Swords of the North
Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
$50 nonmember, $45 members
Robert E. Howard was enamored of the Celts, so I thought I would look at a pair of stories featuring his Irish pirate, Cormac Mac Art. Cormac is an Irishman who has been banished from the Emerald Isle. He’s thrown his lot in with a group of Vikings led by Wulfhere, a giant of a man. Cormac resembles a Conan prototype in the way he is described. He’s got the haircut, and whereas the rest of the Norsemen are bearded, or at least mustached, Cormac is clean shaven.
These two stories are straight historical fiction without any fantastic elements. They’re still solid pieces of writing, full of battle and carnage, with a few twists thrown in.
In “Swords of the Northern Sea”, Cormac has come to the hall of the Viking chieftan Rognor, claiming to be the sole survivor of s shipwreck. It’s all a ruse, of course. Rognor has captures a Celtic maid named Tarala, whom he has decided to make his queen. She’s a spitfire and doesn’t agree to the marriage, not that Rognor asked her opinion.
What Rognor doesn’t know but is about to find out is that Tarala and one of Rognor’s men, Hakor, have fallen in love. When their secret is betrayed, Rognor imprisons Hakor. Cormac uses trickery to gain access to Hakor’s cell and offers him a deal. Wofhere and his men are waiting nearby. If Hakor will bring the men he has hidden in the hills around the settlement to Cormac and Wulhere’s aid, they will help Halor establish himself as the ruler of the settlement.
I’ll let you read the rest of the story for yourself. Needless to say, there’s going to be some combat.
“The Night of the Wolf” has a similar opening as “Swords of the Northern Sea”, only this time Cormac is hiding his identity. He claims to be an Irish warrior who is seeking to buy a Danish prisoner from Thorwald Shield-hewer. He wants to make a prisoner exchange because his tribe can’t afford to pay the ransom for a capture kinsman.
Thorwald has taken over one of the Shetland Islands and has begun to oppress the native Picts. When the story opens, the Pictish chief is cursing Thorwald and his men, promising revenge on them, but refrains from saying anything against Cormac.
Unfortunately for Cormac, Thorwald isn’t fooled. He knows exactly who Cormac is. Thorwald’s men beat Cormac into submission and lock him up in one of the huts, but not without first suffering heavy losses.
Wulfhere is on the other side of the island, although Thorwald thinks he’s lying at anchor nearby. When Thorwald takes three of his six longships to set a trap for Wulfhere, the Picts attack.
The battle here is just as bloody as it was in “Swords of the Northern Sea”. Howard does an excellent job of pulling the reader into the combat. These two stories may not be remembered as being among Howard’s best, but they are far from being his worst. He’s done his research, and describes the Vikings better than many other writers have. “The Night of the Wolf” has a nice little surprise at the end, one I should have seen coming. The clues were there; I even noticed them. I just didn’t put them together until the end.
The main focus here, though, isn’t the Vikings. It’s Cormac, the Gael. Howard has taken a Gaelic warrior and set him in the midst of a different people. Cormac isn’t the leader but the second in command. In spite of this, everyone respects him for both his prowess in battle and his cunning.
So raise a glass of your favorite Irish beverage today, and kick back with some Robert E. Howard. I think Howard would have said there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow. You have to go and take it for yourself. I’ll drink to that.