"In the O’Brien tales there is a sombre mood in which he thrives and he is in his element in these dark, brooding word-pictures Howard has painted so well. Whether Turlogh is in a berserker rage slaying men like a bloody reaper of Death, or if he is waxing philosophically on the fates of man and civilization, he is a powerful character that seems to leap off the page and into full-blown life. At any rate, I feel the O’Brien tales are some of Howard’s best work and only wish he had spent more time on this character."
— Damon C. Sasser: "Echoes from Bal-Sagoth"
REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #4, Summer 1977, p. 14
"The Grey God Passes"/"The Spears of Clontarf" Untitled "The Dark Man" Second Flashback from "The Shadow of the Hun" First Flashback from "The Shadow of the Hun" "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" Framing Sequence from "The Shadow of the Hun" "The Ballad of King Geraint"
Dedicated to Damon C. Sasser
Although consisting of some very fine writing, I find that the Turlogh O’Brien stories have been grossly overlooked by fans and scholars of Robert E. Howard.
I believe that this has been largely due to the fact that these stories were never gathered together all into one volume. The closest we came to getting this was when August Derleth put the two best stories in the series, "The Dark Man" and "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth", into the Arkham House collection, The Dark Man and Others. This was carried over into the Lancer collection of the same title (as well as the two volume British paperback of this title, in which both stories were in vol.1).
But these stories were split apart when "The Dark Man" was used to flesh out Bran Mak Morn and later Worms of the Earth into book-length collections.
After a brief stint in Pigeons from Hell, "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" became the title story of a fantasy and horror collection from Ace Books.
These stories were recently re-united in the Baen Bran Mak Morn.
The other complete Turlogh O’Brien tale, "The Grey God Passes" (the arguments against it actually being considered a Turlogh O’Brien story are addressed later) appeared first in an Arkham House anthology — so all three complete Turlogh O’Brien stories have appeared from Arkham House — and later in a booklet from Charles Miller, before finding a home in the second edition of Marchers of Valhalla. This story is currently available in the Baen Eons of the Night under its working title, "The Twilight of the Grey Gods".
The two Turlogh O’Brien fragments were first presented together in the George Hamilton booklet, The Shadow of the Hun. The title story later being used to flesh out The Sword Woman. The shorter, untitled fragment was first reprinted in a prologue to Damon Sasser’s very fine article on Turlogh O’Brien, "Echoes of Bal-Sagoth"; and has more recently appeared in an issue of The "New" Howard Reader.
I’m sure that Howard fans thought that there were no more chronicles of Turlogh O’Brien until they came across his name in "The Ballad of King Geraint" — a poem only published in recent years.
As to Turlogh O’Brien himself? If you are one of those readers who feel that all of Howard’s heroes are cut from the same cloth, then you will see no difference in Turlogh Dubh. If you open your eyes and pay attention, you will see that Turlogh Dubh is so grim and somber that he makes Kull, Conan and Cormac Mac Art look like party animals (well, actually, Conan is a party animal). Only Bran Mak Morn, of the protagonists we’ve examined so far, can give Turlogh a run for his money in terms of seriousness.
A lot of the demeanor of this grim berserker no doubt comes from a childhood spent in a conquered land (though my historical atlas shows almost two-thirds of Ireland of this time as being under Norse control and hosting Norse settlements, I believe there is some controversy as to whether or not the Vikings were actually an occupation force in Ireland). The impact that this had on Turlogh’s development cannot be overlooked, it caused this young prince (he was a grandson of High King Brian Boru — more on that later too) to hate the Vikings with a mad, fanatical hate — wouldn’t you?
Turlogh fought against the Vikings, at the age of seventeen, at the battle of Clontarf, in 1014 A.D., so we can fix his birth as most probably 997.
