that queen of the sands, golden like them, white like them, solitary and burning like them . . .
The narrator ends the story there. His female friend wants to know what became of the soldier and his leopard. The soldier had told the narrator that there was a misunderstanding. He does know why but at one point the leopard turned around and bit into his thigh. The soldier plunged his dagger into the animal’s throat. The animal died without anger and the soldier cried with all his heart. The soldier was eventually rescued.
The narrator says he had asked the soldier about his feelings about the whole event.
“Oh, it can’t be expressed, young man. Anyway, I don’t miss my clump of palms and my leopard all the time… I have to be sad for that to happen. In the desert, you see, there’s everything and there’s nothing…”
The narrator insisted on a better explanation.
“Well,” he went on, with a gesture of impatience, “it’s God without people…”
* * *
“Delcardes’ Cat” starts with Kull on his way to see the talking cat belonging to a noblewoman, Delcardes. Kull was skeptical; but Kull has seen serpent-men, skull-faced sorcerers, and ghosts before. According to Kull’s ancestors beasts had once talked to men. He was skeptical but willing.
Delcardes helped the conviction. She lounged with supple ease upon her silk couch, like a great, beautiful feline, and looked at Kull from under long, drooping lashes, which lent unimaginable charm to her narrow, piquantly slanted eyes.
Howard narrates that Kull was not interested in women. This is not meant to be a doubt about Kull’s sexual orientation. Kull, although a king, has what can only be described as an inferiority complex! Kull is highly aware of his outsider status as a barbarian king and is obsessed with learning how to be a civilized king although he rebels against the constraints imposed on him at times. This duality leads him toward philosophical and metaphysical adventures.
Delcardes has an ulterior motive for charming the king. She wants to marry a commoner. Tu is vehemently against this violation of Valusian law. Kull doesn’t want to deal with it and avoids a decision. The dispute is dropped so Kull can converse with Saremes, the talking cat.
The cat talks and tells Kull of her history. She tells Kull of a hidden note and predicts a surplus in the treasury, which comes true. Kull is convinced and takes the cat to his court accompanied by her slave, Kuthulos. Kull and the cat discuss philosophy and whether it serves a man well to know the future. Kull is frustrated by the lack of prediction but enjoys the cat’s knowledge of history and philosophy.
During a meeting between them, Saremes warns Kull that his friend Brule has been captured swimming in the Forbidden Lake. The cat convinces Kull to rescue Brule alone since the lake is forbidden to all save Valusia’s King. Kull rides to the lake and dives in. Kull encounters lake-monsters and defeats them. Eventually a large sea monster drags him to a hidden under lake kingdom. Kull questions his captors.
“You are at the center of the universe as you are always. Time, place, and space are illusions, having no existence save in the mind of man, which must set limits and bounds in order to understand. There is only the underlying reality, of which all appearances are but outward manifestations, just as the upper lake is fed by the waters of this real one. Go now, king, for you are a true man even though you be the first wave of the rising tide of savagery which shall overwhelm the world ere it recedes.”
Kull returns to his court where he confronts Saremes. The cat is silent. Tu and Brule arrive. Kull tells them of what has transpired. Tu tells Kull that Saremes’s slave, Kuthulos was throwing his voice. Ka-nu arrives with Delcardes. Delcardes declares her innocence in any plot to kill Kull. She confesses she wanted to fool him only in granting her marriage.
Kuthulos arrives on the scene. Kull and his companions confront him. But another Kuthulos arrives. It turns out that Kuthulos had been rendered unconscious and replaced by Kull’s mortal enemy, Thulsa Doom.
Thulsa Doom cannot be killed by mere steel. But Thulsa Doom is apparently unable to attack Kull directly. He issues a warning for Kull to beware and disappears.
Kull grants Delcardes permission to marry. Kull and Tu spar over civilized tabus versus barbaric tabus and the adventure comes to a close with Kull eyeing the lounging Saremes.
“She is not a wizard-beast, Kull,” said [Brule]. “She is wise, but she merely looks her wisdom and does not speak. Yet her eyes fascinate me with their antiquity. A mere cat, just the same.”
“Still, Brule,” said Kull, admiringly stroking her silky fur, “still, she is a very ancient cat. Very.”
* * *
The relationship between the warriors and their cats are similar and different. The French soldier is stranded without human companionship and begins to feel an attraction toward the cat. Kull is alienated from Valusian society and seeks wisdom from the cat’s knowledge. Both seek something they are not receiving.
Balzac makes a good literary case for love between a man and an animal but the bestiality overtones are sickening once divorced from this fantasy. Still the story makes for an interesting read and does bring up some questions about man’s relationship with animals. How much is anthropomorphic and how much is real? In Balzac’s story it is not explicitly stated that the man and leopard had sex, although strongly implied; but it is explicit that he loved the leopard and felt the leopard loved him in return. (Phillip Jose Farmer in his Tarzan take-off “Lord Tyger” has his Tarzan-like character enjoy an explicit sexual relationship with a female leopard. Farmer undoubtedly was aware of this story.)
Robert E. Howard also makes the connection between cats and female sexuality with his description of Delcardes. But remember that Kull is not interested in women. Kull loves the cat for her mind. What little is known about Howard’s life suggests a Kull-like attitude in his twenties. Howard writes in his letters about his feelings of otherness in small town Cross Plains. Like Kull, he sought refuge in philosophy and history.
Balzac’s story is also, of course, about a societal taboo. One that should remain so. In Howard’s story the taboos take different forms. Inter-marriage between classes and nations is a taboo that should be broke. There is also the matter of Tu not respecting Kull’s ancient barbaric beliefs in talking animals and tiger totems. Yet Tu believes in a caste system and ancient warnings about the Forbidden Lake. REH’s take seems to be that barbaric taboos are moral fables while civilized taboos only serve the will of the elite.
One theme of both stories is that the things we think we know are tangent to our surroundings and that reality is a complex thing. For Balzac’s narrator circumstances can teach us things never thought of and for Howard’s Kull reality itself is questionable but man needs constraints in order to keep from going mad. Also in both stories there is the wider implication that animals have emotions and feelings and a value in and of themselves as well as serving as good companions. This is a fact that would benefit society to remember.