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and the Picts

Bran Mak Morn Untitled The Dark Man
Men of the Shadows A Song of the Race The Lost Race
Kings of the Night Untitled Synopsis 1 The Little People
Worms of the Earth Untitled Synopsis 2 The Drums of Pictdom
Robert E. Howard was not the only one to take a fanciful look at the mysterious Picts. If one investigates British belief about this lost race, one encounters many tales. Soon after they vanished (about 900 A.D.), they became the subjects of stories to frighten children with, and I have no doubt that Howard was aware of this when he created his fictional Picts, especially the epic of Bran Mak Morn.

I had thought that they had called themselves Picts, and that the ancient Romans had called them Caledonians, but I was wrong. We don't know what they called themselves. The Romans called them Picti, "the painted ones". The Romans categorized them as uncouth barbarians (yay!), whose ancestors lived in tents unclothed and unshod, sharing their mates and bringing up their children together, their bodies tattooed or painted with strange designs.

According to folklore, the first Vikings to reach the Orkneys dared not land because of elf- or troll-like beings (Picts?) who menaced them with shining spears.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History says the Picts came by sea from Scythia.

A 12th Century, anonymous Norwegian historian wrote: "The Picts were little more than pygmies in stature. They worked marvels in the morning and evening building towns, but at midday they entirely lost their strength and lurked through fear in little underground houses."

Sir Walter Scott believed that the galleries in the walls of the Brochs were low and narrow because of the small size of the Picts (it was later learned that these prehistoric stone towers pre-dated the Picts).

Robert Louis Stevenson's ballad "Heather Ale" and John Buchan's story "No-Man's Land", both written in this century, portray the Picts as diminutive and living underground.

The name Picti was first recorded in a Latin poem of 297 A.D., but may have originated (as stated above) among the Roman soldiers along the frontier. Bede, however does not mention them as tattooing or painting their bodies. If they did decorate their bodies in this manner, it may have been with the same designs later carved in stone and subsequently used to decorate clothing and other personal items.

Howard was undoubtedly aware of at least some of this information when he decided to make the Picts his own. We're familiar with Brule and his war-like tribe from the King Kull stories — that the Picts return as pseudo-Indians in the Conan stories "Beyond The Black River", "The Black Stranger" and "Wolves Beyond The Border" — that two hundred years after Bran Mak Morn's time Cormac Mac Art faces this strange people — that a few small bands unabsorbed by the conquering Scots in the tenth century survived into Turlogh O'Brien's time, the early twelfth century (according to Howard anyway) — that they, or at least the worms they dispise so much, play a part in Howard's many tales of underground terror — that they appear in some of James Allison's recollections — and that finally the Picts suffer a similar fate to the hated worms, as their ultimate and tragic fate is displayed in Howard's "The Little People".

I rather like David Weber's introduction to the Baen Bran Mak Morn. He gets a few facts wrong, but his understanding of Howard's work makes up for this. Howard's fantasy/adventure really is Dark Fantasy in the fullest sense of the phrase: Material existence is a howling chaos of hostile forces, seeking to drag the protagonist down into red ruin, but the Howardian hero rages against the "dying of the light". There is no winning of the war, just minor victories to be won here and there, before one goes off to get drunk and forget about the pain and suffering that the material world has to offer. The creeping black chaos can only be held off for a short time, but it always always wins in the end. Weber refers to this as the doom, despair and hopelessness found in Howard's writing, the struggle against the night, the losing battle.

This is especially true in the Bran Mak Morn and related Pictish stories. Not only is Mak Morn facing individual defeat, but he is the entire high-point of this brief renaissance of his race, so his defeat is their defeat. He is seeking to bring them back, to build them up into what they once were. After his time they descend, both figuratively and literally, to become the underground- dwelling things of "The Little People". This is what Weber is talking about when he discusses the tragedy of the Picts.

