of the Sea (Cormac Mac Art)
Copyright 1974, by Glenn Lord
First Ace printing/ June 1979
Second printing/ April 1984
Tigers of the Sea (Howard & Tierney)
Swords of the Northern Sea
The Night of the Wolf
The Temple of Abomination (Howard & Tierney)
(out of 5)
This was #4 in the Cormac Mac Art series put out by Ace Fantasy and the only one to present Cormac Mac Art stories written by REH himself. (This is the second edition. The first edition was published in 1979 on its own, with the same Sanjulian cover.) The other books were pastiches by Andrew J. Offutt and Keith Taylor. It includes fairly stylized illustrations by Tim Kirk, which I don't really care for. Interestingly, for all that Cormac Mac Art is remembered now, Howard managed to sell none of the stories about his Gael sea-reiver during his lifetime. Of the stories here, only "Swords of the Northern Sea" and "Night of the Wolf" were fully written by Howard, and only "Night of the Wolf" had been previously published in 1969 in Bran Mak Morn. The other two, "Tigers of the Sea" and "The Temple of Abomination", were completed by Richard L. Tierney.
Cormac Mac Art was a close match for Howard's
other sea-rover, Turlogh Dubh O'Brien. Both were Gaels, existing
in the same time period (the age of King Arthur) and both passed the time
"sword-quenching" with Vikings. But whereas Turlogh was an outcast
Irishman, Cormac Mac Art was a Gael pirate who was right hand man to the
Danish Viking Wulfhere. He was also known as Cormac the Wolf.
"Tigers of the Sea" is a fairly lengthy tale and, although it was left unfinished by REH, there is still a lot of him here. In the introduction, Richard L. Tierney indicates where Howard leaves off and Tierney begins, but, as usual, I wanted to see if I could spot the difference myself.
In "Tigers of the Sea", Wulfhere's Danish Vikings are hired to recover a kidnapped Briton princess. Cormac Mac Art, Wulfhere's Gaelic righthand man, comes along for the ride as does a minstrel named Donal and a Briton prince named Marcus. Who took the princess is unknown, but they have left a single clue -- a flint arrowhead found near the scene of the crime...
I'll confess I actually found it somewhat difficult keeping track of the various players, so complicated is this tale, as the princess is kidnapped first by one maurading horde, then by another, then yet another! The story is less an adventure than a relay race. And, frankly, I wasn't sure I really cared. It just didn't engage me the way the better Howard tales do.
Howard's semi-mythical race of Picts play a large part in this yarn, as they do in "Night of the Wolf". But, whereas "Night of the Wolf" was previously published in 1969 in a collection of stories about the king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn, "Tigers of the Sea" is published here for the first time. I don't know why the difference. Probably because "Tigers of the Sea" was an unfinished fragment, only recently completed by Tierney.
As to where Howard leaves off and Tierney begins -- my first clue was when we are told Cormac's sword "shattered to flinders". I have no idea what a flinder is, but Howard was fairly consistent with his idioms, and I don't recall ever having seen that one before in his writings -- by which I presumed Tierney wrote at least starting there. But somewhat earlier there is a break followed by noticably more elaborate description. While that sort of flowery description might fit in a Conan yarn, it sticks out in these more spartan Cormac Mac Art tales -- and so was likely written by Tierney. But there was an even better clue. Howard refers to the Viking ships either as "galleys" or as "dragon-ships". Tierney calls them "long ships".
You think maybe I have too much time on my hands?
"Swords of the Northern Sea" isn't a bad a story, but it isn't great Howard either. There is plenty of running about in the dark, setting fire to things, and loads of swordplay, but the characters themselves are not as vividly drawn as some of Howard's others. Nor is the writing all that descriptive. As well, the dialogue tends to be overly mannered and therefore cold and detached. I know that these are big brawny Vikings, and Howard was going for a big brawny Operatic feel, but they could still learn to loosen up a little bit. It all seems sort of...stagey. With Conan, you could picture a real person speaking his dialogue...with Cormac, not so much. Still, it's odd this story wasn't published during Howard's lifetime. It's an okay time waster.
