Category Archives: Bran Mak Morn

Blogging Bran Mak Morn: “Men of the Shadows”

“Men of the Shadows”
First published in Bran Mak Morn, Dell 1969
written circa 1925-1926

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. Continue reading

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard: “The Children of the Night”

Howard HorrorThe Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paper $18.00
ebook Kindle $11.59 Nook $13.99

I read this story for the first time recently in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy collection The Spawn of Cthulhu.  (The subject of my next BAF post for Black Gate.)  Just from the title, I could have sworn I’d read it before, but I think I would have remembered this one.

“The Children of the Night” was first published in Weird Tales in the April-May issue of 1931.  It’s an interesting little story in that it ties two of Howard’s series characters in with H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Continue reading

Blogging Kull and Bran Mak Morn: Kings of the Night

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
or Bran Mak Morn:  The Last King
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey

This is the next to last post about Kull and the first about Bran Mak Morn.  They’re together because they appear in the same story.  This is essentially a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a supporting role, although many elements of the Kull series can be seen.  Let’s take a quick look at it.

Howard uses the trick of telling his tale from the point of view of a supporting character, albeit a crucial one.  This is a device he’s used before, especially in some of the Conan stories.  The advantage to this approach is that we get to see how other characters view the hero.  This allows the reader to gain a fresh perspective of the hero and is particularly useful with a series character whose identity has been well established. The viewpoint character here is Cormac na Connacht, “a prince of the isle of Erin.”

The story is divided into three parts.  In the first, the Picts and their allies are awaiting a battle with an invading Roman legion the following morning.  With the Celts and Picts are a group of Northmen.  The northmen were defeated by Bran when they tried to invade.  Their king swore and oath that he would aid Bran against the Romans in one battle, and in return Bran would build him ships for the survivors to get home.  The problem is that the king was killed in a skirmish with Roman scouts, and his remaining men say his death released them from the oath.  Unless Bran finds them a king to fight under, “a king neither Pict, Gael, or Briton”, they will desert to the Romans.

The ancient Druid priest Gonar promises help.  Preceded by a lengthy speech about time being an illusion, he brings Kull forward in time to help with the battle, with Kull appearing to walk out of the rising sun.  At first Kull thinks Bran is his friend Brule.  Bran is descended from Brule and resembles him strongly.  He also wears a gem in his crown that was given to Brule by Kull in a ring, and from Kull’s perspective, that happened the previous night.  Kull thinks the whole things is a detailed dream.  Always eager for a good fight, he agrees to lead the Northmen.

First he has to defeat the new leader of the Northmen, Wulfhere, who is resistant to Kull taking charge.  An extended scene of single combat takes up the rest of the second part.  It’s pure Howard.  The prose is lean, exciting, and pulls you in.  Of course Kull is victorious, but he’s not unscathed.  This helps convince the Northmen he’s not a ghost.

The third part of the story is the battle.  Bran puts Kull, who still thinks he’s dreaming, at the head of the Norsemen at the end of a gorge.  They are the bait in a trap. None of the rest of Bran’s army is disciplined enough to stand and wait for the Romans to enter the gorge.  Once they do, the Gaelic cavalry and the chariots of the Britons, accompanied by the Picts, will sweep in from the sides trapping them.

It’s an effective and bloody plan.  Most of the Northmen die, as do most of the Romans, their camp followers, and many Picts, Gaels, and Britons.  Cormac sees Kull standing on the ridge, outnumbered, the sole survivor of the bait.  Just as one of the Romans is about to deliver a killing blow, the sun begins to set, and Kull is transported back to Valusia.

Appalled at the carnage, Cormac threatens to kill Bran in retribution for not springing the trap sooner.  Bran replies ” ‘Strike if you will.  I am sick of slaughter.  It is a cold mead, this kinging it…A king belongs to his people, and can not let either his own feelings or the lives of men influence him.  Now my peole are saved; but my heart is cold in my breast.”

Heavy stuff.  Even in victory there is bleakness.  This is one of Howard’s best.  A lesser writer would have taken the easy way out at the end of the story and had the victors celebrate.  Instead they mourn the loss of their friends and allies, including the Northmen, and prepare for the next battle with the Romans who will follow after those who have fallen.

This could have been a simple adventure story.  Instead, Howard infused it with some of his favorite themes.  There’s much discussion about the nature of time and reality.  Is Kull dreaming being with Bran, or was his former life a dream from which he had just awakened.  Then there’s the weight of the crown and responsibility, often fulfilled in blood, of those who wear it.  Finally, throughout the story, Howard makes references to the rise and fall of the Picts in particular and how much science has been lost since Kull’s time.  Kull’s armor and weapons are superior to any other in the battle, on either side.

The strands of melancholy and philosophy make this one of Howard’s better tales.  It’s one I’ll return to again in the future, for it’s well worth multiple readings.

The Kull series of posts is about at an end.  The only one remaining is for “By This Axe I Rule!” which was rewritten into “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the first of the Conan tales.  I’ll be comparing the two in the final Kull post.  That post will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories.  This post launches a series of posts about Bran Mak Morn.  Bran, Kull, and Conan are Howard’s three warrior kings, and Kull is the common link between them.  I’ll have more to say about that as we look at Bran and Conan over the next few months.