Weber states that Bran may be the least known of Howard's fantasy heroes. I'd argue with that, but I do feel that the big guns of Howard's fantasy tales are better known than Mak Morn. Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane are what one thinks of. Perhaps even the pastiche-laden Cormac Mac Art is better known, but that's because his adventures were furthered ad nauseam by Offutt and associates. But I would rate Bran's popularity ahead of the second stringers: the unjustly overlooked Turlogh O'Brien, Agnes de la Fere, de Montour, John Silent, Stephen Costigan (of Skull-Face fame) and the also overlooked James Allison, laying on his death-bed, recalling his previous incarnations.

Weber also comments that the Picts are very important to Howard's world, and that is also true. As I outlined above, besides the stories under discussion here, the Picts impinge on several series.

As to the origin of the name Howard picked for his Pictish king, Weber comments that ravens (Bran is Gaelic for raven), according to Norse myth, are birds of battle, foretellers of bloodshed, and carrion-eaters. That makes his name seem very appropriate.

From Howard's letter, that always seems to serve as a "Foreword" to any Bran Mak Morn collection, we learn that Howard was aware of the historical Picts, or at least what was known about them at that time; but that he was also influenced by a fanciful school-boys' book found in New Orleans.

In creating his own version of the Picts, Howard made them a strong, war-like race of barbarians, gave them an honorable history of past glories, and created for them a great king — one Bran Mak Morn, a pantherish man of medium height, with inscrutable black eyes, black hair, and dark skin. Howard said that he could only think of Bran in terms of that Pict's struggles with Rome.

Howard also made the typical Pict of Bran's time be short, stocky, with thick gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, a heavy jaw, and straight coarse black hair.

In other words, to visualize Bran's saga as we talk of him, imagine him as looking like the title character from the movie, The Indian In The Cupboard; or as Litefoot, the Indian who played Ascalante in Kull The Conqueror. Imagine the rest of the Picts as looking like the most stocky, hunched-over, brutal-looking cavemen you've ever seen a pictorial representation of. That is the appearance that Howard gives to Bran and his race time and again throughout this saga.

At the tale end of this letter, Howard gives a synopsis for an unwritten novel of the Picts.

Bran Mak Morn [juvenilia – drama]

Although, generally speaking, I don't much intend to include bits of Juvenilia when discussing Howard' various series and epochs, this piece is indicative of what Howard thought of the Picts at a young age.

The plot, basically, is that Bran has sent a bunch of Picts after some raiders, who escape by boat. The Picts, their blood-lust aroused, butcher some people that Bran was hoping to recruit as allies.

The Picts are savage, bestial, un-united; and Bran Mak Morn desires to bring his nation out of savagery, to bring it back to the civilization (surprising to hear that, isn't it?) of their fathers.

These same attributes and attitudes are seen in later stories.

By discussing this fragment here, I am in no way implying that it should be included in a collection of Bran Mak Morn, or, more generally, Pictish, stories. Howard's Juvenilia should generally be left unpublished.

Men Of The Shadows

I had never before read "Men Of The Shadows" without first reading "The Lost Race." I think being prefaced by that story has done harm to "Men Of The Shadows" and caused it to be considered a lesser story than it really is. Given, it is not a great story, but it's better generally than one remembers it as being.

Beginning with poetry, as it does, gives a nice extra touch to this yarn.

The action begins in the far north, in an area that is now known as the Scottish Highlands. In this story a lone survivor, a Nordic legionnaire of Rome, has escaped massacre and is trying to make his way south to safety. He is eventually captured by the Picts, and witnesses a contest of wills between Bran Mak Morn and the Pictish shaman, Gonar, who later tells the saga of the Pictish race. This contest is fueled by the fact that Gonar wants to perform blood sacrifice with the prisoner, and Bran Mak Morn opposes him. Bran wins the contest.

Living up to the image of the Picts as being tattooed or painted, the Picts in this story have their bodies painted with woad.

Howard describes Bran Mak Morn and his fellow Picts in keeping with the details that were set forth in the "Foreword".

