The first of Howard’s tales of the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, “Men of the Shadows” was rejected by Weird Tales in 1926. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why.
The story starts out strong. Narrated by a Norseman in the Roman army, he and his companions are nearly cut down in a battle with the Picts. Five of the Roman soldiers survive, but as they make their way back to Roman territory, they are one by one cut down until only the Norseman is left.
He’s taken captive by a group of Picts and taken before their chieftan, Bran Mak Morn. (Bran is merely a chieftan in this story, not a king.) None of the soldiers knew what their mission was except the commander, and he took that secret with him to his grave. Bran introduces the soldier to his sister and tells him that a reward had been posted for whoever captured the girl and brought to a Roman merchant.
At his sister’s request, Bran decides to let the soldier go as an act of mercy but is opposed in this by the clan’s wizard. The two men have a contest of wills, essentially staring each other down. If Bran wins, the Norseman goes free. If the wizard wins, he will be sacrificed to the serpent god, whose worship Bran has forbidden. He’s trying to lift the Picts out of savagery, and rites that involve human sacrifice don’t achieve that goal.
Howard implies there’s more to the duel than just staring. Bran wins of course. The wizard then throws some things on the fire and begins to chant. He tells the story of the Picts, a history that goes back to Lemuria and Atlantis. While Kull and Valusia aren’t mentioned, we know they play a role in Bran’s history. In “Kings of the Night” we learn Bran is a descendant of Brule in the Kull stories.
The wizard brings up images in the flame that show the future. The story ends with the wizard prophesying that the end of the Picts will come when Bran falls in battle.
Until the wizard makes his appearance, the story is strong and shows Howard doing what he does best, take the reader into the heart of battle. The conversation between the Norse warrior and Bran is laced with menace. There’s no real reason to let him go. But Bran is too noble to cut him down in cold blood. Howard may have miscalculated when he made a Norse warrior in the Roman army his narrator. Howard’s sympathies clearly lie with the Picts. They are the men of the shadows in the title, living their lives on the run from more advanced races. I’m using the term “advanced” in both the civilization and evolutionary sense. The Picts are a degenerate race, sliding back into savagery from the heights they had attained.
This is brought out in the wizard’s recitation of their history, which goes back thousands of years. I was reminded of Howard’s essay “The Hyborian Age”, in which he chronicles the history of Conan’s world. It’s of interest to the more devoted fans, but the casual reader will probably find it tedious. The same can be said of the wizard’s recounting of the history.
The ending of the story is Howard at his bleakest. Bran will fall in battle rather than raise his people up from savagery, and in the end they will vanish from the stage of history, another lost and forgotten race, overtaken by more advanced me who come after them.
One of the best things about this story is the poetry it contains. The poetry was first published Always Comes Evening, a collection of Howard’s poetry published by Arkham House in 1957. Howard was as accomplished a poet as he was a writer of fantasy and adventure, maybe even moreso, and Howard’s skill is on full display here. Not only is there a poem opening the tale, some of the wizard’s speech is in verse. Like this:
O’er lakes agleam the old gods dream;
Ghosts stride the heather dim.
The night winds croon; the eery moon
Slips o’er the ocean’s rim.
There’s a cadence to Howard’s verse that easy to fall into. I like that kind of poetry. Related to this story is the poem “A Song of the Race”. In this one, Bran sits on his throne and asks a girl to sing him a particular song. It’s a dark and brooding song about the last of Bran’s race and the last of men. It’s quite appropriate since the Bran Mak Morn stories are dark and brooding things themselves.
The Wandering Star edition of Bran Mak Morn The Last King has been reprinted by Del Rey and is still in print. You can get it here.