Swords Of The Northern Sea (429 A.D.)This story's outline would read very similarly to that of "The Night of the Wolf" — there are only a few differences.
This story begins in the skalli of Rognor the Red, and takes place on an island that will later be known to the Scots as Ladbhan, but for now is called "Golmera" by the Picts and "Valgard" by the Norse. Although Howard doesn't reveal what island chain Ladbhan is part of, he does say that a stable on that island was built to withstand a Baltic winter.
Cormac again sits at the board of the sea-king as a spy, but for the first time in these stories he does not use the pseudonym of Partha Mac Othna. Instead he uses his own name.
The sea-king again has a kidnapped individual as a prisoner, this time this prisoner is a woman — a Briton known as Tarala, which may or may not be a British name.
As an added twist this sea-king's steading is the home to one Anzace, a twisted, deformed Greek, who, while he may have been intended as a sort of court jester, is actually so filled with bile and hate, that he is quite likely one of the most disagreeable characters in the whole series. Anzace may be a substitute for this being the first story with no Picts in it.
One of Rognor's chief leutenents is Hakon, a young Viking who is in love with Tarala, and is planning to run away with her. Anzace finds Hakon out and turns him in. Rognor has Hakon thrown in a cell, where he will watch Rognor marry his sweetheart before being murdered by Rognor himself.
While Hakon is being dragged off to prison, he lets Cormac know that he recognizes him as an Cliuin. Cormac later comes to Hakon's cell and agrees to free him in return for a dragon ship, as Wulfhere's had been dashed against a reef and sunk.
Hakon is freed. They free Tarala, and she and Hakon go to rendezvous with some Jutish Vikings who are loyal to him, while Cormac (as in "The Night of the Wolf") rendezvous with Wulfhere. All return to the steading while Rognor is off searching for Hakon.
It is at this point that Tarala is revealed as a sword woman. She takes on armor and weapon to fight at Hakon's side. Although Cormac makes some derogatory remarks about who will rule in their household, the number of sword women we find in Howard's fiction is ever increasing. It is almost as through they were an archetype for him. Nevertheless, by adding this detail to the story, it becomes even more interesting.
Hakon takes refuge in the stable, which, on his return, Rognor dare not burn because of the valuable horses within. While Rognor is assaulting the stable from without, he and his Norsemen are attacked by Cormac, Wulfhere and the other Danes. Wulfhere slays Rognor in an impressively brutal, but brief, battle.
The surviving Norse flee to the skalli, but are convinced to swear fealty to the well-respected Hakon, who swears to marry Tarala. He keeps his bargain with Cormac, and gives the Danes a ship of their choosing.
The story ends with Cormac and Wulfhere returning to the Viking path.
It is finally revealed here, though it has been seriously hinted at before, that Cormac and Wulfhere, when bare-headed, are indeed the same height (Wulfhere is "as tall as Cormac" — p. 142); but, between the Dane's horned Viking helmet, and Cormac's headgear with its impressive horse-hair crest, it's anybody's guess who would look taller in battle. It is said that Cormac's horsehair crest makes him look inhumanely tall.
Cormac's morality is even more developed in this story. When he comes upon the chained Hakon in Rognor's prison hut, Hakon says, "It is not in you to slay a defenseless man." So, perhaps Cormac's high standards have become legendary by this time. "Never kill ... save when it is necessary. Wait!" says Cormac on p. 145; three pages later he says "Never kill except when necessary."
Cormac's other attributes are again described: he has a "wild beast instinct, that comes to men who live by their wits." (p. 139)
It is again revealed that the Danes are the best archers among the Vikings — how convenient!
It is also revealed in this story that Wulfhere recruits his crews from the Isle of Swords, wherever the hell that is!
The Temple Of Abomination (435 A.D.)"What do these Christians?" asked Wulfhere curiously.One of the most interesting passages in the whole series might be located in an incomplete fragment buried at the back of this paperback collection.
"They eat babies during their ceremonies, it is said."
"But 'tis also said the Druids burn men in cages of green wood."
"A lie spread by Caesar and believed by fools!" rasped Cormac impatiently. "I laud not the Druids especially, but wisdom of the elements and ages is not denied to them. These Christians teach meekness and the bowing of the neck to the blow."