Bran Mak Morn has a lean dark face, and doesn't look like other Picts. This is because very few Picts, most likely only members of the nobility, have kept their bloodline pure. Bran Mak Morn is also unmatched in warfare, either with his army, or when fighting alone.

Gonar, the wizard, has tattoos all over his body and wears a long white beard. His only garment is a loincloth.

The other Picts are dwarfish hairy men, bowed and gnarled of limb, with broad shoulders, long and mighty arms, with great mops of coarse hair topping foreheads that slanted like apes, and they have small unblinking eyes. They have massive strength and are as quick as cats. They wear scarcely any clothing, carry small round shields, long spears, and short swords with oval- shaped blades. These are stunted dwarfs whose day has passed. The other tribes fear them as being somehow magical.

In this story we learn that the Picts like to put the heads of their foes on spears (see Frazetta's painting, Bran Mak Morn).

The history of the Picts, as outlined in this story, is as I covered in my "King Kull" essay, which, with luck, will soon be added to this website. During Brule's time the Picts lived on an island chain situated about where the Rocky Mountains are today. By Bran's time, with a few exceptions, the last members of this dying race have taken refuge in what will one day be known as Scotland.

Howard's fictional pre-history of the world (excluding the Conan tales, which came later in his career) is consistent throughout the Kull, Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn series, as well as in the aborted novel, The Isle Of The Eons. This consistency may even extend to Skull-Face, but I haven't checked it for that yet. What I'm saying here is that he did have a definite framework against which all these stories were set.

According to this framework, the historical Toltecs were descendants of the mythical Lemurians, as stated in this story.

There is an interesting paragraph towards the end of this story:

"The circle without beginning," droned the wizard. "The circle unending. The Snake with its tail in its mouth, that encompasses the Universe. And the Mystic Three. Beginning, passivity, ending. Creation, preservation, destruction. Destruction, preservation, creation. The Frog, the Egg, and the Serpent. The Serpent, the Egg, and the Frog. And the Elements: Fire, Air, and Water. And the phallic symbol. the Fire-God laughs."
Now, in his interview with Mrs. Ellis that appeared in Day Of The Stranger: Further Memories Of Robert E. Howard, REHUPA's own Rusty Burke, along with Mrs. Ellis, stress that Howard's religious orientation was towards conventional Christianity. If Howard was a Christian when he wrote "Men Of the Shadows", he was certainly well-versed in Eastern, New Age (though I think it was called "New Thought" back then) and Pagan beliefs. During my REH-reading binge of this pass summer I came across references to both Sidhartha and Gautama (the actual name of Buddha — and please forgive my spelling) in his writings; plus, as revealed in Dark Valley Destiny, we know that Dr. Howard taught Pranayama (yogic breathing) to his patients.

The above quote is full of references to a kind of universal distillation of New Age beliefs, ranging from Alchemy to Tantra. This is all quite impressive. Howard was a lot more than just well read.

Kings Of The Night

In this story, the Romans are marshaling a northern push to increase their territories. Opposing this Bran Mak Morn has gathered a diverse alliance of Picts, Gaels and Britons. Added to this are three hundred northern reavers who, if Bran does not furnish them a foreign king to lead them, will go over to the Romans. Gonar summons from the past Kull of Valusia to lead the northmen. Bran wins the day and Kull disappears into the sunset.

The contrast between Bran Mak Morn and his followers is again made.

Some few of the Picts present are like the king, smooth-limbed and lithe. Bran is further described as trying to lift a race of savages out of the slime into which they have sunk. An odd distinction is made between Kull and Bran Mak Morn. Kull chaffs under his responsibility and says "Tu, chief councilor, would say my life belongs to Valusia, and I have no right to risk it—". By contrast, the Pictish king embraces this responsibility; he later tells Cormac: "A king belongs to his people, and cannot let either his own feelings or the lives of men influence him." In drawing distinctions between Howard's protagonists, this can not be over stressed. Bran's life is one of self-sacrifice and service. He has a dream, and he has dedicated his life to making that dream come true.