He spent much of his life (or at least the part Howard tells us about) at sea, he may have even done some sailing prior to Clontarf. In "The Dark Man" Turlogh states that three years have passed since that major battle, but he is already familiar with sailing. In "The Shadow of the Hun" it is established that a three-and-one-half year period began with Turlogh sailing on Crom’s Hate, his ship, and ended with his adventures among the Slavs; this would seem to imply that this period of his life occurred after "The Dark Man". It was most likely while returning from Eastern Europe that Turlogh was captured by Vikings just prior to the beginning of "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth". The framing sequence for "The Shadow of the Hun" occurs right after "Bal-Sagoth", and again Turlogh is at sea.
What may surprise some of you is how much Howard based Turlogh on one of the historical Turlogh O’Brien’s. Howard scholar Rusty Burke, in his extensive notes to the epic poem (over 1000 lines) "The Ballad of King Geraint" has this to say about the historical model for Turlogh Dubh: "Two grandsons of Brian Boru of Ireland were named Turlogh. One, the son of Brian's son Morrogh, was killed (along with his father, grandfather, and two uncles) at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, at the age of 15. Brian had two sons who survived that battle: Teige and Donough. The second Turlogh was Teige's son. Teige and Donough staved off a number of challenges to their hold on Munster after their father's death; but had a falling-out over who should rule. Teige, being the older, felt he should rule alone, but Donough was too ambitious to accept such an arrangement. After briefly reuniting to defeat a challenge from Domnall, a rival chieftain, the two fell out again, and Donough conspired to have Teige abducted and murdered. Turlogh then fled to his uncle O'Molloy." This difference between history and Howard’s stories of Turlogh Dubh seems to be that rather than flee to his uncle, Howard merely has Turlogh flee the political situation to become an outlaw wanderer of the wastes; also, Howard elaborates on Turlogh’s outlawry, saying that not only was his father assassinated, but that his outlawry was due to the politics played by a cousin mixed in with the spite of a woman. It is easy to imagine the whole situation being just this complicated.
His childhood hate of the Vikings was to drive him for most of his adult life — certainly for the adventures we’ve seen. Judging from the circumstances of his country of birth, being conquered by the sea raiders, we can certainly understand his motivation. It is established in the untitled fragment that Turlogh will kill a Viking on sight; in "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" he wants to slay Athelestane the Saxon just for associating with the Northerners; and in the flashback from "The Shadow of the Hun" we see just how madly fanatical his hatred is, for he launches a personal holy war, a jihad, against the Vikings — he even names his ship Crom’s Hate, using an old pagan god’s name, to assure that there is no doubt that this is a holy war.
Another interesting aspect to the Turlogh O’Brien series is the philosophical or mystical curtain lines that each completed story ends with. To wit:
The Grey Gods Passes: "We too are passing, though we have conquered. The days of the twilight come on amain, and a strange feeling is upon me as of a waning age. What are we all, too, but ghosts waning into the night?"What posthumous collaborator could ever hope to equal this?
The Dark Man: The Priest: "Look! The ocean is of blood! See how it swims red in the rising sun! On my people, my people, the blood you have spilt in anger turns the very seas to scarlet! How can you win through?"
Turlogh Dubh: "I came in the snow and sleet, I go as I came."
Priest: "It is more than a mortal sea. Your hands are red with blood and you follow a red sea-path, yet the fault is not wholly with you. Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?"
Turlogh Dubh: "Not so long as the race lasts."
The Gods of Bal-Sagoth: "We have seen an ancient kingdom fall — we have seen the last remnant of the world’s oldest empire sink into flames and the abyss of oblivion, and barbarism rear its brute head above the ruins. So pass the glory and the splendor and the imperial purple — in red flames and yellow smoke.
"I brought away with me the rarest gem upon the island — something for which men and women have died and the gutters run with blood." [He has the emblem of the kingship of Bal-Sagoth.]
Turlogh laughed with bitter mirth and pointed to the great billowing column of smoke which floated in the sky away on the sea-rim.
"Aye — a kingdom of the dead — an empire of ghosts and smoke. I am ard-righ of a phantom city — I am King Turlogh of Bal-Sagoth and my kingdom is fading in the morning sky, and therein it is like all other empires in the world — dreams and ghosts and smoke."