It is interesting to note how Howard portrays Tarala, the unfaithful wife-to-be of Rognor. He gives us more information about her than one would expect given the small size of her part and he really builds her up as if a heroine in her own story. She is the daughter of a Briton prince, kidnapped by Saxons, then kidnapped from the Saxons by the Vikings. Far from being some dainty wall flower, she is a real scrapper in her own right, even donning armour and sword to fight beside her lover, Hakon. In the conclusion, Cormac pays her the ultimate compliment by calling her "a valkyrie - a shield-woman" whose "sons will be kings". Too bad Howard didn't think to give Tarala her own stories, eh.
"The Night of the Wolf" is the only Cormac Mac Art story to have previously seen print. In it, Howard's semi-mythical race, the Picts, figure prominantly, for which reason it was published in a collection of Bran Mak Morn stories back in 1969.
"The Night of the Wolf" begins very similarly to "Swords of the Northern Sea" with a disguised Cormac Mac Art sitting as guest in a Viking skalli. Again, the Gael is initially a mere witness to events as a ruler of the local Picts, Brulla, warns of dire consequences if the Vikings don't take their dragonships and vamoose. The Viking leader, a nasty piece of work named Thorwald Shield-hewer, laughs at this threat and tosses poor Brulla out on his Pictish ear. Then attention turns to Cormac, who claims to be there to buy a Danish prisoner, held by Thorwald, which he hopes to use to recover one of his own tribe from Danish Vikings. Unfortunately, Thorwald has seen through Cormac's deception and knows who the Gaelic reiver really is...right hand man to Wulfhere, who is -- you guessed it -- Thorwald's mortal enemy. Cormac is tossed in a cell to await a terrible fate. But that night, the forest comes alive as Brulla's threat comes true and the Picts rise up in bloody rebellion...
"The Night of the Wolf" is again a not bad story, but not great either. There just doesn't seem to be any of the imaginative description which we expect from REH. He seems to be simply going through the motions. That being said, it's still an interesting yarn, with plenty of action and swordplay. Just nothing more than that.
Howard seems to have had two modes to his writing -- one, like the Bran Mak Morn stories, were very serious and carefully constructed; and two, like El Borak or Cormac Mac Art or even Conan, were just meant to be fast paced breezy fun. When it worked, I much prefer the breezy fun stories, but sometimes, as here, Howard seemed to be a little too relaxed in his story-telling. Given that these Cormac Mac Art stories didn't sell during his lifetime, I'd guess I'm probably not the only one who felt that way.
"The Temple of Abomination" was also an unfinished fragment, completed by Tierney, but it is still by far the shortest story here. Again, Tierney indicates where Howard leaves off and Tierney begins and, again, I wanted to see if I could spot it myself. It wasn't hard.
"The Temple of Abomination" feels very much as if Howard was just writing whatever popped into his head, desperately hoping a plot would come to him...and it never did. Which is probably why he left it unfinished. Cormac Mac Art, Wulfhere and co. happen upon a creepy fungoid temple where they encounter various monsters, including a satyr, all of which they dispatch with their swords and the trusty Viking "shield-wall". Eventually Cormac defeats one big ugly something, whereupon an old man chained to a wall gives him a long lecture that reads like a fan-boy's crash course in Lovecraft's mythos, complete with Shogguths and Old Ones, tieing everthing into Howard's King Kull stories by way of the Serpent Folk...By which point, it was a safe bet we were into Tierney's contribution. And, sure enough, Tierney confirms his part begins with the old man's speech. As well, I also noticed the descriptive phrase... Cormac drove his foe before him "like a straw before the wind" -- found just before the old man begins his speech. That was a common Howard description, as good as a fingerprint.
(Oh, yeah...waaay too much time...)
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