The typical Pict is described as short and uncommonly quiet: "The silence of the Stone Age rested on the souls of these men," The description continues: Short, crooked of limb, giant dwarfs with no facial hair, barefoot and clad scantily in wolfskin. Their weapons are described as being short, barbed swords of iron, heavy black bows, arrows tipped with flint, iron and copper, and stone-headed mallets. They have shields of hide covered wood.

"Our people have mixed with the savages of an elder age which we drove into the North when we came into the Isles, and now, save for their chieftains, such as thou, Bran, a Pict is strange and abhorrent to look upon."
At this time the Gaels already had settlements in western Pictland. These settlements eventually spread to give birth to the nation of Scotland.

An interesting aside in this story is that, although Bran won in the contest of wills with Gonar, blood sacrifice is still practiced among the Picts. Bran does not put faith in this mummery though, Gonar does this to impress the lesser chiefs, who are very superstitious.

Worms Of The Earth

This story features Bran Mak Morn's first use of the pseudonym, Partha Mac Othna, as he spies on the Roman settlement of Eboricum (modern York) in the guise of a Pictish ambassador. The commander there puts a Pict to death and Bran swears revenge. To carry this out he summons the worms of the earth, by capturing a sacred relic of theirs, to do his bidding. Needless to say his revenge is fulfilled in rather grisly fashion.

Bran's sense of duty to his people again plays an important role in this story.

The typical Pict is again described: stocky bodies and massive limbs from a primitive Teutonic race that had been absorbed by the Picts. So now we know more exactly where their deformity comes from.

The strange were-woman whose blood carries a strain of subterranean worm is described as well: black locks, red lips, sharp teeth pointed like fangs, serpentine motions, almost pointed ears, yellow slanted eyes, and mottles on the skin.

Although the worms lurk in darkness their description is hinted at, twice as inhuman looking as the werewoman, with heads more serpentine than human. In fact the sight of them, and traveling with them, had made the Roman commander of Eboricum stark raving mad to the point where his death at Bran's hands was a mercy.

This story has Lovecrafty overtones as both the words R'lyeh and Dagon are bandied about quite freely. This may have been written at a time in Howard's career when he was quite influenced by HPL.

Untitled [fragment]

This brief piece describes two incidents in the life of Bran Mak Morn, as he is again masquerading under the name of Partha Mac Othna (the pseudonym he used at the beginning of "Worms Of The Earth").

First, he and a Viking meet each other on the road, lying about their intent and their real names.

Second, he meets a red-haired woman in rocky terrain, who calls him a liar and forces him into a wrestling match.

And that is how the fragment ends. It is intriguing to speculate what Howard had intended for this piece. He drops a pretty obvious clue that the woman could be some kind of witch. She definitely is another in a long line of interesting female characters. Too bad we never find out her name.

A Song Of The Race [poem]

The placement of the poems in Howard's various series is an unusual thing. The three poems in the Solomon Kane series are adventures in his life and have a very definite placement. One would think the same of the King Kull poem, "The King And The Oak", but it's always placed at the end of the complete Kull stories — perhaps, "A Song Of The Race" is a different matter all together. It somewhat mirrors "Men Of The Shadows" (hence its placement here) in that there is presented certain historical data on the Picts. We are already familiar with that data from "Men Of The Shadows", and so won't discuss that aspect of this poem here.

More is presented, in this poem, about what culture the Picts do have, than appears in any of the Bran Mak Morn stories: Bran actually does have a throne, and a drinking horn. And the Picts do have some kind of culture, for the she-minstrel of this poem does have a lyre, though it could have originated with another people.

This she-minstrel is of interest, because of the way Howard goes on and on about her red lips, one would be surprised if she weren't the king's lover, eventually.

And, finally, in her song, is presented the promise of the Moon God, that the last man alive would be a Pict.

There is hope for the race after all!