"What say you?" The great Viking was sincerely amazed. "Is it truly their creed to take blows like slaves?"
"Aye — to return good for evil and to forgive their opressors."
The giant meditated on this statement for a moment. "That is not a creed, but cowardice," he decided finally. "These Christians be all madmen. Cormac, if you recognize one of that breed, point him out and I will try his faith." He lifted his axe meaningfully. "For look you," he said, "that is an insidious and dangerous teaching which may spread like rust on the wheat and undermine the manhood of men if it be not stamped out like a young serpent under heel."
"Let me but see one of these madmen" said Cormac grimly, "and I will begin the stamping."
In Cromlech #1, Bob Price goes to great lengths in an attempt to nail down Howard's attitude towards religion (specifically Christianity), but he ignores this passage, which doesn't only show Howard's outlook, but explains the reason for that outlook.
It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to see that Christianity, as explained to Wulfhere by Cormac (and accurately Gospel-based, as far as I can tell), is a negation of the virtues of the Howardian hero.
The rugged freedom and independence of the Howardian hero, the ability to lash out finally and fataly against any foe, the heroic courage and the battle against an encroaching doom spawned in a hostile universe, is negated by Christianity, as explained to Wulfhere by Cormac Mac Art. "The bowing of the neck to the blow" which horrifies Wulfhere so much, must have sounded to him more like a religion of slaves, than a religion of free and independent human beings.
The overly-romanticized King Arthur, also gets the Howardian treatment in this story:
"... most of the chiefs are gathering about Arthur Pendragon for a great concerted drive. Pendragon — ha! He's no more Uther Pendragon's son than you [Wulfhere] are. Uther was a black-bearded madman — more Roman than Briton and more Gaul than Roman. Arthur is as fair as Eric there. And he's pure Celt — a waif from one of the wild western tribes that never bowed to Rome. It was Lancelot who put it into his head to make himself king — else he had still been no more than a wild chief raiding the borders."Notice the implication here: Cormac has met Arthur, when he was adventuring with his Gaelic reavers, and that at least a few of his many scars are the result of Arthur's sword-play. Ah! If only Howard had written a rematch.
"Has he become smooth and polished like the Romans were?"
"Arthur? Ha! One of your Danes might seem a gentlewoman beside him. He's a shock-headed savage with a love for battle." Cormac grinned ferociously and touched his scars. "By the blood of the gods, he has a hungry sword! It's little gain we reivers from Erin have gotten on his coasts!"
"Would I could cross steel with him," grunted Wulfhere, thumbing the flaring edge of his great axe. "What of Lancelot?"
"A renegade Gallo-Roman who has made an art of throat-cutting. He varies reading Petronius with plotting and intriguing. Gawaine is a pure-blooded Briton like Arthur, but he has Romanish leanings. You'd laugh to see him aping Lancelot — but he fights like a blood-hungry devil. Without those two, Arthur would have been no more than a bandit chief. He can neither read nor write."
"What of that?" rumbled the Dane. "Neither can I. ..."
"The Temple of Abomination" begins with Cormac Mac Art, Wulfhere Hausakliufr, and their band of Vikings heading east through a forested area. Their goal is to move against Cerdic the Saxon, who might have expected our heroes to attack by sea from the south or east, but would certainly not expect them to anchor their dragonship on the western shore and march overland to reach him. The reason for their enmity is not given.
On the way to this battle, the Vikings discover a temple in a wooded area. Cormac thinks that perhaps it is a Druidic temple, and rather embarassingly enters the temple to get the Druid's blessing.
Instead of a Druid, Cormac encounters a satyr (yes!, really) inside the temple and slays it. Rather shocked, he staggers outside where Wulfhere and the Vikings are waiting, Wulfhere doubts what Cormac has seen, and so they all enter to find the peculiar corpse. All they find is bloodstains on the floor.
They go further down this corridor to a central chamber, whose dome lets in enough light to see. There is no altar in this chamber. Both the corridor that they have traveled, and the chamber itself are lined with statues. Here in the better light of the chamber, they can see that, while the statues are of humans, they somehow have a "hint of abnormality beyond human deformity." (After having met Asace in the previous story, that's saying a lot.) This central chamber has five arches, none of which have doors, Cormac and the others had entered through one of those arches.