Oh Masters of the North, we come with tally of remembered dead,"They Grey God Passes" begins with Conn, he meets Odin after killing his master, and sees the summoning of the Valkyries, he flees in terror.
Of broken hearth and blazing home, and rafters crashing overhead.
A single cast of dice we throw to balance, by the leaden sea,
A hundred years of wrong and woe with one red hour of butchery
After nearly perishing in a storm, Conn arrives in Ireland. The first man he meets is Dunlang O’Hartigan. Conn is an outlaw under the death sentence. Dunlang invites Conn to join him. Ireland is preparing for war and the man who put the slave collar on Conn will be fighting on the side of the Vikings.
They meet Eevin of Craglea. She is of the De Danaan (in considering Eevin to be one of the De Danaan, or Leprechauns, we might think of her in the wrong light, because of the modern day "cute" notion of Leprechauns — perhaps it’s better to think of her as elf-like). She begs Dunlang not to go into battle. She has a psychic premonition that he will die in battle. She then presents him with an ancient suit of armor to protect him in battle. It had been the armor of a Roman gladiator. Although Conn is the nominal protagonist of this tale, Turlogh is mentioned, and discussed, favorably, this early in the story: "Of all the Gaels, only Turlogh Dubh wears full mail." "And is any man of the Gael less brave than he."
The scene shifts to Brian Boru, 73, at night, surrounded by chiefs, including Turlogh Dubh. We learn that Turlogh is the cousin of King Brian’s grandson, "Turlogh Dubh, who was only a few year older [then his 15 year old cousin, also named Turlogh] but who already had full stature and was famed throughout all Erin for his berserk rages and the cunning of his deadly ax-play." For me, one of the failings of this story, perhaps the only failing, is that there are just too many names mentioned. This may be historically accurate, but it weighs down the story. Missing from the roll-call of those present in King Brian’s tent is O’Kelly, who is in the tent of King Malachi O’Neill. Dunlang presents Conn, who gets temporary pardon. He refuses to have the slave collar removed until he kills Thorwald Raven, the man who put it there. Murrogh, Brian’s son, wants to take Conn’s sword from him, but Brian intervenes.
In Castle Dublin, a priest of Odin sacrifices a youth, Brodir watches. The priest reads the bleeding heart. The prophecy: "If ye fight not on Good Friday […] your host will be utterly routed and all your chiefs slain; if ye fight on Good Friday, King Brian will die — but he will win the day." The castle is adorned with loot from all over the world. Brodir goes to Gormlaith, known as Kormlada in the Viking tongue. She is beautiful and is usually able to manipulate men. She can’t control Brodir, though, and he forces the truth out of her about her manipulations. After he leaves Gormlaith’s chambers, Eevin mysteriously appears. After confirming that she has read the oracle in Gormlaith’s thoughts, Eevin flees from a dark presence that she doesn’t see, but senses. She had sensed Odin’s presence, he kills the priest and disappears. Later, King Brian awakens from a nightmare about Odin, though he doesn’t know it’s the Norse god. Eevin is there. She delivers the news to Brian that Brodir will strike on the morrow. She reveals to Brian that both O’Hartigan and the High King will die in battle. He asks her to leave so that he can make his peace with God.
The Gaels go into battle led by Murrough. Before the battle starts, King Brian gives them a pep talk! Among the Vikings at the tip of their wedge are Brodir, Thorwald Raven and Athelstane the Saxon. Solo battle between Platt of Denmark and Donald of Mar ends in a deadly draw. As the armies fight, Odin watches from the castle walls. Malachi finally joins the battle. This staggers the surviving Norsemen who flee. Murrogh is killed by Odin himself. Conn slays Thorwald Raven and then goes to Brian’s side, but the king refuses to flee. Vikings fleeing the battle kill Brian, but the high-king slays Brodir as he dies … and then the battle is over, and the surviving Gaels bring their slain chiefs to lay at Brian’s side: Murrogh, the other Turlogh, Donald of Mar, O’Kelly, O’Hyne, O’Faelan and O’Hartigan, accompanied by Eevin. Turlogh removes the slave collar from Conn, and utters the mystical lines alluded to earlier, after they watch Odin fly away.