Blogging Kull: Swords of the Purple Kingdom

Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p. $17

There are three stories left in the Kull series, and they are “By This Axe I Rule!”, “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, and “Kings of the Night”.  I’m going to skip “By This Axe I Rule!” for reasons I’ll explain at the end of the post.  Instead, let’s turn our attention to “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, shall we?

In his afterward to this volume, “Hyborian Genesis”, Patrice Louinet says that this story was probably written sometime around June of 1929.  That makes perfect sense, considering the opening paragraph.  Here are a few lines describing conditions in the city of Valusia:

“The heat waves danced from roof to shining roof and shimmered against the smooth marble walls.  The purple towers and golden spires were softened in the faint haze.  No ringing hoofs on the wide paved streets broke the frowsy silence and the few pedestrians who appeared walking, did what they had to do hastily and vanished indoors again.”

I don’t know how many of you have ever dealt with a Texas summer, but that’s a pretty good description of what it’s like.  A high pressure dome typically forms over the state, what winds happen to blow are hot, and the air is hazy.  This passage strikes me as Howard incorporating what he knew (and may have been living at the time) into his fiction.  The description is perfect. 

The city is a powder keg waiting to explode.  The people have prospered under Kull’s rule, and consequently they have forgotten how they suffered under the tyranny of his predecessor and how they welcomed him when he took the throne.

Add to this, our old friend Delcartes is still around pestering Kull to command her father the Count to allow her to marry the commoner of her choice.  (It’s a different person than in the earlier story.  Young love is so fickle.)  Kull of course refuses, in part because he doesn’t want to interfere in a family matter on general principles, but also because Delcartes’ father is one of Kull’s closest friends and strongest supporters.

There’s a conspiracy against Kull, of course.  Betrayals and intrigues.  And an intense combat scene where Kull defends Delcartes against a small company of soldiers at the top a stair in an abandoned ruin. 

One thing the story doesn’t have, that many of the other Kull tales do, is a lot of existential philosophy.  Not that Howard didn’t include some philosophizing. He does, but it deals more with the weight of the crown Kull wears.  In the opening scene, before Delcartes enters the audience chamber, Kull and Brule are talking.  Kull laments the fickleness of the people he rules.  Here we see Howard’s fascination with the cycles of empire, where the established empire becomes soft and weak, only to be overthrown by the barbarians, and the cycle starts over again.

Consider Kull’s words to Brule:  “The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me.  That is the price a nation must pay for decaying – the strong  young people come in and take possession, one way or another.”

Later after Delcarrtes leaves (not before her father arrives), Kull shows extreme sensitivity to the man, who is expecting Kull to order him to allow the marriage.  “Not for half my kingdom would I interfere with your family affairs, nor force you into a course unpleasant to you.”

Two things I want to comment on.  First, we can see Howard’s philosophy of individual freedom at work here.  Kull sympathizes with Delcartes, and if it were up to him, he would allow her to marry.  He believes a person should be free to marry whomever he or she wishes.  The point is made in more than one story.  However, if Kull were to interfere and order the Count to allow his daughter to marry the man she loves, he would be in greater violation of this principle than her father in that he would deny the Count the freedom to manage his household as he wished without interference.

Second, Howard’s detractors often accuse him of writing hack-and-slash fantasy without any depth to his characters.  They need to read Howard more closely.  In “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, Howard shows Kull having more depth and sensitivity to his subjects needs and positions than he does in any of the stories we’ve considered to date.  (I’m exempting “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of the Night” since we haven’t looked at them yet.)  He does this again with Brule at the end of the tale, when Kull and Brule decide not to tell one of the recurring characters in the series that a relative of his has turned traitor because of what the news will do the man.

Lest you think this story is a touchy-feel-good piece of fluff, there’s plenty of action later in the tale.  Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this particular piece by developing the characters and their backgrounds.  By 1929 he was hitting his stride as a writer.  While the Kull series may contain a number of fragments and false starts, they represent an important phase in his development.

Now, as to why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”  There are two stories left in the Del Rey edition.  Both of them are significant, albeit in different ways.  “By This Axe I Rule!” was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime.  He would rewrite it a few years later as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the story that introduced the world to his most famous character, Conan of Cimmeria.

The other story, “Kings of the Night” is really a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a guest appearance.  That story will be the launching point for a series of posts about Bran, and it will be the next post in this series.

I’m also going to do the same thing with Conan.  The final Kull post will be a comparison of “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of  the Night”.  That will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories.  The reason I’m doing this is because of the Conan movie that will be released in August.  The movie will generate some, hopefully a great deal of, interest in Conan.  My desire is that people doing a search for Conan will find these posts, read them, and then go read the original stories rather than the pastiches.  (If they want to read the pastiches later, that’s fine with me, so long as they understand that Conan has Howard wrote him isn’t the same Conan as others wrote him.)

I’m not gong to do the Conan stories in order, or even look at all of them.  I’ve already discussed “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” at length and see no need to repeat myself on that one. What I’m going to do is pick and choose among my favorites (which will be most of them), although I don’t know if I’ll look at Hour of the Dragon simply because of its length.  I’ll start the posts sometime in July, when interest in the movie should be picking up and do a post every two weeks or so, shifting to at least a post once a week near the movie’s release, and continuing until I burn out, interest in the movie drops off, or I cover all of the Conan stories. 

The Bran Mak Morn posts should start up by the first of July.   They’ll run concurrently with the Conan series, although not as frequently. 

And that’s why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”