After Cormac almost falls through a trap in the middle of the floor, they hear a human cry down one of the other corridors. This they follow carefully; and in a light patch in the corridor ahead, they find an elderly man chained to the wall. He is near death.
Wulfhere cuts the man down and they realize that he is a Christian priest. The priest relates that the inhabitants of this temple were brought here by the Romans, and that the temple contains horrible creatures.
A group of these creatures ("a hideous horde burst from the dark opening into the comparitive light. In a flood of black madness and red horror their assailants swept upon them. Most of them were goat-like creatures, that ran upright and had human hands and faces frightfully partaking of both goat and human hands and faces frightfully partaking of both goat and human. But among their ranks were shapes even more fearful. And behind them all, luminous with an evil light in the darkness of the winding corridor from which the horder emerged, Cormac saw an unholy countenance, human, yet more and less than human." — p. 203) than attacks the band. These creatures had been previously referred to by the priest in his delirium:
"... Ah, God — they hem me close! Avaunt, foul demons of the Outer Dark — creeping, creeping — crawling shapes of red chaos and howling madness — slithering, lurking blasphemies that hid like reptiles in the ships of Rome — ghastly beings spawned in the ooze of the Orient, translplanted to cleaner lands, rooting themselves deep in good British soil — oaks older than the Druids, that feed on monstrous things beneath the bloating moon —"After these creatures are driven off, the Vikings stay to protect the priest, while Cormac pursues the beasts' leader. Cormac slays this strange individual at the brink of the pit that he almost fell into; this leader topples into the pit as he dies.
This is where the longer version of the tale ends. The shorter version has Cormac staying outside the temple while the Vikings slaughter the creatures within, and ends with the curtain line: "On to Wessex ... we'll clean our steel in good Saxon blood."
The priest only appears in the longer version of the tale, presumably to serve an expository purpose. For, in the shorter version, the priest's explanations were part of the narration.
Howard does use the priest to temper the remarks he had earlier thrown at Chritianity: "Before it [supernatural evil], the differences of man fade so that you seem to me like a brother of the blood and of the milk ... all men in the rightful form of man are brothers. Such is the word of the Lord — which I had not fully comprehended until I came to this place of abominations!"
Howard has Druidism get praised by the priest as a sect where "men ... deify the cleaner forms of Nature."
This is an unsual series, and it leaves an unusual impression. At first glance, this is just a group of stories about a bunch of guys who spend their whole lives going a-Viking, even if they do spend most of their time on-stage rescuing kidnap victims.
On closer examination we find that Cormac Mac Art has a very interesting biography: He is a Gaelic warrior, of somewhat noble birth I would guess, who took to the sea quite early in life. He served under the king of Dalriadia (the future Scotland), and at this time warred against the Picts. Later, when Cormac was captain of some Gaelic reavers, he sailed quite extensively, perhaps to the eastern ends of the Mediterranian. It was certainly during this time that he met and fought Arthur. Still later, a civil war in Erin led to his outlawry, and that led to him teaming up with Wulfhere the Skull-splitter and his Danish Vikings. I believe that they also traveled extensively. They may have been together for as long as 15 years. What Cormac did after that, who knows?
I rather fancy that when news reached Wulfhere that his homeland, Danemark, had been conquered by Attila the Hun, that Wulfhere and his Vikings left to fight the Huns. I think that perhaps Cormac went with them, at first. Somehow they got separated, and Cormac may have had some adventures on mainland Europe. He did return to Eirn though, and it's easy to imagine that when he died his body was returned to good Erin soil in keeping with Druidic practices. Oh well, this is just all idle speculation.
This series is more intersting than it seems on the surface though. And Cormac is certainly not cut from the same cloth as Howard's other heroes. Cormac's morality is almost cloying at times. Few men of action have such a respect for life as Cormac has; and he can be a bit of a know-it-all at times.
Like the Conan series, the Cormac Mac Art stories carry this caveat, "Do not let the pastiches influence your appreciation of the character."
Cormac Mac Art, by Robert E. Howard, Baen, 1995...and thanks to Morgan for answering my questions.
Historical Atlas Of The World, prepared by Odder Bjorklund, Haakon Holmboe and Anders Rohr, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1970
Tigers Of The Sea, by Robert E. Howard, Donald M. Grant, 1974