A pretty comprehensive description of Turlogh is given in this story: "… Turlogh Dubh, who alone of all the Dalcassians always went into battle fully armored. He looked grim enough, despite his youth, with his dark face and smoldering blue eyes, clad as he was in a full shirt of black mail, mail leggings and a steel helmet with a mail drop, and bearing a spiked buckler. Unlike the rest of the chiefs, who preferred their swords in battle, Black Turlogh fought with an ax of his own forging, and his skill with the weapon was almost uncanny." Not bad for someone who’s considered to not even be the hero of this story. While the Irish are considered to be Christians in this story, Turlogh still swears by Crom.
Turlogh’s berserk battle-rage is described: "… the frenzy of slaughter was on Black Turlogh; froth flecked his lips and his eyes were those of a madman." He is more picturesquely described: "…Black Turlogh rushed like a maddened beast…"
It is important to note that it is here that Howard’s Turlogh Dubh is identified as the historical Turlogh O’Brien mentioned before.
Differences with "Spears of Clontarf":
The essential difference is of course that Odin is missing; and that Howard turns Eevin into a Pict, rather than have her remain as one of the De Danaan.
More particularly though, the story begins with Conn’s present master still alive and recounts how Conn killed him, stole his sword, and then fled the North. This occurs after Conn learns of the upcoming battle on the plains of Clontarf, and decides to return to his homeland to aid his kinsmen, even though there is a death sentence on his head there.
Eeven still has the far sight in this story, which hurts it as a strict historical adventure.
The most dramatic difference, and one that suffers for believability is that rather than having Odin kill Prince Murrough, the young lord is instead killed by a man he has just delivered a death blow to.
This fragment begins with a Dane attacking Turlogh. It is stated that there need be no personal quarrel between a Norseman and a Gael; for the Danes still control much of Ireland. Turlogh mocks the Dane, and offers his head, sticking it out. Turlogh kills the Dane with the Dalcassian stroke.
They were being watched. This watcher is Murtagh O’Donnell. Turlogh is already an outcast. The story says "Turlogh has been cast off by his clan." On the same page more details of his outlawry are revealed: "…a little matter of intrigue into which I was mixed without my knowledge … and which cost me my reputation both among the Danes and the Irish and which led to my ostracism by my clan …" while rummaging through the Dane’s belongings, Turlogh finds a scroll, this he opens and reads, and then tosses it to O’Donnell.
O’Donnell wants to hire Turlogh to go with him to barter a Dane for Maelmora O’Neil, a prisoner, to trade in return with the Danes for his nephew, Conmac O’Donnell.
This fragment is also loaded with descriptions of Turlogh: "O’Brien was a big man…" … "The Gael was rangy-limbed, broad-shoudered, lean-waisted; he was all steel springs and whalebone." … "The outcast of the great O’Brien clan was dark. His hair was so black no hair could be blacker, his complexion was dark, and from under heavy black brows gleamed a pair of volcanic blue eyes."
This is inarguably one of Howard’s masterpieces. There is a sophistication in style, and a command of the language that just puts the reader in awe of the wordsmith. The barely surpressed berserk mood that Turlogh carries through the middle of the story, makes the release of that mood at the end even more of a climax to the story than it otherwise would have been.
The background of the story is that only three years has passed since the battle of Clontarf. Our favorite Dalcasian is still an outlaw — and was last heard of in the Wicklow hills preying off the O’Reillys and the Oastmen. It is revealed that Moira O’Brien, a relation of Turlogh’s, has been kidnapped by Thorfel the fair, a Danish Viking whose headquarters is on an island north of present day Scotland. The Gaels call this island Sylne, but it is known to the Norse as Helni. Moira and Turlogh had been childhood friends.
