Friday, April 01, 2016

Read It: Bran Mak Morn, The Last King

Title page with illustration by Gary Gianni.

Cover of 2005 edition
by Gary Gianni.
If you are unfamiliar with Bran Mak Morn, you are not alone.

While I have had the beautifully illustrated, by Gary Gianni, Del Rey edition of  Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn: The Last King in my possession for a number of months, it wasn't until a six hour stop by the hospital waiting room yesterday that I let it take hold of me. It has been something of a circuitous journey to embracing this collection, but the wait was worth it.

Despite having previously read a number of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, my only prior encounters with the Pict warrior was in a short comic book adaptation that appeared in issue #5 of the Dark Horse anthology Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword and as a topic of conversation in some deeper reading around the appearance of Cthulhu-elements in writers other than the H.P. Lovecraft.

Considerably less well-known than Conan the Barbarian, or even Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn is an especially unique Howard creation that came along lat in his career as the culmination of a life-long love affair by the author with Pict history and culture. It is also in his Bran Mak Morn stories that Howard's friendship with horror icon, and contemporary, Lovecraft bleeds into his writing. A number of the stories that appear in the anthology  Bran Mak Morn: The Last King are also widely accepted as part of Lovecraft's larger Cthulhu mythos. In addition to the wonderful Gianni illustrations this particular edition also features a fairly extensive Miscellnea complete with poetry and a draft version of arguably the most well-known Morn story, "Worms of the Earth."
Page 179.

Each story and poem presents an aspect of the titled character from a slightly different perspective, never offering a complete sense of the man in any single story. I am no expert (though after reading the informative intro by Rusty Burke, I wish I was) my guess would be that layered characterization was not one of Howard's primary goals. Each selection tells about Bran Mak Morn from either the perspective of someone clearly other than Morn. For example, in "The Dark Man," Morn appears not as the Last King, but a commemorative blacks tone statue imbued with the qualities of the man. The statue assists another combatant, Turlogh Dubh, by acting as a conduit to the Picts he, when alive, ruled. Perceived by the inanimate, and mystically charged, Bran-statue to be a "friend" of the Picts, Turlough is aided by the diminutive warriors in achieving his bloody goal.

"And now Bran was aware of movement in the gloom. The darkness was filled with stealthy noises not like those made by any human foot. Abruptly sparks began to flash and float in the blackness like flickering fireflies."  ("Worms of the Earth," page 113)

Two of the centerpieces of the collection, the aforementioned "Worms" and "Kings of the Night" deal with Bran's need to seek assistance in battling against his adversaries from the perspective of an omniscient third person narrator, though neither delivers characterization beyond the established mythic nature of the hero. The fact that our "hero" here seeks support in besting the antagonists is somewhat unusual though.

"I am John O'Donnel and I was Aryara, who dreamed dreams of war-glory and hunt-glory and feast-glory and who died on a red heap of his victims in some lost age." ("The Children of the Night," page 228.)

"The Children of the Night" alludes to Howard's  affection for Lovecraft's mythology, as well as his own scholarly interest in anthropology and mysticism. As seen in the quote above, the story is told from the first person perspective of a modern character, John O'Donnel. The protagonist, whose experiences travelling back in time, are intended to put the reader into the head-space of one who may have encountered the Picts personally. The twist at the end, thereby transforming him from protagonist to future antagonist, also suggests something ugly in our genetically based behavior.

In "The Dark Man," page 157.
I often tell my students that even when I read for pleasure, as is the case with this collection, it is difficult to turn-off my teacher-brain and consider how it might go over as a class read. Taken as a whole, Bran Mak Morn: The Last King reflects much of Howard's fascination with the power of one's genetic history, or race, a subtext which in modern times is rightly controversial. Without even considering the sword and sorcery violence inherent in most of the stories, this factor also makes the potential for its use in a high school literature class problematic without appropriate historical context. Within stories such as "The Children of the Night," first published in 1931, one character's appearance is described as clearly Asian, a look to which is ascribed terrible qualities (despite the narrator's repeated assertions that his appearance is a genetic anomaly.

I quite enjoyed the mix of short story and poetry, warts and all, as an introduction to this unique warrior archetype. A written by Howard this collection represents an intriguing mix of both horror and sword and sorcery tropes in a manner that is descriptive and, ultimately, extremely engaging.

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