It is said that Turlogh knows of his cousin’s kidnapping because "we outcasts have ways of knowledge".
The story opens as Turlogh appears before a fisherman, and bargains with him for his boat, offering the peasant the golden torc (armlet) that Turlogh received from King Brian just before the battle of Clontarf. The fisherman says to just take the boat.
In the early part of the story it is revealed that Turlogh swears by "gods that know not the cross". This is an interesting aspect (and a consistent one, by the way) of the Turlogh stories. Christianity is pretty wide spread by the time of Turlogh, but Turlogh, like the Vikings (though he’d hate that comparison) remains pagan.
It is revealed early in the story that Saxon’s haggle, or at least the Gaels believe that Saxons haggle.
Turlogh, in the fisherman’s boat, puts into the Isle of Swords. There he sees the remains of a battle between the Vikings and a small dark people. The dark men were guarding a statue. Turlogh binds the image into his own boat. From that moment on it is almost as though the Dark Man is steering and protecting the dark Gael.
After reaching Slyne (it is revealed that Turlogh’s trip has taken several days), guided to the perfect place to anchor his boat by the Dark Man, Turlogh approaches the skali through a forest. This is where he starts to have to keep down an impending berserk, thinking of the atrocities committed by the Vikings. He has to remind himself that he is not there to fight, but to rescue Moira.
Turlogh is passed by two Vikings carrying the statue of the Dark Man; it is much heavier for them than it had been for Turlogh. Somehow the statue manages to injure both of the Vikings carrying it, or so it seems.
A short time later Turlogh kills a Viking and enters the skali. In this hall are most of the Viking horde. Their leader, Thorfel the fair, is there; as is Moira. Turlogh continues to fight for self-control, so that he may rescue Moira at the first opportunity.
While looking at the others in the hall, through a curtain of course, Turlogh sees Athelstane the Saxon, and reflects that Athelstane is the one man amid a pack of sea-wolves. Also present is a priest, as well as the statue of the Dark Man.
Each time Turlogh glances at the Dark Man, Howard uses the opportunity to tell us how close the people of the Dark Man are getting.
Moira commits suicide rather than marry the Viking, causing Turlogh to go mad, to achieve a full berserk: "… in that instant Turlogh O’Brien went mad.". What follows is a beautifully, immaculately described battle, illustrating Turlogh’s moves in great detail as he plows into and through the horde of Vikings. It is then that the people of the Dark Man, who are the Picts (in case, you hadn’t guessed by now), arrive and sweep everything else away, decimating and destroying the Viking horde.
After the battle, Howard shows us that Athelstane still lives and when Turlogh would slay him, the priest claims Athelstane’s life, claiming that enough death and destruction has already occurred that day.
The chief of the Picts approaches the Gael, referring to Turlogh as the "friend of the Dark Man". This statue is the last god of the Picts. It is carved in the likeness of their greatest king, Bran Mak Morn. When Bran died in his last, great battle, the wizard Gonar cast Bran’s soul into the statue.
I’ve already discussed the statue in regards to its meaning to Howard Pictish saga in the December 1997 mailing, but I want to stress again that this shows us just how multi-faceted Howard made his Pictish saga. The full horror of the meaning of this statue is revealed in "The Children of the Night", a story with a setting contemporaneous to Howard’s lifetime.
Unless one is paying very close attention to Howard’s historical fantasies, you wouldn’t notice the great saga of the Picts as revealed by Howard, as well as the importance and near-immortality that Howard gives to Gonar, the Pictish shaman. Gonar lived during Bran’s time, is the descendant of the first Gonar, that lived during Kull’s time. There is a withered ancient that appears in one of the Cormac Mac Art stories, and again, a withered ancient appears in this story, approaching the Dark Man and carrying the statue back to the boats of the Picts. Howard comes out and tells us that this mummy-like ancient is Gonar, who has evidently lived for several hundred years.
It is revealed that the statue did not cause harm to Turlogh because it looked upon him with favor.
Turlogh takes Moira’s corpse back to her homeland for burial, and delivers the philosophical curtain line alluded to earlier. The Picts announce that they will take the Dark Man back to the Isle of the Altar, and the priest says that he will stay and tend to Athelstane’s wounds.
As with much of Howard’s series fiction, he goes to great lengths to describe the hero in each story — both in terms of physical appearance, and in giving details of each character’s biography. Here is how Howard describes Turlogh Dubh of the clan na O’Brien in "The Dark Man’:
… he had the bearing of a fighting man … Six feet and one inch he stood, and the first impression of slimness faded on closer inspection. He was big but trimly molded; a magnificent sweep of shoulder and depth of chest. Rangy he was, but compact, combining the strength of a bull with the quickness of a panther. The slightest movement he made showed that steel trap coordination that makes the super fighter. Turlogh Dubh — Black Turlogh, once of the Clan na O’Brien. And black he was as to hair, and dark of complexion. From under heavy black brows, gleamed eyes of a volcanic blue. And in his clean-shaven face there was something of the somberness of dark mountains, of the ocean at midnight. … he was a part of this fierce western land.And, again, Turlogh relates that his outlawry was the result of: "The jealousy of a cousin and the spite of a woman." While that doesn’t sound a lot like the reason for the historical Turlogh to have fled to his uncle’s, I am inclined to believe that Howard altered the story to include events that would have had very specific effects on Turlogh’s psychology.
On his head he wore a plain vizorless helmet without a crest or symbol. From neck to mid-thigh he was protected by a close-fitting shirt of black chain mail. The kilt he wore below his armor and which reached to his knees, was of plain drab material. His legs were wrapped with hard leather that might turn a sword edge, and the shoes on his feet were worn with much traveling.
A broad belt encircled his lean waist, holding a long dirk in a leather sheath. On his left arm he carried a small round shield of hide-covered wood, hard as iron, braced and reinforced with steel, and having a short, heavy spike in the center. An ax hung from his right wrist … The weapon with its three-foot handle and graceful lines looked slim and light when the fisherman mentally compared it to the great axes carried by the Norsemen. Yet scarcely three years had passed … since such axes as these had shattered the northern hosts into red defeat and broken the pagan power forever.
There was individuality about the ax as about its owner. It was not like any other the fisherman had ever seen. Single-edged it was, with a short three-edged spike on the back and another on the top of the head. Like the wielder, it was heavier than it looked. With its slightly curved shaft and the graceful artistry of the blade, it looked the weapon of an expert — swift, lethal, deadly, cobralike. The head was of finest Irish workmanship, which meant, at that day, the finest in the world. The handle, cut from the heart of a century-old oak, specially fire-hardened and braced with steel, was an unbreakable as an iron bar. …
Clean-shaven and close-cropped in the Norman fashion. …
… a strange, bitter man, a terrible warrior and crafty strategist, but one whom sudden bursts of strange madness made a marked man even in that land and age of madmen. …
Cold and ice and driving sleet that would have frozen a weaker man, only spurred him to greater efforts. He was as hard and supple as a wolf. Among a race of men whose hardiness astounded even the toughest Norsemen. Turlogh Dubh stood out alone. At birth he had been tossed into a snow-drift to test his right to survive. His childhood and boyhood had been spent on the mountains, coast and moors of the west. Until manhood he had never worn woven cloth upon his body; a wolfskin had formed the apparel of this son of a Dalcassian chief. Before his outlawry he could out-tire a horse, running all day long beside it. He had never wearied at swimming. Now since the intrigues of jealous clansmen had driven him into the wastelands and the life of the wolf, his ruggedness was such as cannot be conceived by a civilized man. …
He sailed by instinct and through knowledge. He knew these seas as a man knows his house. He had sailed them as a raider and an avenger, and once he had sailed them as a captive lashed to the deck of a Danish dragon ship.